Live Below The Line

This piece was originally written by myself for the Development In Action blog. The original can be found here:

Over the past couple of weeks the world has stared in shock as we see famine and drought take a hold on the Horn of Africa once more. Sadly this is not the first time we have seen such images dominating our headlines – yet many of us see the images and find ourselves asking why we are still seeing this happen again and again after all these years.

We are facing yet another massive humanitarian tragedy. People are suffering on an unimaginable scale, and mothers are making choices about which of their children die in order for the others to survive. Extended drought is causing a severe food crisis in the Horn of Africa, which includes Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Weather conditions over the Pacific means the rains have failed for two seasons and are unlikely to return until September. Food shortages are affecting up to 12 million people. The UN has declared famine in areas of Somalia and large areas of the region are now classified as in crisis or emergency, with malnutrition affecting up to 35-40% of children under five. The humanitarian problem is made worse by ongoing conflicts, which means that until July militant groups had only allowed aid organisations limited access to large parts of southern Somalia and eastern Ethiopia.

Statistics and numbers can often feel very distant, and do not often affect people. The more striking facts are coming out of the individual stories being told in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya. Since the beginning of 2011, around 15,000 Somalis each month have fled into refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia looking for food and water. The refugee camp at Dadaab, in Kenya, has been overwhelmed. The stories that are told are moving and horrifying. One mother told how she left her sick child on the road because he was too weak to make the journey to Kenya. Burdened by other small children, she left him in the desert. A pastoralist told of how he watched his precious cattle drop dead one by one as the land dried up and food became scarce. Another man told of how his wife – who was nine-months pregnant – went into labour while they were travelling to the camp. They had no medical supplies and both his wife and the baby died shortly afterwards.

Hunger is a relative concept. How many times have we come to the end of the day and said casually ‘I’m so hungry!’ as we start to cook dinner or look into a refrigerator filled with food and drink? Can we ever know what it must be like to truly be hungry? That’s the very question that The Global Poverty Project sought to answer through the ‘Live Below The Line’ challenge, which I took part in during May this year.

The challenge? To feed yourself on £1 per day for 5 days. £1 because that is the UK equivalent of the extreme poverty line – a line that no one wants to fall below.

The reason? To give a unique glimpse into the lives of 1.4 billion people who have no choice but to live like that every day – and have to make £1 cover a lot more than food. 1.4 BILLION – that’s over 20 times the population of the UK – living every day in the most abject poverty. That £1 has to cover far more than food and drink – we’re talking everything – health, housing, transport, food, education… It’s impossible to imagine, but it’s the incomprehensible reality for an incredible number of people.

In taking part in ‘Live Below The Line’, I not only had a way of talking with friends about the reality of poverty, I also found myself experiencing in a unique way the very real and daily struggle and the choices you have to make when living with extreme poverty. I found myself faced with a lack of choice in what I would eat, and missing certain important nutritional elements of my diet. I didn’t have much sugar and found myself feeling tired and run down by day three. I had only 6 eggs for the week which represented all the protein in my diet – meat was too expensive and I opted for the cheapest vegetables to bulk up my plate. I relied mainly on carbohydrates – low-cost rice and pasta – pepped up with a chicken flavour stock cube to take away how very bland everything tasted. The over-arching emotions and feelings were of tiredness from lack of essential nutrition, frustration from the lack of choice, and, most significantly, a re-ignited passion for making sure that people do not have to live like this every day. Live Below The Line gave me the tiniest glimpse of a life that, had I been born in a different latitude and longitude, could have been mine.

2 months on from taking that challenge, I see the news coming out of Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia, I find my mind going back to that week of ‘living below the line’. I remember those feelings of tiredness, frustration, never feeling quite full. I can’t even begin to imagine how many times I would need to multiply that feeling to gain a sense of what it is like to not have eaten in weeks. The living hell that the people of the Horn of Africa are experiencing is not just about not having food. To truly gain a sense of what they are going through I would then have to add the feelings that come with no access to water, travelling for days to reach help, the continuing threat of violence from militants who continue to wage war in your country, the all-encompassing grief at losing children and family members, losing livelihoods, losing hope.

As humanitarian organisations work hard to get help to those who need it, what can we do? The need is desperate and reaching critical levels. The Disasters Emergency Committee in the UK launched an appeal, and all major aid agencies have places within their websites where you can donate.

Think of the last time you were hungry. Now multiply it by days, weeks, months. As Ghandi said, “Poverty is the worst form of violence” .

One thought on “Live Below The Line

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