By Kagondu Njagi
Gondar — When increasingly erratic weather ruined his crops of maize, wheat and barley in highland Maksegni, the middle-aged farmer migrated to Metemma, in northwest Ethiopia, to look for work in the lowland area’s commercial sesame and cotton plantations.
There he picked up more than work. Today the 39-year-old is infected with visceral leismaniasis – a disease commonly called kalaazar – and with HIV.
The father of two, who is being treated at the University of Gondar, is among an estimated 300,000 Ethiopians who migrate to the plantations near the Sudan border every year, looking for new sources of income as their farms struggle.
But as they flee from hunger, they enter into sandfly territory, and bites by the insects spread kalaazar, a parasitic disease that is usually fatal if untreated. The loneliness of being away from family also leaves them vulnerable to HIV, researchers say.
“It is a kalaazar endemic area,” explained Ermias Diro, a researcher at the university’s clinic. “A lot of people travel there to look for work and in the process they get bitten by the sandfly.”
“After working throughout the day in the farmland they rest under a tree where there is shade,” he added. “It is a very hot place and they may not be dressed fully, so they get bitten.”
FAILING CROPS, RISING MIGRATION
Experts have linked more irregular rainfall and crop failures to a rise in migrant workers in Ethiopia. Meteorologists said Maksegnit, in the highlands, should record as much as 1,059 millimeters of rainfall during the peak season, but in the last few years rainfall has been as low as 317 millimeters.
That has led to a decline in staple crop farming, while cash crop farming in the lowlands pulls the struggling poor from the highlands, and toward new health threats.