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As drought grips Ethiopia, a mother waits to name her newborn

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Bisharo with her one month-old baby who remains unnamed. Photo: Tina Hillier/Oxfam

“We have never seen two years without rain in our lifetime,” says a man named Mohammed, who used to have 400 sheep and goats and now has only 15 left. “We are in a dangerous situation—even people. If the drought continues like this, people will die.”

When my friends and I are in the dumps about world affairs—the chemical attacks on civilians in Syria, the White House’s assault on important public programs at home, and now, worst of all, the terrible hunger that threatens millions of people across Africa—one of our group reminds us of another piece of news, a quieter headline from the home front, one that heralds hope and pure joy: a baby’s been born. His first grandbaby. A baby he wasn’t sure he would live long enough to meet.

His delight is irrepressible. And contagious. Babies do that to you.

That’s why I’ve been thinking a lot about a woman named Bisharo. I don’t know much about her, just the few details in the caption that accompanied the photo above. She’s a mother. And that’s her baby cradled in her lap—born about a month before this picture was taken in Ethiopia, where a crippling drought has caused the worst food crisis there in 30 years.

The baby is not Bisharo’s first. She has five other children. But this one remains nameless, its anonymity testament to the terrible hardship the family endures: To name a child in Bisharo’s culture requires the slaughtering of a goat. But the drought has robbed the family of almost all its livestock. Their herd of 150 goats—animals on which they depend for food and income—has dwindled to just 20. A naming celebration is out of the question.

And what of joy at the baby’s birth? Has the drought stolen that too?

In another photo, Bisharo feeds her newborn water from a bottle. She has been unable to produce breast milk. And though her family has moved to a temporary settlement where the Ethiopian government has provided some distribution of food, one of Bisharo’s children is suffering from malnutrition.

Shelters, pieced together with sticks and covered with swatches of cloth or plastic, dot the settlement in the Somali region where they now live. It’s called Korile. Nearby, skeletal cows stand listlessly in the sun, their thin shadows black against the parched red earth. A few goats huddle in the sparse shade of a tree.

“We have never seen two years without rain in our lifetime,” says a man named Mohammed, who used to have 400 sheep and goats and now has only 15 left. “We are in a dangerous situation—even people. If the drought continues like this, people will die.”

In Ethiopia, 5.6 million people need urgent assistance. At Oxfam, we’ve already been helping more than 318,000 of them, many of whom are herders, by trucking in water and repairing wells. We aim to reach a total of 700,000 with clean water, sanitation services, cash transfers for food, and support to help people keep their animals alive.

But it’s Bisharo who I’ll be thinking about in the next few months as herding families like hers wait desperately for the rain to come, for green pastures to return—and, perhaps more than anything else, for a chance to name their newborns.


Oxfam has helped 200,000 people and 1,145 primary schools access clean water, and has reached 30,000 with messages designed to promote good hygiene as a way to avoid disease. Using an electronic cash transfer system, 32,200 people have received cash to buy food and clean water. But we need to scale up, and we need your help to do it.

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