The front pages of international media outlets highlights the
catastrophic drought driven famine in the Horn of Africa, where over 11 million
people could vanish unless urgent relief is delivered on time.
Indeed, humanitarian aid from all over the world is being delivered by
all means to rescue the lives of millions. Ethiopians have their hearts out to
those who are suffering because Ethiopians know very well what it means to go
hungry. We are doing everything within our capacity to help those who are
The current drought driven hunger brings back tear-shedding memories of
the early 1970s and 1980s where millions lost their lives for want of only
something to eat and drink, in a world that spends billions of dollars on
military hardware or cigarettes. While the international media has indeed
appealed to the conscience of the people of the world at large, it has also
unfortunately left ugly scars on the image of the country, an image that
Ethiopians have to restore by all possible means.
Ethiopians in the Diaspora find it particularly disturbing, if not
offending, to be equated to people coming from "the land of famine" as if
drought is of their own making. The offense is even more aggravated by
foreigners when they stare at Ethiopians as they are eating food, as if they
have never tasted food.
What I heard last Sunday at an Ethiopian wedding feast in Louvain, some
25Km west of Brussels, is a telling demonstration of how Ethiopians collaborate
strongly to defend their country's image. There were dozens of invited guests
present at the wedding party. Some were Eritreans, while there were also a
couple of guests who were recent immigrants from Somalia. The table set at a
corner was heavily laden with a large variety of Ethiopian dishes and beverages.
Some of the recipes included the popular chicken stew, mutton stew
without the red pepper, minced meat, roasted beef, spinach with meat, shiro wot,
mixed salad and many other European dishes.
The debate was triggered when a priest concluded his benedictions by
saying that we all should think about the millions of starving people back home.
Some of the European guests made offending remarks about the lavishly laden
table and the numerous varieties of food prepared so generously while millions
have no food to sustain their children and the feeble.
The Ethiopians were even more disturbed and vociferous in the defence
of Ethiopia's image. They felt provoked when some of the European guests were
helping themselves unashamedly and staring at the Africans as if to see if they
were eating greedily after a long spell of hunger.
An elderly Ethiopian man intervened and argued that it was totally
unacceptable and inconsiderate to define the term Ethiopia, equating the term
with famine. He said that he was sad to listen to offensive remarks against
Ethiopia by people who had visited the country, and who had even taken advantage
of the generosity of Ethiopians.
The elder went on to say that the country’s culture of hospitality
cannot be more clearly demonstrated than the act of giving sanctuary to all
people migrating from neighbouring countries, including Eritrea. He said that
Ethiopians have sacrificed their lives by committing to UN missions as
peacekeepers in Korea, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda,
Somalia as well as the Sudan. Incidentally, the bridegroom was an Eritrean by
Some of the foreign guests were trying to express their sympathy with
dubious explanations of imprudence for the uninformed statements they made
earlier. But the proponents were not easy to appease.
There seemed to be a general agreement on the fact that natural
calamities can occur anywhere in the world at any time. In fact, such natural
disasters like earthquakes, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions, devastating
hurricanes as well as tsunamis have taken place this year and caused the death
and dislocation of hundreds of thousands of people in many countries of the
world, not to speak of property damage. Our hearts are filled without pouring
The elder recalled the sad memory of the 1974 and the 1984 famines
during which hundreds of thousands of people had lost their lives. Sad to note,
however, many lives could have been spared in time if an early warning systems
had been put in place and there was infrastructure that would have facilitated
easy marketing arrangements. One recalls that there were districts with surplus
food and production next to the drought stricken areas. If it were not for the
lack of transport and marketing system, hundreds of thousands of lives could
have been saved.
Johnathan Dimbilby of the BBC, through his film "The Hidden Hunger,"
had exposed the catastrophic situation to the rest of the world and had
succeeded in fetching urgent relief aid. That was a revelation that fuelled the
national opposition, which culminated in a revolution that brought down the
feudal government into a shambles.
But at the same time, that horrifying film also left an ugly scar that
could not be erased from the country's image even 38 years after those events.
It is indeed a pity that some people see Ethiopia in the light of that
Natural calamities could be unavoidable. But the big question remains,
can we take action to alleviate the danger? Experience has shown that we can
protect the environment from disaster. Pollution can be minimised. Degradation
of soil can be combated through rehabilitation or reforestation programmes.
Agricultural production can be enhanced through the use of irrigation
agriculture by constructing dams and reservoirs. Ethiopia is doing just that.
Nothing more can justify dam projects than saving human life. Incidentally, the
Ethiopian Diaspora residing in Belgium is trying to establish a committee that
would study ways to help the victims of the drought in the south-eastern part of
The value of broadcasting information in times of crises is obvious,
but there is an argument about the merits and demerits of the film "The Hidden
Hunger." Despite the relief aid that came into the country as a result of the
film, is it possible that Ethiopia could have been better off in the long-term
if the documentary was not aired?