As a past leader in Operation Transformation and a former football All-Ireland winning medalist with Offaly, I have got used to facing challenges.
And the iron will that saw me shed over three stone on the popular RTE series seven years ago has stood me well many times since – as I have climbed, hiked, cycled, swum, and completed marathons in support of the rural farm development charity for which I work, Gorta-Self Help Africa.
Being originally from the little town of Clara in Offaly, and now long-time resident and lover of Galway city, I was confronted recently with an entirely new challenge, and the most difficult of all, on a recent trip to drought-ravaged Ethiopia and parts of East Africa, currently in the midst of the worst food crisis seen for a generation where close on seven million people are in need of food aid while another 17 million people in East Africa are also currently facing an emergency food crisis. Drought, shortened and erratic rainfalls, and rising food prices have led to reduced crop production and severe food insecurity across the region.
Ongoing conflict has worsened the situation in a number of countries. These include South Sudan, where a famine was declared earlier in the year and where more than 100,000 people face imminent starvation in two counties. In fact, some 5.5 million South Sudanese – almost half the population - will not have a reliable source of food by Christmas and are in urgent need of food aid. In Somalia meanwhile, the current food crisis is on track to become far worse than the 2011 famine that claimed 260,000 lives there. As you read this, many thousands of children in East Africa are facing starvation and are also in urgent need of humanitarian support. Gorta Self Help Africa is responding to the East Africa Food Crisis by implementing emergency aid programmes across a number of areas specifically in Ethiopia and Kenya. And I certainly know why this emergency struck home and is affecting my heart and soul and why I am now calling on your help and support at this time. As a father of two stunning adopted Ethiopian daughters – the slightly shy and caring Mia (10 ) and the confident and outgoing Sophie (7 ) - the trip to my children’s homeland brought me face to face with a dire situation I hoped I might never see again.
Although I have worked in the overseas charity sector for exactly 25 years this year, the plight that is affecting many millions in Ethiopia today, and indeed many millions in East Africa, has taken on a new and deeply personal significance for me. I have worked for many years around Africa and in some of the world’s other trouble spots, and because of the nature of the work, we were usually there in times of crisis. That was the case too when I started my career, working with St Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta. But things change radically when you become a parent. And things changed for me when I went back to Ethiopia this time, and saw little girls, just like my own – with nothing, absolutely nothing in the world and feeling the pangs of the hunger and thirst.
Because whole swathes of one of Africa’s biggest countries has endured two successive years of drought, the meager savings and the other safety blankets that families hang onto, such as goats and cattle, are long gone. Thousands were queuing at feeding stations to get whatever help was being given out both by their own government and international organisations like my own Gorta-Self Help Africa. But the situation is still desperate.
In Ethiopia, they don’t speak about ‘famine.’ It is a word that conjures images and stories of decades ago, when Bob Geldof assumed the mantle of humanitarian activist to fund relief efforts in the midst of a crisis of biblical proportions in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, it was out of that tragedy that Gorta-Self Help Africa was born, and it was with funding from Geldof’s Band Aid Trust and others that our organisation began its first agricultural development projects in Ethiopia a few years later.
This spring, Gorta-Self Help Africa took the unprecedented step of involving itself directly in a humanitarian emergency for the first time, in response to the unfolding Food Crisis in East Africa. For me, it was a logical and natural move for the rural farm development organisation. We took the decision to distribute seed and other support to the farming communities affected by the current crisis, and since then have also handed out food. Although the focus of our work remains on giving people a hand up so that they can provide for their families, in this instance we knew that we had to do something more immediate as well – in effect, a hand out. We’re facing the worst food emergency that we have seen worldwide since the end of World War II, we had to help people feed themselves today.
Since I returned from Ethiopia I have found myself looking long at my own two beautiful caring girls – two healthy, happy youngsters with their lives stretching long before them in the wonderful West of Ireland. I have come to the realisation that in other circumstances, things could have been so different for them. I now hug them more lovingly and tighter each day. I find it so hard to explain my feelings, and I try sometimes not to go there.
But seeing mothers that I saw recently in Ethiopia cradling sick and emaciated infants, watching line after line of people queuing outside feeding stations as they wait for a meagre handout, and seeing the look of despair and desperation on their faces — it cuts me to the bone and breaks my heart. In another era, it could have been my beautiful daughters. I love Ethiopia with a passion and I love the work that we try to do to save lives there and in nine other countries with Gorta-Self Help Africa. I have helped to raise millions of euro from our partners Irish Aid and from the very caring public in Ireland for the work of Gorta-Self Help Africa, both here and in other parts of sub-Saharan Africa — including nearly €20,000 recently collected on a walk across Ireland to mark both my 25th year in charity and my 50th birthday earlier this year. I have seen first-hand the success of that work in Ethiopia, and I hope and pray that the current emergency is just a bump on the road in the otherwise incredible story of agricultural growth and development that the East African country has experienced in recent years.
But as I said at the start of this article, East Africa stands on the brink of what the UN has described as potentially the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II. Drought and conflict have left approximately 25 million people reliant on food aid for survival, with shockingly high rates of severe acute malnutrition among children across the affected regions of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan. Governments and humanitarian organisations like Gorta Self Help Africa are responding. They have helped along with many more NGOs stave off extreme levels of death from famine that have loomed over East Africa throughout this crisis. But appeals for international support have been met with a wholly insufficient response, and levels of funding across the region are now desperately low. Humanitarian aid does and will save lives if it is available. But trust me, without adequate support, the humanitarian crisis across these regions will become a humanitarian catastrophe.
I truly welcome President Michael D Higgins’s call on the Irish people to respond to this crisis with urgency, compassion, and generosity, and I continue to urge the Irish public to support our efforts in Gorta Self Help Africa to get aid to people caught in this appalling crisis. The time to act is now, before it is too late.
Until recently, my visits to this part of the world had been to bring Irish volunteers to Ethiopia to compete in the annual Great Ethiopian Run and I hope to do so at the end of November. These were trips where we also brought our supporters to the farms, to the cooperatives, and to the different agricultural businesses that their support had made possible. These projects and these successes still exist, and in my heart and soul I know that the farm work we are doing will ultimately provide an answer to this crisis, and to the wider plight of hundreds of millions who don’t have enough to eat.
We need to take it step by step. I’m not disheartened. I think I’m more determined and passionate than ever. And I know that with the great help and support of Irish Aid and its dynamic Minister Ciaran Cannon and the generosity of the Irish public we can make a huge difference for good in the lives of some of the poorest people and children on our planet who are feeling very deeply the dire pangs of hunger and thirst at this very moment.
Gorta-Self Help Africa is having a charity Gala Ball Dinner in the Galway Bay Hotel in Salthill, Galway, on Friday November 17 at 7.30pm to raise funds for its East Africa Emergency Appeal. If you would like to attend or support the work or to find out more about Gorta-Self Help Africa’s work, and its efforts to support the East African Food Crisis or to donate or to help organise a fundraiser visit www.selfhelpafrica.org or contact Ronan Scully at (087 ) 6189094, email [email protected].