Marc Cohen is Oxfam America’s senior researcher on humanitarian policy and climate change. Here’s his account of a recent visit to northern Ethiopia where famine struck a quarter century ago.
Twenty-five years ago, Michael Buerk’s dramatic BBC footage from Korem, in northern Ethiopia, brought a devastating famine to the world’s attention. Tens of thousands of people had sought refuge from war and drought in the town. Every 20 minutes, a camp resident died from hunger and related diseases. Buerk called Korem “the closest thing to hell on earth.”
Last year, I traveled to Korem while working on a research project about decentralization in Ethiopia and how that affects men and women farmers’ access to services. My colleagues and I arrived in the town just as the regional Orthodox Christian patriarch was inaugurating a large new church; hundreds of people had turned out for the colorful ceremony. This celebration was a big contrast with the grim images of 1984.
But it was a meeting with Merzeneb Firkado—her first name means “honey from heaven”—that made me realize how much has changed for people in the Korem area since that terrible period.
We met Merzeneb in the mountain village of Ashenge, bordering a big lake with the same name—a quick drive from Korem thanks to the presence of a well-maintained modern highway. In her late 20s or early 30s, Merzeneb was a child at the time of the famine and it seemed likely that she had experienced malnutrition during her early years: She was well under five feet tall.
But now, she was a successful commercial farmer and a member of the local council, responsible for women’s affairs in the village.
Merzeneb told us that she had not initially had much interest in local government or politics. After finishing 10th grade, she had wanted to go to college, but failed the entrance exam. The alternative for young women in her village was to find a husband, marry, and have children.
But Merzeneb had other ideas.
She scraped together a little money and started to rent land, with the idea that she could grow fresh fruits and vegetables for the booming market in Mekele, the regional capital to the north on the highway.
That plan blossomed.
During the years since the 1984 famine, things had begun to change in the area around Korem, and these changes made it possible for a young woman like Merzeneb to think about pursuing new options in life. Ethiopia’s civil war ended. The regional and federal governments built roads. Irrigation was available in Ashenge. The government launched a safety net program that puts people to work planting trees and building terraces on the steep hillsides, so that farming doesn’t degrade the land. And agricultural extension advisers, sent by the government, are now living in the villages, working with the farmers every day, instead of showing up once every few weeks.
In Ashenge, one of the five advisers is a woman, and some of the male advisers have received special training on gender issues in agriculture so that they can better serve both men and women farmers. It is this web of support services that gave Merzeneb her independence and helped her achieve her goals.
As we were talking with her, night began to fall, and we could see that the cool mountain air was making her shiver.
“Should we come back and finish talking to you tomorrow?” we asked.
“No,” she replied. “I’ll go back to Korem with you. We can finish talking there, and then I’ll stay the night at my house in town.”
We were surprised to learn that this young woman, who dressed very much in the style of the women of her village, had a home in town as well as near her farm. She explained that she had acquired a building in town so that some day she could open a small business to process local farm produce.
Merzeneb told us that as she prospered with her farming, she decided to get involved in her village government to give something back to other young women. She wants them to know that even if they can’t get into college, they have other possibilities in life besides early marriage.
Korem and the rural communities that surround it still face a lot of problems today. Rainfall is becoming more erratic. The area faces another serious drought. And many of the villages—including Ashenge—lack access to clean drinking water.
Still, stories like Merzeneb’s show the importance of investing in agriculture and rural development. With the right tools—and the support of donor governments—Ethiopians can build the resilience they need to cope with trouble when it comes, and thrive when it passes.