Trading tomorrow to eat today

Times Staff Writer

FINCHAWA, Ethiopia -- Machete in hand, Batire Baramo steps out of her mud hut before dinnertime and begins whacking at the base of a struggling young tree.

A cornfield lies nearby, every stalk stunted and barren. A coffee bush wilts in a patch of earth so dry that each footstep kicks up a puff of gray dust.

Roots and stems from the false banana tree — so named because it never bears fruit — are all there is for dinner today. Batire will pound them into a pulpy mush that offers little real nutrition but at least will quiet the hunger of her husband and seven children. When those parts of the tree are gone, she will boil the bark. When the bark is gone, she will search for something else.


“This place is cursed,” Batire says of the family’s half-acre plot.

Life on less than a dollar a day, as most Africans live it, is the unending pursuit of sustenance. In the Horn of Africa, it is a search rarely satisfied.

Ethiopia is one of the five poorest countries in the world and the largest per-capita recipient of humanitarian aid. Nearly half the population of 67 million is malnourished. Every year, millions face starvation. For the very young, life often ends in a sad, blue death.

Behind the statistics lies a harsh reality that helps explain why hunger is such an intractable problem in Africa. When life is so consumed with survival, tomorrow is routinely traded away to fill stomachs today.

Foreign aid groups spend so much money feeding the starving that they never have enough left to prevent the next famine. The causes of Africa’s hunger — drought, war, disease, corruption, overpopulation — never go away. They fade during the relatively good times, only to return.

Even in the good years, when the rains come to Ethiopia, subsistence farmers barely harvest enough maize, sweet potato and other crops to feed their families. Batire has never had the luxury of allowing her small clumps of false banana trees to fully mature, which would triple her yield. Instead, she shears the trees as soon as her family needs something to eat.

In the cruelest times, people eat sporadically, hoping that a day of searching by whole families can turn up more than morsels.

When everything is gone, the hungry seek handouts from the government or aid groups. But by then, disease often has gripped them. Severe protein deficiency brings on a condition known as kwashiorkor, which condemns its young victims to live their last days marked by telltale blue spots, their faces frozen in mournful expressions.

“If the diseases don’t kill us, the drought is coming behind to finish the job,” Batire says.

She already has seen half a dozen neighborhood children die this way. And many times, her own children have gone to bed hungry. On those nights, Batire sits trapped in the family’s windowless, one-room mud hut — powerless to feed them yet unable to escape their cries for food.

The round hut, or tukul, that Batire and her husband, Ledamo Ataro, built when they were married 20 years ago has a floor of hard-packed dirt flecked with ash. In the fireplace, the false banana porridge simmers in a black pot resting on three clay jars.

Their village in southwestern Ethiopia sprawls amid farmland that in good years produces coffee beans for Starbucks and other high-end labels.

But 2003 was not a good year. It didn’t rain in February and March, preventing the family from planting maize, wheat and other crops. The summer rains were sporadic.

Dinner is the only meal of the day. Before eating, the family offers its thanks for whatever food it has. Ledamo — a tall, wiry man who is perhaps 50 — is served first because he needs strength to provide for the family. His wife and children get to eat if anything is left.

Batire, who is about 40, wipes the sweat from her face with the ends of a blue head wrap as she bustles around the family’s plot on an endless round of chores. The soles of her feet are cracked and stained with dirt.

The oldest child, 15-year-old Letimo, is a muscular youth. But his siblings’ skinny limbs and slightly bloated bellies attest to varying degrees of malnutrition. From oldest to youngest, their limbs gradually become thinner because, in the words of one aid worker, “when you eat from a pot the strongest one eats first.”

Each child owns one set of clothes, which means they all sit naked when Batire does the wash. Of the children, Letimo has the only shoes, a pair of red rubber slippers.

The children have never been to school and probably never will go. Ledamo says he can’t afford to pay the fees and buy proper school clothes. Besides, he needs the children to search for food and help him grow their crops.

In good years, the Ledamos earn about 30 birr a month (about $4), selling produce in the village market. The family spends about 5 birr each week to buy staples it cannot grow: oil, salt and pepper.

Although they are battling hunger, the Ledamos are among the better-off members of their community. They own an ox, which they use to till their land. They also rent the animal out to the neighbors. The beast is so precious that it shares the family’s home, chewing on a bundle of grass on one side of the 15-foot-wide hut. Left outside, the bony animal could become prey for thieves or spotted hyenas.

“We’re not poor,” Ledamo says proudly. “Many of my neighbors are poorer than me.”

Even so, food is so scarce that Ledamo and Batire will soon have to make a crucial decision. They could sell the ox for about $12 to feed themselves and keep their children out of the emergency feeding centers that United Nations aid workers have been setting up in the region. But the money would be enough to feed them for only a few months.

They would be mortgaging the future to fill their stomachs today.

“We have to feed the children [or] these people will have to take them,” Batire says, pointing to a convoy of U.N. aid vehicles rolling past her house.

It is a clear sign that the hungry season has arrived.

There have been so many such seasons for Ethiopians that even other Africans have little pity left. Nigeria’s Daily Trust newspaper portrayed Ethiopia as an “embarrassment,” a land of “no-thinkers” unable to conquer its cycle of drought and hunger.

Aid agencies say that much of Ethiopia’s hunger is self-inflicted — the result of armed conflict, a stifling land policy, poor planning and overpopulation. The government spent millions on a lengthy civil war and a border war with Eritrea. A high birthrate compounds the food shortages. By 2015, Ethiopia will have 90 million people — 23 million more than today.

Unlike most Ethiopians, the Ledamos could irrigate their land using Lake Awasa, which lies a few hundred yards from their house. But Ledamo says that if he digs an irrigation ditch, it will only invite hippos to come out of the river reeds and trample or eat his crops.

Elsewhere — in India, China and Latin America — irrigation has enabled food production to soar. But less than 7% of Africa’s tillable land is irrigated. In Ethiopia, the figure is 2%, even though its highlands are the source of two-thirds of the water flowing through the Nile downstream in Egypt.

But Ethiopia cannot come up with enough money on its own to pursue large-scale irrigation projects, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said in an interview. Potential lenders fear that if Ethiopia taps its sources of water, Egypt will suffer.

Ethiopia’s subsistence farmers do not own their land. It belongs to the state. Aid agencies say putting it in private hands would give farmers an incentive to improve the land and increase efficiency. But Meles said that would only be another way of sacrificing the future: Many farmers would sell their land, providing them with a little money immediately but separating them from any means of feeding themselves later.

Unlike the Ledamos, many people have given up. There is a saying that Ethiopians no longer care whether it rains here, as long as it does in Iowa and other farm states, the source of their food aid.

“Ethiopians know that emergency aid will come, that it’s only a matter of time,” says Gazahegn Tadele, who heads the local chapter of Oxfam, a British-based aid group. But it’s often a case of too little, too late.

Donors also find it easier sometimes to feed the starving than to build dams and roads that could help prevent the next famine.

“People say, ‘Oh no, why is this happening in Ethiopia all over again?’ ” Meles said. “But the truth is that donors prefer to see their money feeding a famine victim — the faces of starving children — rather than spend it on some less visible project that addresses the root cause of poverty.”

Those young victims, some of them carried 20 miles on their parents’ backs, populate the feeding stations — collections of canvas tents filled with emaciated bodies and reeking of soiled clothes. The Ledamos are hoping to avoid such places.

Batire and Ledamo wake up one morning wondering again whether there will be anything to eat that day. For two nights, the entire family has gone to bed hungry. Earlier in the week, they had their last meal of false banana with bark mixed in. Their daughter Maskal, 7, is getting thinner by the day.

That morning, Batire and Ledamo decide to sell the ox.

But later in the day, Ledamo makes an incredible find. Turning up the roots of some dried maize plants, he discovers two clumps of large sweet potatoes buried like jewels beneath the soil. Ledamo calls out to his wife, telling her that he thinks he has found dinner.

God has smiled on us, he says.

Batire has a different idea. Instead of eating the potatoes, she will sell them. If she makes 60 cents, she can feed the family for a few days. They could even get enough flour to make injera, a foam-like bread that Ethiopians love.

Batire places the produce in tiny heaps in front of her house and waits for customers. Early in the day, some neighbors give her about 15 cents for a quarter of the sweet potatoes.

After that, the hours drag by.

A woman, carrying a hungry child on her back and tugging a bedraggled little girl alongside, begs for food. Batire thinks for a few seconds, then gives her three potatoes.

“When you’re a mother, you know about suffering,” she says. “You know how tough it is when your babies are hungry.”

Batire has begun to give up hope of selling the produce when some men ride up on a donkey cart and buy the remaining potatoes. Beaming, Batire grabs her small fortune and rushes inside to tell Ledamo and the children. In her hand are 5 birr, about 65 cents.

“Today,” she says, “we are blessed.”