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Ethiopian Cycle of Famine Continues


Sakorey Faday and Adan Mohammed are young women from two different African countries, but they share experiences as similar as they are tragic.

Adan spent 10 days walking 60 miles with her three children to a feeding center in Gode, 360 miles southeast of the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The trek proved too much for her 4-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son. Both died along the way.

Faday walked to Baidoa in neighboring Somalia in search of help after drought ended her farm work. Faday's husband died a year ago; the twin to the tiny, malnourished baby wrapped in her arms died at birth.

Now, she says, she has nothing. These women's odysseys took place in February and March, as severe food shortages brought on by drought began to threaten millions of lives. Similar tales have been told over and over again in Ethiopia and Somalia.

``I have not seen rain for 18 months,'' said Adan, whose family's herd of 200 cattle and sheep died months ago.

``I just have to wait for something from God.'' The 33-year-old Adan, looking sad yet dignified in her dusty traditional veils, her remaining child tucked under her arm, now lives in a tiny hut of dried grass and bits of cloth.

Faday has no place of her own and is forced to rely on charity. But nature is not solely responsible for the desperate situations of people like Adan and Faday. Politics, war and centuries of nomadic culture all have played roles.

The entire region has a history of conflict and perennial food shortages. Of the countries bordering Ethiopia -- Kenya, Sudan, Eritrea and Somalia -- only Kenya can claim any meaningful stability.

In recent years Ethiopia has perhaps suffered the most from drought, worsened by on-and-off warfare since the mid-1970s. In 1984, televised images of skeletal, starving Ethiopians pulled on the world's conscience, and as many as 1 million died.

But famine also came in 1972, 1974 and 1989. Officials in Gode, which is home to ethnic Somalis and one of the worst-affected areas, say the drought comes in 10-year-cycles. Now, 11 years after the last severe food shortage, the message is being repeated.

This time, aid groups say 7.7 million are at risk. ``These people are really on the edge,'' said Ben Foot, country director for the British branch of the international charity Save the Children. The situation is exacerbated, local officials say, by the nomadic lifestyle of the people who live in the region.

The nomads rely on livestock for food and income. When the rains fail, cattle, goats, camels and sheep die -- leaving the people with nothing. They then migrate to feeding centers, stretching local resources and increasing the risk of disease.

Some 70 percent of the 3.5 million people in Ethiopia's Somali region, are nomads, government figures say.

Ibrahim Abdi, chairman of the regional emergency task force, said the key is to persuade nomads to settle and diversify into farming.

``The problem is people do not adapt so quickly because agriculture is very laborious work,'' he said. ``If they get a harvest for two or three years, they will then go and buy cattle and go back to where they started.''

Teshome Emanek, head of the government's disaster preparedness and prevention committee, said regional authorities in Ethiopia -- where regions have some autonomy -- lack the means to end the cycle of famine.

In Gode, the Wabe Shebelle River still flows strongly, but it has not been used efficiently for irrigation.

``Nothing is being done at this time to bring them (the nomads) off the land,'' Teshome said. He estimates it would take at least 10 years to change local habits.

The Somali people on both sides of the border have been nomads for centuries, and their allegiance is to the land and their clans, not to any state. Most would resist changes.

Aid officials say political attitudes and trade regulations need to change throughout the region so that the nomads can take their herds to the closest market without being blocked by national borders.

In the meantime, the government is asking donors for more than 800,000 tons of food to keep famine at bay.

But for Adan and Faday, the misery seems guaranteed to continue indefinitely.

``I am a beggar,'' Faday said. ``I have nothing for the future.''


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