First Person

On the brink of famine in the place my father called home

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Women affected by violence in northeastern Nigeria line up at the entrance of a camp for displaced people outside the city of Maiduguri. Oxfam is assisting people in this area, providing food, clean water, and building latrines. Photo by Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Conflict in Nigeria is affecting millions, but we are not powerless to act.

Megalyn Echikunwoke is an activist and actress living in Los Angeles. Echikunwoke, whose father was Nigerian and whose mother is a white American, was raised on the Navajo Indian Reservation in Chinle, Ariz.  Her last name means “leader of men” – a responsibility she takes seriously as a powerful voice for women.

My name is Ebubennem Megalyn Anne Echikunwoke. I am Nigerian. As a child soldier, my father was a survivor of the Nigerian civil war known as the Biafran War.  It lasted for 30 months and took the lives of more than one million people. Some died in the battle; famine claimed many others. The war eventually took my father, too. The gunshot wounds he suffered as a child led to hepatitis B and then liver cancer. Just as he had completed his law degree and was starting a new and hopeful life in the US with his young family, he died.

I was barely 4.  I remember and miss my father. And because I know what it took for me and my two siblings to have this life, I can never take it for granted.

I still have a lot of family in Nigeria, some of whom are directly affected by the crisis in the northeast of the country because of the fighting between Boko Haram and the military. Here, and in the other Lake Chad basin countries- Niger, Chad and Cameroon- millions of people have been forced to flee from their homes, seven million need food assistance. In areas that are cut off from aid, some 400,000 people may be living in famine-like conditions.   More than 450,000 children are severely acutely malnourished.

For widowed women and unaccompanied children, they are in an exceptionally vulnerable situation.  Limited access to basic needs like food, water and shelter, and restricted movement in camps leaves them more at risk to rape and sexual exploitation by all sides in this conflict.  Boys and men are also at risk: They are frequently killed, detained, forcibly recruited, or disappeared.

I remind myself each day how fortunate I am, and I ask what I can do.  Somehow, still, when I consider the prospect of famine and what hunger means for Nigerian mothers like Halima, it never feels like I can do enough. When her cattle—the source of food and income for her family—were stolen, Halima had no choice but to take her five children to a camp for displaced people, seeking whatever security she could find.

Famine was officially declared in parts of South Sudan in February.  Nigeria, Yemen, and Somalia teeter on the brink. As many as 20 million people are now at risk of starvation across the many regions affected – an unprecedented moment in our history. We are facing the worst humanitarian crisis since WWII.  When I consider all the parents and children facing this reality, it makes me feel totally powerless at times.

And yet, I am not powerless. None of us are.

Commit to fighting hunger

Doing nothing is not a human option. Doing nothing dishonors the horrors my father had to overcome to find peace.  It dishonors the mothers in Nigeria, South Sudan, or any place forced to witness the hunger and death of their children.

Our devotion to each other and our respect for our own humanity requires us to commit to fighting against the proposed aid cuts and foreign policies that will undermine our ability to support people facing starvation and hunger.  The UN is asking for $4.4 billion in aid to stop the current and impending famine threatening Yemen, Somalia, and the Lake Chad basin area.  The UN request to save lives pales in comparison to what the US spends each day on its military establishment.

Oxfam is currently calling for more food and life-saving support; safe access to aid for people who need it; protection of civilians in all military actions; early warning and response to crises before they escalate; and building people’s ability to cope with future crises.

Oxfam calls on us to take immediate action to help.

We can help by sharing Halima’s story of the crisis that harms her children.

We can call on the US government to stop sending weapons when they’re likely to be used to violate the laws of war, like they are in South Sudan and Yemen.

We can donate to organizations that fight hunger and injustice.  We can give out of gratitude for our own distance from harm.

Will you join me by sharing Halima’s story, making a gift, and committing to take action? Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+