Far out on the eastern edge of Africa’s horn where no proper roads reach and the airstrip is the desert, the remote Somali fishing village of Hafun hasn’t had so much attention in decades.
Once the bustling capital of Italian Somaliland, it bears the scars of the World War II battle when the British bombed and seized the town from Mussolini’s men. The ruins of an Italian salt processing factory and a skeleton of a pier and railway line are all that remain of colonial times.
Now the rest of the town has been flattened again, this time by a deadly tsunami wave from far away, putting this odd-shaped peninsula back on the map. Broken buildings, broken fishing nets, tattered boats and smatterings of ragged clothes blend in with the historic remains from before.
“The last time we saw a government official here was in 1969,” said the mayor of Hafun, Abshir Labbi Taange. “Before that was Mussolini.”
There has been no central government in Somalia since strongman Mohamed Siad Barre was toppled in 1991, plunging the country into clan warfare and anarchy. Not even those years of turmoil touched this peaceful fishing village, quietly selling lobster, tuna and shark fins to Yemen, the United Arab Emirates and the East.
So, cut off from the outside world and a full 18 hours by road to Bossaso, the nearest major town on the Gulf of Aden, the people living on the shores of Africa’s longest coastline thought they alone in the world had been hit by a wall of water.
There was no central authority to turn to for help. Humanitarian organisations have had to fill that gap and today Hafun’s only dwellings are timber frames under grey and blue plastic sheeting.
“Today there’s no rich man, no poor. Everybody is just the same,” said Labbi Taange.
Only weeks ago the eastern Somali coast was buffeted by a cyclone, before that years of severe drought. Walking through the ruins of where her once comfortable home stood, 18-year-old Johro Salad is dazed and confused. In this Sunni-Muslim country, there is a sense now that Allah will provide meaning in time.
Salad and her friends, who struggle at the best of times to attend school, have lost months of schoolwork and are literally starting on a brand-new page in their exercise books.
The sea, the water, was their lifeblood but it poisoned their water supply and took the lives of about 150 people in Somalia. With fishermen coming from as far south as Tanzania the real tally will never be known. Their livelihoods, scores of fishing boats, are wrecked or dumped inland by the waves. Ironically though, Hafun could be better off in time because of the tsunami.
Now, in this bone-dry region where cholera and diarrhoea are the major causes of death among children, it is water that will save their lives, but it must be trucked from 92km away and chlorinated in a bladder. New boreholes and deeper, safer wells are being dug in the mountains.
The village never had proper sanitation, now there are 30 new latrines in the village and vastly improved new health-care facilities and a new school.
But the tsunami disaster pales in comparison to the country’s real problems. For a Somali child the chances of surviving to adulthood are among the lowest in the world, and 20% of under- fives are malnourished.
Humanitarian organisations are hoping that the “tsunami spirit” of generosity, seen as a new spirit of solidarity in the world, will extend to the chronic emergencies, away from the spotlight, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa.
Somalia is one of the most forgotten emergencies in the world and with the government in exile due to return from Nairobi in Kenya, the country is entering a crucial transition stage.
Sarah Crowe is the United Nations Children’s Fund sub-Saharan Africa media officer