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Micah Albert: Reporter’s Notebook — The First Taste of Yemen

I arrived in Yemen yesterday ruminating on somewhat contradictory mental snapshots of the country. It’s the place where Noah’s Ark was launched and Osama bin Laden’s father was born. It is a country where Westerners are kidnapped by tribesmen (but rarely harmed), where suicide bombers struck the USS Cole in 2000, where young women lower the blinds and cast off their abayas to dance and chew qat [a mild stimulant derived from a shrub] with their friends.

Inhabited almost since the dawn of humanity, Yemen is, in many ways, the birthplace of all our lives. The sons of Noah knew it as the land of milk and honey, Gilgamesh came here to search for the secret of eternal life, wise men gathered frankincense and myrrh from its mountains and, most famously, a woman known simply as the Queen of Sheba said Yemen was her home.

I have come to Yemen to report on many things, but the overarching, pressing story is food security. Though the global food crisis dropped from the front pages of newspapers a year ago, the reality of food shortages and alarming malnutrition rates has not subsided—in fact, it has worsened.

I hope to shed light back on this urgent issue and potentially return some media attention to this topic while traveling as a photojournalist with the World Food Programme (WFP) as they begin a $30 million emergency food operation to assist 600,000 people here.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Middle East and trouble is brewing for this Gulf nation. The oil sector provides 90 percent of export earnings but what little oil they have is running out. Meanwhile, Yemen seems headed for a multifaceted crisis; it is grappling with high levels of poverty, rising unemployment, catastrophic nationwide water shortages, and the fertility rate is booming. As to the link between poverty and food security, the following statistic highlights the depth of the problem:in Yemen, the average family spends 65 percent of their yearly income on food. In the United States, it's less than 9.5 percent.

I left Sana’a this morning at 5 a.m. and caught a flight to the port city of Aden, just across the Gulf of Aden from Somalia. Just two hours later, I was stepping over open sewage lines, wandering through an extremely poor and marginalized shantytown, now home to a large number of Somali refugees who have arrived here fleeing the endemic poverty and violence of their shattered nation.

The chaos of Somalia flows into Yemen, where the number of registered Somali refugees exceeds 100,000. The WFP is helping the most vulnerable groups—refugees and the poor—get better access to food as prices of staples continue to skyrocket.

Today, I visited a school feeding program for the 50,000-plus community, and I spent a lot of the day in maternity clinics. In one clinic, over 40 pregnant women waited to be seen by over-worked staff, with no air conditioning. This must have been the twenty-fifth maternity clinic I’ve visited (in six countries) over the last year. Time and again, I’ve seen—in the most visceral way—the need for clinicians in the maternity ward, especially in these already beat-down, marginalized communities.

But that’s enough for one day. And yet, everywhere around me, I am reminded of the gaps between rich and poor, between the West and the developing world. As the sun sets, I am writing from my hotel in Aden, situated right on the ocean—where I was lucky enough to take a swim this afternoon and cool off from the 100 degree heat. I’ll turn the air conditioner on tonight.

Tomorrow, I‘ll be driving a few hours away to the Somali refugee camps, where four boatloads of people arrive each day.

To follow Micah Albert's trip to Yemen more closely, click here.

Micah Albert is an internationally recognized and award-winning photojournalist, specializing in Central and East Africa, notably the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sudan. He's currently working on a portfolio for an upcoming issue of World Policy Journal.

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