The people of Yemen are experiencing one of the world’s gravest humanitarian crises. The conflict between a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries and the Government of Yemen against the Ansar-Allah movement (also known as the Houthis), escalated in March 2015. Two years on, Jonathon Puddifoot reflects on a recent visit to the country he knows so well.
Its 30 years since I first fell in love with Yemen the country and Yemen the people. Now, 10 years since I was last here, bumping along the sandy path to Beni Hassan and the other places that Oxfam is supporting in the north eastern governorate of Hajjah, all sorts of memories of things come flooding back; Living on an apple tree nursery, constructing biogas units on cliff edge houses, a 1,000 ft drop right below the kitchen window, digging up coffee bush roots to understand if traditional fertiliser applications are working, the shock and delight that always greeted my wife driving our car.
All of those memories were brought into colour by people and friends intensely proud of their history and culture. Families who could trace their histories back even before the Prophet, still naming their daughters Bilquis, after the queen of Sheba.
The car comes to a halt and we all clamber out. Walking through the dust in a spontaneous settlement of displaced families, we are invited into a small hut of sticks and grass. The mother of a baby boy, who looks to be about 18 months old, explains that her husband has been killed, and she had to run away from the fighting with her baby. She is living here now, with her father in law and his family. She says the baby reminds her father in law of his son…. her husband, and that’s why he looks after them. She is anxious, living in a precarious situation, with the responsibility to bring up her children in the best way possible. The huts in this settlement are spread out, big gaps between them, and she tells me that no, she doesn’t know her neighbours and no, they don’t help each other, it’s everyone for themselves here…
Sometimes the locals give her fodder for the goat, sometimes she has to go and look for herself.
“The goat? You mean you have an actual, real life, Oxfam goat?”
“Yes, Alhamdulillah (praise be to Allah), I have a goat from Oxfam, and it’s pregnant. I’m going to keep its babies, not sell them and I’m going to build up a heard of about 10 or so. It will take about 2 years we figure out together, as long as nothing goes wrong.”
We come out of the hut and meet both the father in law, and the goat. It looks fine with a good coat and is quite feisty.
But leaving this family, I feel very sad, there is a lot that can go wrong, before the 10 goat herd gets established. The family could be pushed off this site, they camp here illegally after all, the rain can fail, someone could become sick, even a toothache could destroy these fragile beginnings.
As we drive away I feel inadequate, useless. I know it’s wrong and against all my experience, but I ask the Oxfam team if I can give the family some money. No, comes the clear response, we need to help these people become self sufficient, they have to be, you giving money to one person doesn’t change the fundamental situation, we need to make a community here, we need to get them organised and working with each other, that’s how development can be achieved.
This visit is over, but I’m pretty sure I will live here again when the war is over, there is so much to do, and so many people here who are ready to do it.