October 3, 2011
Hard to Watch, Harder to Be There: Cassandra Nelson, Mercy Corps Aid Worker in the Horn of Africa

Famine-striken Somalians at Banadir Hospital in Mogadishu/ Photo Credit:  Cassandra Nelson 


Last night I wanted to turn away.  For starters I was under-dressed. ( I had never seen the invitation.)  Second, after a little wine my heart was woefully unguarded. The elegant dinner and animated chatter suddenly shifted to images of shrunken babies and women who had been raped while walking 30 days through the Somalian desert.  By the hand of God (or an astute staff person) I was seated with Cassandra Nelson, 10-year Mercy Corps field veteran who shot photos in Somalia in a flak vest.  If she could take it, “the worst suffering she has ever seen,” how could I not look and listen?


I attend events to support great organizations when I can, and last night was my first for the Portland, Oregon-based Mercy Corps, one of the world’s largest aid organizations with a budget of over $300 million.  Mercy Corps’ sweet spot, explained CEO Neal Keny-Guyer,  is offering humanitarian aid and economic recovery in the world’s hot spots, those rife with conflict or shattered by disaster.   No place is hotter now than Somalia in the Horn of Africa, and no one I have met is braver than Cassandra, who cut her teeth as an aid worker for 10 years  with Afghani and Iraqi women.  No one is warmer either than this wild-haired, jubilant woman who opens her heart to the people she meets, whether refugees on the streets or donors at candlelight dinners.


Cassandra described how militant Al-Shabaab warriors terrorize the starving as they shuffle to Mogadishu, a 20-year bombing target that pretends to be a capital.  In spite of being evicted from the country in 2009 by the Muslim extremists (think Taliban), Mercy Corps returned in August to bolster its local Somalian partner organizations in confronting the two-pronged crisis:  death by starvation and death by brutality.  The lucky escape and join the one million Somalian refugees who’ve crossed borders; another 1.5 million are huddled in bed-sheet tents  in sprawling camps in Somalia, half a million of those now  in Mogadishu, since Al-Shabaab retreated from its stronghold there several weeks ago.  


Cassandra described the preconditions for the famine:  a failed state with no services; two generations of tribal warfare; and an acute drought that has killed the livestock that were the source of milk, meat and equity for these pastoral people.  In the camps the families face other onslaughts:  rampant cholera and dehydration because there is no clean water and no latrines, and a measles epidemic because this war-torn country has received few vaccines or medical care.  Mercy Corps is trucking in water, providing hygiene education and distributing food vouchers. 


After the Haiti earthquake, the disaster with which I am most familiar, volunteers and professional aid workers flooded into Haiti.  Billions of emergency aid dollars were released;  individuals who saw the television footage couldn’t help but give.


The ongoing conflict in the lawless state of Somalia makes aid work and philanthropy all the more foreboding — and all the more imperative.  My next mission is to learn how to deploy funds safely in a conflict zone, so they do no harm and are harnessed by the most reputable organizations.  If Cassandra can go in a flak vest, then at the very least, my heart and my dollars will go with her.


To follow Cassandra and see more photos on Twitter go to @cassandranelson.  To read her heart-filling blogs go to:  http://www.mercycorps.org/cassandranelson/blog/25543