On the perpetual conveyor belt of unpleasantness that is international news, occasionally there comes a parcel of hope. A year ago, we carried a picture on our front page that came to symbolise the severity of the famine in East Africa. It was of Zippora Mbungo, an 86-year-old Kenyan woman, who, in order to deaden the pangs of hunger enough to give her meagre rations to her grandchildren, bound her stomach tightly with rope. She was far from alone. “Only the rich people around here don't tie a rope in times like this,” she said. Today, she still has that rope. But, thanks to millions of pounds raised by the British public, and, in particular, the aid agency ActionAid, it is no longer knotted around her shrunken stomach, but hangs on her wall, a memento of the lengths to which she was once driven, and of the many happy outcomes that the aid effort has brought.
There is still much to be done, and thousands died before aid could reach them. But now, 12 months on from the peak of the region's worst drought for 60 years, much has been achieved. The appeal by Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) raised £79m, helped by initiatives such as The Independent on Sunday's Give a Day's Pay campaign which alone raised more than £130,000. The DEC said yesterday that it had helped 2.3 million people, including 628,000 who were given food or cash for food, 871,000 whose water supply was improved, 182,000 who received healthcare, and 59,000 children treated for malnutrition. Overall, those in need of humanitarian assistance has fallen by 41 per cent in a year to 2.2 million.
The effort is impressive, but the figures mean so much more when some of the individual stories behind them are told. And they should be told, for when famine comes again, there will always be those who will insist that aid appeals are gesture politics of the emptiest kind.
Let us start with Zippora. Last year, her village of Makima, Kenya, was a red earth dustbowl. Today, a week after her 87th birthday, she tends the maize she has grown this season. She says: "I can now afford to have at least two meals in a day, unlike in the past when I would go for several days without food. ActionAid provided us with immediate food relief then … and they have been working with us to improve our agricultural skills."
The agency provided her and other villagers with sorghum, green grams, cowpeas, dolichos and millet to plant, and this year the rains have been better. "The harvest will be good, and I can eat and sell some to pay the school fees for one of my grandchildren [four of whom live with her]." She has also had some training in leadership and entrepreneurship, and put this into immediate effect by organising older villagers and demanding – successfully – that women are included on the food relief committees. "I am happy that even if I die today," she says, "I have contributed to raising a famine-free generation, thanks to ActionAid's intervention."
Then there is Shindo Wako, a 32-year-old mother of three from Bula-Juu village in eastern Kenya, whose husband abandoned her and the children last year. She says: "I lost all my 150 goats to the drought. My entire livelihood was swept away. The drought reduced me to a beggar, but I thank ActionAid for rebuilding my life by giving me five goats." Three of these have given birth, and she hopes her herd will have increased to 20 by the end of the year. She adds: "My goats have enabled me to make an average of 500 shillings a day through the sale of milk. I don't have to worry about food and money any more."
There are many more such cases. Pauline Mwangangi, a mother of three from Taveta near the Tanzanian border, is part of a women's group that has been helped by ActionAid to start a fishpond project. She says: "These fishponds are managed by women. We can ensure that it benefits our families when the fish are sold. If men had managed them, they would spend most of the revenue in the local bars. We take turns doing the daily work on the ponds. We are planning to expand this site with more ponds by saving what we earn from fish farming."
Lack of food drove the Baya family to trek to Malindi in Kenya where ActionAid's irrigation system enables them to grow their own food. Jacqline, 18, the eldest daughter, says: "Life was very, very hard before we moved here. It was terrible to see my younger siblings go to bed hungry. Often they were too weak to go to school. Now we always have food." For families that cannot grow their own food, there are the school feeding programmes. One of the tens of thousands of beneficiaries is Steven, 16, who lives in Kenya's coastal region. "Before the school feedings started, it was very hard for me to concentrate in school. Now I have lots of energy and learning has become fun again."
The work of ActionAid, through their Kenyan organisation, shows the huge range of assistance provided: not only food and irrigation, but also grain silos, bore holes, hand pumps, fuel, livestock, classrooms, storage tanks, seeds, solar phone chargers, kitchen gardens, medical services and training.
All of the 14 member agencies of the DEC played a full part. The work of Save the Children and Islamic Relief, for instance, includes centres caring for malnourished children. Merlin supports hospitals such as the one in Lodnar, Kenya, which treats cases such as Amaret, an 18-month-old boy not only HIV-positive but also suffering from pneumonia, gastroenteritis, oral thrush, dehydration and malnutrition. His mother Amekwi, who divorced her husband when she discovered she had contracted HIV from him, could not afford to pay for Amaret's medicine. Hospital staff pay for it from their wages.
The DEC's report on the famine said that while the international response was "slow and late", the generosity of the British public was remarkable, as was that of African nations, which have raised more than £215m. There is still much work to be done, especially as conflict continues in some areas, and, across the region, some places still suffer chronic lack of rain, while others see floods wash their crops away.
Brendan Gormley, chief executive of the DEC, said: "Somalia is a real challenge to reach those in need, and across the whole region this is a long haul. We cannot tolerate people living so close to the edge. We are still getting reports of communities that are vulnerable."
Concern Worldwide's regional director Austin Kennan said: "Overall, it is not as bad as it was, but, with rains not being reliable, it could go either way. The reality of climate change is that the region will be facing longer droughts."
But, whatever the problems, the message a year on from the launching of the appeal is that aid works. Paula Sansom, Merlin's head in East Africa, said: "We have been overwhelmed by people's generosity. Although the situation has improved a little in most areas, lack of rain is a continuous problem. That's why we're trying to ensure that remote communities can rebuild their lives and are more able to cope with drought in the future."