Ethiopia 30 years after Band Aid

Harrowing BBC footage of famine inspired Bob Geldof to record the Band Aid single in 1984. Joyce Fegan reports from the country on the Dubliner’s lasting legacy

Joyce Fegan

Published 16/11/2014 | 02:30

Band Aid recording ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’
Bob Geldof and Midge Ure
Harriet and Martin Andrews, who live in Ethiopia, with their children (from left) Joanne, Noel and Ruth

Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, should not be an attractive city and yet it is.


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Goats and donkeys weave their way in and out of the traffic, large animal carcasses hang from the stalls of street vendors and the cityscape is made up of corrugated sheets of iron.

But there is an unidentifiable beauty that progress and hope have brought.

From the horrors of the famine of 1984, where one million people starved to death, it is hard to imagine that Ethiopia could, in just three decades, become a place of beauty.

“The worst thing was breast-feeding mothers, the child dying at their breast, they had nothing to get from their mothers,” remembers farmer Kidane Girmai (68) of the Ethiopian famine, which he survived.

My mother would have been six months pregnant with me when she sat down to watch the famous BBC reports by Michael Buerk from Ethiopia 30 years ago.

It was these moving clips that inspired Bob Geldof to create Band Aid and the charity single ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’.

“I think we were very lucky at the time that Bob Geldof sat in that evening and saw those pictures,” says Mike McDonagh, the Irish head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance (UN OCHA) in Ethiopia. “Otherwise, it might just have been a case of footage for one or two nights on BBC and then it would have gone away.

“This all started with Band Aid and Live Aid,” says Mike who has lived on and off in Ethiopia since 1983.

Having tales of human misery and music videos as my only reference points for Ethiopia, arriving there, just 30 short years on, I expected to find a broken, grieving and barren country.

But I was wrong – it is thriving.

Kidane Girmai explains how his life has changed in those intervening years: “I can afford to send all my children to school – I never imagined I would get this opportunity.

“We ate the skin of animals because they had no meat so people ate the skin.”

The drought coupled with the Soviet-backed dictatorship, the Derg, in Ethiopia, almost bled his country dry.

“Now we are happy, me and my family and my neighbours, because now we are at work and because we are in a better position,” says Kidane.

He is from the northern part of Ethiopia, Tigray, the epicentre of the 1984 famine, a place he has never left. Nowadays, he produces 3.5 tonnes of potatoes a year.

But the beauty is not just to be found in the changed lives of the people in this East African country of 85 million people.

The scorched earth of 1984 is bearing fruit again and, standing in a field in the Damayno valley in the north of the country, the proof is there before your very eyes. Here you see lush landscapes, children in school uniforms and fields filled with crops.

Paul Sherlock, a development specialist, from Co Monaghan, first arrived here in 1996.

“Thirty years ago, this area was absolutely barren, there was very little vegetation, people in the area had all decided to leave, to migrate, because they couldn’t see this area as a place where you could raise a family or grow vegetables.

“Now it’s very green in the area, families can grow crops, the water table has risen and we’ve got irrigation in the valley,” says Paul, head of development in the Irish embassy in Ethiopia.

“When you look back over the years, it came from a very difficult environment and with long-term investment in the area, what we’ve seen is an environment coming back to life,” he adds.

Some of that investment came from Irish Aid. Taxpayers’ money went to seed development in Ethiopia – the seeds that Kidane is now using.

It also went to irrigation projects – the water that is now helping the Damayno valley flourish.

Sometimes we never know where our money goes to, or whether it has had any impact or not, but standing talking to Kidane and looking into his eyes, the fruit of our labour is evidently ripe.

It is not, however, just Irish tax payers’ money that has given Ethiopia a leg up.

Irish people, ever since Bob Geldof began Live Aid and Band Aid, have been working and living out here.

“I first arrived in Ethiopia in 1983. It was at the time of the Derg. I stayed up until the middle of 1984, there were just 40 million people,” says Mike McDonagh of the UN.

“Ethiopia has made enormous progress, but the population increase – from 40 million in 1983 to 94 million in 2014 – for me, remains a very serious inhibitor to progress and growth,” warns Mike.

While the country has made huge improvements, 80pc of its people live in rural areas, in huts made from mud and straw. In spite of its poverty today, Ethiopia is home to 650,000 refugees, including 200,000 people fleeing the conflict in South Sudan.

“It’s remarkable that a country that is way down the human development index, at something like 167 out of 183, has allowed 650,000 people to come in from the neighbours,” says Mike.

Another Irish man, Martin Andrews, has also made Ethiopia his home, after he and his wife, Harriet, adopted three children there.

“I used to build hospitals before I came here. This is not my world at all, I was involved in the construction industry in Ireland for years, I would have done the Beacon Clinic,” explains Mike. “We were looking to adopt children internationally and we looked at a variety of different countries and Ethiopia became a very obvious choice very quickly because, it was completely transparent,” he adds.

“They lived in Ireland and we were 18 months in Australia before coming here.

“We wanted to come back here with the children so that they wouldn’t feel strangers to their native country when they’re older,” explains Martin.

Martin and Harriet live in the little sanctuary that is the world-famous Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa with their 10-year-old twin girls, Joanne and Ruth, and seven-year-old son, Noel.

Martin is the CEO of the hospital set up by the three-time Nobel Prize nominee, Dr Catherine Hamlin, in 1959, for young girls and women who develop a fistula because their bodies are not yet ready for child birth.

President Michael D Higgins last week visited the country and praised the contribution of the Irish people.

Contribution is something that Irish people make, be it Bob Geldof or the taxpayer – and if you want to bear witness to it, visit Ethiopia.

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