Ethiopia: stories from a land of drought – Meja Lalu

Today, I am driving to Meja Lalu with Tefere. He worked there for many years and the people there know him well. As soon as we are outside of the somewhat sheltered streets of the town Meki, we find ourselves exposed to the full force of the dry climate. The sun is burning down and the wind is swirling up clouds of dusty sand from the parched ground. In no time, we too are covered with a fine layer of sand even though we are in the car. The countryside is barren. On the fields we can see cows and goats plucking at some short stalks left over from the last meagre harvest. No real feed has grown here in a long while. Food for animals and people has to be gotten from other sources. Whoever does not have the money to buy food and fodder sells off his/her animals, one after the other.

On arriving in Meja Lalu, the elders of the community come to greet us. Tefere explains to them who I am and introduces me. As everywhere in Ethiopia, they welcome me warmly. Meja Lalu has had long-term friendly relations with Caritas Vorarlberg. They tell me that the people here are suffering a great deal under the ongoing drought. They say that there has not been enough rain for the last 1 ½ years. That is why the last harvest turned out so poorly. Tefere shows me some of the fields on which there was in fact nothing to be harvested. The community has been able to endure these conditions for a long time, but now the last supplies have been used up. Many families are selling their animals in order to be able to buy food for themselves. But because now everyone is selling their livestock, cows and goats have lost most of their market value. Up until now, the families have not received any grain or cereal rations from the government. The government has promised assistance, but nothing has arrived as of yet. But even with this assistance (max. 15 kg of wheat or corn per person/per month—but usually a lot less) it will be very difficult for people to survive. This amount of food is not enough to feed a family, quite apart from the fact that natural vitamins and nutrients are missing from the diet.

At the moment, 260 families in this village are in urgent need of assistance. They are the poorest members of the community; they had to use up their supplies a long time ago. They are in urgent need of food and food supplements for their small children. In addition, they need seeds. People here are still hoping that the rains will come in March as they used to and as they should. And so they are plowing and preparing their fields for sowing. But even if the rains should come, they won’t have any seeds to plant at this point. It is a vicious circle.

We pay a visit to an elderly couple. Gutama is 77 years old and greets me heartily. He asks us to come into his simple round hut. His wife starts making coffee at the open fireplace right away. There is a yellow plastic canister in the hut with which his wife gets water every day from the water point. The water point is more than 4 km away. Tefere has become very quiet. He knows the conditions under which people here live, but he is deeply affected by the hardships they face. The old woman gets up to show me how she carries the container, but she can’t lift it onto her back without help. Tefere explains to me that she can’t set the container down on the long way home from the water point to her hut. When she gets too tired, she rests by leaning against a tree. Then she goes on again.

The couple has no children and so the drought is doubly hard for them. There is no one to lend them a helping hand now that they are old. They open their sack of grain and show me the last few handfuls of corn left. The old woman looks at me. This bit of corn and 2 hens is all that they still have: “When this is used up, then it is probably time for us to die…”

But now the hot, strong coffee is ready. It is served in the only two cups still on hand; it is just delicious, like everywhere in Ethiopia. We take our leave from the kindly couple with warmth. Tefere persuades them to take a few Birr, as they shared their last bit of coffee with us.

We continue our drive and pass by freshly cut tree stumps again and again. Tefere explains to me that many families have begun to cut down trees in order to make wood charcoal. This is something they can sell in Meki for 250 Birr per sack (approximately 10 euros). It is clear that the trees will be greatly missed in this dry country in the future. If it should begin to rain, these rains will be hard and will wash away the top soil. The few remaining trees would help keep the water from running off so quickly that the ground would have time to really absorb the moisture. But who can blame the people now? A father with 13 children will naturally do anything for his family to get something to eat. He knows that cutting trees will have negative effects on the environment in the future, but his children need something to eat today.

On the way back to Meki, we pass by a water distribution point. Several children have arrived with their colourful plastic canisters. The government has begun distributing water in this region with tank trucks. It is already noon and the children have been waiting here since morning. No one knows when the water truck will be coming. Nevertheless, I see happy faces. It is truly moving how optimistic and lively the children are despite all the hardships they endure. They always come running, smiling and laughing and want to be in the photo. That makes me happy. Even though the children have had nothing to eat for months besides wheat or corn mush, they are still doing well. But I know that the number of children with malnutrition is rising in Ethiopia day by day. And if the rains or assistance do not come soon, then these children, running so happily to greet me at the water point today, will soon no longer have the energy or the strength to do so.

Marion Burger is just back from a mission in the Oromiya region in Ethiopia, south of the capital Addis Ababa. She was there with Caritas Vorarlberg, Diocesan Caritas in Austria.

Given the increasing worries about the climate crisis in Ethiopia, caused by extremely poor rains in the past twelve months, Caritas Europa is collecting stories and testimonies from its member organisations that have had a long-term presence in the country. We believe that raising awareness is key to achieve sustainable future policies, to achieve systemic change instead of climate change.

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