Amid famine, life-and-death decisions grip Africa aid workers

EDITOR'S NOTE: Aid workers in the Horn of Africa famine make difficult life-and-death decisions every day. Follow one couple as they work through these questions: How do you decide who lives and who dies? Who gets the food, and who goes without? How do you live with your decisions?

NORTHEAST KENYA (BP) -- "No, you can't tell me that," Don Sullivan* pleads softly into the phone. "We need that food. The people need that food."

The Christian aid worker's shoulders slump as he hangs up, his plan disrupted for the next day's food distribution. He was expecting three trucks -- 33 tons -- of famine-relief food for the Horn of Africa. But now, due to escalating al-Shaabab-linked violence in Nairobi and the constant activity of bandits and tribal fighting along the truck route, only one driver will brave the 13-hour trek. The other two have decided it's too dangerous and refuse to bring the supplies.

Sullivan scans the list of 17 villages identified as most in need of assistance. Pen in hand, he starts to cross some off but cannot bring himself to do it.

"How do we decide who is the hungriest when everyone is hungry?" he asks, burying his head in his hands. He looks up at his wife Lucy* for help and then adds, "These are hard decisions. Every time I pass by a village that isn't on this list, my heart breaks because we aren't able to help them. Now this...."

Sullivan's voice trails off, leaving the unfinished sentence suspended in their minds.

Don and Lucy are in northeast Kenya as aid workers, initially to help improve life in the villages -- digging toilets and drilling wells -- but after two years of no rain, they find themselves in the midst of the world's largest hunger crisis. The United Nations declared the Horn of Africa famine on July 20, but the effects of the worst drought in 60 years have been apparent for more than 18 months.

Farms and gardens stopped producing a long time ago. Food prices skyrocketed with an inflation rate of 270 percent, making it impossible for anyone to purchase food, even if available in the market. Most livestock in the area perished after grazing land and wells dried up. More than 13 million Africans in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti are in need of food assistance. Tens of thousands of people -- including more than 30,000 children -- have died from malnutrition or because of tribal conflicts over water and grazing rights.

For the Sullivans, the statistics are a harsh day-to-day reality.

As they walk through town, they see long lines at the water truck, but the water will run out before even one-fourth of those in line fill their 10-gallon jugs. They see empty stalls in the market where food vendors should be. And they routinely shuttle malnourished children to the clinic, praying it's not too late.

"It's difficult living in a place where it really is a life-or-death situation every day," Don says. "When the need is this great, you struggle with if can you really make a difference or not."

Lucy nods in agreement. There are days when the people's desperation weighs heavily on her shoulders.

"You almost feel guilty sometimes having an abundance of food," she says. "I mean, to know that all I have to do is go to my freezer and get what I need or want, while just a few yards down the road a mother is putting her child to bed hungry, it's just painful. It hurts my heart."

The aid workers talk as if the drought and famine ends at their front gate, but it doesn't. They have simply adapted. They ration their water, even reusing water from their meager bucket baths to flush the toilet. To get their groceries, they make the long trek to Nairobi over horrible roads, through tribal fighting and past bandits holding up cars. Every 10 minutes, Don's phone rings with a new plea for help. Hungry people constantly show up at their house because they heard that the Sullivans pass out a few handfuls of dried beans or rice, enough sustenance to keep someone going for another day.

The constant stress is taking its toll. Both Don and Lucy have health problems they didn't have before the drought.

"I feel guilty saying I have an ulcer. Some might say that if I had the right kind of faith or if I was handling this the right way, seeing people hungry and dying wouldn't affect me like that," Don says. "But I've come to look at it differently.

"Sometimes Jesus asks us to follow Him to places and walk with Him where we experience pain and suffering. You can't go to these places without it affecting you," the aid worker says. "The thing that is probably the hardest is that our friends are hungry, not just the people in the village or on the streets. Our friends, our national partners, they are hungry too."

Don's eyes tear up at the mention of their friends. He adds, "I guess God gives us grace to do what we need to do. You don't ever get used to it, though."

Lucy places a comforting hand on Don's shoulder. Then, without a word passing between them, they know what to do with the truckload of food. They decide to divvy it up between everyone on the list -- even though it means there might be enough food for only a day or two.

"We'll pray it will stretch until the other trucks arrive," Lucy says. "Maybe this is just enough to get them over the hump. We just have to pray it multiplies."

Update: The last two trucks finally arrived. The other two drivers still refused to come, but the one brave driver made the trek three times so the food shipments would reach the people. More shipments of food are planned. Pray that each truck will arrive safely.


*Names changed. Susie Rain is a writer/editor who lived in Africa for more than a decade.

To view video reports related to this story, go to http://vimeo.com/32222527 and http://vimeo.com/32222803.

To learn more about how the Southern Baptist World Hunger Fund meets needs overseas and in North America, visit www.worldhungerfund.com. To learn more about human needs initiatives such as the work of Don and Lucy Sullivan in the Horn of Africa, visit Baptist Global Response on the Web at www.gobgr.org.

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