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Nomad mother glimpses another world


ZAHRA SHEIK can tell of many strange things: clan war, prophetic shooting stars, the will of God, the desert djinns (devils), how to live on camel milk, and the ceremony of roob doon (the rain prayers).

A 30-year-old Somali nomad, she has lived her life in the south-east Ethiopian babiya (the bush). But nothing had prepared her for yesterday. With her husband dead, as well as all of her family's livestock, and her four young children weak with malnutrition and illness, she had walked for two days to an improvised feeding centre on the edge of Gode.

Her youngest child, one-year-old Samira, is emaciated and sick, and may die soon. Zahra sat quietly with her, beside other women and their seriously ill children. Then, without warning, a cortege of vehicles arrived and a small white woman in trainers and a skirt, surrounded by a crowd of 50 journalists and aid workers, marched determinedly across and sat down to talk.

The white woman was Catherine Bertini, head of the World Food Programme and the UN's special envoy to the Horn of Africa. Zahra, looking stunned but handling the situation with aplomb, had just been projected into a political battleground. For many, the government and UN appeals for aid ring hollow.

The leader of one top Western humanitarian organisation in Addis Ababa said: "We are looking at a maximum of half a million to a million under threat. The Ethiopians have a war economy going, and this call of eight million under threat of famine is a way to stabilise their economy. Wheat imports mean prices stay stable and inflation doesn't rise."

The foreign diplomatic community is also quick to cast suspicion on the timing and figures in appeals for aid. "Every year up to 40 per cent of the herds die," said one European diplomat.

"Every year thousands die of malnutrition." Their statements anger many aid workers, who say, fairly, that crucial rains have failed three years in a row, that the laziness of Western donors in past years has defeated development plans that could have contributed to breaking cycles of famine in Ethiopia, and that the aid pipeline is such a sham of double-accounting and abstract statistics that children are already dying unnecessarily.

"Televised images of skeletal African children may be cynical ploys to catalyse Western guilt," one aid co-ordinator said, "and the Ethiopian Government figures may be exaggerated, but unfortunately we live in an age whereby that kind of tactic is the only way to mobilise foreign aid." Caught in between are people like Zahra and her dying child.

They have no agenda beyond staying alive, no vested interest in a national conflict with Eritrea, no understanding of loan systems with caveats related to human rights abuses, nor any comprehension of words like "media". Zahra, who had no idea who Ms Bertini or the WFP were, told me afterwards: "She asked if my life was good or bad.

I said my husband was dead and my children had no food and were sick. She asked me if anyone had given Samira medicine or food. I said no." When asked how she felt about being on television, Zahra did not understand. She had never seen a television, and thought the cameras were doctors' machines.


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