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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.