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U2 frontman Bono, left, Somali-Canadian hip-hop artist K'naan, centre, and Globe and Mail's Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse talk about the famine in Somalia in Toronto on Sept. 10, 2011.

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

K'naan and Bono used what the Irish U2 superstar calls the "currency of celebrity" to draw a crowd of Toronto's business elite on Saturday night and bring attention to the complex truths and unprecedented opportunities that exist in Somalia today.

The country on the Horn of Africa has not had a stable government for 20 years. But the current famine, the worst in 60 years as nearly 750,000 Somalis are at risk of dying from starvation in the coming months, has made warring factions step back, creating a moment for international aid operations that shouldn't be missed, the singers explained.

"Famine has started a new conversation in Somalia," said K'naan, a Somali-Canadian whose family came to Toronto when he was 13.

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In the past, warlords and Islamic extremists have regularly looted or prevented relief shipments from reaching the famine stricken. But with 30,000 children dead in the last 3 months, disparate militia groups have "put a faith-based idea in motion, to say, 'We are going to take a pause from our usual destruction; we're going to let people be fed; we're going to let people live and for this time we will see if the world is a friend of Somalia or if weapons are the friend of Somalia,' " K'naan explained.

" ...There is a sense in the country that there's a chance for a new way of doing things ... but I don't believe it can be done without the world's acknowledgment, without the world's heart and assistance."

As Bono, whose experience in African relief stretches back to the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, put it: "Famine slaps the warring parties around the head."

The two celebrities were talking about the Somali famine with John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail at a roundtable discussion.

Bono is well-known for his humanitarian efforts in Africa; K'naan, who also has a history as an activist, had just returned from a recent trip to his homeland.

Over 4 million in Somalia are now living in famine zones. Ten of thousands - at least half of them children - have already died this year.

Bono, co-founder of ONE, the grassroots advocacy organization against extreme poverty and preventable disease, often gave up the floor to K'naan.

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With a wistful expression, the 32-year-old rapper spoke of the destruction he witnessed. But there's hope, a paradox that's not uncommon for a place "always in contrast with itself," he explained.

Westerners have a hard time understanding Somalia, because of the prevailing images that emerge - of dying children, gun-toting militia members, pirates highjacking private yachts on the high seas.

K'naan said he grew up "under the governance of poetry" in a country "overwhelmed by beauty." At one point, he explained that his people make a "blanket and pillow of war." He recounted the story of how he once fell asleep on a mattress in a tin hut with the sound of bullets hitting the sand outside the thin walls. Like many, he had become accustomed to violence.

It was clearly important to K'naan to explain the complexity of his country's national psyche. "Somalia for a long time has not seen a friend in the world," he said, adding that they are "people without a context."

A more complete portrait of Somalis - warts, beauty and all - is what's needed for Westerners to take action. "The more we think of them as sentient souls, the more we have to take on board their actual existence," Bono said, adding that if people did think of Somali children as their equals (or "being like us") they would not ignore their plight.

The Irish superstar acknowledged that the problems of fighting extreme poverty are more complex than many organizations suggest. "They're selling this magic trick that will end extreme poverty and I think people aren't buying it," he said, citing advertisements that ask people to give one minute of their attention to the cause. Even his own organization made it sound simplistic: "The idea that the fight to end extreme poverty was near impossible and if we all...marched in step with good strategy, we could accomplish the end of poverty. In 2005 even that seemed true," he said. "Though we knew it was going to be complicated, I think we failed to explain to people how complex and how messy the fight against extreme poverty is."

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With the message of complexity also came a reason for hope. Bono rattled off statistics about progress in Africa: Seventeen per cent of non-oil economies have had a growth rate of just under 6 per cent in the last ten years and of the 12 fastest growing economies in the world, six are African. "There's a lot for Somalia to play for and because they're brilliant business people they will be part of this new Africa...There is a lot of joy in the future," he said, adding that Canada has been "punching way above its weight" with contributions of $72.35-million.

The white-tent setting for the discussion was designed by Nikki Beach, which organizes party venues all over the word, including at the Cannes Film Festiv. The venue was the rooftop of the TIFF Lightbox building in downtown Toronto.

The city's business, philanthropic and academic elite were in attendance, dressed in an array of fashions, from Saturday-afternoon casual to Saturday-night glamour. Among the guests were: Frank McKenna, deputy chair, TD Bank Group and former premier of New Brunswick, Murray Frum, Frum Development Group, and his wife, Nancy Lockhart; Belinda Stronach, executive chairman of Magna International and former Liberal MP; Gerry Sheff, principal of money managers, Gluskin Sheff, with his wife, Shanitha Kachan; Stephen Lewis of the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Canada's UN Ambassador; Richard Florida, urban theorist at University of Toronto with wife, Rana; Gord Nixon, president and CEO of Royal Bank of Canada, and wife, Janet.

"Many of us care about the future of Africa," said Ms. Stronach, whose philanthropic efforts include support for UNICEF and the "Spread the Net" campaign against malaria. She has known K'naan for over ten years, having met him through a mutual acquaintance when he started his career as a rapper. "He is very sincere. He has seen a lot of tragedy," she said. "And I know this issue weighs heavily on his mind."

"K'naan was absolutely unbelievable. Such a powerful yet gentle manner," commented Mr. Nixon "And he didn't try to oversell the issue."

"For Bono to say that we can't sell the usual narrative, that you have to give context, was very new," explained Smadar Peretz, internship director at the Munk School of Global Affairs at University of Toronto. "That context is much more demanding. The Ask [for money]is no longer 'Give this and we will solve the problem.' It's no longer, 'We know how to end extreme poverty and famine.' It's a more complex Ask, and it actually acknowledges the donor's level of intelligence. He is asking for a more complex level of engagement."

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