Here’s another story: The Famine in Ethiopia

In 1983, a drought, combined with civil conflict, and the negative effect of governmental agricultural policies began to displace rural farming families in the north and east of Ethiopia, a populous country in eastern Africa. By 1984 it had become wide spread. Eventually almost 3 million people would be displaced, and somewhere between 400,000 and 1.2 million would die of starvation. A BBC news crew was the first to document the famine, describing it as of biblical proportions, and governments and NGOs scrambled to provide food relief. Bob Geldof, an Irish singer, organized a super band called Band Aid to raise funds, and they released a single called “Do They Know It’s Christmas” in December, which sold over 3.5 million copies. “We Are the World” by USA for Africa was released in March of 1985 and sold 20 million copies. Eventually, Geldof’s group effort, called Live Aid, raised £145 million.

All my time in Africa had been spent in Western Africa, and though the countries I knew were at the tail end of any list of per capita GNP or child mortality, or life expectancy, they were places where society and agriculture had remained intact. Western eyes could sometimes only see poverty, but people had meaningful and satisfying lives, enriched by their cultures and the people they shared their lives with in small villages. They successfully passed through periodic droughts and crop losses, with loss of livestock, but not famine scenes.

I had returned to the U.S. in 1984, but I was soon asked by my employer, Church World Service, to lead a group from Kansas City who wished to raise funds for the Ethiopian famine. CWS had agreed to sponsor the trip, but asked that we first visit the project I had been involved in, in the Sahel of Northern Senegal. The Sahel is not mountainous but has harsh terrain and little rainfall. It is not a place of famine, war or state sponsored collectivization schemes. Villages were intact and people were not displaced. CWS’s intent was to illustrate the difference between village-directed development assistance and famine relief, to encourage aid and funding towards the former to prevent the latter. I was the natural person to lead the first part of the tour, but I knew nothing of East Africa and Ethiopia.

I jumped at the chance to revisit the people who I had worked with, and it was a wonderful homecoming. I may write about that elsewhere, but this piece is about the second leg of the trip – Ethiopia.

Senegal is 5,200 miles from Ethiopia. For context, New York is 3,800 miles from Senegal. There were 6 of us, 3 influential clergy, a businessman, a photographer and myself, whatever I am. Most had traveled little outside the U.S., and none of us had ever been to a famine area, where comforts were non-existent. But everyone was a grownup and had seen some things, so they weren’t overly perturbed by the rigors of the trip. The group had the blessing of the Kansas City, Missouri mayor, and it was understood that we would come back and try to coordinate a citywide response to the famine. Everyone understood that we were going to a place where people were starving to death.

The 8 hour flight from Dakar was on Air Ethiopia, and it was lovely. We had one stop, in the middle of the night, in Niamey, Niger. As dawn came up, the gracious hostesses circled the cabin with hot towels for us and we landed in Addis Ababa shortly after daybreak.

The airport had a very frontier town vibe, or of a gold rush port, as the world hustled to get food aid in. There were military transport planes, and containers scattered around the runways and terminal. Everywhere you looked, gunned-up soldiers stood around morosely.

Addis itself, though not a terribly old city, seemed strangely unsettled to me, as if it was dissolving There was open space between the few high rise buildings, without the hard surfaces you might find in most capital cities, especially one in a country of 40 million people. (The current population, 37 years later, is 117 million). Spots of bright red color came from Marxist promotional art, like the giant red star atop the Hilton, and enormous billboards with the faces of the President Mengistu Haile Mariam and other luminaries, all heroes of the revolutionary overthrow of Hailie Selassie. I recall a giant stadium, entirely made of raw sticks, dominated by giant portraits of Marx, Engels and Lenin.

The city bustled though. Keep in mind that only about 5 percent of Ethiopians were famine victims. The coffee industry was still intact, and exports continued. Still there were other signs of the famine in Addis, though we were far from the epicenter. Refugee families were straggling into the city on foot. I recall, predominantly women and children, shuffling along the street. Women would hold up their jewelry, silver necklaces or Coptic crosses, trying to sell heirlooms that had been in their families for generations, worn around their grandmothers’ and mothers’ necks. It was all they had left with which to buy food, but at least they had reached the safety of the city with their surviving children.

We were allowed in country on U.N. visas arranged by the National Council of Churches in New York. We stayed high in the Hilton, really the only practical lodging option. I spent a couple of days scrambling, getting permits, meeting with the people who would arrange documents and passage, trying to insure we had a reliable car and driver, water and food for a trip of a couple of days. I recall trying to buy some toothpicks, because some were complaining about food sticking in their teeth. I was confused by the exchange rate and we spent about $80 on a bag of toothpicks. I visited a market where I bought a worn, antique silver necklace. Only later did I understand how it probably came to leave its owner, as a final, salable possession of a desperate person, trying to feed her children.

We were finally as ready as we could be, to travel to a famine.

We had rented a large white Landcruiser. I remember checking with the driver to make sure the spare and jack were in place and in good order. We loaded up food, water and petrol, piled in and took off.

It was a relief to get out of the city, and at first, things were green and quite beautiful. It seemed all was right with the world, with crops, farms, flocks and villages as they should be. The Africa I knew. We were climbing all the time, and eventually were at a pretty good altitude, over 9,000 feet, yet the landscape was still cultivated. In normal times, Ethiopia could feed itself.

We started to meet very large groups of women and children on the road, again, always pleading, holding up their jewelry. As we went farther on, the jewelry was gone, and women began holding up their starving children.

Drought and famine are periodic in this populous, and relatively wealthy nation. Sitting on the Horn of Africa, it has about 5 times the area of Kansas, and its present population of 117 million, is second most in Africa. For perspective, Kansas holds a shade under 3 million people, so though rural, Ethiopia is densely populated.

This famine took place roughly 10 years into a time of civil insurrection, reflecting a transition from a king who misstepped, to a different reign of terror. While the drought certainly was a cause of the famine, the war and politics made it much worse.

Ethiopia and its neighbors Somalia and Djibouti, sit in the Horn of Africa, guarding the strategic chokepoint between the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea, towards the Suez. It is also very close, by air, to the oilfields of Saudi Arabia. It was, and is, a place where great powers seek control.

Ethiopia, at that time I was there, was a marxist state, and a proxy of the Soviet Union. But up until 1974, Ethiopia, as a kingdom under Hailie Selassie, had been a proxy for the U.S. while neighboring Somalia, under a man named Siad Barre, was a marxist state allied with the Soviet Union. Under Selassie, Ethiopia was a major strategic partner of the U.S. and hosted communications and military facilities. The U.S. supplied the Ethiopian air force with F-85 and F5 fighter jets. But Somalia hosted a major naval and air base of the Soviets.

10 years prior, during 1973, an earlier famine had been caused by a drought in the northern regions combined with Selassie’s policies of confiscating herders and tenant farmers lands, keeping some for governmental use and distributing most to a wealthy feudal class. This caused unrest, leading to organized rebellions in abused ethnic areas in several provinces. Around 100,000 people had died in the province of Wollo from that famine and dislocation. The unrest this caused, as well as in other areas, led to a national military uprising. A group of soldiers, known as The Derg, overthrew Selassie and abolished the feudal landholding system. The Derg sorted itself out in a bloody power struggle and eventually a soldier named Mengistu Hailie Miriam came out on top. The Derg was marxist, and ruled with a heavy hand, and by 1976 there were new insurgencies in every one of Ethiopia’s 14 provinces. The U.S., while being strung along by Mengistu, finally lost influence in Addis, and the Soviets were invited in.

The Derg started extracting grain from small farmers in order to feed the urban populations. At the same time it forbade petty grain traders and wholesalers from operating, which further dampened incomes in the rural area. The government became more and more authoritarian in its policies dealing with the insurgencies and rural people, and that time period is now commemorated as The Red Terror.

Meanwhile Siad Barre, in Somalia, decided to take advantage of the Ethiopian disarray, and moved to retake the Ogaden, a desert place populated with ethnic Somalis, but long held by Ethiopia. At first the Somalis, using their Soviet weapons, were very successful. Eventually they bumped up against stiffer resistance as they neared the urban center of Harar and bogged down. The Soviets needed to choose sides in this marxist on marxist war, and clearly Ethiopia was, for them, strategically the more desirable proxy. They intervened on Ethiopia’s side, with massive military aid and advisors, including Cuban pilots and 17,000 Cuban troops, veterans of the war in Angola.

Barre expelled all Soviets from Somalia, and sought U.S. assistance, effecting a side switch in the proxy war. In some cases, U.S. and Soviet military equipment was being used by the proxies against the allies of the superpowers which had originally supplied their weapons.

The Horn was pretty high stakes for the U.S. and Soviets. But proxy wars are a two way street. Though proxy states shed the blood, it is done with the supercharging aid of the superpowers, seeking to extend their global influence, But the superpowers are also being used by the proxies, for materials and military supplies to fight their own ethnic and cultural battles. Don’t look for sincerity anywhere in these relationships. The proxy game just makes wars more deadly and indiscriminate.

Unfortunately, the story is even more complicated than that. Ethiopia is 67% Coptic Christian. Somalia is Muslim. And the war in the Ogaden, was about the irredentist claims of the Somalias trying to regain tribal territory dispossessed from them by European-drawn boundary lines. Beyond this international war, and the religious conflict, within Ethiopia there were internal ethnic complications as the Tigrayans in the province of Tigre, and the coastal Eritreans were also fighting a separatist war from the Ethiopian government in Addis. Elsewhere, the Oromos and Afars were also rebelling against the central government. These wars and low-grade insurrections had lead to constant disruption in the lives of villagers. There is an African proverb: When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers.

We were still in a relatively calm and settled landscape when we started meeting the refugees. They were from farther north, and had already passed through areas where refugee and feeding camps had been set up, probably already full to bursting and unable to accommodate them. Coming from farther north than those who reached the camps first, they were even more distraught and imperiled. They were holding up their children, asking us to just take them, as a last hope for their survival.

We got to the camp we were to visit. It was a fenced in area with large whitish canvass shade cloth stretched over bush poles. It was packed with people, grouped in families. There was also a medical tent, where many were waiting for emergency treatment. There were dozens of shrouded corpses laid out in lines on the ground, many obviously children. We spent several hours there, being helpless observers. I had never seen this much death in one place.

I can’t recall where we spent the night, but it was a rest house back the way we came. That evening, I walked with David Hutson, the photographer, and Mack Charles Jones, the Pastor at St. Stevens Baptist Church in KC, out onto a ridge top to take the air. A bunch of kids followed us. These were local kids, not displaced, and they were curious about us and very engaging. I ended up playing with them, tossing them in the air, as each clambered for a turn.

After little sleep, we went back to the camp next morning, and asked the directors if we could speak directly to one of the refugees, with an interpreter. I believe the interview was in Amharic.

The woman we spoke to was a young mother, with 5 remaining children. I believe she had already lost one or two while walking to that place. Our group asked me and Roger Coleman, the initial organizer of the trip, to conduct the interview.

She talked of her children, the crop failures, her husband off fighting, and the armed actions against her village. The drought and loss of control, of everything. Her children were gathered around her. She held a glassy-eyed toddler in her lap. He was a living skeleton, listless and unmoving. The nature of the situation lead her to believe that I was some kind of holy man. She asked me to bless her. The Mourides, in Senegal, would finish a blessing making a spitting sound into the hands of those gathered. So I did this, and I touched her forehead, and the heads of each of her children. I felt holy.

And as I did this, I asked the powers beyond me to take some of my vital life force and give it to each of them. It was heart rending and I was so empty-handed.

That’s not how this world works though. We spent one more night, and the next morning we learned that the child in her lap had died. The woman and the rest of her children did have a chance. We left early.

As a young person, I described this event as one of three “epiphanies” that I’ve experienced. A reaching out to a creator, in this case, to exchange my life for others.

Now, 40 years on, I see that was a young person’s thought, as if it is possible to take a moment and do something glorious and miraculous. The effortless sacrifice that saves the planet or our country or our family, like we see in the movies or have dangled in front of us at the military recruiters office. But there were actual people working in that camp, Ethiopians, Europeans, other Africans, all of whom really were exchanging their lives, their days, their months, their health, for the desperate people before them. I was merely a visitor, an observer, and I went back to where I came from to tell the story. But I was no savior. Being a savior is a grind.

If you are interested in the complicated great power maneuverings in the Horn of Africa, the most wide-awake thing I’ve ever read is Buried in the Sands of the Ogaden: Lessons From an Obscure Cold-War Flashpoint in Africa by Sam Wilkens. It is written in hopes of changing the direction of recent Chininese/American superpower maneuvering in the exact same region.


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