Famine in Ethiopia, 1973 to 1974

Biblical scenes from the Ethiopian famine of 1974

Do we see famine as it is?

An eyewitness in northeast Ethiopia 1973/4

By Tony Hall

For someone who wandered about, as Oxfam's Communications Officer, among rural calamities in two continents, for a few years, and had a good hard look at one major famine, the question is interestingly framed, and stirs me to a kind of mosaic of answers, from my own observations and experiences.
This commemoration means a great deal to me, more as a 20th than a 10th anniversary, as one of the earliest visiting witnesses and international bell-ringers on the 1973 famine in its full scope.

The occasion should honour government officials, and aid workers, who struggled and sacrificed to sound the alarm and tackle the crisis, months before any outsiders: they were the 1,500 peasants from Wollo who staggered into Addis to explain how bad things were, back in February 1973 leading to government roadblocks after their expulsion, to stop any more coming; the professors of Addis Ababa University who visited Wollo in April and brought back reports and photographs which were exhibited; students who went up to Wollo to distribute their donations, and were shot at by the governor-general's troops and 17 killed.

These resolute people offer us the first lesson on whose early warnings to heed.
By August, when I first came, it was reckoned that 100,000 people about half the famine's final toll had already died of starvation. Most of the millions of drought-hit cattle had already died. Drought as such was already several rainfalls past.

My own perspective is nonetheless that of someone who saw "famine as it is" in its primal state raging unrelieved and unchecked, except by death, still unknown or ignored by national and international decisionmakers, censoring and self-censoring.
I was the first visiting journalist, and one of the first agency officers, to "wander around" in that major famine, with a cameraman, for days of growing horror.

The people I talked to hadn't spoken to a reporter. Officials and missionaries were steering by the seat of their pants through raging human calamity, with no past experience to guide them, under government suppression, and with no outside help to call on many were near breakdown themselves.

My reports were featured in a UK national newspaper, helped Jonathan Dimbleby firm up his plans to come and film (five weeks later), tipped the balance for the UK Disasters Emergency Committee to mount an appeal, and galvanised Oxfam into the first major emergency programme of any NGO.

But it took television Dimbleby's film to wake up the world (and the print-news gatekeepers).


...in Addis, it was to investigate reports from Oxfam project-holders of starvation deaths in Wollo and Tigre.

We were met and briefed by Father Kevin Doheny. We flew up to Mekelle, to drive slowly back down the main road to Dessie.
My feelers were out, my calamity-sensors well charged, from an Oxfam public-awareness raising campign I had spent some months on, based on a network of child-feeding schemes in the severe drought in western India.

We had a quiet start: the refugee shelters in Mekelle were not crowded [many had already died], the fields were green. But as the Vice Mayor of Mekelle drove us down the main road in his VW Beetle, later to be picked up by the Irish fathers' Landrover, the horror of mass starvation unfolded.

It was staggering. A bizarre coexistence [actually, so typical of famines] of peasants from the mountains keeling over from hunger and cholera, in the midst of normal town life. And one biblical tableau after another, of huddled masses on the hillsides, around hopelessly inadequate shelters.

It was as we made our way south that a catalogue of perceptions and misperceptions about famine were burned into my mind.
So what is famine? What indeed! Famine is the proverbial elephant, as described by blind people who are led up to feel different parts of it. Famine is many different things, depending on your perspective. And if you trust only where you are coming from, hold blindly to your own interest group's way of perceiving it, you will never conceive it as a whole.

For me, as it unfolded before me, as I heard it from others, famine was many different things.
You do have to be on your toes. At first famine wasn't there or rather, the evidence of it was precisely that there was conspicuously no evidence: the uncrowded refugee shelters in Mekelle, containing only quite healthy people because it had been so bad that all the malnourished people had died a thorough culling... lush green scenes, not barren land because starvation comes after sustained drought, and high grass and crops hide the telltale cattle bones from the passerby.

At first, I scorned such doublethink in interpreting the evidence of my own eyes. It took the stories of families streaming into town from the mountains for weeks, quietly told us by a nun at our hotel dinner-table, to wake me up.

What really did it was the tale of one family which had come in sight of the town, after two days of walking from their barren land. The husband told the wife and children to go on ahead. When she looked back she saw him hanging from a tree. The story echoed one I had reported of a villager, after three years of drought in western India, hanging his wife and children, then himself.

We saw nothing tangible for the first hours of driving south through Tigre. Then we stopped for lunch in a small town. As we left the restaurant, and a pile of half-eaten injera, we passed near two little girls sitting beside the covered corpse of their mother, a few people staring.

A little further on, a woman lay at a bus stop while townspeople went about their business. Beggars? No... peasants reduced to begging families used to subsisting on what they grew, tipped by the third year of drought into eating up their small surpluses, into landlessness and starved wandering. They were to swell over the next few days into a constant roadside stream, pleading at every bend, where our car had to slow down, and exchange a coin or a biscuit for a story of family disaster and death.

For the first missionaries we encountered, "seeing Famine as it is" was to see signs of the Second Coming. Near Maichaw, we were slowed down by a crowd spilling across the road, milling around a mission gate. Two Europeans were tearing strips of injera from inadequate baskets, into outstretched hands. "This is the last we have, what shall we do!" they called across to us. "It's been like this for days we've run out." One almost babbled, looking past us: "surely, the Lord will come. As it says in the bible, There shall be Famine and Death across the land..."

Further down the road in Wollo, we encountered other missionaries, less frantic, but profoundly depressed. In their big shiny new corrugated iron shelter, people were dying at a faster rate than they could be rescued.
The graveyard was the thing that grew. I walked among the rows of fresh graves, and here and there, chewing vigorously on bushes, were a herd of sleek, strong goats.

That's when I had my own apocalyptic vision of a post-famine world, in which the goats had outlived the humans.
But of course the person who owned the goats, which of course the starving wouldn't touch, was himself equally untouched by famine. And beyond the graveyard were fields with crops. All these healthy things coexisted with death, and finally burned it into my brain forever: that famine which follows drought is something that happens to peasants, to subsistence farming families with a patch of land, or pastoralists.

Even famine which comes with war reaps most of its victims from these groups. In all the chaos of Somalia in the early 1990s, it was among the marginalised cultivators around Baidoa that famine, as such, took thousands of lives, not in Mogadishu.

Seeing famine as it is means seeing the bizarre coexistence of peasant families starving and dying, alongside commercial farming and urban normality. It means never quite being able to say, truthfully, that famine is a national problem or even a rural one, as such.

It means realising that unless and until the food distribution system guarantees that the stuff reaches the peasant communities themselves, before the drought sets in, relief supplies are about as useful to the hungry, in avoiding starvation, as soybean or porkbelly futures on the Chicago market and we know what havoc is being caused these days by unchecked speculation on those!

We may all realise it in effect. Yet how often do you hear anybody, in their appeals, their reports, plans and analyses, expressing this blatant truth, or working from this obvious premise? The premise that famine is something that happens to peasants.

We continued our journey, into the hellholes of Mersa and Kobbo, once breadbaskets of Wollo, discovering more notions and misconceptions.

In the little shelter at Kobbo, the queue was about 500 refugees a day. They were still waiting, after weeks, for approval from Addis to buy a few more sheets of corrugated iron. There famine was aggravated by cholera. But it couldn't be called that, because the government didn't want tourism on the nearby historic route ruined by a WHO declaration of it. (That same month, summer tourism in Italy was hit by a press report of cholera cases in Naples). So its working name was "dysentery c".

The concern was to separate the sick (cholera cases) from the merely weak (starving). Famine, as we took the photographs to show, was when you had to leave a 24-year-old skin-and-bone man lying in the dust because he wasn't sick enough to occupy a mat in the shelter; when you couldn't stop the local guards from sending off a ragged young woman, because she had the strength to moan, to "put on an act".

Famine, among overworked helpers without medical skills, was a lot of people starving, therefore needing food. One man was spending hours with a dysentery-wracked dying boy, about 12 years old, his head like a skull. "Shayi, shayi," the boy pleaded, again and again, for the sweet liquid. "Yes," said the man, "but first you must eat something." Reward for a clean plate... It was in the days before Oral Rehydration Therapy was widely known and available. The boy never knew he'd opted for the right treatment.

Food, as we came to know, was something you should rush in to prevent famine, and later to help recovery, but not to treat it. Severely malnourished people can't keep food down. First they need liquids, glucose drips...
It was a famine still many weeks away from being "known" so how to get the measure of it?

Everybody was still searching for comparisons. Famine as seen by those who'd worked in others, was a powerful persuader of the dimensions of the horror. One Catholic father said this was worse than Biafra: "there we had the resources and qualified staff."

But this famine, as pronounced on by the experts who HADN'T seen it, afforded some examples of the blind man's elephant.

I found agency workers among the nomads east of Bati, adamant that the highland farmers were getting off lightly, compared to these drought-hit pastoralists who had lost their cattle. They, I was knowingly assured, were the real famine victims. It was an odious comparison; and in this case, from what I'd seen, I tilted the other way.
Then there were the two nutritionists, months later, just back in England from a lengthy survey, in quite another part of Ethiopia, well to the south, who publicly attacked Dimbleby for "exaggeration" in his film on the grounds that he didn't understand that starvation was endemic in the country.

We saw many pockets of malnutrition, they said gravely. But we saw no famine...
It's a looking-glass world famine as it is/as seen/as told by others...A few days before I saw the Ethiopian famine for myself, I read a mission report complaining that while the West African Sahel was getting all the publicity, the situation in north-east Ethiopia was in fact much worse.

A year later, I was fascinated to read a newspaper article which stated that while Ethiopia had been getting all the headlines, starvation in the Sahel was on a far greater scale!
Nine months and two rainy seasons after the Ethiopian story hit the whole world, sitting in Kombolcha, I listened to two foreign correspondents, no less, remarking on how strange it was to hear talk of drought "in all this rain and fresh green grass."

TEN YEARS later,

drought, and fighting, tipped the same regions into an even worse famine. And the world's media went through the same fits and starts before the full story was finally told even though the Ethiopian government's Relief and Rehabilitation Committee of that time, in the Mengistu era, warned and warned again of impending disaster.

Today Ethiopia, and the world, have moved a long way in being prepared. Early warning systems, food stocks, and many tonnes of transport are in place (The transformation of the Dessie and Kombolcha I knew, from that point of view, is amazing to see).

Alarm bells jangle like nerves at any sign of severe malnutrition, and old famine photographs are widely published, with cautionary texts.
This symposium is part of the national and international community's state of readiness. It aims to be healthily self-critical, ready to learn from the past.

I am part of that past, and as I look at the present and future, even in the age of satellite sensing and the Internet, I see the same basic needs and challenges facing communicators and researchers, whether they are RRC, FEW, SCF, UNICEF, CNN or BBC.

It is to be constantly in the field, looking out and monitoring the rural situation from every angle, down to the most basic family level; to respect and pass on every sincere perception, past and present, even from or rather, especially from the old villager, the long-serving civil servant; for the messenger not to come ready to tailor and send back information his superiors want to hear; not to come without first looking into the drought and famine and land tenure history and gender power structure, of the area under study; not to come ready and eager to reinvent the wheel, but to listen... And then, for the person on the desk at headquarters, to listen, listen, listen...

Specifically, there's this business of what is endemic, what is breakdown, calamity. There are still pockets within rural communities all over the developing world in which one in every three children is weakened and dulled by malnutrition. And one in five die from it. This is the "endemic" rather than the famine kind of hunger and starvation, and you can find it by turning off the road on a Sunday drive out of any one of dozens of cities in Africa and Asia that I know of, not to mention Latin America.

How to steer between the expert's seasoned acceptance, and the newcomer's shock at the "endemic"? To navigate between those who cry wolf, and those who are too used to the problem, or too narrowly occupied, or scared, or too self-protective to sound any alarm until the famine is upon them, and aid only starts arriving after the human burnout?

And when it comes to moving in emergency aid, one important guideline is, that only food which reaches peasant, and pastoral, communities and down into those communities, to the always working woman, and the woman-headed household only that is a direct response to drought, hunger and famine. Any other is at best a facilitator, a wage, a profit for somebody who isn't in danger of starving.

Conference talk given by Tony Hall, as acting Director of Communications for the United Nations Economic Comission for Africa (UNECA), in Addis Ababa 1994

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