In Britain it feels like you can’t escape the latest fad diet or cooking craze. Whether it’s the 5:2 diet, Sirtfood plan, the #cleaneating trend or Jamie’s 30 minute meals, food seems to dominate our lives.
Food dominates the lives of women in Somaliland too. But the women I met described food plans for survival, not fashions or fads.
The harsh effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon have left the fields outside dry and barren, unable to produce the crops that once fed families.
These women live in Somaliland, a place where the United Nations has warned of ‘alarming’ levels of malnutrition, especially amongst children. These are their family diet plans:
- Feed the youngest first
As the drought intensified and her sheep died, 30-year-old Malyuun (pictured above) prioritised her youngest children, including her one-year-old son Sakariye-Ahmed. Every day she carefully measures her rations to ensure her children get at least one meal.
“I give the youngest ones the food first because they cry,” said Malyuun. “I give the youngest ones the biggest portion and the older ones a little less.”
- Feed the oldest first
Nimah’s two emaciated cows are too weak to produce milk. Instead, she has a reserve of rice and wheat flour donated by ActionAid that she is trying to stretch out for as long as possible.
he gives the older children – her eldest is aged nine – a bit more than the younger ones because they have bigger tummies to fill. “I don’t give the children equal portions,” she said. “The smaller children eat a little less and the bigger children get a bit more.”
“When it comes to food, the children are the priority. They eat first, then my husband and I eat,” Nimah said.
- Share your meal with your cows
Livestock forms the backbone of Somaliland’s economy. For Malyuun, her livestock is her entire life’s savings. But grazing land has withered to dust and Malyuun has lost most of her 25 sheep. She is terrified that her remaining two cows and five sheep might die.
“I am always worried about the sheep and the cows that are left, what are they going to eat?” she said. So she has resorted to sharing her meals with her animals.
“The cows sometimes eat with us,” she said. “Sometimes I don’t have enough food for the children, the sheep and me. When the food is not enough, I decide not to eat.”
- Sit still or bind your stomach
For 12-year-old Daeka the drought doesn’t just mean less food and water, it means fewer friends too. Many of her schoolmates have left their village in search of water nearer the coast. “I miss them,” she said.
She only eats one or two meals a day. Some days she drinks just half a cup of water. “Sometimes I feel hungry and have stomach pain,” she said.
“When I don’t find food I just sit around,” she said. “There are many other children like me who face the same problems.”
The older generation rely on other coping strategies. Some grandmothers tie rope around their abdomens to suppress hunger pangs, according to one local.
“They tie a rope around their stomachs,” she said. “The old people do that, but the young don’t. The young cope with hunger by continuing to work.”
- Borrow from the neighbours
Bonds of community run deep in Somaliland. Almost three quarters of villagers said they relied on neighbours for food during the drought.
Shugri, 46, is one of those people. The mother of 10 children, she has only one cow. In the past, Shugri could always turn to her neighbours. But now, as resources dwindle, not even the strongest bonds of friendship can put food on the table.
“Before I could get support from other community members, particularly when it comes to food. But now we are all in the same situation. Me and the others are the same. So we can’t get support from neighbours.”
6. Store food underground
Fahima’s family used to grow wheat, maize, onions and tomatoes. Some of that food was stored in the ground to use during lean periods. But now that the dry season has gone on for years, rather than months, the emergency stock is depleted.
“The stored food is nearly empty,” said the 18-year-old. “We use to drink milk and eat fruits like watermelons. Those foods have disappeared now.”
Fahima has five siblings. She walks for three hours to fetch water from wells that have not yet run dry. She says it’s hot, tiring work but she keeps going.
“What motivates me is that there is nothing in the house to drink,” she said. “So I have to get the water. If I stop there is no water waiting for me.”
Women and girls are doing what they can to make the best of a bleak situation. But, as the rains fail, their resilience and resourcefulness can only take them so far.
I am a young woman and a mother. I know about all the diets and I worry about what my son is eating. When my child tucks into a plate of food with gusto an immense sense of relief washes over me.
The young women I met in Somaliland worry about the same things I do, but they are feeling fear instead of relief.
Hunger is hurting families in Somaliland. Women, girls and mothers deserve our support. It’s time to act before things get worse.
Himaya Quasem, ActionAid’s editorial officer, gathers real-life stories from communities around the world.
Photo credits: Jennifer Huxta/ActionAid