‘Rahab S’nt Qen Yifejal?’1 - Reflections of a well-fed visitor

I. A Bad Dream?

The emptiness and despair in the eyes of the three children who were sharing a tiny dirt spot in one of the crowded makeshift shelters were horrifying. Their mother, helplessly lying beside them, placed the palm of her bony left hand under her hollow left cheek while holding the wrist of her famished three-year-old daughter as if trying to feel the child’s remote pulse. The two boys, too weak to sit upright, shifted their eyes from their little sister to their mother and again back to their little sister in a manner that revealed their hidden horror of losing either one in a matter of hours. The skeletal bodies of all four only managed to make very few slow gestures as if to conserve every last drop of energy within them.
Their, especially the children’s, eerie calm posed quite an alarming contrast to me given the tragic scenario that was unfolding before my eyes. “Is not a child supposed to cry when it becomes hungry,” I asked myself. “Not in this case,” a voice within me replied. “One has to be blessed with adequate energy to cry,” the voice added. “Is this what being on the verge of death really mean,” I quietly wondered. Yemot afaf, I kept repeating to myself. Looking at my surroundings in disbelief, I tried vainly not to heed such a morbid thought. Persistent questions nonetheless kept haunting me: “What is this? Why? Why so much suffering? Why? Why the children? Why? Why?” All were empty questions that hardly made any difference, or sense, to the dying children.

Grieved and slightly incoherent, my head was spinning from the numerous noisy emotions that the scene generated in it. I looked around, mesmerized by the unspeakable misery that was encompassed within the surreal setting. Egzio, I kept repeating impulsively. What a nightmare! No, it was not the type of nightmare one would experience while sleeping. This particular nightmare was real and I was in the middle of it, albeit witnessing and not sharing the agony of others. The unbearable pain of the three siblings and their mother was multiplied throughout that awful death camp. Thousands of starving individuals too weak to even carry a casual conversation and indifferent to their gloomy surroundings waited calmly till they met their final destiny. They had no guarantee that each breath they were taking was going to yield another. What a heartwrenching state of existence! The saddest aspect of it all was that such a mass misery was taking place in the information super highway era of the new millennium. Yes, it was the year 2000; the month of May 2000 to be exact. The location: Gode, in the Harerghe teqlai gizat of eastern Ethiopia.

II. Again?!

The two humanitarian missions that I embarked as a member of a communitybased organization have given me a horrifying perspective on the deadly consequences of hunger that I otherwise would not have gotten from disturbing pictures and gruesome media coverage of a famine crisis2. The severity of human sufferings I witnessed during the two trips has inflicted on me the deepest of emotional scars that shall remain with me for the rest of my life. Professor Mesfin Wolde Mariam’s superb analysis adequately summarizes what I observed: “Famine is the most negative state of food consumption under which people, unable to replace even the energy they lose in basal metabolism, consume whatever is stored in their bodies; that means they literally consume themselves to death.”3 Indeed, what I witnessed in Gode and other parts of Ethiopia were the fatal consequences of hunger and its traumatizing effects on those who survive its aftermath.

In one of his remarkable speeches delivered almost four decades ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Nobel Prize-winning civil rights leader, said: “There is nothing new about poverty, what is new is that we now have the resources and techniques to get rid of it. Why should there be hunger and privation in any land, in any city, at any table when man has the resources and the scientific know-how to provide all mankind with the basic necessities of life? There is no deficit in human resources; the deficit is in human will.”4 Indeed, the hunger problem in our country requires every concerned citizen’s undivided attention. All of us who claim to be Ethiopians and who can afford three meals a day must not rest until hunger is eliminated from every corner of our country. The problem is very deep; so should be our determination to fight it. The challenges are enormous, but we cannot afford to run away from them. Most of our problems that cause us so much sufferings are manmade, not breeds of nature. From my own limited observation, the biggest challenge in the fight against hunger and poverty comes from none other than the government itself. Futile policies cause the most harm to the Ethiopian population more than other factors.

III. Divide - Deprive, Too - and Rule

Based on its performance records, the current government’s failure to govern with accountability is nothing short of criminal. Its inability to devise and implement suitable land, agricultural, fiscal, and development policies has made the proper management of the country’s natural and human resources impossible. Moreover, the continuing suffering of millions of Ethiopians in recent years from severe food shortages is an unequivocal proof to the miserable failure of the government’s policies. The Ethiopian people are also worse off today because of EPRDF’s5 evil ethnocentric policy that put severe limits on people’s mobility and economic activities. I can bluntly assert here that one of the objectives of EPRDF’s ethnic policies is to eliminate certain segments of the Ethiopian population thus diminishing the potential threat of any political dissent. Until I come across a tangible reason to convince me otherwise, I shall stand by my assertion. There is no excuse that would justify the starving of millions of people in 2000.

The recent mass starvation of a large segment of the Ethiopian population, thus, can rightfully prompt a charge of genocide against the government. The regime’s blatant unaccountability, fraud, deception, corruption, and political persecution have become major hindrances for any form of sustainable development. It should never be forgotten also that besides compromising the territorial integrity of the Ethiopian nation, the government is also responsible for spreading ethnic hatred among the numerous groups that lived in harmony for centuries. This in turn has immensely contributed to widespread hunger by preventing people to travel within the country in search of opportunities and better living conditions. The government’s utter carelessness towards the people’s welfare is boundless. In the early months of 2000, for instance, the government was totally immersed in organizing a celebration while thousands of lives were perishing under the merciless grips of starvation.6

The agricultural sector in particular is the primary victim of the current regime’s negligence. Farmers in Wello who were victims of the 2000 famine told me that their plea to get financial and technical assistance for an irrigation project aimed at containing the deadly impacts of drought was ignored for several years before they were told it had been rejected. Besides, they added, the government forced them to buy fertilizers at high prices even while they were languishing under severe drought and hunger. The disconcerting aspect of the fertilizer issue is that one of the government’s ethnic-based business agencies served as the sole importer and supplier of the fertilizers.

IV. Food, the Rare Item

The Ethiopian Economic Association’s 1999/2000 annual report states: “It is abundantly clear that Ethiopian agriculture is in a very bad shape. A country once considered the breadbasket of Africa has become an economic basket case. The situation in the agriculture sector has gotten from bad to worse as…ideologically driven policies with little practical relevance to our conditions, were forcibly imposed on powerless peasants in the form of state policies.”7

Vulnerability to frequent famines and other natural and manmade disasters has forced Ethiopia to seek outside help on several occasions. Not to mention the injustice we as a nation suffered under the League of Nations and again under the United Nations system that endorsed the recent illegal secession of one of our provinces, the international community’s humanitarian gesture towards our distress has been kind. But we must ask ourselves for how long we are going to keep seeking foreign assistance. Are we going to depend on foreign humanitarian aid to fulfill our basic needs? In the introduction to one of his books, Alex de Waal wrote: “Humanitarianism does not prevent famine – a fact that is of concern primarily to the people variously described as its ‘beneficiaries’ and ‘recipients’. But these people are excluded from having a significant voice should they decide to dispute its axioms.”8 Putting emphasis on domestic solutions to prevent largescale disasters, De Waal continues: “History is replete with successful methods of preventing famine. Common to them are versions of ‘political contract’ that impose political obligations on rulers. In the most effective anti-famine contracts, famine is a political scandal. Famine is deterred. The contract is enforced by throwing out a government that allows it to happen or otherwise punishing those in power.”9

But how, one may inquire, is Ethiopia’s starving, powerless citizenry that has been robbed off its basic human rights under two consecutive tyrannies -one military and the current military and ethnocentric- going to punish a criminal government? Although we all agree that the people of Ethiopia need a heavy dose of socio-economic and political empowerment to overcome all the evils that are imposed on them through ill governance, we have yet to identify the best and effective methods that may yield such an empowerment. One of the first steps, many propose, should focus on establishing a system that honors human rights. De Waal said, “When famine prevention is recognized as a human right, and fought for using the sorts of political structures that exist when human rights are respected, then famine can be conquered. This is not to abandon humanitarianism, which can again be a force for ethical progress. But a humanitarianism that sets itself against or above politics is futile. Rather we should seek a form of politics that transforms humanitarianism.”10It is for this very reason, therefore, that we ought to be skeptical, nay wary, of the way some relief agencies bank on the miseries of our people.

The tragic consequences of famine, unfortunately, have become sources of lucrative entrepreneurial ventures for some while others see them as opportunities to promote whatever agenda they carry. From my own observation, the relief industry is not enthusiastic about programs that permanently eradicate famine and poverty. I have my own suspicion that the relief industry is primarily engaged in what de Waal calls ‘disaster tourism’11; primarily interested in media coverage and accumulation of funds from different sources. Although experiences of many nations confirm that famine is preventable, “the persistence of [it] reflects political failings by African governments, western donors and international relief agencies…. Despite prodigious expenditure and high public profile, relief agencies often do more harm than good…. As the influence and resources of UN agencies and NGOs have grown, the chances for effective local solutions have diminished."12 This is nowhere more apparent than it is in Ethiopia. One does not need to delve into complex economic theories and abstract data analyses to gain a fairly clear understanding of the development challenges Ethiopia faces today. Despite the loftier goals many of us envision to bring our country to the levels of other nations in the developing world, a linear -yet crucial and fatal- problem still remains unsolved. The problem is food. I repeat: Food! Not food security. Not malnutrition. Not balanced diet. Not adequate intakes of daily calories. Indeed, all these pose serious threats to a vast majority of the Ethiopian population.13 When compared to the total lack of life-sustaining food that affects millions of our citizens, however, they become less urgent. Again, I am not trying to diminish the importance of the other problems. I only want to place a strong emphasis on the urgent need to save the lives of millions of starving families in both rural and urban Ethiopia.

V. The Misery Continues

The unforgettable images from my trips are permanently etched in my mind as constant reminders of the forgotten millions of my own people who are not even entitled to a single piece of daily bread because of injustices committed against them by their own government. The dying children in Gode; the starving mothers in Dessie; the AIDSinfected, abandoned children in Addis; the famished, blind and handicapped families in West Shewa; the thousands of impoverished farmers at food distribution centers in Bistima, Fitche, Bako, and Kibre Mengist; the scores of hungry families returning from a Kuta-Ber food distribution center carrying empty grain sacks; the miserable camp near the banks of the Wabe Shebelle River, filled with the agonizing cries of more than 15,000 sick, hungry, and displaced people; the reddish muddy water people drink without any hesitation for lack of clean water in a small village called Dawwa Melleya in southern Ethiopia; and the disheartening images of men bitterly crying like children when they were informed that their and their families’ share of the day’s food ration was gone. Yes, these were just some of the tragic scenes that I came across as a ‘well-fed visitor’. As heart-wrenching as each was, however, one image in particular stands out above the rest: The unexplainable pain in the eyes of the starving children. As they quietly succumb to the merciless gnawing teeth of hunger, those eyes, I noticed, were equally pleading for justice as they were begging for food.14 Succeeding generations, I think, will keep crying for food - and justice - as long as those who “govern” fail to break the cycle of human-made tragedies; a gloomy prospect that bleeds my heart and wounds my soul. Then again, I inquire, what do I know about pain and suffering? I am only a well-fed visitor.


  1. One of the most profound pieces in Esat wey Abeba (Berhanena Selam Printing Press, 1966 E.C.), Poet Laureate Tsegaye Gebremedhin’s outstanding book of Amharic poetry, is Rahab S’nt Qen Yifejal?, which translates into “How long does hunger last?” - before devouring the starving individual, that is. The poem’s beauty partially lies under the compelling manner in which the poet formulates the grim, yet dreadfully puzzling, question of famine’s modus operandi that only the weak, starving - and dying - individual can answer; if only the individual could muster the energy to utter those words! Because of the poem’s eloquence and its relevance to what I witnessed, therefore, I have respectfully borrowed the phrase as a portion of this paper’s title.
  2. At the height of the 2000 famine, the clergy of the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo churches in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area organized a public meeting on April 22 to discuss and devise ways of assisting some of the ten million starving people in Ethiopia at the time. Under the auspices of the Gedame Tekle-Haymanot (GTH) Bible Association, a fifteen-member committee was formed with a mandate to lead the fundraising effort. Consequently the newly formed body, designated as the GTH Emergency Hunger Relief Committee, has raised more than a quarter of a million dollars till the day this paper was prepared. Besides raising funds and disbursing them through international and indigenous relief organizations, the Committee also dispatched two delegation teams that conducted working visits in Ethiopia in May/June 2000 and January 2001. Accordingly the two teams oversaw the implementation of the Committee’s first and second round financial donations of US$90,000 and $120,000, respectively, which the Committee earmarked to provide food assistance to hunger-stricken people in various parts of the country. This essay reflects the personal views of the writer who served as a member of both delegation teams. All opinions contained in this essay, therefore, are of the writer’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the Committee or its individual members.
  3. Mesfin Wolde Mariam. Rural Vulnerability to Famine in Ethiopia, 1958-1977 . London: Intermediate Technology Publications, 1986, p. 9.
  4. From the March 2, 1965 remarks of Dr. King delivered at the 98th Charter Day Convocation of Howard University. Howard University Archives, Washington, D.C.
  5. The Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) is the ethnocentric ruling party that seized power in 1991. EPRDF, in essence, is a cover name for TPLF (the Tigray People's Liberation Front). TPLF created EPRDF to give the former a broad-based coalition appearance.
  6. A sad irony is worth to note here: The military dictatorship that terrorized Ethiopia for seventeen years (1974-91) tried to cover up the 1984/85 famine until the completion of the tenth anniversary of the “great revolution." EPRDF repeated the same crime in the early months of 2000 not to “spoil” the25th anniversary of the founding of TPLF. History, no doubt, shall judge both regimes harshly for the horrifying atrocities they committed against millions of helpless Ethiopians.
  7. Befekadu Degefe and Berhanu Nega, eds. Annual Report on the Ethiopian Economy, Vol. I . Addis Ababa, Ethiopia: United Printers, 1999, p. 196.
  8. Alex de Waal. Famine Crimes: Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa . Oxford, Bloomington, and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1997.
  9. Ibid
  10. Ibid
  11. Ibid
  12. Ibid
  13. “One of the consequences of the poor performance of Ethiopian agriculture is widespread food insecurity,” wrote Degefe and Nega (eds.) in the Ethiopian Economic Association’s 1999/2000 annual report on the Ethiopian economy. “An estimated 50 to 60 percent of the country’s population is food insecure, or lives below the poverty line.” See Degefe and Nega, p.176.
  14. The somber tone of this paper is primarily triggered by the plight of the numerous children I saw during the course of the two trips. The dismal consequences of kilel politics combined with the inequitable allocation of funds and debilitating public policy measures are chief culprits of human suffering in Ethiopia. My outrage, therefore, is unequivocally directed towards the current government whose gross human rights abuses, poor governance, and devastating administrative shortcomings have condemned the Ethiopian people to a life of endless misery and hopelessness.

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