News / Africa

Horn of Africa Children Exposed to Lifetime Trauma


Drought, famine, and warfare have profound physical and psychological impacts on children, especially those three years old and under. Malnutrition and disease at these vulnerable ages leave a lasting mark that stretch into adulthood. Around 500,000 children in the Horn of Africa are in need of immediate, life-saving help.

Abdi, 1, is beginning his life in a nightmare.  He is dangerously malnourished, a condition aggravated by chronic diarrhea. During a brief interview with VOA, he and his mother, Qaali Abdi, 30, cannot stop coughing.

"We are suffering. I'm sick, the children are sick, their father is sick - we have nothing," said Qaali Abdi.  "My husband is now in the hospital."

The mother of six explains that Abdi and her family's health woes began when they fled Somalia.

"Where would we sleep? We had no place to sleep. On the road, we were suffering. We have nothing, the wind was blowing heavily, the sun was hot. Many people died along the way," she added.

Abdi and his brothers and sisters have been living for the past month in the Dadaab refugee camp, where tens of thousands of children like him have been streaming in over the past few months.

Malnourished and sick children are showing up in Dadaab and all across the Horn of Africa, poignant reminders of the cruelty of drought, famine, and war.

The problem is daunting, with malnutrition rates skyrocketing. An estimated half-million children in the Horn of Africa need immediate, life-saving assistance.

Olivia Yambi is a representative of the United Nations' children's agency in Kenya.

"The threshold for an emergency is around 15 percent global acute malnutrition," said Yambi.  "In most areas highly affected, we are recording rates of over 35 percent, including in the parts we are visiting in the northern belt of Kenya.  Most of the children who are severely malnourished are very young children, children under the age of three."

And that has serious, long-term implications, says Roselyn Mullo, the European Commission's nutrition expert in charge of the Horn of Africa.

"They will have challenges when it comes to academic proficiency in the future," Mullo explained.  "It would even roll down to, when they reach adulthood, governments will not be able to have productive workers. It will also have an impact on them, particularly girls - when they become mothers, they will not be able to give birth to well-nourished children, something known as the low birth weight children."

Mullo adds that there is need for long-term programs and services to help children develop physiologically and perhaps reverse some of the effects of what they are going through now.

But is it not just malnutrition and other physical calamities that children and their families find debilitating.

Mumino Mohamed and her eight children walked for 18 days to get to Dadaab.  The children were separated from their disabled father while fleeing Somalia.

"My children do not have a father - up to now they are looking.  They are feeling bad because they are missing their father," Mohamed said.

The U.N. children's agency's Yambi says the loss of family members has a dramatic psychological impact on children.

"During the long distances of walking, some parents die on the way, some children die on the way," Yambi explained.  "And children are directly exposed to these very traumatic experiences. It is something that has to be dealt with - that is why we are recommending support for counseling services, to get a feel of how children relate to these issues."

Parents, too, are distressed at their inability to provide their children's basic needs.
Qaali Abdi says she is too weak to even breastfeed Abdi, a basic and key role in a mother's life.

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