Somali-Born K'naan Sees Famine's Effects Firsthand

A deadly combination of drought and conflict has caused a famine in Somalia — which is threatening the lives of more than half the country's population. Somali-Canadian rapper K'naan made a recent visit to his troubled homeland, and he talks to Renee Montagne about what he saw.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One man hoping to raise awareness about the unfolding tragedy in Somali is Somali-Canadian rap star K'naan. He has just traveled back to his homeland for the first time since he left to witness the impact of the famine - a famine that's killed nearly 30,000 children in the last three months alone. The exact number of those starving is hard to now. And after visiting the capital Mogadishu and Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, K'naan believes that shouldn't be the focus.

Mr. K'NAAN (Rapper): I don't think that we should speak about those kinds of numbers, because what it does is it turns off the part of the mind that probably transmits that information to the heart. I think we need to talk about this in ones and twos. It gets normalized in a way. And I feel that we're not doing the people that are suffering any justice.

MONTAGNE: As an artist and as a person who has a lot of people who will hear you, what was the moment that brought it home for you?

Mr. K'NAAN: We were in a hospital in Banadir in Mogadishu. The Banadir hospital is the hospital that I, myself, was born in. Another celebrated Somali, who is a friend of mine, Iman the supermodel, was also born in Banadir. And there was a moment. It wasn't the scale of famine of loss and of the dire need. But it was a father who looked dignified holding his daughter, looking up at him with her eyes sort of fading away into death. And him looking down, with all of us around, and the powerlessness of a father who is not able to deliver on the promise to a daughter.

We tell the children: We will protect you. And he is looking at his daughter, unable to deliver on this promise. That was the most terrifying thing I've ever had to see.

MONTAGNE: You spent your childhood in Mogadishu, moved to Canada in the early '90s when civil war broke out, and a different earlier famine set in. This is the first time you've been home.

K'NAAN: Yeah. It was a strange experience to have left Somalia as a child and to return as someone who has a voice and that is celebrated artist at a time when I'm needed to return, but also where I would have rather returned to a prosperous, beautiful country. But, you know, 20 years later, I'm going home to the worst problem I've ever seen.

MONTAGNE: One of the biggest obstacles to getting aid into Somalia has been the heavy hand of the Islamist al-Shabab rebels. They have prevented aid from getting in.

Can you see the effect? Is it a little bit better?

K'NAAN: The country and Mogadishu right now, it's in a unique position where the goodwill of the world is very much being welcomed by the Mogadishu residents. You know, organizations can go in, and people are saying this is safe. There's a very small window of opportunity, and we can use it wisely, or lose a people to militants and war and starvation.

MONTAGNE: Your grandfather was a renowned poet. And your aunt, your late aunt was one of the best-known singers in Somalia. Do you feel like that's one gift you have or one hand you can extend, which is to use your voice and to use your poetry?

K'NAAN: I'm just a human being kind of dealing with this circumstance. I mean, I'm trying to use the tools that I have to do what I can, spend my own money to raise the profile media-wise, do anything humanly possible so that I can live with myself. I don't want to have watched a tragedy unfolding and then live with the regret that follows, that we've done nothing.

The one thing that I can do - and it might be the thing that I'm probably most suited for - to, you know, articulate a sentiment. I guess that's what poets to. But I - sometimes there isn't enough poetry that can hold the scope of the tragedy. And that's what I'm dealing with. You know, it's a tragedy that is bigger and more profound that even poetry is. That's saying a lot. It's a tough place for anybody to be in.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.

K'NAAN: It was a pleasure. Thank you for doing it.

(Soundbite of song, "Waving Flag")

K'NAAN: (Singing) They'll call me freedom, just like a waving flag. And then it goes back...

MONTAGNE: That's the rapper K'naan Warsame, himself a child of Somalia. We reached him in Nairobi.

(Soundbite of song, "Waving Flag")

K'NAAN: (Singing) Stronger than Rome, but violent prone. Poor people zone, but it's my own...

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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