THIS MONTH'S NEWS
The Village Walk on the first Sunday of June – Pentecost Sunday – is slightly different from our usual fundraising activities. Organised by Smeeth, Brabourne and Brabourne Baptist churches, all proceeds from the walk will go the East Africa Crisis Appeal and we do hope you will join in. If you are unable to walk then please let us know if you’d like to come to lunch at Brabourne Church (firstname.lastname@example.org) - you’d be most welcome, and/or please come to tea at the Oak Room at Smeeth after 2pm.
Some 16 million people in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan and northern Nigeria are seriously short of food (that’s equivalent to about 25% of the UK’s population). Following failure of the rains for three years the UN has declared some parts of these countries to be famine zones, but in areas technically outside the famine zones conditions are often very little better. For the record, an area is said to be in famine when 20% of households are suffering extreme food shortages; 30% of children have acute malnutrition and the death rate is in excess of two persons per 1,000 per day. This is hard to establish in practice. It is worth noting that the declaration of a famine carries no binding obligations on the UN or member states to do anything, though it may serve to focus global attention on the problem.
The harrowing pictures we see of starvation puts Africans, yet again, in the position of helpless victims – and in reality this is not the case. Most who are suffering are smallholder farmers or herders, and it is testimony to their skill at extracting a living from the land that the effects of the drought have been masked for so long. In semi-arid Africa rarely do farmers depend solely on rain-fed land for their crops. Where possible, they also cultivate land beside lakes and swamps, and seasonal wetlands that flood in the rainy season. These moisture rich areas usually yield a good and reliable harvest, sufficient to sustain livelihoods even when rain-fed production has failed. However, protracted drought has seen yields from rain-fed land fall away and now yields from dependable wetland environments are declining too. As a consequence, food shortage is now becoming more acute. Household incomes are frequently supplemented by paid employment but jobs are few in these difficult times. Many farming families also own animals which are a form of capital and which may be looked after by semi-nomadic pastoralists who add them to their herds and take them away for months at a time. In ‘normal’ years, if such exist, herders follow the rains, grazing their animals on fresh grass that springs up within a day or two of heavy showers. Centuries of experience with weather forecasting enable these herders to know just where to lead their animals (though mobile phones increasingly help target grazing lands these days). However, as a result of the drought thousands of animals have died – and major capital assets have been lost.
What, then, can a farmer and his or her family do when their food is running out; when their children are hungry, malnourished and ill, when their animals have died, when there is very little food in local markets and prices are hugely inflated, when there is no paid work, when they have no more goods to sell – and when they have no more options for sustaining themselves? For many, the last resort has been to move – to seek refuge elsewhere, perhaps in another country such as Kenya where they end up in huge camps where life is no picnic. Similarly with pastoralists, where herds still survive they are moved across boundaries into neighbouring countries in desperate search for water and food. This puts additional pressure on neighbours such as northern Kenya which is a reluctant host to Somali pastoralists.
At the end of Christian Aid week Alex Le Rossignol got us thinking (at Brabourne) about what we would take with us and what we would leave behind if we were refugees and had to carry all our possessions. These were sobering reflections. In the 1980s, I witnessed refugees from a drought in Niger, desperate herders, their wives and children in Malian markets selling everything they could muster: first, their jewellery went, then their radios, beads, cloth, false teeth, spectacles – some broken, and even precious spells to guard them, wrapped in fragments of paper, cloth and bark. All were sold or almost given away to enable families to survive. In the midst of the noisy market there was a silent anguish about these people which was truly distressing. In normal circumstances they would have been proudly selling their cows’, goats’ and camels’ milk and cheese, haggling hard, but having lost their livelihoods this confidence was gone. Instead there was misery, exhaustion, fear, malnutrition and disease – all now evident in images of the Horn of Africa. I would emphasize that people have not become victims without huge investments of effort to keep going. Their situation is unenviable.
Of course famines aren’t just down to nature, politics invariably plays a major part. In South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, protracted civil war since 2012/13 has seen dreadful ethnic violence and the country’s economy destroyed. Thousands have taken refuge in some of the world’s most progressive camps in neighbouring Uganda. Uganda is proving a generous host. The effects of insurgent groups such as the Islamist Boko Haram in northern Nigeria have added to the economic problems and suffering in this region and in Somalia, the militant Islamist group Al Shabaab have been keeping aid agencies out of the country on the pretext that they, Al-Shabaab, were bringing people famine relief. There is evidence that some good aid work has been done by Al-Shabaab but they haven’t been able to do sufficient and aid agencies are now being allowed back to Somalia - perhaps too late for some.
No African would be a victim willingly, nor does any African I have ever met enjoy being a recipient of international assistance. However, semi-arid African environments are difficult places in which to live. With the rains having failed for several years millions of African smallholders and herders who have worked hard to stave off disaster have finally been defeated – and political problems haven’t helped. But this crisis situation will not last indefinitely, though we cannot say how long it will continue. Help is needed quickly now but if and when the rains return, large numbers of these resilient people will go back to their farms and re-build their herds, starting with a couple of goats or sheep. To help bring relief to people in the Horn of Africa please join the Village Walk – or just come to the Oak Room or Brabourne Church and donate generously for your maps / lunches / teas etc. to help with essential aid work. (I emphasize, all proceeds go to the East Africa Crisis Appeal).
Back to the Benefice Diary, may I remind you that we have our usual range of services (please see Diary for details), and events in June which include the following: First Friday on 2nd at Brabourne where we have a celebration of three Big Birthdays – Oliver Trowell’s, Roger Vining’s and John Varrier’s. Please come along even if you haven’t been before. All very welcome, not least children. On 10th, 17th and 24th Smeeth will be holding three coffee concerts. These were hugely successful last year so please make sure you don’t miss them – details are in the Diary. In essence, a short concert in Smeeth Church is followed by tea / coffee in the Oak Room. On 24th June – midsummer - is Film Night at Mersham. As ever, legal restrictions mean that we can’t advertise the name of the film but suffice it to say that it is a Shakespearean comedy and midsummer is very relevant. On the last Friday of June is Fridays@3 when a short talk by Alistair Guthrie on ‘Jumping to a Conclusion’ will be followed by a delicious tea. If you’d like a lift please contact Di Dawson (01303-813398).
Finally, our love and warmest wishes go to Ian and Margaret Campbell for their retirement. Thank you both for your huge contribution to the Benefice over the past three years. We have enjoyed you being here and will miss you. Don’t go too far away!
Apologies for the length of this covering letter. Will try to keep it much shorter in future!
All good wishes,
Kathy Kathy Embleton-Smith (Vice Chair, Brabourne PCC)