Famine in Somalia. How to Help. Or Not.

There is a drought in Somalia, growing into famine proportions. Something needs to be done. So, good people are doing something. And I sit here, writing, working, going to the beach, hiding Easter eggs, not really doing anything specifically related to the famine. And, I sit here with a lot of questions about what is being done. It is so hard to articulate them because I really, truly believe the people doing these things are topnotch people. As in, people with deep empathy and compassion, people who love with abandon, who take risks to serve, people who are not after fame or fortune or glory. I don’t want to hurt feelings or to disparage. But I do feel the need to raise some issues, to ask some questions.

And let me just start by saying Somalis are so much more than starving children and people covered in flies. Please. Seriously. Be wise about what images you share.


Research has proven unequivocally that famine is caused by authoritarian regimes, by harmful politics and policies, by corrupt governments, by tyrannical rulers, by war. The root cause of famine is not the lack of rain or a failed growing season. Changing weather patterns contribute to drought but famine, starvation on a mass scale, is a different beast.

Here is an important article about the factors underlying Somalia’s current crisis, by Dr. Mohamud Mohamed Ahmed (Buyow). I wrote to Dr. Mohamud and in his response he stressed the importance of working with local organizations and local authority structures for long term solutions. He wrote, “…short projects and inappropriate responses will not be a long lasting solution to the recurrent droughts. The best way to address the root causes of the famine is  settling with the needy people and identifying the immediate needs and longterm support needs and provide the right intervention that suits the needs of the target people through working with relevant  authorities in that respective area rather than copying projects from other countries  and implementing  them regardless of the outcome and impact.”

He spoke about the historically strong agriculture, livestock, fishery, and business realities in Somalia and that the people need help strengthening those sectors, not just food aid, in order to end long term dependence on outside sources.

The cure for a famine is not a rain shower.

The cure for famine is not to provide meals.

I have seen both scenarios presented on social media as viable solutions.

One campaign promotes their efforts to ‘stop the famine’ by providing millions of meals, boxed in the US and shipped to Somalia. This will not stop the famine. This will give people food for a while. It will effectively delay their starvation, it will not stop it. And, based on history and current threats coming from al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is unlikely that all the meals will actually feed the hungry. So, if you must box meals, at least do so knowing that you are not ending a famine and that you might be feeding a terrorist. Truth in advertising seems important here.

Also, rain…

Rain in a land denuded of forests and trees, either due to systematic stripping or because people, desperate for food and shelter because of conflict and poverty, have been forced to cut their own trees down, can be catastrophic. Floods. Cholera. Typhoid. Malaria. Dengue fever. Diseases which, were they diseases that plagued western countries, might have had vaccinations or effective medicines developed to fight them by now. These diseases descend on the dry land and on weakened people with a vengeance when there is a little rain. And a bit of rain won’t make the agricultural industry boom again. Especially not when that industry has been destroyed by bad management and violence.

Yes, rain is needed so that crops can begin to grow again. But if all the farmers are gathered in feeding centers and it rains for a while one afternoon, that does not mean corn will spring from the ground around them and the people will now be satiated. A rain shower is not going to end a famine.

Some of the bad management and bad control that are contributing to this famine are, in fact, remnants of previous famine relief efforts. Western nations, goodhearted people, bring in food and seed and grain. This undermines what the local economy and farmers had been able to provide, cuts prices, leaves farms fallow, pulls people away from working the land and into feeding centers. Once they land there, it is almost impossible to return to a farm. It may be taken over by a neighbor or by a warlord. The ground might be destroyed. The herd animals die so a nomadic family has nothing to go back to. They are stuck. Perpetually.

So sure, box up your meal and stop the famine.

Sure, pray for rain and stop the famine.

What will you do tomorrow?

And the next day?

And the next day?

What will you do when the millions of boxed up meals ends? When another famine strikes because the underlying causes have not been addressed?

You’ll develop compassion fatigue.

Okay, pack the box of food. And then go to Somalia, make sure a hungry person eats it, make sure that hungry person is repatriated, along with their entire community, to their agricultural region or to their flocks (which have died so must be donated), so that they can become self-sustaining again, they way they once were. Make sure that person doesn’t spend the rest of their life dependent on meals that you box up in the US. Make sure gangs don’t rob, rape, or kill the people. Make sure violence doesn’t force them to abandon their land in the future. Make sure just and good governance is instituted.

People may have walked hundreds of kilometers to get to the food. Now what? They are effectively stuck in the feeding camp until you, who brought them there with your meal, help them go home. Will you do that? Will you stay involved and engaged for that long? Will you fund organizations who will do those things?

Sorry to say, but in the case of the outsider, the answer is most likely no. No, you will not stick it out for decades, a commitment some compare to a marriage. That long, that much effort. Nope. You will move on to the next crisis or to the next Netflix show.

Who will stay?


Somalis in Somalia and Somalis in the diaspora around the world, most whom still have relatives living in Somalia. These are the people who have proven track records of caring for Somalia. Remittances from abroad make up almost a quarter of Somalia’s GDP. Money transfer is keeping people from starving, is helping them set up small businesses or reestablish farms. Somalis who care about good governance and sustainable food security need to be supported.

Somalis who know the culture, region, and people intimately. There are Somalis leading aid work. Get behind them, support them.

This means you might not get your face on a brochure. You might not get a great selfie opportunity. You might not get the praise for risking your life to go to Somalia to see what people are already telling you, if you would just believe them. You might not get the glory of praying for rain and seeing it fall and tweeting about it.

But you might be able to make a difference, just without your left hand knowing what your right hand is doing.

If you are willing to support Somalis helping Somalia, then here are some ways you can get involved.

*There are loads of Go Fund me campaigns being run by Somalis: Somalia Famine Relief, they are partnering with the American Refugee Committee and the International Refugee Committee. And Somalia Famine Relief 2017, run by a group of Somali youth in Minneapolis (go Minnesota!), they are partnering with a Somali-run NGO Read Horn of Africa.

*Technology and social media are both playing large parts in responding to this crisis. Here is how some Somalis are using both to help.

*Abaaraha has developed a crisis mapping system to help aid providers see the big picture and know where there are urgent needs.

*If you have Somalis in your community, talk to their community leaders. Maybe at a mosque, maybe restaurant owners or shopkeepers. Find out what they are doing and ask how you can participate. I know Minneapolis restaurants recently had a Dine Out for Somalia evening, with the goal of raising $150,000 for famine relief. The list included almost 50 restaurants, most of them Somali, Horn of Africa, or Arab cuisine. You can still donate: Dine Out for Somalia.

What if there weren’t only Somali restaurants participating? What if they weren’t primarily Somali diners? Do you, non-Somali American, really need to start your own organization, project, or fund? Get behind what Somalis are already doing, join with them. I suspect you’ll find your donation of time, resources, or money will go further and you’ll be able to see more long-term impact both in your own life and in the lives of people you hope to serve.

*There are so many Somalis helping Somalis, unrelated to famine relief. But all development is positive and can move the entire region in the right direction. Saada Moumin is one such woman, with her school for low-income and special needs children in Djibouti.

*And, sure, I’ll encourage you to pray for Somalia. But keep in mind that you are not the only one praying. Millions of Somalis are praying, both in Somalia and in the diaspora. There are Somali Muslims praying and Christians who care about Somalis praying and I even know some Buddhist Somalis who pray. Don’t fool yourself that when God provides an answer to prayer, it was solely your powerful and effective righteousness that brought it. You are not standing alone in your hope and faith. You are not the hero.

*Read When Helping Hurts. Seriously. If you haven’t read this yet, read it now.

Now, with humility and generosity and critical thoughtfulness, go out and try to do something wise and good.









Call for Guest Posts: Strong in the Broken

I find the writing community wonderfully and surprisingly generous. I think we all battle with the lie of scarcity – if one writer succeeds, that means less success for the rest of us. But the writers I’ve met and interacted with don’t live out that lie. Instead, they help each other toward success, offer tips, share stories, challenge and motivate each other.

I read an article once in which Jason Fagone said he’d be willing to talk with any aspiring writer who had a question about writing nonfiction boolproposals. I took him up on it, emailed, and he responded in just a few hours with tips and an example of one of his successful proposals.

Others further along than me have offered suggestions on queries, tips on how to pitch to particular editors at certain magazines, or answered my endless questions, either over email or coffee. Writers have retweeted, liked, shared, and emailed stories of mine.

Dan Maurer consistently highlights other writers and spreads their words far and wide.

Asad Hussein lives in Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya and recently had an excellent article in The Guardian. And the New York Times! I like to say, ‘I knew him when…’ We met over emails and blog posts and editing. Watching his work grow in strength and reach is one of my favorite things about working on this blog – those kinds of connections.

I would like to continue to use this space to share the stories and work of others. So I started thinking of another guest post series. I’ve done a few:

What’s the new topic, you ask?

Recently I listened to the Runner’s World podcast, to an episode called Running While Female. I had seen the episode in my list and avoided it but never erased it. I knew I would have to listen at some point, I just didn’t want to. I knew what it contained.

I was right. It was about the harassment women experience while running. I had to actually turn it off a few times because it was hitting so close to home. I cried. It took me a long time to get through the whole thing. Normally I listen to podcasts while cooking, cleaning, and running. This one? I sat down at the table and just listened.

This visceral reaction didn’t come out of nowhere. It came out of being touched, chased, grabbed, groped, stoned, punched, ogled, insulted, mocked, cursed. People have made throat-slitting motions at me. They have said I am the first one they would kill. They have mentioned my unmentionables.

I keep running. Partly because these things, at least not the worst of them, don’t happen that often. Partly because not running feels harder than dealing with this junk. Partly because in running, I find my strong. In doing what people seem to think I shouldn’t be doing, I am the victor. Not them. Not the harassment.

I wanted to know about what you experience when you do something that, because of who you are, where you are, or what you are doing, carries with it a unique challenge. I want to know how you respond, if you feel strong, if you feel victorious, or if you are still struggling to find that strength. If you are at all like me, it is both/and.

Running While Female. Driving While Black. Traveling While Pregnant. Writing While Uneducated. Studying While Working. Working While Foreign. Blogging While an Introvert. Eating While Dieting. Writing While in a Refugee Camp. Writing While in the Suburbs. Staying Married While Being an Alcoholic. Staying Married While He/She is an Alcoholic…

I don’t know. I have no idea what your stories in this realm might be. They don’t need to fit this paradigm of ____ while _____. But that is the gist.

Sharing stories helps us be brave and vulnerability makes us strong. These are stories of victory, even if we don’t yet feel victorious.

What’s it called?



The title of the series is: Strong in the Broken. I don’t mean the broken places of ourselves, like the Ernest Hemingway line from A Farewell to Arms: The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.

I mean parts of this world are broken. The parts that harass and terrorize and damage. Sometimes those parts are in us or are us, sometimes they are external to us. And in those places, places that aren’t all green grass and chocolate ice cream, we can still be strong. Or we can at least step toward being strong.

We can keep running.

How can you participate?

Send your stories. Email me at rachelpiehjones(at)gmail(dot)com if you have questions or want to submit a post.

I can’t pay (publishing while impoverished, perhaps?) but I can offer a wide, global readership and a byline with links to your own website and social media pages.





Redefining Success for the Faith-Based Expatriate

Quick link: You Are Not a Failure

Over at A Life Overseas today, writing about something that’s been bugging me a bit lately.

I’ve read lots of blog posts and essays about failure lately, about people who grew up wanting to change the world and end up discouraged. Jonathan Trotter wrote about this a year and a half ago. Sarita Hartz wrote about it just last week. Abby Alleman wrote about it in February. I guess its my turn.

To people who made youthful commitments they didn’t follow through on, to people who moved back ‘home’ earlier than planned, to people who don’t see what they dreamed of seeing, I want to say: You’re not a failure. And, you didn’t even fail.

You were on a date and you’d been trained to think this was a marriage. You got on a train and mistakenly believed you could never, ever get off. You’re lost in a new city and you think U-turns are not an option here. You fell in love and like most first loves, you fell out of it again. Or, it was in truth just a crush. Thankfully no one expects us or pressures us to marry our sixth grade ‘boyfriends’ and none of us feel guilty for abandoning them on the playground. But if, in our youthful naiveté and with the emotional high of a summer project, we make grand pronouncements of a lifetime commitment to service in the name of faith and turn our backs on that – we call it failure.

No one should be berated, by themselves or anyone else, for getting lost and making a U-turn. Even with Siri and GPS, we are not infallible. And when it comes to lifelong decisions, even with the Bible and the Holy Spirit, we’re allowed to change direction as we grow and evolve.

Click here to read the rest of You Are Not a Failure

In Which I Am Played By Mireille Enos. Or, the Modern Love Podcast.

So, this crazy thing happened.

My Modern Love essay was published on the Modern Love Podcast.

Sometimes Tom and I talk about who would play us in the movie of our lives. I usually say I don’t want a movie of my life and I don’t want anyone to play me because it just doesn’t seem interesting enough. He usually says he wants to play himself. That can give you quite a view into our marriage and personalities. But…Mireille Enos (Big Love, The Catch, The Killing) plays me in this podcast!

It took me hours to summon the courage to listen, and some encouragements from people who said they cried.

Lucy and I listened to it together this morning and she was enraptured by the story, her story.

It feels a little surreal. But, yeah, Mireille Enos (of the TV show The Catch) chose my Modern Love essay, A Child of Two Worlds, to read and this week it went live.

I wrote the piece almost 6 years ago, the birth it describes took place almost 12 years ago. So much has changed. The hospital mentioned doesn’t exist anymore, there are more options for women to give birth in other locations, but some of the same issues persist. It all seems so long ago.

Mireille did an incredible job with the reading, evoking emotion and depth. Her voice is gentle and rich and descriptive. It is strange to hear your work read by someone else, but I enjoyed it and the quality doesn’t get any better than the NYT and this lovely actress.

I’ll tell you more about producing this and about how I nearly vomited after the recording in another post.

For now, click here to listen to the Modern Love Podcast and A Child of Two Worlds.




Self Promotion for Introverts (and others)

I wrote this for the writers at EthnoTraveler, sharing how I spread my work around the internet.


Promoting my essays on social media or through my blog used to make me cringe. I felt selfish and boastful and I didn’t want to waste people’s time or interrupt their already harried days and brains.

But all that is ridiculous. What’s a writer without a reader? Sometimes journalists say they don’t care how a piece does, how many people read it, or what the response is to it. I don’t believe them. We write and, for all kinds of reasons, we want people to read our work.

We have to promote our work. There is an overwhelming amount of noise and chaos bombarding everyone. In order for anyone to find the essay you agonized over and care about, you have to break through that chaos and draw people to your work.


Don’t be demanding or manipulative and don’t buy readers. The numbers look great on the page, but these are not engaged followers, they don’t retweet, they don’t share, they aren’t forming community around the work. Don’t send out messages like, “I am the best writer, I am working on stories you must read, follow me now” to editors, magazine writers, or agents. They won’t follow you back and sometimes will even block you. Don’t shove yourself or your work down people’s throats. Promote, and let the work stand on its own.


Facebook – I have my personal page and an author page and I share my essays on both. On the day an essay is published I share it in the early morning on my author page and in the mid-afternoon on my personal page. An author page is a great way for people who are interested in your niche to connect with you. Share other stories and photos that you love and engage with readers, respond to comments, be generous with your likes and shares.

Twitter – I typically send out 3-5 tweets for an essay because tweets get easily lost down in the feeds. Sometimes I schedule more tweets to go out several days later, I don’t like the idea that a story might be read or shared only on the day it goes live. Same as on Facebook, be generous with your retweets of others’ work, too. Twitter can be a good way to find out what else is going on in the areas you are work in.

For posting on Twitter and Facebook, I use Hootsuite. This allows me to schedule posts in advance and all at once, especially useful for when I’m traveling. It means that I’m not always immediately available to respond to comments or tweets but I’m fine with that. I don’t want to be ‘on’ all the time.

PinterestImages do well on Pinterest, as do lists. Often writers will have a board on their Pinterest page titled some version of, “Published Works,” and pinners can specifically follow that board. Pinterest is also a good place to cultivate interest in your topics by pinning articles and resources from other writers. Become a go-to person on a handful of topics. For example, my boards include things I write about often like Third Culture Kids, The Horn of Africa, Travel Writing, Running, Travel with Kids, Spirituality…

Instagram – Images are a powerful way to get people interested and wanting to hear more and Instagram is one of the fastest growing online platforms in numbers and influence. Instagram can be a fun way to provide some ‘extra’ material or an ‘inside look’ at how you researched for a piece. Build interest in an upcoming article by posting photos and quotes in the days leading up to the pub date.

Tiny Letter – Email is out, 140-character tweets are in, right? Nope. In the last month I’ve read three articles in major publications declaring the death of Twitter. Of course, Twitter isn’t dying, there are millions of users, billions of tweets. But, Twitter has also devolved into a troll-loving, hate-mongering, cruel space at times. And lots of people are turning to newsletters. These can be used in whatever way you like – once a month, once a week, they can include lists or a story or links to published articles. I send a Tiny Letter newsletter once a month and it includes links to stories about news from the Horn of Africa, a little bit of my behind the scenes life as a writer and expat, and links to articles published in that month.

And finally, blogging. My blog is where I keep a record of all my published pieces so they can easily be found in one place. The day after a piece is published, I write about it, sometimes simply posting an excerpt, a photo, and a link, and sometimes I write the backstory, why I think this is an important story, or some funny or interesting things that happened in the writing and researching of the piece. People love this inside look at your process and journey in writing.

Other than publishing excellent content, a great way to build a following is to be a following. It is impossible to keep up with every writer or friend who writes, but choose a few that you enjoy and connect with them, build a community through your writing. Participate in linkups, comment on other stories. Be involved, be generous, don’t be afraid to promote your stuff, build a community around your hot button topics, engage with readers, and then get offline again and go out to research the next story.

What do you do to promote your work? Or, what bugs you about how authors promote their stuff?