“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside still waters.” It’s a phrase known to Christians around the world, one of the most beloved verses of a beloved psalm.
It was the psalm Pope Benedict XVI referred to during his weekly audience Wednesday 5 October which ended with an appeal to the world not to forget East Africa, where drought has turn green pastures brown and made water scarce.
Crops have failed; herdsmen have watched their goats and cattle grow thinner and die. Tens of thousands of families walked for weeks to reach refugee camps, or anywhere with water.
“We find ourselves once again staring into the face of famine,” writes Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Anglican church. “The human face, the face of the young and vulnerable who die on the journey to find food.”
Catholics, Anglicans, and many other Christian groups are banding together with all people of goodwill to help East Africans. Two days after the pope’s call for aid, bishops from Africa and Caritas leaders spoke about the crisis at a press conference in Rome where Archbishop Williams’ letter was read.
They had met earlier to discuss talking the crisis in an initiative fronted by Cardinal Robert Sarah of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum, the Vatican agency that promotes and coordinates Catholic charitable giving, at the request of the Pope.
“This [famine] has happened before,” said Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, a Caritas member in the United States. Refereeing to the ‘failed state’ of Somalia, he said, “For years, the world said, ‘Contain it, don’t try to change it.’ Now we see the consequences.”
Caritas is helping families suffering from the prolonged drought. Its humanitarian programmes in East Africa, worth 31 million euros, now target over 1 million people caught in the crisis.
“People need food and water, and we are providing that,” said Michel Roy, secretary general of Caritas Internationalis, as he called on the international community to meet the overwhelming need.
“My Somali Muslim friends gave me a thank-you letter for the pope,” says Bishop Giorgio Bertin, President of Caritas Somalia. “The Holy Father was one of the first to call attention to the situation.”
With an eye on the future, Caritas and other Christian aid groups will continue building water canals and irrigation systems, helping herders keep their flocks healthy, and working with farmers to grow crops in areas where rain does not always fall. Short-term programmes will keep people alive until the worst is past.
Many are hoping the autumn rains will heal the dry land. “If the Lord is the shepherd, even in the desert, a place of scarcity and death,” said Pope Benedict in his message, “We do not lose our certainty in the radical presence of life.”
Laura Sheahen is a Rome-based Communications Officer for Caritas Internationalis.