In just over four weeks, more than 2000 people will gather in Sydney to take part in the Oxfam Trailwalker 100km endurance challenge to raise money for Oxfam’s work to fight poverty around the world.
They will have trained hard for months, their support crews will follow them along the course and they will get food, water and shelter at regular points.
If they complete the course they will rightly feel a sense of pride in their achievement. And many will have the blisters and aching muscles to prove it.
This year, as a first-time Trailwalker participant at the Melbourne event in April, I discovered firsthand what it takes to complete what is widely recognised as Australia’s toughest charity challenge.
But the experience has also given me a new perspective on the horrific stories coming out of East Africa, where a severe drought has forced 12 million people into a fight for survival.
These include stories of mothers walking 200km with children in their arms or by their side, in a desperate attempt to reach the refugee camps and find food and water. These distances are no longer just numbers.
I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to leave your home and possessions behind and walk to another country in a state of near starvation, with the ever present threat of being attacked by wild animals or robbed.
Then there’s also the terrible risk that some family members may not make the distance.
Yet this is exactly what many people in East Africa are doing right now – walking days, sometimes weeks, through the heat and the desert.
They wander exhausted into the camps, supporting elderly parents and coaxing young children. Most have sold their livestock, eaten or sold any crops and run out of money to buy food – if any food is available.
The camps provide food, water and shelter, along with medical attention for the severely malnourished. Thousands of people are arriving at the Dadaab camp in Kenya every day.
During his trip to the region last week, Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd saw this desperation up close, and noted on Twitter: “Newborns most vulnerable. Two year olds looking like 6 month olds as malnutrition sets in. Some too weak to make it.”
And while it’s true that droughts and food crises have occurred regularly in Africa in recent years, this year the situation is much, much worse. In parts of East Africa, such as northern Kenya, it is the driest year in six decades. Food prices have shot up as much as 240 per cent due to shortages.
But the real worry is that this is still early in the “hunger” season. Hunger won’t peak until around October, and we need to do more now to save lives and stop this famine from spreading.
Andrew Hewett, Executive Director, Oxfam Australia
This opinion editorial was first published bythe Daily Telegraph on 1 August 2011.