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  • Government and Geldof help transform village at the heart of Ethiopian famine Posted on 22 October 2014

    Ethiopia was stamped in the minds of a generation as the defining symbol of starvation and all that was wrong in Africa. The scenes of emaciated children and parents dying on a brightly lit plain, and of Bob Geldof and Band Aid pricking the conscience of the west, are part of the collective narrative of the time. It was, said the BBC’s Michael Buerk 30 years ago this month, “a biblical famine” and “the closest thing to hell on earth”.

    Today, this seems very distant. It is hard to believe that the highland village of Hagere Selam, in northern Tigray province, was among the worst hit in the human catastrophe that followed drought and an insurgency against a Soviet-backed regime. The surrounding highlands that were desert then are now lush green thanks to vastly improved irrigation schemes. The food distribution camps have long disappeared, making way for a bustling health centre and secondary school. Residents now have electricity and mobile phones. Along the main road, girls cradle bowls of sweet cactus pears for sale. There is no shortage of food.

    Gebrgiorgs Berbanu, 52, is probably the richest man in town. He has interests in banking, property and retail. He is building himself a three-bedroom house with satellite TV and internet access for about 500,000 birr (£15,000). “In 1984 people were very hungry – it’s difficult to express,” he says over the noise of hammer and chisel on rock. “People were lying dead around the road. In one pit, more than eight bodies were piled per day. There were so many pits.

    “Now there is a great change. When I started my business I used to travel by donkey. I now use a Isuzu car and a minibus. I always dreamed of building my own house.”

    Like many here, Berbanu believes the government deserves credit. “It helped the farmers, showing them how to plough efficiently. It introduced modern agricultural practices so there’s a great change in production. The government has been good for me.”

    Married with three sons and one daughter, he says: “I want my children to have a good education. The eldest is at university. Thirty years ago we didn’t get the opportunity to learn; now we all do. A person can do what he wants to.”

    Back then, Hagere Selam secondary school did not exist. Built in 2002, its pleasant grounds contain trees, rudimentary classrooms – at least one has a plasma TV – and offices where teachers sit at Dell computers and HP printers. The school owns three hectares (7.5 acres) of land and last year grew six tonnes of wheat, earning a return of 55,000 birr.

    Its principal, Araya Gebrehiwot Arefaine, 34, was a small boy in the time of the famine. His sister, who was 17, starved to death. “Still I am sad,” he says. “I remember feeling hungry; they gave us just a teacup. There wasn’t any food and my stomach felt empty all the time. There was nothing to eat, nothing to drink. Animals were as dead as the desert. So many people died. Everyone remembers how bad it was; even the new generation don’t like that time.”


    Arefaine says there has been a huge turnaround in agricultural production: acceptance of technologies, application of modern methods, fertilisers and irrigation and much improved water conservation and quality of animals, for example to produce milk. “The government’s objectives had advantages for this society. The people know these changes will come. It is true leadership.”

    The school has 1,941 students, 78 teachers and seven administrators. Education is free until the age of 17, when there is a 60 birr registration fee. Most of these children have a bright future that was unimaginable to their parents, Arefaine believes, but he warns that there is still a long way to go.

    “It is incomplete. Hunger still limits the learning process. This year 88 students dropped out of school because of hunger. They are doing daily labour work on a farm to secure their lives.”

    Another addition to the village, in 1998, was a 1.5m birr medical centre. Its 1,000 patients a month come mostly with upper respiratory infections, intestinal parasites, skin infections, child malnutrition or to have a baby delivered. Previously they had to travel 30 miles to the city of Mekele. The centre has 58 staff including three midwives, two public health officers and one emergency surgeon.

    Foreign aid has played a big part here. Many speak of Geldof, whose Live Aid concerts raised more than £100m, with fondness and gratitude. The Relief Society of Tigray (Rest), operating for the past 38 years, still receives funding from the US and Europe. Girmay Belay, 40, its project coordinator, says: “Thirty years ago the people did not have access to food. I saw a collection of emaciated bodies buried in one pit. The pit was excavated by the people. There was no funeral ceremony. I was afraid, I couldn’t eat in my home, I lost my appetite. My mother told me not to cry.”

    He has since witnessed the transformation of Hagere Selam. “In 1984 this village was small. There was no electricity, no drinking water, no school, no road. The land around it was very bare. There is a very good change. The government is coming close to the community and providing land, chemical fertiliser, good agricultural practice and inputs. The economy of the country is boosted.”

    Irrigation potential in the district before 2005 was 632 hectares, according to Rest’s figures, whereas now it is more than 3,153 hectares. Education coverage for the 128,305 population is 93%, health coverage at 82.2% and water coverage at 78%. As in many official buildings, pictures of former prime minister Meles Zenawi adorn the Rest office.

    Hagere Selam remains a modest place of mudwalled shops with corrugated roofs, cows, donkeys and sheep wandering unpaved streets and children idling away an afternoon at table football – a generation with no memory of the famine that killed hundreds of thousands and woke up the world. Some here, however, will never forget.

    Grandfather Gebreslsie Hadera, 65, a barley and wheat farmer with rough, dusty hands and yellow flip-flops, says: “It is difficult to speak about that time. I saw people dying. So many people, so many animals were dead. There was nothing to eat so people had to eat bones. There was no peace, but now there is peace. Now you can work and eat.”



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