Ethiopia: the hunger has never gone away

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Ronan Scully with some village elders in the Borena Region of Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: the hunger has never gone away

March 19, 2010 – 7:00am

Lifestyle by Ronan Scully GalwayCityTribune

By Ronan Scully

‘I seek not aid, nor seek I gifts. I ask not for bounty nor ask for riches. I call for compassion. I call for care. I call for insight. I call for awareness. I call for thoughtfulness. I call for consciousness. I call for apprehension. I call for consideration. I call for recognition. I call for respect. I call for sanity. I call for real hope. All for our world and its children.’ (A Poem by Someone who can see and cares)

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and, with the exception of a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, avoided colonisation. Unfortunately best known to many for its droughts and conflict, Ethiopia is surprisingly mountainous and lush. Known as the ceiling of Africa, two-thirds of the country sits on a plateau between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level.

Throughout history this rugged terrain shielded Ethiopia from outside influence. Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language, but roughly 70 different other languages and 200 dialects are spoken. The country has its own alphabet, one of only 13 in the world, and its own calendar – this year is 2002 in Ethiopia.

Reading some of the stark facts about Ethiopia is depressing; approximately 15 per cent of the population of Ethiopia is concentrated in urban centers, while 85 per cent of the 80 million populations reside in rural communities. With such a significant portion of the population dependent on rain-fed subsistence agriculture, which accounts for approximately 42.1 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product, the majority of Ethiopians are vulnerable to climatic shifts.

The country is one of the poorest in the world with approximately 44 per cent of the population living in extreme poverty; the people have a life expectancy of 49 years; the infant mortality rate is about 20 per cent, and over three quarters of the population live on less than a euro a day, a crushing poverty of such depth that we in Ireland could not even imagine.

But to witness it, as I just did recently, is enough to make you weep. There are twice as many Ethiopians hungry today as there were during the 1984 famine when one million people starved. This uneasy truth means that, every year, up to eight million people, twice the population of Ireland is starving and in need of some form of food subsistence.

Ever since I saw the BBC’s Michael Buerk’s report on the famine and heard Bob Geldof and GOAL’s John O’Shea shouting at the tops of their voices for the international community to wake up to the catastrophe there, I have wanted to work in Africa, especially in Ethiopia. Now, over 25 years later, having spent many years working for GOAL both at home and in the developing world, I recently got the chance to visit Ethiopia again for a fourth time for work and personal reasons.

Arriving in the region of Borena and Awassa after a 24-hour air and road trip was surreal. I had viewed photographs and read reports before I arrived there. This was not a photograph or a dream. I really had arrived in Ethiopia. In the span of two days travel I had left behind my family and friends and comforts of the Emerald Isle and travelled, what felt like, half way around the world.

It is only through the randomness of birth that I am Irish; I could easily have been Ethiopian (actually my daughter is a beautiful Ethiopian angel). My heritage was not my choice, but rather than focusing on our differences, meeting these people and children in Ethiopia has made me realise how alike we are. We breathe the same air. We walk the same way. Our spirits need love and acceptance. Our bodies need food, water and sleep. We share the same humanity. We are really not so different.

The facts of life don’t make for good reading as regards life in Ethiopia:

More than 80,000 children die from malaria each year yet untreated mosquito nets cost just €2 and treated mosquito nets cost only €5. Unemployment rests at around 80 per cent. Most of the 80 million people who live in Ethiopia survive on less than €1 a day. There are large amounts of orphans and street children – witnessing this, as I said before, is enough to make you weep.

HIV and AIDS is one of the contributing factors to why so many children live on the streets. As parents die and relatives prove either unable or unwilling to provide care, children are left to fend for themselves. Some street children are involved in high levels of sexual activity and, as the young girls rescued by GOAL have told us, many are raped and abused at the hands of older street children and men, putting them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS.