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Foraging and fainting: coping with drought in Ethiopia

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Women and their hungry children line up on benches waiting for their turn to receive foil packets of Plumpy Nut, a nutrition-rich food supplement.

A drought that has gripped parts of Ethiopia has left 4.6 million across the country needing emergency assistance, according to the latest government estimates. And 75,000 children are suffering with severe acute malnutrition.

On a recent Wednesday morning in the West Arsi Zone, a large crowd of people gather outside the government offices in the Shalla district, where, according to government figures, 55,598 people have been identified as needy, but only 10,000—people with the most severe wants—are getting help. In this crisis, distinctions based on need have begun to blur.

"For us, it is becoming even more difficult to tell who is the poorest of the poor," says one man.

The faces of the people in the crowd are gaunt, their clothes are tattered. Suddenly, a low roar swells from their midst. They surge from the compound and out onto the road, surrounding a pair of aid workers in a dense, crushing circle. They are desperate to tell their stories, desperate for help.

A middle-aged man shouts out that local officials promised two weeks ago to support the people with wheat, oil, and corn, but so far he has received nothing. Instead, the crowd's vigil, now in its fourth day, is met only with this admonition: wait.

An elderly man adds that one of those in the crowd on the road couldn't wait anymore and died there the day before.

Others say they have been filling their stomachs with a leafy weed that has sprung up since the rains came. But the greens—boiled in water and salted—have made some of their children sick with diarrhea.

Weak from lack of real food and their stomachs filled with forage, the children of one mother sometimes faint on their way to school.

"Can you help me?" she asks, staring at the aid workers.

Lines at a feeding center

A short distance away, mothers rest on a long line of benches under the shade of a giant tree at the Shalla health center. Small children, unnaturally still, sit on their laps, their cries occasionally piercing the din. This is a feeding center where some of the weakest children come for a week's supply of Plumpy Nut—a nutrient-packed food supplement for malnourished children.

Not all hungry children qualify for the supplement. Some are deemed still well enough not to require it. One of them is the 11-month-old son of a single mother. He is her only child, and desperate to have him get more food, she offers to give him away to an aid worker—a gesture of hopelessness other mothers make, too.

A five-year-old girl holds the hand of her father as she limps slowly toward the packets of Plumpy Nut a worker is counting out for her. She has recently spent 15 days in a hospital in Shashemene because of severe malnutrition, and is now strong enough to rejoin her family. But her mother is sick following the delivery of a new baby, and the two-and-a-half acres of seeds her father just planted for the next harvest have all been washed away by a sudden heavy rain.

"We are facing so many disasters at the same time," says the leader of a local community, where he notes that one man died the day before and many of the women are sinking into exhaustion. "Drought, flood, disease."

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