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30 years on: remembering the Ethiopian famine

BY Lynne Wallis

1st Jan 2015 Life

30 years on: remembering the Ethiopian famine

Thirty years ago this month, the Live Aid concert was staged to raise money and awareness of the famine in Ethiopia, a tragedy that shocked the world. We talk to some of its survivours.

Survivours of the Ethiopian famine

Anyone who saw the world-famous BBC film of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia cannot fail to remember the deeply shocking images of children and babies starving to death as their powerless, malnourished mothers and fathers looked on.

Those who’d heard there was about to be an aid drop were filmed in the dusty Antsokia Valley, in Alamata and Korem, moving as fast as their stick-like legs and emaciated, fragile bodies would allow. They shuffled in desperation, motivated by grains of hope.

But most returned disappointed, as there was only ever enough to feed a fraction of the thousands settled in the valley. Others are seen scrabbling in the dirt, picking up single grains of rice. Babies are seen dying in makeshift hospitals, care and nutrition arriving too late. Michael Buerk’s film was sickening, horrific and absolutely critical.


Fundraising redefined

Tesfatsion Dalellew, an Ethiopian man who moved to New Zealand before the famine to work for World Vision Now, the charity that hosted the BBC film crew 30 years ago, recalls, “We were all sitting around, about to have dinner, when the BBC news came on. Well, the whole family forgot dinner. We just sat and cried. When I got a telex from World Vision asking me to come home, I left immediately.

"The worst thing was choosing which people would make it into the feeding camps, who stood a chance of survival. As you walked about, the eyes of the mothers were on you, watching you, never leaving you as their children’s mouths gasped and gaped. When I think of it now, it still gives me nightmares.”

The film prompted air drops from stunned governments within days, and inspired Boy George—who took part in the first Band Aid Christmas single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”—to suggest a rock concert the following year. Bob Geldof and Midge Ure made sure it happened, and on July 13, 1985, stars such as David Bowie, Elton John, Status Quo, Queen, Roger Daltry, Mick Jagger, Tina Turner and Duran Duran came together to perform.

The entire spectacle was beamed around the world by satellite and was watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people across 150 nations, raising an estimated £150m globally for famine relief—rather more than the modest £70,000 Geldof had hoped for. The famine took the lives of a million people, and changed the way international aid charities fundraised.

Parts of Ethiopia are unrecognisable from how they looked 30 years ago, with Antsokia now a fertile river valley where traders and shoppers do business. Live Aid money, channelled through charities such as World Vision, helped to build roads and put infrastructure in place. Farms were set up, and healthy livestock now graze on the once-barren land, with the food security the famine generation dreamed of now a reality for the vast majority. 


From famine to fruit

Abebe Aragaw is a survivor of the Ethiopian famine
Abebe, who is now a "model farmer", lost his wife in the famine

Abebe Aragaw was 20 when the famine hit. After losing his crops and witnessing his daughter Yeshi starving, he headed for an emergency feeding centre with his family.

“Yeshi was so thin I could count her bones,” he recalls with sadness. “We were so fearful—we didn’t know where we could turn. Every farmer who owned livestock had begun slaughtering their cows to eat. I slaughtered one of my oxen and my neighbour, who was roughly the same age, asked me for some of the meat. He ended up dying, like many others.”

When Abebe left his home for the feeding centre, he expected never to return home. “We didn’t think we’d be alive to do it. A lot of people were so malnourished they couldn’t even walk to the centre, so they were carried there on stretchers. As we waited, I saw a lot of people dying around us.”

Adebe was given injections and food, while his wife and child went to “wet” feeding centres for treatment. His daughter recovered, but Adebe never saw his wife again. He was given a job guarding the entrance to the food centre, which he describes as “horrifying”.

“One of my strongest memories is of the crowds, many people pushing against us, competing to get into the centre for help. They were desperate, but we couldn’t manage them—there were too many to let in. I watched as they died in front of me. I can never forget that.”

Abebe became one of World Vision’s “model farmers”. After some time he returned home, and with the help of some tools and seedlings he began growing tomatoes and cabbages. As part of the government settlement programme, he was given more land to expand his farm. Soon, on the newly irrigated land that was once a dust bowl, he was growing fruits and vegetables he’d never heard of as a boy— mangoes and bananas alongside onions, coffee beans and papaya.

“As a child, Yeshi ate just traditional maize and soy gum, and occasionally cabbage,” says Abebe. “But my younger children grew up eating completely different food, lots of fruits and vegetables, and they are healthy. When I look around at all of this, the trees, I’m joyful. It inspires me. I’m very happy and proud.

"I nurse these plants like they’re my family. My children don’t want to hear about the famine, but I tell them one day their time may come, so I counsel them on how to sell things to manage when times are tough.”


The Beauty of life

Aschalu Mulatu nearly died of starvation, but now runs a beauty parlour

Aschalu Mulatu was just ten when she arrived at the emergency feeding centre, unconscious from malnutrition. “I remember it well,” says Aschalu. “I was being spoon-fed, and it’s only because of this that I survived.

"I remember after I’d recovered seeing many children thrown dead by the side of the road. Then, there was no access to water to drink. Today, families have clean water in their homes. There’s a health centre and health posts where we can receive treatment. Roads and schools have been constructed too. There wasn’t enough access to education before, and kids could study up to grade 4 or 6 at best. Now they can complete their education.”

"I know now that it's possible to change yourself through work," says Aschalu

Aschalu’s story of recovery is inspiring. She initially became a day labourer after she recovered, then enrolled at a training centre to become a hairdresser. She now runs a beauty parlour in the Antsokia Valley.

“I’m planning to expand this business to other rooms and open a shop that does beauty photography,” the 40-year-old continues. “I know now that it’s possible to change yourself through work, to become prosperous and self-sustainable.”


Food for generations to come

Almaz Tefera with her grandson

Almaz Tefera was a seven-year-old orphan when she walked with her older sister to a feeding centre in the Antsokia valley. “There was an identification process for new arrivals,” Almaz recalls. “Some people were tied with red thread round their wrists and some with green to identify the severity of their malnutrition. I was in the green group and my sister, who was already a mother, was in the red group. She was so very thin —her bones were visible. We both survived but many didn’t, and their bodies were taken away and buried by day labourers who were stronger than the rest of us.

“We were given porridge and cooked grains, and once we were well enough to return home we were given flour, oil and seedlings to take with us. The only vegetables I’d tasted before the famine were potato and sweet potato, but after that I was raised on so many different types of fruit. I was quite fat until I had my children!”

Almaz is proud of having successfully raised her own seven children, and she now cares for her young grandson. “For every generation in this area, the famine is a benchmark. I haven’t even thought of whether my children will face another period like that. I don’t want to see it. But I’ve worked hard so I can overcome a lack of food if it happens again. I’m a farmer and I’m happy with the life I have. Compared to before, I’m very happy.”

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