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Hungry to Learn

Feeding schoolchildren in famine-plagued parts of Ethiopia

by Don Duncan with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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Driving through much of Ethiopia these days provides a strong counterpoint to images of the country that persist in the Western mind — images rooted in the horrific days of famine of the 1970’s and 80’s. Today, one is confronted with visions of growth, intense construction and, in the rainy season from June to September, lush and very green vegetation as far as the eye can see.

But in some parts of the country, as in the valleys and ravines surrounding the northern town of Adigrat, you can turn a corner and be plunged back three decades — arid, sparse and dusty landscapes, malnourished farmers with tales of hardship and woe. By and large, Ethiopia as a whole is doing much better these days, but in places like Sebeya, Awo and Alitena near the northern border with Eritrea, famine and death are never far from the doorstep.

“I already shiver when I think of the dry season months that are coming. For some schools, we are not sure we will be able to secure food on time,” says Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin of Adigrat, whose eparchy of the Ge’ez Catholic Church administers some 52 schools in the region. “This is how we live, in a continuous kind of uncertainty.”

It is July, the fields have been planted and this continuous kind of uncertainty reigns over them. Farmers like Gebremichael Gebru, 68, from the village of Sebeya, about 20 miles from Adigrat, look to the skies for the much needed rain. So far, it has not come. If none falls in the next month, says Mr. Gebru, the harvest will be ruined and his family will have a very hungry year.

One of the many consequences of this condition is fainting — children passing out in class because they have had no breakfast and have no lunch to eat. The task of concentrating on a blackboard overpowers them.

“We usually eat three times a day, but when food is short we only eat once a day,” says Gebremichael Gebru’s 10-year-old son, Teklit, who attends the local Holy Trinity School. “I have to go to school hungry sometimes. It’s very difficult.”

The family used to have more than two and a half acres of land. But in Ethiopia, where the state owns all the land and has very strong powers of eminent domain, the government took half of that land to provide space for housing for the village’s growing population.

“It’s not enough land for us,” says Mr. Gebru. “Now, as there is no rain, I plan to move from tillage to livestock. I’m not interested in cultivation anymore. It’s not sustainable.”

Sustainability is the current watchword of the Ethiopian government and its international development partners. The numerous terraces lining the surrounding hills, the small dams, reservoirs and canals that punctuate the landscape attest to this. But in Sebeya and other rural outposts, such infrastructure for irrigation and water preservation looks obsolete and resembles the debris of a former, defunct civilization where living off the land in comfort and dignity was possible.

In some corners of the country, sustainability is a dream and simply surviving can be a struggle.

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