Drought In Africa: Ethiopia's Bitter Harvest

Drought in Africa: Ethiopia's bitter harvest

By the time the October rains arrived last week, five of the 13 heads of families in the village of Magado had hanged themselves, tormented by the loss of their cattle and livelihoods. Cahal Milmo reports from southern Ethiopia on what has become an international failure

Published: 24 October 2006

The skeletal acacia trees that surround Magado village are testimony in more ways than one to the drought that has destroyed the lives of its inhabitants. The bare branches and parched earth are evidence of the six months of rainless heat that has wiped out up to 70 per cent of the livestock owned by the 11 million nomadic pastoralists spread across the Horn of Africa in the worst drought for a decade.

But in Magado, a tiny isolated community of herdsmen deep in the arid bush of southern Ethiopia, the acacia trees have helped extract a terrible price for the drought and the failure of the outside world to react quickly to their plight. Humanitarian aid to Africa has grown almost six-fold in the past eight years from $946m (£556m) to $5.6bn (£3.3bn). Magado's share of this windfall came too late.

One day, three months ago, Worish Catalo, a 60-year-old herdsman from the village, walked out to one of the acacia trees under which he had regularly watched his herd of 80 cows from dawn to dusk. He slung a rope over the tree's thorny branches and hanged himself among what were by then the wasted corpses of his starved cattle. Mr Catalo, who had six children, was only the first. By the time the October rains arrived last week, the inhabitants of Magado had cut down four more men who had walked to other acacia trees never to return. Five of the 13 heads of family have killed themselves because of the shame and despair of watching their cattle, raised from birth and cherished like offspring, dwindle and perish before their eyes. Of the 2,000 cattle owned by the families of Magado before the drought struck at the beginning of 2006, just two now remain, an attrition rate of 99 per cent.

The people of Magado belong to the Borena, a proud and once-feared tribe of nomadic herdsmen who, according to legend, hold their livestock in such high esteem that when two kinsmen meet they will enquire about the wellbeing of their herds long before that of wives or children. Nine million Borena live in an increasingly lawless region straddling the Ethiopian and Kenyan border.

No one in Magado has died from starvation. In March, long after the cattle were beyond salvation, emergency food aid arrived which kept the pastoralists alive, if only to survey the destruction of their livelihood during what they call the ola, or dry period.

The village is grim proof of what an increasing number of experts say is an international community failing to provide help when it is needed most. Across the Borena lands, it is estimated that 150,000 cows have died, at least two thirds of the entire stock. Galamo Dima, 45, a village elder, now has a meagre supply of beans and maize to feed her seven children. The milk and meat her 10 cattle once provided are a stomach-cramping memory.

Dressed in the colourful shawls and bead necklaces of the Borena women, she sits on a stool, watching a sudden deluge that eight months ago would have been greeted as a salvation. Now the rain has turned the empty cattle enclosures into quagmires and washed the dust from five new stone tombs. Most of the herdsmen stand around doing nothing, trying to keep dry the piles of firewood they have collected for sale at the nearest market, a backbreaking eight-hour walk away.

Ms Dima said: "The aid came too late for us. We were provided with lifestock feed. But there were no animals to give it to. They were already dead. Yes, we have survived. But because we have lost our source of income, we can no longer send our children to school. It has been a terrible time. We must make a living from small things, firewood, wild crops. We have lost people and animals. We are proud; we have no wish to live off others. But now we are a marginalised people. Perhaps it is better for the men who have gone."

Near by is Bonaya Afatu, a traditional rabies doctor who treats humans and animals for the disease transmitted from wild dogs roaming the scrubby landscape occupied by the Borena. He knew three of the men who committed suicide, all of them aged between 50 and 75. He said: "These men had seen other droughts; our land is prone to such things. But never before has it been so severe or have we suffered such a tragedy. Our traditions say that a man without cattle is nothing. To be a man of that age and lose all your cows means you cannot recover. These men took their lives because the shame was too great."

end of excerpt.

There are no words. You know, sometimes when I write about this issue and read about it, I cry. This was one of those times.

Outgoing Longwave Radiation Anomaly
This graph from NASA clearly shows the extent of the severe drought gripping Africa.

Also see my entry here:
Their Animals Are Dead, These People Are Next

Also, Al Gore's recent bestseller, An Inconvenient Truth covers the drought and precipitation patterns in Africa due to climate change on pgs. 114-115.

This is the moral challenge of our time on a global scale. However, do we truly have what it takes as a species to meet it? We must, because this certainly can't go on. WE in America who are putting out most of the greenhouse gases that are causing repercussions around the world must see our duty in taking a moral stand on this issue now... EVERY ONE OF US.

We Must Take Africa's Climate Burden