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Hunger and Hope In Eritrea

Long-term planning is beginning to change cycles of famine

text and photographs by Chris Hellier

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At the Ferhen feeding center in central Eritrea, 300 women and children gathered beneath the shade of a stand of acacia trees. Others waited along a dry river bed to weigh their malnourished children and to receive emergency food rations, including oil and concentrated milk-cereal mix.

“Last year about 120 mothers and children came each month. Now we’re up to 300,” said Yosef Hanit, a volunteer with the Catholic Eparchy of Keren, one of Eritrea’s three Eastern Catholic eparchies. “We work long days, often nine hours a day, to distribute the food correctly.”

Many of the women had walked two or three hours, with their children riding on donkeys, from the surrounding villages hidden among the hills. Obtaining enough drinking water often entails a similar three-to five-hour daily effort.

Following the complete lack of rain last year, Eritrea, in the impoverished Horn of Africa, is in the grip of one of the worst droughts in living memory. Two-thirds of the total population of 4.5 million desperately need food, according to government figures. Those affected most include internally displaced persons forced from their homes during the recent border conflict with Ethiopia; 75,000 people of Eritrean origin expelled from Ethiopia; refugees returning from abroad and people with AIDS. In addition, a third of the country’s livestock is severely short of water and fodder; livestock prices have fallen by 30 percent while grain prices have more than doubled in four months.

“Things have been getting worse and worse since 1997,” explained Sister Efret of the Daughters of St. Anne, who works for the Keren Catholic Secretariat.

“Every year there is less and less rain.”

In response, the secretariat has established 15 feeding centers, such as the one in Ferhen, to distribute emergency food supplies to pregnant women, nursing mothers and children under 5 who are less than 80 percent their ideal body weight. Under this program, strict records ensure only the needy receive supplementary food, the reason for weighing the children.

“We must act now,” urged Abune Kidane Yebio, Bishop of Keren. “Children are suffering from low body weight. This will have long-term consequences on their intelligence. Even now many children have problems concentrating.”

Local women have been trained to weigh and measure children and to assist in food distribution. Other measures include better wells and water pumps, agricultural improvements and AIDS counseling. The secretariat has repaired 20 hand pumps and distributed millet, sorghum and barley seeds to more than 8,000 farmers in the Anseba region of northern Eritrea, one of the most severely affected regions.

“We are also developing income-generating programs such as poultry farming,” said Sister Efret. “We don’t want people to become dependent on aid in the long term.”

Five women from 30 villages have each received 15 chickens to encourage egg production. Before receiving the birds, however, the women must attend a workshop conducted by the Ministry of Agriculture on the proper care of poultry. Only then is there a real chance that eggs could become an important supplement to the local diet.

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Tags: Children Education Eritrea Farming/Agriculture Drought