In Ethiopia, hunger lurks as rain begins to fall

By Coco McCabe
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Hungry cattle take advantage of the recent rainfall in the West Arsi Zone which has turned grazing land green again.

The bones of emaciated cattle catch the sharp noon sun, casting shadows across their hides as they inch toward an old woman named Shitaye. Two of them are hers—all that's left of the small herd her family once relied on—and they are intent on only one thing: eating.

Rain has finally returned some green to the pastures on this broad lowland, and as the cows mow down the new blades and inhale them hungrily, Shitaye talks about her own hunger—months-long, paralyzing, intractable. Shitaye is not her real name. It has been changed to protect her security. Drought killed the harvest she had hoped to reap in June. Since January, family meals have consisted of a bit of corn and coffee in the morning with nothing else for the rest of the day. And some days there has been no food at all.

Here, in the West Arsi Zone of central Ethiopia, the convergence of failed rains, chronic poverty, and a wild spike in food prices, like those now roiling other parts of the globe, have left 320,000 people needing relief, according to government figures. Only some of them have gotten aid. Recently, the Ethiopian government more than doubled its figures for those requiring help as a consequence of drought that has gripped parts of the country. Now, the government says, 4.6 million people nationwide—up from 2.2 million earlier this year—need emergency assistance, and 75,000 children are suffering with severe acute malnutrition.

Aid workers report that in northern parts of Ethiopia's Somali region, where most people make their living as herders, rain has not fallen in two years. South, in the Dire district of Oromia's Borena Zone, the 45 days of rain that normally replenish the area between March and May dwindled to 15 last year, and just five this year, leaving pasturelands parched and fields too dry to produce the basic staples people depend on. According to the government, almost 62,000 people live in the district and 90 percent of them now need assistance.

Shitaye, a widow and grandmother of 10, says the current troubles are even worse than the hunger that killed about a million people in Ethiopia in 1984. This time, she says, there is no way families can supplement their meager household stocks by selling things in the market to buy food: Grain prices have climbed far out of reach.

In area markets toward the latter half of June, a quintal of corn was selling for 600 birr, or $64, and teff, a type of grain from which people make a pancake-like bread, had spiraled up to 1,100 birr, or $117, for the same volume—prices that are three times their normal amount.

In West Arsi, a major infusion of food for people and seeds for their fields will be essential to avoid an even deeper crisis next year. In its latest appeal, the Ethiopian government says it needs $325 million to meet the needs of beneficiaries across the country.

Oxfam International is responding to the crisis with a $2.42 million initiative aimed at helping 225,000 people in three regions—Oromia, Afar, Somali. Programs include the provision of clean drinking water for families and livestock, livestock vaccinations and feeding, the distribution of seeds to allow families to plant crops for the next harvest, and cash-for-work initiatives to help people earn some money.

"We're wondering if we'll survive until September," says a man sitting near Shitaye.

"We rest everything on our creator," she adds, cradling one of her grandchildren. "We beg him that everything will turn out to be good."

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