David Plotz in Africa

A Handful of Wheat at the End of the World
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 23 2003 4:11 PM

David Plotz in Africa

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Saoudi and his sister Zara
Saoudi and his sister Zara

Saoudi stands mutely at his sister's side and stares at me. He is 6 years old but looks 3. A layer of dirt coats his nose, cheeks, and chin. Tegene, the U.N. World Food Program manager who's translating for me, looks at the dirt and shakes his head. Tegene stretches his long arm around the boy's shoulders and pulls him close. "Here, show me your tongue," Tegene says gently in the local language, Oromifa. Saoudi opens his mouth. His tongue is covered with a thick brown film of dirt. "He's been eating it," Tegene says.

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A father sees us looking at Saoudi and beckons us over. He wants us to look at his 3-year-old son, Mame. Mame's sister, not much more than 3 herself, carries her brother out of their stick-and-mud hut. Since WFP food arrived in this village two months ago, Mame has been receiving a food supplement reserved for the desperate cases—a high-calorie, high-vitamin porridge called fafa. But it hasn't helped. The father yanks down Mame's ragged pants and points to his legs. They are twigs, barely thicker than my thumb. His belly is distended. Mame begins coughing, a weak rasp, then hides his head in his sister's skirt and starts to cry. Tegene tries to get the boy to look up so I can get a picture of his face. I beg him to stop. I don't think I can bear to see his face.

I ask if Mame's going to live, and Tegene shrugs and answers, "Maybe." If he does survive, Tegene continues, the boy won't be able to go to school. Malnutrition has already damaged his brain. "You can see he is not mentally right."

This village, Dire Kiltu, is the saddest place I have ever seen. A sprawl of huts that stretches several miles along a dirt track, Dire Kiltu is two hours and 500 years southeast of Addis Ababa. I drove here this morning with Tegene and WFP press officer Wagdi Othman—on an excursion designed to show, better than any chart, why the WFP is begging for hundreds of thousands of tons of emergency food.

It is hard to convey how unremittingly bleak the surrounding landscape is. As we bounced down the rutted track to the village, I asked where the farmland was. "This is the farmland," said Wagdi, waving his hand at the lunar landscape around us. Save for a few scraggly acacia trees, the "fields" here are barren. No stalks or grass or seed remain. Nothing survived this year's drought. The bone-dry soil has turned ashy: Dust lays a gray curtain over everything and everyone.

Dire Kiltu is located in the so-called breadbasket of Ethiopia. "But the basket is empty," says Tegene with a bleak laugh. Until this year, this region of Arsi produced bumper crops of Ethiopia's staple grains, enough for farmers to sell surplus food. But the spring and fall rains never came this year. In Dire Kiltu, farmers kept expecting it: They planted not once but four times in hopes the water would come. Each time their crops withered and died. By fall, nothing remained from last year's crops, and no seeds remained for next year. Dire Kiltu's district has 145,000 people; 80,000 of them are going hungry. For the next few months, the World Food Program—working through the Ethiopian government—will try to feed 60,000 of them, including most of the inhabitants of Dire Kiltu. Imagine this village multiplied 2,000 times, and you have some idea of the magnitude of Ethiopia's problem.

Feko, a 72-year-old farmer in Dire Kiltu
Feko, a 72-year-old farmer in Dire Kiltu

When we pull up at the village center—the stereo blasting "I Just Called To Say I Love You" from Wagdi's mix tape—50 village men are milling around silently, beneath the shade of an acacia tree. Everyone is gaunt. Tegene pulls a few of them aside, and we all sit down together. Feko, an authoritative, emphatic man who looks far younger than his 72 years, takes the lead and starts recounting the troubles as Tegene translates.

Every year used to be a good year here. The villagers harvested maize, wheat, sorghum, and a grain called teff. They ate three meals a day. Occasionally on holidays, many families would pool their resources, buy an oxen, and feast on it. They never needed food aid. But then the rains failed, and the villagers had nothing to fall back on. They had no money, nothing much worth selling, few animals. Literally nothing to eat remained in the village.

Feko says he is grateful for the WFP rations. I ask how much he can eat now. "Now we have this much each day," Feko says. He cups his hands together, enclosing a space the size of a small orange. The villagers of Dire Kiltu are living on a handful of wheat a day, half of which they consume in the morning, the other half at dinner. They eat nothing but wheat, roasted over a fire. They won't even make bread because a few precious grams will float away when they grind the grain into flour.

Hinso Abagaro, left, and Dinketu Jiro, center, of Dire Kiltu
Hinso Abagaro, left, and Dinketu Jiro, center, of Dire Kiltu

Tegene corrals two women, Hinso Abagaro and Dinketu Jiro, to talk to us. Almost no women are around today, they explain, because they have gone to fetch water. The drought has emptied the man-made village pond, which can hold a nine-month supply of drinking water. So every other day, the women of the village walk five hours to the Awash River to fill their jugs, and then lug them five hours back.

Hinso, who has deep, lustrous purple skin and sad eyes, says her children have been getting sicker and weaker. They have stopped going to school. She sold off her only possession, the family bed, to buy a little more food. Like many women in the village, she tries to earn extra money by selling charcoal. There are no trees here, Hinso says, so she walks five hours, collects wood, carries the heavy load back to the village and makes the charcoal. Then she carries the charcoal two hours to the market in the nearest town, Dera. If she's lucky, she sells it for 1 birr—12 cents. This buys enough corn to fill an empty soda can.

Tegene asks her if she has any hope for the future. She looks briefly up at the sky—the only time she raises her gaze from the ground—and says, "If God gives us rain, we will plow the fields and try to farm." She pauses. "But we don't have any more seeds to plant, and we don't have any more oxen to plow. Everything is dark."

We head over to the two-room schoolhouse, the only concrete building in the village. The director, a gracious middle-aged man named Sultan Osman, says that half of the 462 kids who enrolled in September have dropped out because of the drought. Osman takes me into one of the classrooms. A hundred children, sitting silently, rise when we enter. The director says, "Good morning," and all reply, "Good morning." When I ask what subject they like best, again they reply in unison, "All of them." The children range from minuscule 6-year-olds to gangly 18-year-olds. Almost all look lethargic.

An English-speaking teacher, Mengiste Mellese, gestures at them gloomily and says that the students are much worse than they were last year. They can't concentrate, he tells me. They sleep in class. Director Osman adds a more poignant detail: "We used to have physical education. The children would go outside and run and run." (The area around Dire Kiltu is home to Ethiopia's, and the world's, greatest distance runners. Runners are heroes.) "But now when I let them outside for exercise, they just sit down."

It's noon, and Wagdi says it's time for us to go. The crowds of men and children wave slowly to us as we drive down the track. When we have gone a little way, Wagdi remembers that he has brought some biscuits to give to the children. We stop half a mile down the road from the village center. A handful of kids are there, but as soon as Wagdi hops out of the car, he is a pied piper. In a minute, the crowd grows to 20, then to 40. Wagdi begins handing out the biscuits to the youngest and smallest children, then works his way up.

The children are silent. They surround Wagdi but do not clamor. The way the kids treat the biscuits is haunting. The children whose pants still have a pocket slide the cookie delicately in. Every few seconds they touch the pocket, reassuring themselves that the cookie is still there. Those without a pocket clasp the biscuit between their two hands, as if in prayer. What is eeriest of all: They look at and touch the biscuit, but not one takes even a nibble. It is too precious.

American wheat at the Dera food distribution site
American wheat at the Dera food distribution site

On the way back through the nearby village Dera, we happen on a food distribution. Once a month, people from each of the 28 villages in the district comes to Dera to collect their WFP rations. Nearly 500 people who have from two distant villages are slated for handouts today—one 50-kilo bag of wheat per family. Huge white bags of wheat are stacked in rows in front of the warehouse. (I must confess I feel a momentary surge of pride when I see "USA Wheat" stamped on the bag.)

In a way, the residents of Dire Kiltu are lucky. They live only two hours from Dera. Today's recipients come from 20 miles away. They walked all night—10 hours—to the town. The fortunate ones brought a donkey to haul the grain back. But most have to carry it. As soon as these folks receive their bag, they start subdividing it, handing a 10-kilo bag to a son, a 5-kilo bag to a daughter, and so on.

As I watch from the side, children swarm me, smiling. They invite me to play soccer. They practice their schoolboy English. "Good afternoon" and "How are you?" and "What is your name?" I get back in the car to wait for Wagdi, and they encircle the car in a crowd five-deep. Without thinking, I pick up a bottle of water that I left in the car and take a swig.

The Ethiopian children I have seen always smile. They always seem gentle. But when I pick up that water, a teenage boy—not smiling—pulls open the car door and thrusts his head in.

"Give me water. I need water," he says. I shake my head no. God help me, but at this moment I somehow figure that the unfairness of letting him and a few others drain the bottle while most of the kids got nothing would be worse than depriving a parched child of a few sips of clean water.

More insistently he says, "Give me water."

"No," I answer.

"Please give me water." The "please" is the first angry word I have heard in Ethiopia.

"No."

"This is not fair," he says.

I say nothing.

And again, "This is not fair."

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