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Months in the making, a story-gathering trip to Ethiopia that I’ve been planning is finally coming together. I fly out on Thursday. I’ll be visiting with farmers, often rain-parched, in the far north and herders in the south who have been struggling to overcome a drought and food crisis that left 13.5 million Ethiopians dependent on aid for survival last year. That’s close to 18 percent of the entire country of 77 million people. And news is now trickling in that the UN has just allocated $6 million from an emergency fund to address a new spike in hunger that could leave 6.2 million Ethiopians needing food aid in the coming weeks. Poor rains from mid-February to mid-May are part of the problem.
A journalist friend at home jokes that I’m headed for another “holiday in hell.” In truth, I think he’d like to be on some of these missions himself—finding his way to corners of the world that most Americans will never get a chance to visit, much less be able to imagine. When you’re used to living in a home with plumbing and a well-stocked fridge, the extreme opposite—walking for your water and skipping a couple of meals a day– is hard to fathom. But it’s knowledge, once you have it, that informs everything. At least it does for me.
One of my sons was rooting through our fridge the other night, his face lit by the interior glow. He looked happy at the prospect of all the choices before him, the joy of a cornucopia, and he said so. I was glad he appreciated it. But I was thinking about this trip I’m about to take, too, and the pot that simmered over a small fire in the hut of one Ethiopian family I visited last year. Inside the pot was a thin porridge of wheat, water, and a dash of salt. It was the only meal that family would have that day.
A colleague who was in Ethiopia a few years ago said she often thinks about a family she met in Afar, one of the hottest places on earth. The shortage of rain was acute, and the only drink the mother was able to provide her small child with was one tin cup of water a day. Still, my colleague had the keen sense that that family was finding a way to survive, to make a life for themselves, and even, occasionally, to be joyful. There was pride and dignity and resilience—all the elements of a strong foundation for families everywhere.
That’s the knowledge I’m talking about—a sharpened perspective on what we have here and what we can learn from others. I wish everyone could have it.