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Teaming Up Against Hunger

A report on last year’s famine in Eritrea and Ethiopia and CNEWA’s response.




Eritrea and Ethiopia are among the poorest nations in the world, unable to feed themselves even in the best of times. Last spring, they faced the worst food shortage in nearly 15 years, a shortage caused by three years of drought and exacerbated by a costly and unresolved war between the two countries.

Some controversy existed as to the extent of the food shortage. Was it like that of 1985, when famine affected 7.5 million Ethiopians and killed 300,000, or did the media exaggerate the extent of this crisis?

There is no doubt that an emergency existed. According to the United Nations, 1,760,000 individuals out of a population of three million – more than half of Eritrea’s people – lacked sufficient food. In Ethiopia, the percentage was smaller: 6 to 8 million out of a population of 63 million.

“We shouldn’t get hung up on statistics,” warned Brother Vincent Pelletier, F.S.C., CNEWA’s Regional Director for Eritrea and Ethiopia. “Each one of those people was a hungry individual with a pain in his or her stomach every day.”




Part of the problem resulted from the mismanagement of government policy. After the famine of the mid-1980’s, Ethiopia’s Marxist government, together with several donor countries including the United States, agreed to set up a reserve of food to be used in case of emergency. For more than a decade, however, donor countries, through their relief agencies, requested permission to borrow from this food bank for their own ongoing programs. The Ethiopians consented with the understanding that the food would be replaced. Unfortunately, donor countries were slow to replace food supplies and the reserves diminished. Consequently, when acute food shortages developed last spring in southeastern Ethiopia, near the border with Kenya, and in the northern highlands near the town of Adigrat, there was not enough food in reserve to meet the need.

Drought conditions in Eritrea, particularly in the western lowlands, coupled with the significant number of Eritreans displaced by the war with Ethiopia, caused severe food shortages. The U.N. and several international relief agencies rushed aid to Eritrea, especially for those internally displaced Eritreans living in emergency camps. There were hundreds of thousands of hungry people, however, who remained in their villages, who did not fit into the programs of the international agencies and whose plight was often known only by the religious who worked among them.

Despite the widespread fear that they were only prolonging the crisis by sending food to nations that were impoverishing themselves by waging war, donor countries and their relief agencies responded generously to the emergency in both countries. Bureaucratic red tape, however, delayed the distribution of incoming food supplies while thousands of people were starving.

Brother Vincent had a plan to move quickly. He knew food was available; grain surpluses had been harvested in parts of western and central Ethiopia and sold to merchants in other areas. Largely as a result of the war, however, costs had soared and money was in short supply; cash was needed to purchase food.




In both Eritrea and Ethiopia the Catholic Church has a network of priests and religious who could be trusted to buy the necessary food and place it in the hands of those in need. CNEWA, with offices in both Eritrea and Ethiopia, is an integral part of this network.

Brother Vincent asked for an emergency grant of CNEWA funds that he promptly distributed to the Capuchin Fathers, the Capuchin Sisters, the Daughters of Charity, the De La Salle Christian Brothers, the Salesian Fathers and the Sisters of St. Anne, as well as to the National Catholic Secretariat and the Catholic Eparchy of Barentu in Eritrea. The provincial superiors in turn shared the money with the sisters, priests and brothers working in the affected areas.

To provide this assistance, CNEWA launched an emergency appeal. Donors rose to the challenge, promptly and generously contributing more than $425,000, which was forwarded to Brother Vincent for distribution.

Typical of the religious communities through which food assistance was given were the Filippini Sisters in Adigrat, Ethiopia. Here Sister Virginia Jamele and her community ran a large school, St. Lucy’. The sisters kept an eye out for children who were malnourished, sluggish or perhaps “acting out,” behavior that suggested something was wrong at home.

When such a child was identified, two sisters visited his or her family – frequently after a long, hard walk. They met the family and carefully assessed the level of need. Often they found that a struggling mother whose husband had been killed in the war was the head of the household. Typically, she had several children. She might not have been able to read or write and she lacked marketable skills, so she had no money for food.




Once convinced that a real need existed, the sisters gave the mother a paper food ticket. She could use this ticket to obtain food from local merchants. At the end of each month, the merchants redeemed the tickets for cash. By following this procedure, the sisters ensured that those in need were helped and prevented abuse by those who might purchase food for resale.

There were other advantages to this method of food distribution. It was discreet; no one outside the family knew who was being helped, so no one was embarrassed. Also, the mother could purchase food her children liked to eat. Finally, the procedure established a bond between the family and the sisters, who could help the family get back on their feet.

Did the mother or her daughter know how to sew? The sisters made a sewing machine available in a room back at the school. Could the family raise chickens or special herbs? The sisters gave them start-up funds, not as a loan but as a free gift – the first step on the road to independence. Could the boys do manual work? The sisters were experts at securing jobs for strong young men. The family was asked to keep accounts, so they and the sisters would know how things were going. And one good turn deserves another; the family was expected to do what they could to help other families in distress. Charity was not reserved to the religious community.




Sister Virginia’s community received $43,000 in four installments to buy food for hungry people in Adigrat and nearby villages. CNEWA funds purchased wheat, cooking oil, lentils, bread, cooked corn, fruit, milk, sugar and coffee. Babies, diabetics and tuberculosis patients were given milk and teff, a grain used to make injera, the traditional bread of the region. Coffee, a favored beverage that allays hunger, was available for the blind, the aged and the sick. By following up on children enrolled at St. Lucy School, the sisters were able to help about 2,000 youngsters, including siblings of students enrolled there. These youngsters were also given daily rations of either bread or cooked corn. If children from the villages surrounding Adigrat are included, more than 5,000 children were helped.

In one remote village, Sister Virginia wrote, children had to walk for three or four hours to get to school. Weakened by hunger, many were forced to drop out. Thanks to CNEWA’s donors, these children were able to return to school and finish the school year.

In a letter to Brother Vincent, Sister Virginia said that help had arrived at just the right time.

“You cannot imagine the hope you gave them,” she wrote. “One case involved a lady with a paralyzed husband, four children and nothing to feed them. She was on the verge of committing suicide. You saved her.

“Unfortunately, it was too late for a man, who took his life, leaving behind a wife and 10 children.”




Many of the people helped “shed tears of joy and could not stop giving blessings” when they received their tickets, Sister Virginia reported in another letter.

Sister Lettebrhan Ghebreyesus, Regional Superior of the Capuchin Sisters in Asmara, Eritrea, reported that their grant of $10,000 was used to purchase emergency supplies of flour, milk and sugar. Due to the lack of food, many were already malnourished when the grant arrived. One and a half million Eritreans had been displaced by the war, which in many areas started so suddenly they had to flee without any of their belongings, she said.

The Comboni Missionary Sisters in Asmara received $15,000, which was used to assist the displaced and starving. Women, children and the elderly were given special consideration, Sister Nighisti Meheretab, Provincial Superior, reported. The grant, given in two installments, was “a welcome surprise,” she stated, because although the need was great the religious community had not asked CNEWA for assistance.

“Ten months after our appeal,” Brother Vincent wrote recently, “we have almost finished the funds that were given so generously by our donors. I do not remember anything we have done that has been so successful.

“The New York office, the Addis Ababa and Asmara offices and the donors formed a partnership that helped thousands of people in desperate need. They would not have been helped had not CNEWA stepped in. For me, it was a great act of teamwork.”

Hostilities between Eritrea and Ethiopia have halted, at least for the moment, and the emergency has been met. Hopefully the cease-fire will be permanent. But hunger is no stranger in Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the need for teamwork continues.

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