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“Nobody is talking about this”

Osman, a 28-year-old nurse, checks the weight of one his patients at Save the Children’s mobile health clinic in the Saraar region of Somaliland

 

Women and girls queue at a water point provided by Save the Children in the Saraar region of Somaliland

Somalia and its neighbours are facing a disaster. A period of intense drought, which has seen 90 percent of the country receive little to no rainfall since June 2021, has pushed the region to the brink of famine. In Somalia 1.8 million children are currently suffering from acute malnutrition and, according to the UN, by June 2023 more than 8.3 million Somalis are expected to experience “crisis levels of acute food insecurity”. Photographer Misan Harriman, who visited the Horn of Africa to document the situation, is shocked and angry that it rarely makes the headlines. “If there were 1.8 million white children from North America or Europe that were on the verge of death, would the world look away in the way that it has?” he asks. “Yet nobody is talking about this. If I lined up 100 people on the street and I asked them if they knew that almost two million children are on the verge of death this year in East Africa, I’m sure 95 of them wouldn’t know. And if you don’t know about something, there’s no call to action.”

Osman, a 28-year-old nurse, checks the weight of one his patients at Save the Children’s mobile health clinic in the Saraar region of Somaliland

East Africa’s climate is changing, with five consecutive below-par rainy seasons resulting in a 30 percent loss of livestock and a perilous decline in harvestable crops. “You don’t need to be a scientist to see that there’s something unprecedented happening,” says Harriman, pointing out that while Somalia is responsible for less than 0.03 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions, it finds itself suffering the effects of a warming planet. “This isn’t about charity. It’s about justice,” he continues. “It’s about how we, in the west, live our lives. And how those that have been born into a hellscape are paying for the luxuries that they never received. A big part of their struggles are the actions of the developed world. We must not look away.”

Harriman visited the self-declared republic of Somaliland with Save the Children and witnessed the lengths to which people were being driven to survive. “I met people, mostly women, a lot of them either frail or very young, who had walked miles to visit a water delivery station and would then carry these incredibly heavy jerry cans back home,” he says. “It made me realise that there is nothing easy in the existence of these families. Everything is a struggle.”

Harriman has been one of the world’s most sought-after photographers since an image he captured at a Black Lives Matter protest in London became one of the defining images of 2020. The first black person to shoot a cover of British Vogue, he has produced portraits of celebrities including Beyoncé, Tom Cruise and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. He found documenting the situation in Somaliland incredibly challenging. “It felt like a huge responsibility,” he says. “There were people I didn’t want to shoot. They were experiencing such difficulties it felt intrusive, but they wanted people to know the reality of their situation.”

 

Hawa and her son Ahmed, who is experiencing many of the symptoms of severe acute malnutrition, photographed at a medical centre in the city of Burao

One of Harriman’s hardest days was when he visited a ‘stabilisation centre’ in the city of Burao, which treats the most critical cases of malnutrition. There he met 28-year-old Hawa and her son Ahmed [see above], who was nine months old and suffering from severe malnutrition. “It’s hard to convey the helplessness of a parent who is put in a place where their child’s life is in the lap of the gods: when the medical care has been given and it’s a case of waiting and hoping that they will pull through,” says Harriman. “To see that silently broken mother who is clinging on to whatever she has left, isn’t something I’ll ever forget.”

Ubah and her ten-month-old child Bashiir photographed at the school which Ubah helps to run in the Togdheer region of Somaliland

Despite the difficult times, Harriman saw plenty of reasons for hope. “My best day was at a school supported by Save the Children, and I was able to see healthy kids being educated,” he says. “It shows what happens when the resources are there to make sure that these children are getting the two things they need most: a healthy, nutritious meal and an education.” One of Harriman’s portraits is of Ubah [photo above], a mother of nine and a member of the local school committee in the Togdheer area of Somaliland. “She was incredibly proud that her children were getting an education,” he says. “She said that the ultimate weapon against poverty is to feed the mind.”

The situation in the region is complex – the breakaway territory of Somaliland isn’t recognised internationally and the government in Somalia is involved in a long-term offensive against the militant Islamist group al-Shabab, which is estimated to control over 20 percent of the country. The impact of the war in Ukraine on the global food chain, and on humanitarian budgets in developed countries, has added to the complexity of the crisis. For all the intricacies, however, Harriman believes that the solution to the famine crisis is straightforward. “The team I met on the ground in Somaliland know exactly how to save these children’s lives; they just need the resources to be able to do it,” he says. “Usually when you see such a large-scale potential loss of life, you feel like there’s nothing you can do about it. But I saw how utterly preventable a big part of what’s going on is.”

Spending time with a mobile health clinic run with help from Save the Children, Harriman saw the difference people were making even with limited supplies. “These health workers should be globally celebrated,” he says. “I couldn’t even count the number of families that came throughout the day and there were maybe 15 staff trying to help them.”

One of the Somali healthcare workers Harriman met was Nimo, a 30-year-old who has worked at the maternal and child health centre for almost ten years. “She described to me how she could see this wall of doom coming,” says Harriman. “You can see the children getting more gaunt, you can see the onset of pneumonia, but there is next to nothing to administer. You look in the supplies cabinet and it is empty. All she can do is try to slow things down in the hope that help will come.”

Nimo contemplates a trying day at the maternal and child health centre where she has worked for almost ten years

Nimo was photographed at the end of a very difficult shift when she had been caring for a seven-month-old with severe malnutrition. “She was like a one-person mobile health clinic, but it was taking its toll,” says Harriman. “You could tell that a lot of the people were putting on their best faces in front of the camera, but in the moment I took this shot [above] her shield came down. You can feel the weight that shouldn’t just be on her shoulders.” Harriman, who was born in Nigeria and now lives in London, says he felt “ashamed” to be in her presence. “I couldn’t look her in the eye,” he says. “When somebody asks you when they are getting help and you have to say, ‘I don’t know’… I felt angry at myself, and the country I live in, for not offering the support we should.” Another story that has stayed with Harriman was that of 26-year-old Mohamed [see photo below], who works as a junior doctor in a mobile health clinic. “He wanted the world to see that he is here, that he’s ready,” says Harriman. “He was a proud man who had worked hard to get into his position. It was a pleasure to show a well-trained young man taking pride in his job in looking after his community.”

Twenty six-year-old Mohamed works as a junior doctor in a mobile health clinic which travels around the Saraar region

Despite the widespread food shortages, the UN has yet to officially declare a famine in East Africa. Somalia’s president Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, who was elected last May amid hopes he could return stability to the country, has talked about the “risk” such a declaration would bring. “The governments of countries [in the Horn of Africa] have a lot of muscle memory of what happened in the eighties,” says Harriman. “I think they are aware of what being classed as ‘in famine’ can do to the long-term perception of a country.”

 

Five-year-old Calaso attends a school in eastern Somaliland which was built by Save the Children

Regardless of an official declaration of famine, Harriman believes that it is imperative that more people start openly discussing what is happening in the region in the way they have joined in the outcry about the invasion of Ukraine and the crackdown on women’s rights in Iran. “There are a lot of terrible things happening in the world,” he says. “All of them deserve to be talked about, but if you look at the attention Somalia receives in relation to the potential loss of life, there is a big imbalance. We need to create a network effect of empathy that will lead to action. We need to
ask ‘how can we do nothing about this?’”

So far Harriman has been frustrated that his attempts to push the issue into the public consciousness have been met with limited success, but he says there are a few images he returns to when he needs motivation. “The photograph of Leyla [see below] was taken at lunchtime and it shows hope in an image,” he says. “Here’s a young girl getting everything she needs, and I don’t want to fail her. When it all feels too much this helps get me going again, as does the image of Calaso [see above]. That is a picture of a healthy child and I didn’t get many opportunities to take photographs of healthy children. Imagine going somewhere and it is hard to find a healthy child. That’s the reality of what is happening.”

Leyla receives food from Save the Children’s school programme in eastern Somaliland

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