When a food crisis is so bad that direct involvement is needed
Parenthood makes a humanitarian crisis in Africa feel even more real, writes charity worker Ronan Scully
As a past leader on Operation Transformation and a former football All-Ireland winning medallist with Offaly, I have become used to facing challenges.
And the 'iron will' that saw me shed more than 3st on the popular RTE series six years ago has stood me well many times since as I have climbed, hiked, cycled, swam and run marathons in support of the farm development charity for which I work, Gorta-Self Help Africa.
Being originally from the little town of Clara, Co Offaly, and now long-time resident of Galway city, I was confronted recently with an entirely new challenge, the most difficult of all, on a trip to drought- ravaged Ethiopia, currently in the midst of the worst food crisis seen for a generation.
And I know why it struck home and affected my heart and soul. As a father of two stunning adopted Ethiopian daughters - slightly shy and caring Mia (10) and confident and outgoing Sophie (7) - the trip to my children's homeland brought me face to face with a situation I hoped I might never see again.
Although I have worked in the overseas charity sector for 25 years this month, the plight that is affecting many millions in Ethiopia today and, indeed, many millions in East Africa has taken on a new and deeply personal significance for me. I have worked for many years around Africa and in some of the world's other trouble spots and, because of the nature of the work, we were usually there in times of crisis. That was the case, too, when I started my career, working with St Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta.
But things change radically when you become a parent. And things changed for me when I went back to Ethiopia this time and saw little girls, just like my own, with nothing - absolutely nothing in the world - and feeling the pangs of the hunger and thirst.
Because swathes of one of Africa's biggest countries have endured two successive years of drought, the meagre savings and other safety blankets families hang onto, such as goats and cattle, are long gone. Thousands were queuing at feeding stations to get what help was being given out by their own government or international organisations like my own, Gorta-Self Help Africa. But the situation is still desperate.
In Ethiopia, they don't speak about 'famine'. It is a word that conjures images and stories of decades ago, when Bob Geldof assumed the mantle of humanitarian activist to fund relief efforts in the midst of a crisis of biblical proportions in the Horn of Africa. Indeed, it was out of that tragedy that Gorta-Self Help Africa was born, and it was with funding from Geldof's Band Aid Trust and others that our organisation began its first agricultural development projects.
This spring, Gorta-Self Help Africa took the unprecedented step of involving itself directly in a humanitarian emergency, in response to the unfolding food crisis in East Africa. For me, it was a logical and natural move for the farm development organisation. We took the decision to distribute seed and other support to farming communities affected by the crisis, and have since also handed out food. Although the focus of our work remains on giving people a hand up so they can provide for their families, in this instance we knew we had to do something more immediate - in effect, a hand-out. We are facing the worst food emergency we have seen worldwide since the end of World War II - we had to help people feed themselves today.
Since returning from Ethiopia, I have found myself looking long at my own two beautiful, caring girls, two healthy, happy youngsters with their lives stretching long before them in the wonderful West of Ireland. I have come to the realisation that, in other circumstances, things could have been so different for them. I now hug them more lovingly and tighter each day.
Seeing mothers in Ethiopia cradling sick and emaciated infants, watching line after line of people queuing outside feeding stations as they wait for a meagre hand-out, and seeing the look of despair and desperation on their faces cuts me to the bone and breaks my heart. In another era, it could have been my daughters.
I love Ethiopia and I love the work we try to do to save lives there and in nine other countries. I have helped raise millions of euros from our partners Irish Aid and from the caring public in Ireland for the work of Gorta-Self Help Africa, including nearly €20,000 recently collected on a walk across Ireland to mark both my 25th year in charity and my 50th birthday.
I have seen first-hand the success of that work, and I pray the current emergency is only a bump on the road in the otherwise incredible story of agricultural growth and development the country has experienced in recent years.
Until recently, my visits to this part of the world had been to bring Irish volunteers to Ethiopia to compete in the annual Great Ethiopian Run. These were trips where we also brought supporters to the farms, cooperatives and agricultural businesses their support had made possible. These projects and successes still exist and, in my heart, I know the farm work we do will ultimately provide an answer to this crisis, and to the wider plight of hundreds of millions who don't have enough to eat.
We need to take it step by step. I'm not disheartened. I'm more determined and passionate than ever. And I know that with the help and support of Irish Aid and the generosity of the Irish public we can make a huge difference to the lives of some of the poorest people and children on our planet who are feeling very deeply the dire pangs of hunger and thirst at this very moment.
To find out more about Gorta-Self Help Africa's work, visit www.selfhelpafrica.org