‘Ethiopians are confused when we ask about the famine’

by Zelalem

Yeshi Endeg was 17 when a group of floppy-haired singers filed into a studio in Notting Hill to record the original Do They Know It’s Christmas? The Ethiopian mother of five shakes her head when asked if she has heard of Band Aid or Bob Geldof, but the release of the single, 30 years ago next Saturday, had a direct impact on her family’s life.

A few months after the Band Aid Trust was set up, Self Help Africa, then a fledgling Irish development agency, received one of its first substantial donations – $1 million – for irrigated horticultural projects in Meki Batu, south of Addis Ababa.

Endeg’s father was one of the farmers whom Self Help Africa organised into co-operatives to benefit from the project. Through an interpreter, she says this gave her family a more secure income. “Yes, I remember it. The farmers were supported with seeds and irrigation pumps. So the assistance coming from Self Help Africa was very much useful to the families.”

Today, Meki Batu Fruit and Vegetable Growers’ Co-operative Union represents 150 local co-operatives with almost 8,000 farmer members, including Endeg, her husband and her son.

As well as selling their fruit and vegetables locally, the union runs nine shops and is exporting green beans to the Netherlands. Now they are looking at producing sundried tomatoes and at canning tomatoes, to add value to their produce.

Ethiopia has experienced food shortages and droughts since the famine of the mid 1980s, but for many Irish people the country is indelibly linked with that disaster. Yet, on the several occasions we ask about the famine, we get confused looks in response. Fasika Kelemework, Self Help Africa’s head of programmes, says the reason is simple: we are in the centre of the country, but it was the north and the southeast that bore the brunt of food shortages, droughts and civil war. So did the rest of Ethiopia not know what was going on, while we were watching it on the evening news? “How could they?” he says. “There was no television, no radio, no phones.”

Animals dying

He says people remember animals dying because of the drought, but the suffering was nothing like it was in northern Ethiopia, where hundreds of thousands of people died. Jimma Shanko, a vegetable grower, was nine in 1984; he remembers the drought. “People were suffering a lot,” he says.

Today access to water is not a problem for farmers in his co-op. He proudly shows us the 10-metre-deep well he dug that draws water from Lake Ziway. Shanko grows two hectares of cabbage and onions, and, depending on the time of year, he could have 15 labourers working on his farm.

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