Ethiopia Now

updated 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/13/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Despite last year's massive aid effort, Ethiopia is still a nation on the brink. Although the effects of drought and famine have been somewhat blunted and rains have boosted harvests, the specter of famine still looms in 1986, and other dire problems remain. Soviet-aided government troops are fighting four wars with separatists—in Eritrea in the north and with rebels elsewhere seeking local autonomy. The government is also forcibly relocating hundreds of thousands of peasants, mostly from the arid north to the more fertile southern and western lowlands. Observers say many have died in the move and that, in fact, the operation is designed to rid the north of rebels and their supporters. Against such a background, the stories of three remarkable people, who emerged from their ordeals stronger than when they began, provide a glimpse into the country's present plight.

In a dark, spare office of the Catholic Relief Services feeding station in Melkewerer, 11 Afar tribesmen sit on benches patiently listening to their poet and historian, Huma Aisu. At 60, he is a graying, patriarchal figure coaxed from his hillside hovel to recite to an outsider the story of his people. Eyes glistening, hands moving in arcs and jabs, Aisu excitedly traces the wanderings of these herders in search of pasture, from their ancestral coastal homelands to the canyons bordering the Great Rift Valley, archeological site of mankind's earliest origins. Aisu's tales so vividly describe the good life prior to the drought that his listeners—other elders and younger leaders—appear transfixed, rocking approval in their seats. Through a translator he recalls, "We had everything, many camels, goats, sheep. And horses we had beyond counting, riding them with fire in our hearts, the wind by our side. And we had milk to drink, and our stomachs were full. And our children...yes, our children would hold hands and dance the dance of love under the evening sky."

After a moment's pause, the storyteller then begins to detail the woes of the past 18 months, reliving the tragedy that destroyed about 600 people, fully half his tribe, which is a branch of the greater Afar population. They died mostly from hunger and disease on the two-month, 250-mile trek south to their present home in Melkewerer. For the survivors it is a litany of loss in families, livestock and everything they could not carry on their backs.

Suddenly one of the men shouts, "Three!" Aisu nods and continues but is interrupted again. "Three!" repeats the same man, this time slapping his knee with a pained expression. Another adds, "Six!" and soon the corrugated metal walls of the room echo with a confused wail of numbers: "Two!...Seven!...Four!" Finally Aisu stands, whipping his white cotton cloak over his shoulders. His scrawny frame pokes out from parts of the thin fabric. Nine times he thumps his walking stick on the concrete floor, then says, "I lost nine in my family, children and grandchildren. I lost everything." Silhouetted against the daylight, curious children stand in the doorway peering into the darkened room. "But it's different now," Aisu says. "Without rains, grass and animals, those of us who are left will have to change, or we too will perish. We must become farmers, we must learn to farm."

With these words, met with a staccato of solemn applause, Aisu steps out into the sunlit compound, now busy with the late afternoon feeding of women and children. Not long ago, before the drought and famine struck, such stubbornly independent nomads as the Afars had little reason to settle down to a life of farming. However, like many herders throughout sub-Saharan Africa, Aisu and his group have been forced to face the inevitable. "A few of us have a camel or two," he says, walking toward the green tent where workers are ladling a wheat-based mash into the outstretched bowls of the hungry. "But the animals have nothing to eat. And none of us has a horse. Our children will never learn to ride."

To one side, against a stone wall, women are waiting to have their babies weighed and measured by a health worker armed with an infant scale, tape measure and stack of alphabetized forms. Although food needs have dropped at this and most of the other stations run by private and government agencies in Ethiopia, about 150 families are still fed twice daily at Melkewerer, 180 miles east of the capital, Addis Ababa. "I don't know where America is," Aisu says, watching two boys kick a rag ball near a pile of empty cardboard boxes labeled with a U.S. gift message. "I don't know where the foreigners come from, but truly I thank them. I only hope the food will last until we can grow our own."

Leaving the compound and the smell of cooking butter oil, Aisu uses his walking stick to stab at the dry, rocky ground before him. The crowd of waiting women outside the wall—many of them bare breasted and with elaborately braided hair in tightly cornrowed styles—make way for the poet. Behind them, the men, mostly in knee-length white robes, signal Aisu with the local Muslim greeting, "Selamtal" Some of them wear broad-bladed knives slung in holsters below the waist; a few shoulder old, bolt-action rifles. Aisu explains the weapons are not as needed as they were when his people had animals to protect from thieves of neighboring tribes. "What we need are tools and seed," he says, pointing to the arid expanse of the Awash River valley. Half a mile away, a new irrigation canal cuts through a freshly plowed field. "If the government gives us land.... " His voice trails off as he catches sight of some children gathered at the base of a hill dotted with crude, rock-walled shelters. Brandishing his stick, the old poet approaches with an impish smile. The raggedy troop obeys his command to line up in a semicircle—girls to one side, boys to the other. "Now," he tells them, "I will show you how to dance under the evening sky." And with a cackle of abandon, ignoring the lowering sun on the horizon, Huma Aisu begins a fragile hop to the rhythmic clapping of little hands.

Sister Marie McAuliff had never shouted at God before. Yet once during her year of medical duty in Ethiopia, the nurse from Cork City, Ireland broke out in tears of frustration, ranting, "Why all this suffering? How can You let this happen? You must have a heart. Please, dear Lord, help them...and help me." Later, as night descended over a village called Edaga Hamus, so too came long-awaited rain. But just as suddenly, the rain turned to fist-size hailstones—breaking windows, crashing through roofs. "I began to laugh," McAuliff recalls with a wistful smile. "At first I had cried so much that by then, the love I had for these people just seemed to explode out of me. And I realized that my strength came from God and I was privileged just to be here helping."

The small, rosy-cheeked woman now waits in Addis Ababa for her replacement and recounts her months of labor and how she learned an earth-bound lesson in humility. McAuliff, 45, says she was one of three Catholic nuns chosen for relief work by her order, the Little Sisters of the Assumption. When she and Sisters Teresa Maher, 52, and Jacinta O'Sullivan, 47, were picked, they had only televised images of what awaited them. "No TV coverage could capture what we felt when right off we saw a 9-year-old boy carrying his dying mother on his back," she says, "or when we saw a family scratching the earth for seeds, which is the last thing they do before they lie down and wait to die."

At that time human loss in the country's central and northern regions was at its highest, and understaffed, under-supplied food and medical outposts were besieged by about 8 million drought victims. The nuns were first sent to Adigrat, near the cold, mountainous border between Eritrea and Tigre, provinces also battered by years of civil wars. They were asked to set up a clinic in Edaga Hamus, about half an hour's drive from Adigrat. "When we got there in our Land Rover," McAuliff says, "the place looked empty. A few buildings and houses and just a few souls on the street. Not so bad, I thought. Our supplies would hold us. Then we walked around to the back of one house, and there on the hillside were maybe 5,000 people watching and waiting. 'Dear Lord,' I cried, 'where do we start?' "

Almost instantly the three strangers were surrounded by mothers and fathers holding up their children and repeating, "Tumini, tumini" (I'm hungry, I'm hungry). For three days they had been waiting for a rumored delivery of food. "I'm sure we dashed their hopes," says McAuliff, "but we charged in to set up our clinic." Within weeks the nurses were treating 80 outpatients a day for everything from scabies and amoebic dysentery to TB, typhoid and blindness due to vitamin-A deficiency. A veteran of poverty clinics in Dublin, McAuliff remembers immediately learning the Tigrinya phrase, "Where does it hurt?" then memorizing the words for head, heart and stomach. Working 10-hour daily stints with donated supplies in their makeshift, two-room clinic, the women at first practiced "stopgap" medicine on the critically ill, starving and dying. "The hardest part of the day was having to choose which ones were to be seen," McAuliff explains. "Every morning three or four hundred would be waiting, and it would tear our hearts to have to choose who was the worse off. We could only pick 80 or 90 each day."

Eventually food from the international agencies began to arrive, death rates started to drop, and the many babies the nurses helped deliver gained rather than lost weight after their births. By June, McAuliff knew health and spirits had improved when an 18-month-old girl made a face and stuck out her tongue at her. By that time rains had turned the surrounding fields green with the first shoots of grain, corn and vegetables.

No longer strangers, the women felt a kinship with their patients. "Maybe it's because the Irish have known poverty," McAuliff says. "In the last century, we had our own great famine. We were also good at improvising, much as the people here do. Once, for example, we wanted to clothe some naked children. So we cut up a heap of donated panty hose that we didn't know what to do with. We cut off the legs at the knees, made a hole in the crotch, turned them upside down—and a few pair yanked down over a kid made a dandy shirt."

Toward the end of her sojourn, Sister Marie learned another truth which, she says, brought her nearer to an absolute trust in God. She was eating bread and cheese with coffee one afternoon when through the window she saw a bearded, barefoot old man in a robe that was more holes than cloth. "He looked so hungry," she remembers, "that I gave him a slice of bread. After I finished I went outside, and there he was kneeling on the ground. Over and over he was thanking God. But when he saw me watching him, he came right over, very gracious, very dignified. He dropped down and began kissing my feet. I think that's when it all made sense. I just stood there and cried."

Mulugeta Teare has never heard of Bob Geldof, Band Aid or Live Aid, but he can hum a few bars of We Are the World and only wishes his sister Salamarit could hear him. She would have loved it, says the 16-year-old student at Don Bosco Techninical School in Mekele, capital of the northern province of Tigre. Salamarit was the singer in the family, the liveliest of five children, always singing as she wove baskets or spun cotton, always cheerfully addicted to silly riddles like "What gets thrown off a cliff and doesn't break? A rope!" Unmarried and 17, she was also very pretty, Teare says, now biting his lip and turning his face away. His fellow students have left their metal-shop worktables to go on to their next class, and the short, wiry sophomore admits that it hurts to talk about his sister. When he tells the rope riddle, it's as if he is the rope and the others have been thrown off the cliff, never to return.

During the famine she and two of his weakened brothers died "of vomiting and...dysentery," he says, searching for the right English words. "I was helpless. After the funerals all I could do was come back to school and study. When I study hard, I forget." A shy boy with restless eyes and an alert mind, Teare fortunately loves his school work. "He's one of the best, even though he's been through hell," says shop teacher Joe Reza, 47, a Catholic Salesian brother from Los Angeles. "He's okay with his hands but really soars in chemistry, physics and math. I don't think he'll end up as a carpenter or mechanic. Probably an engineer or scientist. The kid's got it. He's the future of this country."

What's rare, Teare himself explains, is that he is the only person in his village who has gone on to high school and has a chance to finish university studies in Addis Ababa. "While my family worked in the fields, every day I walked five miles to the closest school. Since I can remember, my father would tell me I was the one who would succeed with my mind." Eventually, Teare walked to Mekele, 60 miles away. There, the Salesian brothers tested and admitted him to their all-boys school, begun 10 years ago by Reza and Brother Cesare Bullo, 45, the director. At the time of Teare's arrival, however, starving thousands were streaming into the city's relief camps, a major stop on Sen. Edward Kennedy's visit to Ethiopia last year (PEOPLE, Jan. 28). Again, Teare felt he had plunged off the cliff only to watch the others plummet and perish below.

He and the other students pitched in to help the beleaguered relief workers. "I carried stones, built latrines and buried the dead," he recalls. "There were so many people, and the whole area was stinking. Every day in the church we would wrap the bodies in cloth and pile them on top of each other, ready to be buried. But because I am small and not too strong, I could not lift as many as the others."

Teare's normal expression is intensely serious, but today is Friday and after his last class he can bury memories of the past in giggling fantasies about tomorrow. "Saturday is football!" he says, smiling at last and referring to the weekly romp on the soccer field with his fellow students. He shares a room with seven others, all enthusiastic players. Then, clutching his notebooks in hand, he excuses himself and quickly heads for the door. But before reaching daylight, he stops and pivots. "You know," he says, "I think I am fast. You have to be fast or the others will knock you sister would say I'm the rope that doesn't break."

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