First Person

Driving into drought: on the road in Ethiopia

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Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Coco McCabe filed this report from Ethiopia, where she is reporting on the severe drought in East Africa. In August, she visited an area in northern Ethiopia – which has thus far escaped this year’s drought but has been devastated in the past – to report on initiatives to fight recurrent drought. Her reporting is featured in a World Food Day half-hour documentary special report from ViewChange and Oxfam: ViewChange:  Africa’s Last Famine,” which is available online at and and broadcasts on Link TV on Friday, October 14, and Tuesday, October 18.

When we left Ethiopia’s capital of Addis Ababa for the long drive south to Yabello, the air that was cool at dawn turned dry as the sun inched higher—pucker dry, the kind that makes you lick your lips until they sting and leaves your fingertips feeling chalky. Maybe some of it was due to the dust in the air, a veil of topsoil whipped aloft by the wind and mixed with plumes of black smoke swelling from the tailpipes of trucks.

We were on our way to a triangle of drought that has plunged more than 13 million people in Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia into crisis. Some places are the driest they have been in 60 years and famine has struck Somalia.

We stopped to stock up on water—plastic bottles of it covered with the brand name “YES” and a tagline that declared “for a better life.” As we pulled back onto the road all I could think about were the words of our driver: “On a long journey, water is better than food.” I reached for one of the bottles and settled it in my lap, taking long swigs as the sun grew hotter.

Climbing through coffee country around Yirgacheffee, we entered a stretch of respite from the sun. Clouds had massed over the hills and rain drops began to pelt the windshield. The wipers whisked them away, turning a morning’s worth of dust into a film of grime. We had caught the tail end of a downpour and through the side window of our car, I watched people watch the rain, standing alone in their doorways, peering out their windows, their faces solemn. I wondered how much they knew about the drought in the south.

Near Finchawa, we passed a series of white trucks, their backs opened onto an embankment on top of which milled camels the color of sand and dust. Men were coaxing them into the trucks. Wailing as only bound camels can—plaintive and mad, it seemed to me—they were going to be taken to Djibouti, our driver said, and sold to Arab countries. Herders here sometimes try to sell their animals when drought makes living nearly impossible. Was that the case with these camels—destined for market before they got too thin?  At least one, wobbling through the dust, already was, its long legs and knob-kneed shadow making it look bonier still.

As we neared Yabello, the land stretched red and dry on both sides of the road, a skim of green in some places offering barely a nibble for herds heading home. It was almost dusk when we pulled into town, and within minutes, night fell around a chunk of moon hanging in the sky. It had no halo: there was not a speck of moisture up there to create one. The rainy season, a short one that should have started in September, was late.

After supper, leaving the grounds of a local motel, I heard splashing: It was a fountain, not much bigger than a bathtub, squirting drops into the dry night air. I watched them fall and listened to their patter, a luxurious sound in a land of drought—and a sharp reminder about the hardship countless herding families in Ethiopia face as they struggle to hold onto their animals and make a living from the parched earth. Pastureland has shriveled and watering spots have dried up.

I thought about the bottle of store-bought water, clean and cool, I’d downed earlier that day and wondered at the endurance life in the dry hills and plains here demands of so many.“YES,” said the bottle, “for a better life”: All you have to do is twist off the top and drink.

If only it was that easy for everyone. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+