Tasting Hunger in Ethiopia

In the Spring edition of ONE, writer James Jeffrey reports on Ethiopia battling its worst drought in decades.

In the Spring edition of ONE, writer James Jeffrey reports on Ethiopia battling its worst drought in decades. Here, he offers his own reflections on hunger — and gets a small taste of what countless Ethiopians confront every day:

Perhaps it was all the talk about food — or lack of it — but after an early start (and an early breakfast) on the first day of visiting schools and clinics, by midday I was feeling distinctly peckish.

And there was another problem. We were rapidly falling behind schedule, with me asking never-ending questions, Petterik the photographer trying to fulfil his mission, and it being slow going over the rugged Tigray landscape. Lunchtime came and went — with nothing eaten.

By mid-afternoon, I began to feel somewhat fractious. After leaving the home of 13-year-old student Rahel Zewde — who certainly hadn’t eaten lunch either — we bumped into 80-year-old Berhe Kahsay. With a USAID baseball cap on his head, a white shawl around his shoulders, and a walking stick in a hand, he invited us to his home — for coffee, crucially.

Now I’ve learned how quality Ethiopian coffee is close to as good as a meal in itself. And after the raw green beans were roasted over a charcoal brazier, ground in a mortar and pestle, and brewed, I saw out of the corner of my eye a young girl bringing a tray of freshly made bread. My heart rate increased notably.

I just managed to restrain myself from taking the largest chunk. What resulted might as well have been a banquet — coffee and bread never tasted so good or nourishing.

Eventually I managed to remember why I was there, and, turning to the drought, asked whether it had knocked the faith of this Christian people.

“Always we believe in God, we may even get rain today, we expect from Him good things for the future,” Mr. Berhe said. “This kind of drought is due to the climate, and it’s becoming worse due to climate change. We hope God will bless us instead with positive change.”

The following day’s trip to the neighboring eastern province of Afar resulted in the same routine: an early start and breakfast, a long bumpy drive, visits and interviews as the clock raced on — and lunchtime come and gone, accompanied by my unsated belly.

Added to which, I noticed with gnawing anxiety that not even a tin shack of a café appeared to exist in the surrounding barren environment. Then, it seemed an angel spoke.

“Time for lunch.”

The words, though, came from our more earthbound guide, Daniel Zigta, with the Ethiopian Catholic Church Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat. In one hand, he carried a bag of bread rolls, while one of the group of locals also accompanying us clasped a metal pot, the size of a large bowl.

As we set down on the rocky ground, squatting on haunches, the lid was removed to reveal locally made dark, yellow-brown viscous honey. Next Daniel and his fellow Ethiopians tore off chunks of bread to scoop up dollops of honey, motioning for Petterik and me to do the same; it didn’t take long for us to respond.

That sort of meal doesn’t take long to pack away, and soon we were soon back in the truck heading to our next appointment.

Re-energised after my Afar-style lunch, I was more than ready to get back to my notetaking, and once the sun started to lower, bathing the landscape in a mellowing golden hue, my increased spirits were sustained all the way back into Tigray and to the hotel.

It’s remarkable what a simple full stomach does for morale — and frightening how quickly an empty one takes effect.

To learn more about how drought and hunger are affecting the people of Ethiopia, read When Rain Fails in the Spring 2016 edition of ONE.

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