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Along with some of the desert areas of southeastern Ethiopia, the northern part of the Tigray region in the north of the country is identified as particularly precarious and prone to drought and famine. In recent decades, the area around Adigrat has been subject to two factors that have worsened its fate: population growth and a decrease in rainfall. For years now, the population of Tigray has grown rapidly. This means there are more mouths depending on the already limited productivity of the land. It has also caused human intervention such as deforestation — to build more houses and to heat them — which in turn reduces the soil quality and the amount of food that can be produced from it. Annual rainfall is also declining, a fact that exacerbates the food insecurity plaguing the region.

The inhabitants of the food-insecure regions of Tigray must subsist, for much of the year, on aid. From June to September, during the rainy season, they tend to live off the nutrient-rich fruit of the ubiquitous cacti, known locally as beles. Then, their partial harvest usually covers the food needs of the periods from September to December. However, it is from January to June that the region enters its annual purgatory. This is when the government, international development agencies such as the World Food Program and church charities such as CNEWA enter.

“Supporting a student in this way means a lot to a family because you are feeding one mouth,” says the Rev. Teum Berhe, director general of the Adigrat Catholic Secretariat, which helps administer CNEWA’s aid to hungry students in the region. “Secondly, this kind of food aid means that education is maintained. Feeding these children when there is no food around means that attendance is kept high and emigration is kept at bay.”

Low attendance at St. Michael School in Awo, a village some 30 miles from Adigrat, has been a problem directly related to food security. Students like Suzi Tesfay, 16, often cannot make it past two periods in class on an empty stomach.

“Some of us live far away and we have to walk a long distance to school,” she says. “We always go home early if we are hungry, so school feeding helps us stay.”

The school has 183 student and 11 teachers across 8 grades and both attendance and performance fluctuates according to the presence of food.

“It’s simple,” says Tesfay Berhe, the school’s director. “When we have school feeding, we have no dropouts. When we don’t have school feeding, we have a high dropout rate. Last year, 5 percent of the students dropped out.”

Grades also rise when food is available. Without it, some 5 percent of students score below 50 percent, the teacher says. With food, the number of students scoring below 50 percent is nil.

The stakes are high when dropping out is concerned. Emigration is rife in the region. It has become one way of coping with repeated drought. Many of Tigray’s sons and daughters emigrate illegally to Israel or the Gulf states so they can earn a living. It is a dangerous path and, in some cases, one that ends in tragedy.

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