By Mutuma Mathiu
This post originally appeared in the Daily Nation and is republished here with permission.
Every disaster has its icon, the one powerful image, which immediately tells you what you are looking at, the one that lives with you for the rest of your life.
For me, the heart-rending enormity of the current regional famine was brought home by the pictures the Daily Nation published this week of a man and his wife, Muumino, who walked into a refugee centre in Mogadishu with their starving son, Mahmud.
They have come from Lower Shabelle in southern Somalia in search of food and shelter in the anarchic capital.
Mahmud shares a drip with two others, but he is too weak and soon dies. His mother closes his eyes with her thumbs, ties the legs together with a lesso.
She ties the face too, covering it with the practised hand of a woman who has covered many such little faces.
She and her husband walk out of the makeshift medical tent, carrying their dead son.
The husband is soon overcome, and it is left to the wife to carry their bundle to a tent, possibly their new home.
The last frame is of Muumino, alone with the bundle of her son, possibly with nowhere to bury him.
Her eyes are red and swollen with unshed tears, hopelessness and despair and the sheer sense of having come to the end of the road rising off her like a cloud.
There has been some debate as to whether the famine in Somalia is all that bad. One school of thought is that, yes, there is a famine, but aid agencies are exaggerating as a means to raising some money in these hard economic times in the West.
The Meteorological Department recently released weather statistics for the last 60 years, which showed that whereas there is a bad drought going on in this region, the claim that it is the worst in six decades can be contested.
To me all that is immaterial. The disaster that is Somalia speaks to me, as a father and as an African, through the tragedy of Mahmud and his poor parents.
Theirs is a life of suffering beyond comprehension. They are tied in deadly and inescapable ropes of state collapse, war, tribalism, climate change, global religious politics and regional power games.
In many ways, theirs is the story of every African too, a story of poverty and of being the perpetual pawn, used by fate and man for their own purposes.
It will take the goodwill of other Africans to free the Somali from this jail of endless trauma.
We can’t, and we must not, let any more Somali children die. It is inhuman and not very smart diplomacy to sit idly and let more children perish without making an effort.
I know that Somalia — from the five-pointed star on its flag, each representing Somali populations in our so-called Northern Frontier District, Ethiopa’s Ogaden region, Djibouti and the former British and Italian Somalilands, the ever-present reminder of that country’s territorial ambitions against us — is a security problem for Kenya.
A section of Somali public opinion would like to cross the border and come slaughter us.
Every day, there are Al Shabaab agents in Kenya, recruiting Kenyans for their wars, raising money and planning how to burn our cities and kill our people.
It may well be that some day, our army will have to face those elements in open battle. But Somalia is a land of 10 million people, many of them like us, just trying to feed their families and raise their children in poverty.
They do not share the politics of Al Shabaab or the territorial restlessness of the intelligentsia.
These are the people we should make common cause with, even as we fight Al Shabaab.
Our message to them ought to be that we stand with them and we’ll do everything possible to get them help.
So what can we do? I think the government should relate with Somalia, not just in terms of hard power; this is a soft power moment.
It should be possible to ask Kenyans to give food and other help and for the government to facilitate its delivery.
One remarkable thing about the Somali is that the lack of a government has not killed business.
They have a thriving informal economy, including an export economy, selling livestock, skins, bananas and charcoal to the Gulf.
There are many Kenyan businesspeople and professionals who have profited from trading and selling their services to the Somali. This is their moment to give back. And ours to help.
Mr Mathiu is the managing editor, Daily Nation