There are twice as many Ethiopians hungry today as there were during the 1984 famine when one million people starved.
This uneasy truth means that, every year, up to eight million people, twice the population of Ireland, are starving or die of hunger. Ever since I saw the BBC’s Michael Buerk’s report on the famine and heard Bob Geldof and GOAL’s John O’Shea shouting at the tops of their voices for the international community to wake up to the catastrophe there, I have wanted to work in Africa, especially in Ethiopia. Now, over 20 years later, having now spent many years working for GOAL both at home and in the developing world, I recently got the chance to visit Ethiopia for a second time for work and personal reasons.
The facts of life are depressing in Ethiopia:
Ethiopia receives the most relief aid but the least development aid in the world.
More than 80,000 children die from malaria each year. Untreated mosquito nets cost just €2 and treated mosquito nets cost only €5.
Average life expectancy is 44 years, infant mortality is at 20 per cent and unemployment rests around 80 per cent.
Most of the 75 million people who live in Ethiopia survive on less than 50 cents a day.
There are over seven million orphans and close to half a million street children – witnessing this is enough to make you weep.
Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest independent country and, with the exception of a five-year occupation by Mussolini’s Italy, avoided colonisation. Best known for its droughts, famines and conflict, Ethiopia is surprisingly mountainous and lush. Known as the ceiling of Africa, two-thirds of the country sits on a plateau between 6,000 and 10,000 feet above sea level. Throughout history this rugged terrain shielded Ethiopia from outside influence. Amharic is Ethiopia’s official language, but roughly 70 different other languages and 200 dialects are spoken. The country has its own alphabet, one of only 13 in the world, and its own calendar – this year (1999 in their calendar) they will celebrate the millennium.
GOAL has worked in Ethiopia since 1983 and was well placed to respond to the imploding crisis in the early period. GOAL medical teams worked seven days a week for months on end in very difficult and harrowing conditions on the frontline of the disaster to keep thousands of starving adults and children alive. A massive vaccination programmes for vulnerable communities was implemented and 20,000 families and hundreds of children were fed on a daily basis. Since then GOAL has been helping communities recover their livelihoods after drought and implementing emergency, rehabilitation and development programmes. In an average year, five to six million people seek food aid in poverty-stricken Ethiopia. Our Rapid Response team of experienced GOALies covers large parts of the country with nutrition and health assessments and interventions, to pre-empt hunger hot spots and redress the problem before it escalates into famine. GOAL operates programmes for street children in two of the poorest districts of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa, providing drop-in centres, healthcare facilities, HIV/AIDS support, meals, counselling, education, sport, washing facilities, recreation activities and beds for over 200 homeless children. GOAL’s child protection programme in Nazareth town offers practical support to poor children and their families. Addis Ababa’s slum dwellings create serious health problems. I saw raw sewage at some of the settlements we visited, most upsettingly at the open spaces where children play – it is often they who are worst affected. Thousands of these children have no homes, no food, no shoes, no clothes and no protection. In order to survive they turn to begging, stealing, prostitution and drug dealing and find themselves condemned as outlaws and socially untouchable.
To live without hope is the most crushing of burdens. At many of the places I visited I saw children with faces that told me they hold no hope for the future. I was reminded of the words of the American writer James Agee, who said: “In every child who is born, under no matter what circumstances, the potentiality of the human race is born again, and in them too, once more and in each of us, is born again our terrific responsibility towards human life.” Street children have haunted Addis Ababa for decades. Like ghosts they drift through the crowds, eyes glazed from the solvents and drugs they abuse, grimy hands poised to beg or steal. Ignored, pitied and feared they have become part of the city’s decaying infrastructure – like the policemen they bribe and the streets they sleep on, they are the poorest of the poor.
HIV/AIDS is another reason that children end up on the streets. As parents die and relatives prove either unable or unwilling to provide care children are left to fend for themselves. Some street children are involved in high levels of sexual activity and, as the young girls rescued by GOAL told us, many are raped and abused at the hands of older street children and men putting them at risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS. These children are children only in name. They became adults long before their time, their childhoods stolen from them. In the past decade – the period of greatest wealth creation in Irish history, and the world for that matter – it is now clear that the rich have gained while the poor have only lost.
GOAL tries to give back to these children something of what they have lost. Through the community centre and school for street children, they receive an education, vocational training and job placements. The simplest gift they receive is the opportunity to play. Older children are given the skills needed to set up a small business and GOAL operates a HIV/AIDS programme that provides counselling and health education through drama and peer education. Although I saw much tragedy, sadness and suffering on my trip to Ethiopia, I also met some truly beautiful people – all of them friendly and welcoming. I came away feeling richly blessed to have met them and as though it was me who had been helped, not them.
My thoughts go back to the beautiful young children, cared for by GOAL and many others. I just wonder how many of them might still be there when I visit next. We still have such a long way to go before we come even close to providing children around the world with their most basic rights and needs - freedom from work and hardship, famine, neglect and abuse. In the meantime it is salutary to remember that most of these children do survive. They may be uncomfortable reminders of our malfunctioning society but they nonetheless bear witness to the endurance of the human spirit.
If the international community just learns to listen to the people of Ethiopia, and those who advocate on their behalf, then the most important step will have been taken. For many of these people, and for countless others across sub-Saharan Africa in places like Niger, Uganda, Darfur and Chad, tomorrow will be too late. The work done in Ethiopia and in the 11 other developing world countries in which GOAL currently operates in could not continue without the support of the Irish. We are truly grateful for your generosity and support, not just over the past year but throughout GOAL’s 30 years of existence. Alternatively, if you have a relevant skill and would consider giving at least a year of your life to the service of the poorest of the poor, why not become a GOAL volunteer? For details contact GOAL’s personnel department on 01 280 9779, or see www.goal.ie for details of current vacancies and how to become a GOALie.
The Claremorris GOAL Golf Classic takes place at Claremorris Golf Club on Thursday April 12. Tee off times are available by phoning Claremorris Golf Club on 094 937 1527. The entry fee for a team of four is €180. Book early and support GOAL.