It was 20 years ago today

In July 1985, Live Aid brought relief to famine-hit Africa. Now, Live8 aims to force permanent change through political initiatives. Meera Selva finds life in Ethiopia in 2005 is still precarious
Click to follow
Indy Politics

Back in 1985, at the time of Live Aid, when much of Ethiopia was suffering drought and famine, Lake Alemaya shone a brilliant turquoise. It watered the coffee crops and the maize grown by subsistence farmers in eastern Ethiopia. The residents of Harar, the ancient walled city where French poet Arthur Rimbaud once lived, used the water from the 30ft-deep lake to brew their spiced tea and wash their feet before entering their mosques. Now, the waters barely cover the earth. Villagers drive their cattle through the dried-up lake bed looking for a few remaining puddles where their animals can drink. The disappearance of Lake Alemaya in the past 20 years is one of Ethiopia's greatest ecological tragedies.

"I remember the days of the emperor, I remember when this was one of the greatest wonders of Ethiopia," said Alamitu Wakgera, 80, who has spent her whole life in the area. "Things are worse now than they have been before."

Ask Ms Wakgera about democracy, economic liberalisation, tourism - all the things that have come to Ethiopia since the brutal Marxist dictatorship, the Derg, was overthrown in 1991, and she just shakes her head impatiently.

"Under the Derg there were jobs and we all felt we were one country," she said. "The Derg gave our children jobs of they wanted them. There were lots of factories making cement and pasta and textiles. Now most of them have gone. And I don't understand anymore how the land works."

Those who remember the thousands of Ethiopians who were tortured, shot or starved to death by the dictator Haile Mengistu from 1974 to 1991 will disagree that things are now worse but, in the remote villages of Ethiopia, people only judge a government by how it affects them.

There are no newspapers or television, electricity is only found in the bigger towns. Most people are subsistence farmers who grow a handful of cash crops - usually coffee or qat - to make a little extra money.

Change comes slowly to this part of the world, but the lake's disappearance epitomises the problems these villagers have endured over the past two decades.

In 1991, just as Ethiopia was entering a new era, neighbouring Somalia fell apart and thousands of refugees trekked into eastern Ethiopia. The growing population increased the pressure on the lake as more and more farmers used it to irrigate their land. Famine hits this region about once every three years - people still shudder when they remember the particularly vicious one that hit the area in 1987 - two years after Live Aid. Ethiopia's coffee industry also shrunk when prices slumped in 1987, though most farmers still grew beans to drink at home in the traditional coffee ceremony that is an integral part of Ethiopian life.

Farmers also began growing qat, a mildly narcotic leaf very popular in Djibouti and Somalia. Ethiopians had not historically chewed the leaf but as life grew more difficult, they began to appreciate its appetite-suppressing qualities. "If there is not enough food, I give my share to my children and chew qat," said 40-year old Umer Mume. "It helps me cope with the hunger and gives me energy to work. But I always pray my children will never have to chew it too."

For a few, life here has changed. Literacy levels have inched up and the town is beginning to feel the benefit of some economic reform. In a field near by, Yueie Usman, 33, tends his cabbages and maize plants, just like his father and grandfather did before him.

But although he grows qat to sell, he never chews it himself. "I have a part time job at the college in town," he said proudly. "I am only a labourer but I earn my own money and don't want to chew something that will make me addicted. I want to be an independent man."

This year the rains have been good so people are happy with their harvest, and they do not like to talk of past misfortunes. But below them, lie the remains of Lake Alemaya, reminding them next year their fortunes could recede again.

'Our lives were shattered by violence'

Hodan Abdurrahman Mogeh's early memory was the feeling of fear in her family. Their part of Africa had come through a catastrophic famine claiming thousands of lives, then they faced savage violence.

The natural calamity of 20 years ago was followed by conflict and upheaval, leading to a new round of deaths and destitution.

Hodan, now 20, was growing up in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in the aftermath of the draught and mass starvation in the Horn of Africa when civil war broke out, forcing them flee to the newly independent Somaliland.

In Mogadishu, Hodan her father, a civil servant, mother and eight brothers and sisters lived in "absolute terror", she recalls. "There were murders, rapes and lootings. As girls, we were particularly vulnerable and my father even arranged ladders for us to escape to the roof if the house got broken into.

"I remember one morning a group of armed men came to our home and I was the one who opened the front door. We decided to leave the following day. We travelled in a convoy and experienced all the violence on the road that we had tried to leave behind. We were robbed of everything, our cars were taken and we were left stranded. Our lives were shattered by the time we arrived in Somaliland.

"I can only remember a part of the past 20 years, and I would say that for me and many friends it has been a time of depression rather than optimism. We suffered from violence, corruption and lack of management."

Hodan is now taking her business studies finals at Hargeisa University and is active in student politics. She and her friends are watching closely what unfolds at Gleneagles.

Kim Sengupta