Feasting amid Famine in Ethiopia: A Guilt Trip (December 2002)

This weekend I came back from Ethiopia, where I was organizing yet another regional meeting of the campaign, this time for Africa. The local host put all the participants in the Hilton hotel, which is not normal for us but we shared rooms to split the costs. The rooms had either two views: pool or slum. I got the slum view, which proved much more interesting.

The hotel bookshop stocks numerous copies of a 1989 book by Graham Hancock called “Lords of Poverty.” This scathing critique of the aid and development world was on my reading list during university and it includes a memorable section on the hotel: “At the height of the famine that took more than a million Ethiopian lives in 1984-5, it was perfectly possible during the course of a single morning to travel by light aircraft from the luxury of the Addis Ababa Hilton to the surreal horror of the relief camp at Korem where tens of thousands of gaunt and ragged people lay strewn … One could then take pictures, take notes, or otherwise appraise the and evaluate the situation, and then fly back to Addis Ababa again in time to catch an hour of sunbathing at the side of one of the finest swimming pools in the world.”

Famine is coming to Ethiopia again, due to a drought, deforestation, overgrazing, the land ownership system, coffee prices, politics, and a host of other factors. This was in my mind as I swam in the thermally heated pool, dipped in the Jacuzzi, sweated in the sauna, ran the treadmill in the gym, and sampled their sumptuous breakfast buffet. Talk about feasting amid famine. On the streets, kids and adults ran up to the car at every intersection seeking money for food. I was told that the streetkids are now mainly Aids orphans, as Ethiopia is crippled by one of the highest HIV/Aids rates in Africa.

We didn’t really see signs of the approaching famine until we took a fieldtrip up to the northern Tigray region, bordering Eritrea. Our plane flew over parched and barren land, with few spots of green. Fifty years ago, some forty percent of the country was covered by forest; today it is just 2.5 percent. After landing in Mekele, the regional capital, we drove four hours north on a bone-rattling bus toward the border, passing United Nations feeding centers, which emaciated farmers were traveling hours, sometimes days, to reach.

In the village of Addis Tesfa we were greeted by 1,000 schoolchildren who were waiting for us under the baking sun. The kids, including landmine survivors, performed dance, music, and drama using mine risk education messages taught by our local host, the Rehabilitation and Development Organization (RaDO). They were skinny, wearing a variety of t-shirts with American logos and basketball teams, and acted as if they’d never seen foreigners before, running away at any attempt to talk with them. As we were leaving one boy overcame his shyness and asked me for a pen. I tossed him one from the window of the bus. All of a sudden a dozen kids appeared, all fighting for the pen. I cursed that we had not brought anything for them. Two teachers shooed them away. Then they too asked for pens…

We drove further north, through the town of Zala Anbesa, which was destroyed during the conflict with Eritrea. People were still living in the ruins, using United Nations blue tarpaulin for roofing. The UN Mission in Eritrea and Ethiopia, or the strangely named “UNEEE,” is in charge of keeping the peace along the border, which is being demarcated with border posts. We finally came to village of Marta, in a fertile valley squeezed between some stunning mountains, where we visited a mine clearance operation.

After another backbreaking ride back, we stayed in Mekele and visited the local market the following morning. Many vendors were amused by my efforts to buy a goat, a donkey, and a chicken. Several offered to slaughter the animal if the plane would not allow it on board alive. I wanted to learn what made a good price; some factors included the quality of its coat, its weight, and its sex… The goats we compared ranged in price from 200-500 birr, the local currency, or about US$25-$60…. This is quite a lot for a country with an average annual income of $700 per capita.

Back in Addis Ababa, I extended my stay for a couple more days to help the host wrap up the finances and rest of the meeting. I ate a lot of local food, which all uses “njera” as the base. This unique bread is made from teff seed and, as you eat, it slowly expands in your stomach. You really have to watch how much you take in, as you get fuller and fuller… The stews and vegetables were spicy and tasty. You eat with your right hand, using no utensils, and one interesting tradition requires that you “feed” the person next to you, which turns out quite interesting if you sit next to the right person! I also started drinking coffee again. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee and espresso machines appeared in the oddest places…

I finally got a bit of sightseeing in:
- To the top of Mount Entoto, a 2,200 meter-high mountain overlooking the city, where I got a taste of altitude sickness (Addis is the third highest capital in the world);
- To Trinity Cathedral, where Emperor Haile Selassie is believed to be buried; and
- To the “Mercato,” Africa’s largest market.

If you didn’t already know it, Ethiopia is the only African country that was never colonized (they don’t count the five years the Italians spent there from 1936-41). The country is poverty-stricken, with a flawed system of government, yet its history is rich and its culture vibrant. It has an average life expectancy of 44 years. Ethiopia also has approximately twelve million people facing starvation. Don’t forget this when you sit down for Christmas dinner on Wednesday. I know this probably reminds you of that stupid Bob Geldof Band Aid song from the 1980s (of course they know it’s Christmas time; they were one of the first countries to adopt Christianity!? And the other half of the country doesn’t care; they’re Muslim!).

You can help Ethiopia by donating to Oxfam, which has been working there since 1974. Hancock was damning of the World Bank, bilateral government donor agencies and United Nations aid workers, but specifically avoided criticizing the non-governmental humanitarian organizations. While you’re at it, join Oxfam’s email campaign to protest Nestlé’s demand for $6 million from the Ethiopian Government, in compensation for nationalizing their company 27 years ago.


Have a very, Merry Christmas! Safe travels…