Building Altars

A couple weeks ago while on a plane headed for Ethiopia, I was thinking and writing about Ethiopia’s forlorn neighbor, Somalia. The UN had just officially declared an “end” to the famine conditions there.

Last summer, the UN had slapped the “Famine” label on Somalia, declaring this the first major African famine since the Ethiopia/Sudan famine of 1984-85. Granted, everything is relative. According to the World Food Programme, the “famine classification requires that rates of malnutrition are greater than 30%; mortality rates are greater than two deaths per day per 10,000 people; and access to food and water is limited to less than 2,100 kilocalories and four litres a day, respectively.”

So… when 30% of children under age five are underweight, the FAMINE warning light starts flashing. When only 29.9% are underweight, the light quits flashing. Call it a “tipping point”. Exact science, no, but we need these markers. Recession and bear market labels are based on crossing specific thresholds. And don’t we celebrate when the indicators begin to oh-so-slowly tip back toward the positive?

So it should be with the news that the UN has officially un-declared a famine in Somalia, meaning that hunger is diminishing to the point that something under 30% of the children under age five are severely malnourished and underweight.

I’m not being sarcastic here; quite the opposite. My point is that even though there is still much work to do, let’s pause to build an altar of thanksgiving to God that the dread stamp “FAMINE” has been washed away, due in part to effective, coordinated relief operations, and in part due to good rains over the past few months. Rains mean food (usually) in areas like this which are completely dependent on showers from heaven. Their dependence on rainwater is not a positive thing; their dependence on heaven is something from which we could learn a thing or two.

Building altars isn’t something we do very often. But the patriarchs did, when God acted on their behalf. When God appeared to him in Shechem and at Bethel, Abraham built an altar. (Gen 12:7-8) When God brought him bounty, he built another altar. (Gen 13:4) Isaac, Moses, Noah. When God came through, they stopped and marked the place and time with a monument for posterity, “as something to remember” (Gen 17:14).

Knowing as St. Paul says that all things are being brought under subjection to Christ, let’s give credit both to God and to the tools God employed in bringing a quick end to the Somali famine: the rain, the international community and humanitarian agencies. In 1984-’85, it is estimated that over one million Ethiopians perished due to famine there. Bad rains, bad government, tragic results. Again we had bad rains and bad government in Somalia, and yet only some “few” thousand died.

I ended my time in Ethiopia with a short visit to the Antsokia Valley, where World Vision had operated a huge relief camp during that famine 25+ years ago. I first visited Antsokia in early 1986, just as the rains were returning and our work was shifting from relief to rehabilitation. Antsokia’s total devastation became the mother of invention, as WV innovated our signature Area Development Program model from this very place. I’ll write some other time about how Antsokia was transformed from being a basket case to becoming the breadbasket of northern Ethiopia.

After a meeting there about a new innovation, which is bringing together Evangelical pastors, Orthodox priests and Muslim imams to work jointly for the wellbeing of children, I had a moment to wander through the old relief camp… the corrugated tin buildings still standing like historic relics: the “wet feeding center” for infants and nursing mothers, the food warehouse, the old shower I had used in 1986 along with the staff who were stationed there. Some 40-60 souls perished EACH DAY during the height of the disaster, just in this one location. I felt as though I were in an ancient burial ground, with literally thousands of bodies lying in repose all around.

In late 1984, World Vision had to fly in the BBC film crew that broke the story of the Ethiopia famine to the world. Back then, there were no sophisticated Early Warning Systems that monitored and graphed the prices of grains and livestock as reliable harbingers of looming disaster, there was less coordination of NGOs and less effective oversight by UN agencies, and far less access to information.

This is yet another result of the world “getting smaller.” When people ask me if there’s any hope in my work, with all the reports of disaster, hunger and suffering, I tell them that when I started 30 years ago, 45,000 children were dying of unnecessary causes every day. Today, with a billion more people on our planet, about 22,000 die daily. Without question, 22,000 is a terrible number. But the improvement is stunning.

So, if in heaven’s accounting the difference between the Ethiopia famine of the mid-80’s and the Somalia famine of 2010-’11 is that maybe eight hundred thousand fewer people died, who of us will take the time to pay attention, to build the altar, to pause and mark this moment?

The other thing I point out is how much smaller the world is becoming. People are reading and hearing about conflicts and tragedies from all over the globe. And as a result, they often care enough to act and be involved in the solution! We all can suffer at times from compassion fatigue, that sense of overload and even emotional exhaustion at the needs in this far-flung world. But the fact that we are even aware of these needs, and with a stunning speed and diversity of news sources, is amazing. And this knowledge makes a huge difference in the ability of groups like World Vision to respond faster, better and in wiser coordination with other caring groups.*

This is no small matter. If you were one of the 800,000 people who didn’t die this time but would have died 25 years ago, you’d see my point. You’d build an altar. You’d stop and thank God for sparing you. And sparing others.

And that’s where we come in, too. Because some of us responded with funds which helped save lives, some of us prayed, some of us read the news and didn’t avert our eyes for happier stories.

Much work remains to make these areas and these people truly “food secure” like Antsokia Valley — not so vulnerable to drought, and also work to tamp down global speculation in foodstuffs which is again pricing the poor right out of the food line. The situation in Somalia remains precarious; famine could return with another poor rainy season. And today I read a report that three countries in West Africa are now very vulnerable because of drought and high global food prices; every one of our 19 ADPs in Niger is impacted.

But this time when “Famine” was declared, the dreaded scourge did not lead to mass starvation of so-called biblical proportions. So let’s take a page from our bibles and build an altar of gratitude with our prayers of thanksgiving.

Cory
March 2012

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