Africa's Famine: No Shortage of Blame

The Vultures Are Gathering

The life of Agenyo Tebeje, an Ethiopian mother, ended at five in the morning on Jan. 22. As the last strength ebbed from her body, the first light of day came through the oval opening of her tukul [a traditional Ethiopian building —WPR]. Next to her lay her fever-ridden son, dying of malaria. Agenyo Tebeje died of starvation at the age of 35, in her village, Kwalessa, in the Amhara highlands, a dry and barren region. It has not rained here in months.

For weeks now, grim flocks of vultures have been announcing death in Abyssinia [Ethiopia]. The buzzards first fed on the tens of thousands of cattle dying on the land. Now they are circling hungrily over Kwalessa, and the remaining inhabitants must hurry when they bury their dead. Two have perished today.

“The first died back in December,” says Tadju Bimer, 34, the leader of this sad village, with infants and the old going first. Now middle-aged people are dying. With a gesture of despair, the young man points to the row of fresh graves. More than 30 people have already died of malnutrition in this village, which has no more than 500 inhabitants.

The next harvest will not come in before August. “Death will arrive early this year,” says this bookkeeper of mortality, as he watches the sweating gravediggers plunge their spades into the hard, reddish-brown earth. “Lord, stand by   us,” murmurs an Ethiopian Orthodox priest,  protected from the hellish sun by a bright parasol.

These deaths in Kwalessa are probably only the opening notes of a far greater catastrophe. According to estimates by the United Nations World Food Program, 14.3 million people in Ethiopia are threatened with starvation—every fifth person in the country, and thus twice as many as in years with typical harvests. The last harvest produced a fourth less than that of the year before. And in some regions of Amhara, things look ever grimmer. “We got 50 percent less precipitation,” says Bernhard Meier zu Biesen of German World Hunger Aid, “and 50 percent less precipitation means 80 percent less harvested.”

Drought and hunger are familiar guests in this country, where back in the 19th century Richard Burton, traveling in Abyssinia, wrote of the “lethal heat by day and deadly cold at night.” The great famine that afflicted the country from 1888 to 1892 cost it roughly one-third of its population. A French medical researcher sent to observe the disaster wrote: “The people are dying in such numbers that the living no longer bury the dead.”

This nation, about the size of France and Spain combined, has been the victim of droughts in recent times, too. The drought of 1973 cost Emperor Haile Selassie his throne. And about a million people died of starvation in 1984-85, partly because the Marxist clique around then-dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was even exporting food in order to pay for arms.

The fact that undernourishment dramatically increases the likelihood of outbreaks of disease is well established. “Famine,” observed British scientist Richard Pankhurst, “has often been accompanied in Ethiopian history by epidemics and a dramatic rise in death rates due to disease.”

“We all know what will happen,” complains Enguahone Teffera, a nurse, “but still they send only corn, and no medicine.” He has noted three times the usual rate of malaria infections in his small clinic. And he sees only those who have somehow made it over the mountains—those who have managed to walk the rough paths themselves, or were lucky enough to be carried by stronger people. As for those who die in the wastelands of Abyssinia, he has no idea. “Most of them are just put into the ground. Their deaths are not included in U.N. statistics,” he says.

Given the tragedy of Ethiopia, there is increasing criticism of the aid community. Because they send food aid every year, even in those with normal harvests, the Ethiopians are becoming dependent upon aid, says, for example, the head of the agricultural education office in South Gonder, Yibabe Adane.

Klaus Feldner, 59, has worked here for the German Agency for Technical Cooperation since 1996. He is not alone in his conviction that the supposedly altruistic international aid really serves the interests of the industrialized world. “The World Food Program buys subsidized food in the West in order to distribute it in Africa and thereby ruins the market for local farmers, who can no longer sell their crops,” he says. This leads to lethargy and an underdeveloped infrastructure for independence.

For those dying in Kwalessa, any aid has come too late. As the corpse of single mother Agenyo Tebeje is lowered into the Ethiopian soil under the searing midday sun, sacks of grain are being unloaded only a couple of hundred meters away. The bags are stamped with the emblems of the European Union and the World Food Program.

The sacks are stacked inside a large warehouse, which is already half full. The government in distant Addis Ababa wants to wait until there is full-blown famine before distributing food, says Bimer, the village chief, with a look that betrays his hopelessness.

During the last weeks of her life, Agenyo Tebeje had to listen to the noise of the trucks delivering food aid several times a day. She must have stood once or twice at the fence to watch the gifts arrive from the First World. They did not help her one bit.