A child of the village of Sebeya enjoys an enriched biscuit. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Children in the village of Awo, such as 13-year-old Tiblets Gebray, often suffer from chronic malnutrition and depend on outside support during lean years. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Farmers in the northern Tigray region have constructed retaining walls to protect the soil from erosion. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
School meals greatly improve concentration among students, such as Teklit Gebru of Sebeya. (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Driving through much of Ethiopia these days provides a strong counterpoint to images of the country that persist in the Western mind — images rooted in the horrific days of famine of the 1970’s and 80’s. Today, one is confronted with visions of growth, intense construction and, in the rainy season from June to September, lush and very green vegetation as far as the eye can see.
But in some parts of the country, as in the valleys and ravines surrounding the northern town of Adigrat, you can turn a corner and be plunged back three decades — arid, sparse and dusty landscapes, malnourished farmers with tales of hardship and woe. By and large, Ethiopia as a whole is doing much better these days, but in places like Sebeya, Awo and Alitena near the northern border with Eritrea, famine and death are never far from the doorstep.
“I already shiver when I think of the dry season months that are coming. For some schools, we are not sure we will be able to secure food on time,” says Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin of Adigrat, whose eparchy of the Ge’ez Catholic Church administers some 52 schools in the region. “This is how we live, in a continuous kind of uncertainty.”
It is July, the fields have been planted and this continuous kind of uncertainty reigns over them. Farmers like Gebremichael Gebru, 68, from the village of Sebeya, about 20 miles from Adigrat, look to the skies for the much needed rain. So far, it has not come. If none falls in the next month, says Mr. Gebru, the harvest will be ruined and his family will have a very hungry year.
One of the many consequences of this condition is fainting — children passing out in class because they have had no breakfast and have no lunch to eat. The task of concentrating on a blackboard overpowers them.
“We usually eat three times a day, but when food is short we only eat once a day,” says Gebremichael Gebru’s 10-year-old son, Teklit, who attends the local Holy Trinity School. “I have to go to school hungry sometimes. It’s very difficult.”
The family used to have more than two and a half acres of land. But in Ethiopia, where the state owns all the land and has very strong powers of eminent domain, the government took half of that land to provide space for housing for the village’s growing population.
“It’s not enough land for us,” says Mr. Gebru. “Now, as there is no rain, I plan to move from tillage to livestock. I’m not interested in cultivation anymore. It’s not sustainable.”
Sustainability is the current watchword of the Ethiopian government and its international development partners. The numerous terraces lining the surrounding hills, the small dams, reservoirs and canals that punctuate the landscape attest to this. But in Sebeya and other rural outposts, such infrastructure for irrigation and water preservation looks obsolete and resembles the debris of a former, defunct civilization where living off the land in comfort and dignity was possible.
In some corners of the country, sustainability is a dream and simply surviving can be a struggle.
Along with some of the desert areas of southeastern Ethiopia, the northern part of the Tigray region in the north of the country is identified as particularly precarious and prone to drought and famine. In recent decades, the area around Adigrat has been subject to two factors that have worsened its fate: population growth and a decrease in rainfall. For years now, the population of Tigray has grown rapidly. This means there are more mouths depending on the already limited productivity of the land. It has also caused human intervention such as deforestation — to build more houses and to heat them — which in turn reduces the soil quality and the amount of food that can be produced from it. Annual rainfall is also declining, a fact that exacerbates the food insecurity plaguing the region.
The inhabitants of the food-insecure regions of Tigray must subsist, for much of the year, on aid. From June to September, during the rainy season, they tend to live off the nutrient-rich fruit of the ubiquitous cacti, known locally as beles. Then, their partial harvest usually covers the food needs of the periods from September to December. However, it is from January to June that the region enters its annual purgatory. This is when the government, international development agencies such as the World Food Program and church charities such as CNEWA enter.
“Supporting a student in this way means a lot to a family because you are feeding one mouth,” says the Rev. Teum Berhe, director general of the Adigrat Catholic Secretariat, which helps administer CNEWA’s aid to hungry students in the region. “Secondly, this kind of food aid means that education is maintained. Feeding these children when there is no food around means that attendance is kept high and emigration is kept at bay.”
Low attendance at St. Michael School in Awo, a village some 30 miles from Adigrat, has been a problem directly related to food security. Students like Suzi Tesfay, 16, often cannot make it past two periods in class on an empty stomach.
“Some of us live far away and we have to walk a long distance to school,” she says. “We always go home early if we are hungry, so school feeding helps us stay.”
The school has 183 student and 11 teachers across 8 grades and both attendance and performance fluctuates according to the presence of food.
“It’s simple,” says Tesfay Berhe, the school’s director. “When we have school feeding, we have no dropouts. When we don’t have school feeding, we have a high dropout rate. Last year, 5 percent of the students dropped out.”
Grades also rise when food is available. Without it, some 5 percent of students score below 50 percent, the teacher says. With food, the number of students scoring below 50 percent is nil.
The stakes are high when dropping out is concerned. Emigration is rife in the region. It has become one way of coping with repeated drought. Many of Tigray’s sons and daughters emigrate illegally to Israel or the Gulf states so they can earn a living. It is a dangerous path and, in some cases, one that ends in tragedy.
“Some die in deserts on the way. Some die in prison in the countries they have entered illegally,” says Bishop Tesfaselassie. “They are being trafficked across borders. Their organs are being sold in the Sinai desert. It’s terrible.”
In the midst of this kind of tragedy, the high-energy biscuits distributed at the schools provide a taste of hope. Each packet contains three square-shaped, wafer-like biscuits composed of wheat flour, skim milk powder, sodium bicarbonate and vegetable fat. For much of the year, this is a lifeline for many children and their families in northern Tigray.
“The hardest time of the year is April and May,” says 13-year-old Tiblets Gebray, an eighth grader at St. Michael School. That is often when the supply of biscuits runs out. But when there are biscuits, she happily eats them, saying they taste like honey. “When we have biscuits, I am glad to stay at school. That way, I don’t feel hunger until I get back home after school.”
Tiblets is sitting with her family in a canopied area outside her house. On one side are the family’s few goats and on the other side is an area to receive guests and dine. Beyond their homestead lie the forlorn contours of the Awo valley. Caravans of mules driven by children slowly make their way up its roads carrying yellow plastic cans of water and other goods.
She and her family are about to tuck into gat tesmi, a local dish that resembles an active volcano — a pasty kind of barley dough forms the “crust” while inside is held a lava-like liquid cheese product. Piece-by-piece, the family tears the crust apart, dunking it in the hot liquid and savoring its taste, knowing that the season of plenty will soon end.
Tiblets’s father, Fisuh Gebray, a 62-year-old farmer, as with many in the region, works in the government Productive Safety Net Program (P.S.N.P.) to make ends meet. P.S.N.P. is one of a handful of government-led initiatives to rehabilitate the land and engage the local population in that rehabilitation. The program employs locals to build terraces, dams, irrigation systems and reservoirs in exchange for money in times when there are dependable food markets locally or in exchange for grain when supplies at the food markets run low.
In addition, the Free Labor Mobilization initiative works on a community level, encouraging people to offer their labor for free in exchange for a tangible and material improvement to their environment. Finally, the government has a relief initiative, which is a short term, no-strings-attached emergency aid intervention reserved for chronic and dire circumstances.
“The object of all these interventions is asset protection,” says Awash Mesfin, program officer for the World Food Program’s Tigray office in the regional capital of Mekele. In the past, if the farmer is “not providing enough for the entire family,” he sells his “sheep, goats, cows or oxen. Land is also a productive asset. By bridging the gap for now, we are protecting those assets.”
The bid to protect assets has led to a curious scene on the main street of the town of Dawhan, not far from Awo, every three months. The grain compensation for those who work for the Productive Safety Net Program arrives and is distributed. Dozens of men and women gather around a pair of highly stacked rows of 110-pound grain sacks donated by the World Food Program.
“I have 361 people on my list,” says Teum Awala, the local P.S.N.P. grain distributor for the area. “These people are on the short-term emergency list but the short-term list is getting shorter and the long-term P.S.N.P. registration is growing. This is a bad sign for the state of things.”
Regardless, the infrastructure that may seem futile in places like Awo and Sebeya continues to grow. In less-affected areas, it is yielding crops and returning food to tables. Development experts expect the same to happen in Tigray’s dustbowl.
“I am very optimistic with regard to the barren slopes that we see today,” says Bishop Tesfaselassie. “There is a determined policy now and the benefit of this will be visible. In five to ten years, these slopes will be fertile again.”
The challenges — and hidden potential — of the dusty slopes surrounding the Gebray household are momentarily forgotten as the family finishes off their meal. They chitchat and joke contentedly as the emaciated house cats forage under the table for any errant crumbs.
Tiblets Gebray dreams of one day becoming a doctor. While she may have been at the top of her class at school for five years running, that dream must feel very distant when hunger persists and fainting threatens.
But just as volcanoes were once unassuming landscapes with powerful subterranean potential, perhaps the arid, dead slopes around her, with their seemingly useless terraces and dams, carry hidden promise — and in the near future, food and crops will once again erupt from the ground.
Don Duncan has covered the Middle East and Africa for The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The New York Times and Agence France Presse.