The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

Face to Face with Famine

Author - Bob Maddams


There's a line in Shakespeare, which is either from Macbeth or King Lear, but it hardly matters, and it talks about “The way to dusty death”. Such a place exists. It is the road we took into Yetabon, a small village in the south-central highlands of Ethiopia. The road was hardly what most people would call a road at all. It was a strip of bare rock and rubble that has been scraped across the surface of the land and is only passable by heavy trucks and four-wheel-drives. On either side of it fields stretched to the horizon. Well, that's what my Ethiopian driver, Negussie, called them. To me the scene looked like one vast dustbowl. As we sped by we saw the occasional poor farmer whipping a pair of emaciated oxen in a vain attempt to plough a furrow. The ploughs threw up plumes of dust that drifted in the still air for twenty yards or more behind them. The effort looked futile and I suppose was inspired more by hope than anything else. The rains have failed here for the third year running. And when you have literally nothing, perhaps hope is all that's left.

The feeding station in Yetabon was a makeshift affair and had been set-up under the shade of a large acacia tree on the edge of the village. All around it, almost as far as the eye could see, stretched the same dusty landscape that we had encountered driving in. When I walked across these “fields” my shoes sank two inches into the dust with every step. It was like walking in fine sand except it was dirty grey in colour and rose up in small clouds that clogged your mouth and throat. It was impossible to believe that anything would grow here ever again. Underneath the acacia's trees sprawling branches 800 villagers huddled on the ground. They were largely women and children, all of them waiting patiently for the food supplies that they had been told were on their way. Mothers breastfed scrawny babies, and older brothers and sisters tried to entertain their younger siblings and keep them from being bored. The food they were waiting for was coming from two NGOs: Project Mercy, an NGO that works in the region, and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. The Church had reacted swiftly to the crisis and had shipped in all the way from Utah large quantities of a specially blended food product called Atmit. The malnourished young and elderly cannot digest whole grains. To recover, their stressed and tender digestive systems require frequent feedings of easily digestible food in small amounts. Atmit is a bland but nutritious mixture of oat flower, powdered milk, sugar, salt and supplementary vitamins and minerals that when mixed with water makes an easily digestible porridge. It can also be made into bread, but most of the mothers would opt to make the porridge instead for the simple reason that it would make the Atmit go further. The two NGOs were working together, in conjunction with the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC), the Government agency that oversees all famine relief food distribution in Ethiopia. The four-wheel-drives bearing the food, doctors and helpers drew up, and a well-rehearsed operation swung into action. Tables were set up, and wooden stakes were hammered into the ground and ropes were strung between them to form channels for controlling the flow of people. Across two poles they lashed a crossbeam from which they suspended a weighing scale. While this was going on one of the visiting women from the Church walked amongst the Ethiopian mothers. She had her young child with her; a blonde, chubby kid who looked in the rudest of health. At one point she bent down next to an Ethiopian woman with a boy about the same age but who was severely malnourished. For five minutes they “talked” to each other despite the fact they shared not one word of a common language. The universal language of motherhood took over, as each seemed to recognise in the other the hopes and worries all mothers have for their children, whether they come from the third world or the first. The Ethiopian child was the more curious of the two and repeatedly reached out to touch the blonde one who always shied away. But little-by-little he gained in confidence and they were soon playing pat-a-cake with their hands, while both mothers looked on smiling. They were two young children, alike in so many ways, but whose prospects could not have been more different.

Government guidelines determine how much food supplement everyone receives. This system is strictly adhered to and is determined by the size and weight of the children. So, as each woman and her children were called forward, the children were weighed and measured. Each child was slipped into a canvas bag that had two holes cut in the corners through which they slipped their legs, and which made it look like a poor man's version of a baby's romper suit. At the other end it had two long straps, and these were looped over the hook of the weighing scale. In this way each child was dangled over the dirt and its weight was measured. There was also a doctor on hand who gave each child a perfunctory health-check to see if there were any other medical problems. Next the child was measured. If you've ever taken young kids to a theme park you'll no doubt have seen the wooded boards they have to stand by, to see if they're tall enough to go on the ride. They are often designed in the guise of a character like a cheeky-chappie-chipmunk, and they generally have a speech bubble coming out of their mouths saying something like, “You have to be this tall to take my ride.” Well, the feeding station had something similar except that it was basically a plain wooden draw with measurement lines scored across it. They laid it on the ground and each child was gently stretched out in it so that his or her height could be read off. Each time a child was measured it looked like it was being laid out in an open top coffin. The sight was chilling. The children always fought and screamed, probably for no other reason than that they were hungry, or just plain scared. But I couldn't help think that in some bizarre way perhaps they were recognising a premonition of their own immediate futures. If their mothers recognised the same imagery they didn't let it show. Judging by the looks on their faces I suspect they were completely and utterly consumed by a sense of desperate hope. Perhaps a mother's love could countenance nothing else. Once each family's needs were assessed, the monitor from the DPPC gave each mother a ticket and ushered her to where she would be given her allocated food supply. My driver told me that this area used to be in his words “rich”. Of course, these people had never been rich in our sense of the word. What he meant was that before the drought came they had earned self-sufficient livings from the land, of which they had been fiercely proud. But not being able to feed your children strips you of all human dignity. Ethiopians are a deeply devout people, and God weighs heavy on the Ethiopian mind. Children are his greatest blessing and every mother's deepest joy, and for an Ethiopian mother to watch her child die slowly, in front of her eyes, and be powerless to prevent it, is a situation the horror of which few can begin to imagine. The crushing effect this was having on the mothers was almost as hard to witness as the effects the famine was having on some of the worst affected children. But food brings life, and where there's life there's hope. This was plain to see on the faces of the women as they led their families away clutching a supermarket size plastic bag half-filled with food supplement. The day ended on a sad note though. The Director of operations came over to me and told me that the crowd was getting "rowdy" and despite repeated warnings, he had told them that if they did not calm down the remaining food would be taken away. He explained that this was a safety measure. They didn't, and it was. So it was with a sense of something I cannot put into words that I watched volunteer aid workers remove food from in front of starving families. But, the Director told me, they would be back again with more in a couple of day's time. As we drove away we passed small groups of mothers and their children, many of them barefoot, making their way back to the round, straw and mud huts of their village. Some carried bags of food supplement back with them, and some didn't. Once again, a case of the “haves” and “have nots”, only this time not between the first and the third worlds, but between neighbours who had met earlier in the day under the shade of an acacia tree in a famine struck region of Ethiopia. How sad is that?

It was a four-hour drive back to Addis Ababa. Later that night, and in a bizarre postscript to the day, I was sitting in a hotel bar, sipping a cold beer, when CNN came on the television. They were covering the conflict in Iraq and the anchorman announced that the American government had just earmarked $75 billion for the war. To tell you the truth, I don't have the facts and figures at my fingertips that explain how much it will cost to save the lives of the hundred of thousands, if not millions, who will surely die if famine relief is not stepped-up quickly in Ethiopia, but it will be the tiniest fraction of that amount. Has the world gone completely mad?

On a recent visit to the Gurage region of south-central Ethiopia, documentary filmmaker Bob Maddams, joined a famine relief programme distributing food to a small village. Bob has worked as a trainer and film maker with Gem TV, a community video project in Ethiopia where young Ethiopians make documentaries and dramas about a wide range of educational, social and development issues. He is a freelance journalist and has writtten and directed numerous videos for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Immigration Service. Prior to this he worked as a TV commercials director and copywriter in the advertising industry.

First Published in News File Summer 2003

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