Text message SOS from hungry refugee to UN agency spotlights plight of Somalis
The mobile phone bleeped twice. The text message was short: we are hungry, you must help. The recipient: the London office of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP). The sender: a Somali primary school teacher in an arid refugee camp in Kenya who fled violence in his homeland as a boy 15 years ago.
“My name is Mohammed Sokor, writing to you from Dagahaley refugee camp in Dadaab,” the phone screen flashed. “Dear Sir, there is an alarming issue here. People are given too few kilograms of food. You must help.”
It may seem strange that someone so short of food can afford a mobile phone but one of the great ironies of modern Africa is that mobile phones are not seen as a luxury, but a necessity, WFP noted. They are often cheap and used far more widely than most would imagine.
For traders, they are the primary tool of commerce and for the many millions – like Mohammed – who make up the African diaspora, they are the thread that binds scattered communities together.
“In terms of sheer initiative, Mohammed’s direct appeal has to be a first,” WFP said.
A phone call to back Mohammed revealed the story behind his plea for help. Like so many Somalis, he had the misfortune to be born into a country that began disintegrating in spectacular fashion when the Cold War structures that had held so many weak States together suddenly collapsed in the early 1990s.
The vicious militia groups that rushed in to fill the vacuum left by absent government exacerbated the apocalyptic famine in Somalia, prompting tens of thousands to move southwards and across the border to relative safety in northern Kenya. Here they were confined to refugee camps situated in one of the bleakest environments in the world, and here, many remain to this day.
If life was tough at home in Somalia, it was not much easier in northern Kenya. The camps in Dadaab are in a semi-desert area that can be brutally hot during the day and cold at night, WFP said. Successive seasons of drought have placed his refugee camp at the very epicentre of a regional disaster affecting up to 8 million people in the Horn of Africa.
It is not surprising that Mohammed and his family are hungry. Funding for the 230,000 Somali and Sudanese refugees in north east Kenya is so low that WFP had to cut food rations by up to 20 per cent earlier this year.
“If he had the time and the money, he might like to spread his message further by texting his appeal to ministers and civil servants – or for that matter Bono, Richard Branson and Bill Gates,” WFP said of rich benefactors helping the world’s hungry.
“It will never happen, but it would be interesting to measure the impact on donor support if alongside regular food rations, WFP could hand out mobile phones and a list of VIP telephone numbers. Humble SMS text messages from refugees could become an effective SOS for millions whose voices are so rarely heard.”