Facing famine

Only a half-day's walk from drought-stricken Adere Lepho, the Keter River provides plenty of water for drinking, bathing, washing, and a new government irrigation project.
Only a half-day's walk from drought-stricken Adere Lepho, the Keter River provides plenty of water for drinking, bathing, washing, and a new government irrigation project. (Lane Turner/ Globe Staff)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / April 20, 2003

ADERE LEPHO, Ethiopia - Burtukan Abe braces against the hard mud wall as Osman, her 2-year-old son, wails and wobbles on stick legs.

Are there others? I ask.

Yes, one, she says. A boy, 1 month old. He is inside.

There is no turning back. Through the low, narrow doorway, in the darkness that guards cool by day, heat by night, lies little Nurhusein.

May I see him?

. . .

This journey began weeks earlier, when yet another report described widespread drought and the threat of famine across much of Africa.

What can that life be like?

Travel often approaches boundaries of wealth and health. But what does it feel like to cross those boundaries and enter a place that is, everywhere, collapsing? What comes from knowing people who, with an empty grain basket or a thinning goat, edge closer to death?

The route led first to Addis Ababa, a highland capital, then east and south, down into rolling stretches of the Great Rift Valley. In the tattered town of Ogolcho, Berhanu Muse, a local irrigation specialist, agreed to serve as translator and guide.

A narrow road of rock headed south, through one village, then another, for one hour, then two.

In late afternoon, before evening wind lifted dirt from north to south, east to west, we stopped and parked near a hilltop. A man and woman collected grain from a tall stick bin on the corner of their rectangular plot of land.

Gebi Egato offered his hand from his perch inside the bin. Halima, his wife, smiled warmly, then carried a half-filled sack toward the family's low, round hut. Abdo, a 3-year-old with determined eyes, barreled out the door.

I asked if we could stay.

"Welcome," Gebi said.

For four nights, a photographer and I would sleep here, beneath open sky, then wake to wander this village of 1,000 people. We would step into a schoolhouse, a clinic, and other thatch-roofed huts, including the one that held Nurhusein.

But that first afternoon, the village came to us. They were mostly old, all men, a group of perhaps two dozen. Many held walking sticks, one a long spear. One man said he would like to show us something: a hole, not too far, that used to hold water. The hole was shallow and wide, perhaps the size of a Boston backyard. It was empty, nothing but hard earth.

The men calmly debated how many months it had been since water filled the hole. Flies buzzed and jumped from eyelids to lips.

A young schoolteacher, a specialist in math and science, sat at my side, his legs crossed, hands in his lap.

"Thirst is thirst, hunger is hunger," he said.

Hours later, I awoke to a setting moon and could imagine this land as it long had been: Beneath my cot, wheat, barley, and teff shot from the ground. Birds swarmed tree branches, trading throaty, bubbling calls. Water pooled in ditches and holes. Thick green hedges framed the farmyard.

Gebi would describe to me what this can feel like. The land offers so much bounty, so much comfort, he said, that even when the sun is high and hot, you want to lie down on the earth, close your eyes, and sleep.

. . .

In the hut's outer room, there is a low, wooden bench, but little else. The food, furniture, even a grandmother and three uncles have gone.

Now, five people remain: Burtukan, the mother, age 19; Abdurkedir Beriso, her husband, 27; Abduraman Beriso, his brother, 16. And the children, Osman and Nurhusein.

They have no animals, no money. Neighbors share hard bread and flour.

"I have nowhere to go," Abdurkedir told me. "I will die here."

From behind a curtain, in the hut's back room, I hear the rustle of blankets, a whimper, a soothing voice: sounds of a mother gathering a baby in her arms.

. . .

On our first morning, as nighttime hilltop sounds - a howling hyena, a barking dog, a farting donkey - gave way to those of dawn, we were outsiders, in the cool air, listening.

Beneath Gebi and Halima's thatch roof, Abdo squealed and pouted. Bontu, barely a year old, cried for breakfast.

Soon, with the fire made, the children fed, Halima strapped plastic canisters on the back of the family donkey and began to walk. Gebi followed with the ox.

Halima sauntered gracefully, as though out for a stroll. She crossed a parched soccer field to a footpath lined with huts. She greeted a woman walking toward her. They held hands and talked.

Farther along, in an empty cradle of land set back from the trail, a stack of branches and twigs covered a hole, roughly 12 inches in diameter. Three times, the government had tried to dig a well in this village, which sits far from any river. The last time, a powerful machine made the narrow hole and bore in search of water. Villagers gathered and watched as earth spit upward. Then the drill bit broke, 820 feet underground. It was there, still.

Halima walked on, for more than an hour, then stopped in a spot of shade. She untied the canisters and knelt by a wide pond of muddy water. The pond teemed with salmonella, the root of typhoid fever, and parasites that thrive in intestines, infecting 70 percent of Adere Lepho's children.

Another young woman leaned at the pond's edge and filled every last ounce of space in her canister. She stuffed the spout with a plug of withered grass.

Hundreds of people came each day to this pond, the only water source for Adere Lepho and two neighboring villages, and carted home water to quench the thirst of thousands.

A month earlier, this pond, too, had been nearly empty. Then two days of heavy February rain filled it. How long would it last? Even village elders, men and women 40, 45, and 50 years old, had never seen this kind of drought.

Two years earlier, and two years before that, meager rains had fallen. Families had to sell animals, eat thinner harvests, and spend precious savings just to survive. But this was worse: The February downpour was the first time it had rained in nearly a year.

Late the next afternoon, rain fell. As the drops landed thick and heavy, men, women, and children took shelter in the low, open building that houses the village's grain mill. After three, maybe four minutes, the rain stopped.

Women heaved sacks of grain, some of them holding well-rationed harvests from years past, others gifts from farmland half a world away, onto a scale. Across the room, the mill owner sat alongside a conveyor belt spun by a howling generator, the only power in the village. The owner opened sacks into the mouth of a grinder that turned kernel to flour. Dust filled the air, sticking to hair and eyelashes.

Outside, dozens of men gathered beneath the branches of a wide tree.

Gebi Tola, elected leader of a local farmer's group, explained that the government had offered land for 10 volunteers to move to another region. The government owns all land in Ethiopia. This resettlement program provided a rare chance.

The men, sitting on the ground in orderly rows, faced Tola. He explained that some plots of land were north, in a neighboring district. Most would be farther, 300 miles to the west.

Voices rose. How can we know this land is good, one man asked. How can we trust that life will be better there?

Kedir Husein, a young father who had stood to ask many questions, stepped away from the group. He told me he had decided not to volunteer to leave.

"I am afraid," he said.

. . .

Nurhusein emerges, his head resting in the crook of his mother's left elbow.

A soft cotton blanket opens to shocks of slick, curly hair. Tiny fingers spread in the air. I touch Nurhusein's forehead, cool and smooth.

"He is beautiful," I say.

Nurhusein bleats softly. His lips often latch on to a dry breast. He has a small stomachache, Burtukan tells me.

The bleating rises then falls, just beyond the blanket's edge.

Nurhusein is already too wise. It is as if he knows.

. . .

Morning inside Gebi Egato's hut: Glowing coals. Boisterous children. Hearty porridge. A calf, head low, softly chewed its cud.

Shilla, the oldest at 5, licked her fingers and pondered her favorite foods as Abdo crammed both hands full of porridge.

"Milk," she said. She raised her head and smiled. "And sugar."

Finished, Shilla and Abdo scrambled to waiting friends. Gebi and Halima took turns digging a wooden scoop deep into a jug decorated with shells.

Each bite brought more peril.

Gebi's tired cow and thirsty goats were giving little milk. The porridge was made from wheat that had been meant as seed for planting if the spring rains came. Neighbors with less were already selling cows and goats, driving prices down.

As the coals darkened, I asked how long the family could last.

Gebi told me that in two weeks the family's wheat would be gone. He would then sell his goats, then the cow. Then the ox and, finally, the donkey. He paused.

"Five months," he said.

Gebi, like most villagers a Muslim, said he was confident rain would come. Then, he could partner his ox with that of a neighbor and together they could churn the dark, moist earth.

"We have seen so much hardship already, God will not add more," Gebi said. "I hope."

After breakfast, Gebi took the donkey and walked beneath the high sun for three hours. He crested three low ridges and crossed three shallow valleys. The first was carpeted in six inches of dust. The second traced the steep gorge of a dry creek. The third, staggered with acacia trees, opened widely toward the village of Cheffe Jilla.

A group of men, women, children, and donkeys swayed in the village's main square. White sacks of grain sat in lopsided piles. Gebi joined the hopeful and registered his name in a government office.

I saw Gebi Tola, the leader of Adere Lepho's farmer's association, standing beneath a tree. He told me families from his village would take home 500 sacks of grain. But they could use 1,000. How do you judge the needy when a whole village is staggering?

He spoke quickly. A crowd of dozens, young, old, pressed in around us.

I asked Gebi how he felt.

"I feel sorry," he said.

I had grown used to stoicism. But sorry? I stepped aside with Berhanu, our translator. "Sorry" does not feel like the right word, I said.

In English, I explained, "sorry" often has a light sense. Sorry I stepped on your toe. Sorry I'm late for dinner. It is not something felt by someone watching his friends and neighbors beginning to starve.

Berhanu is a compassionate, intimate man. He raised his hand to his chin.

He told me that, in that case, "sorry" was not the word he meant.

The crowd moved in again and curious eyes followed our exchange.

I asked Berhanu to choose another English word that more closely matched the Oromigna word Tola had used.

He could not find an exact translation. I asked him to describe the feeling.

"Well," Berhanu said, "it is the feeling you have when something bad happens. Say, for example, when you lose your lovely brother. Is there a word in English for that?"


Yes, Berhanu said calmly, that is part of it.

Emptiness? Yes, he said, that too.

Anguish, despair?

His eyes sparked at the connection.

Anger? Yes.

Frustration? Yes.

Fear? No.

Fear, Berhanu said, like sorry, was too light a word.


Yes, Berhanu said, "terror" is a good word.

. . .

I stand before Nurhusein and start to cry.

Is it empathy? I have a 10-month-old son, a spirited boy with muscles across his back and a quick laugh.

Or am I crying from fear?

In the hot sun, looking from hut to hut, from face to face, the problem was always too vast.

I stare at Nurhusein. I cannot look again into his mother's eyes.

Tom Haines can be reached at

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