Soaring food costs force Ethiopian children out of school

Photo: JOSE CENDON By Nick Meo in Kosoamba – 20 Sep 2008 – Telegraph

“We used to pray to God that Ager would study hard and make something of herself so she could serve her community,” Mrs Tesfu said. “Now our animals are all dead and we eat only one meal a day. We just pray that we will not starve.”

Ager now spends her days foraging for edible weeds, while her schoolbooks hang in a plastic bag in the family’s thatched hut, a reminder of her ambitions.

This year, slums and villages across Africa have similar stories to tell of dreams ruined by hunger. With global food and fuel prices surging, children have been taken out of school and put to work by desperate parents. The future of one of the continent’s great development success stories – education – is in doubt.

Nowhere have the effects been crueller than in Ethiopia, coming at the same time as the return of the droughts that caused the notorious famine of 1984.

With healthy economic growth, more than nine out of 10 children of primary school age in education, and massive improvement in infrastructure, until two years ago Ethiopia had been an example for the rest of Africa. Lauded by Britain, the country at last had a future that looked bright.

Now, though, price rises of 250-300 per cent have threatened to wreck many of its hard-won achievements.

The cost that hunger has already exacted in Mrs Tesfu’s district of Kosoamba in the Ethiopian highlands was spelt out bleakly by the local school director, Chane Hailu. An idealistic teacher, he gave up city life to teach here, hoping to bring the benefits of education to one of Ethiopia’s most backward corners. Now he finds once-full classrooms are half-empty.

“We are trying to educate a new generation of Ethiopians, to drag these communities out of their poverty and to teach farmers how to make a decent living,” he said.

“If the children are too weak or too poor to come to school, we are losing all that. If that happens this generation will not be the one that changes Ethiopia for the better.”

So far mass starvation has been held at bay in Ethiopia’s highlands, although the government admits that 4.6 million are at risk of famine countrywide. Aid agencies believe the number is closer to 10 million, and fear the famine could soon become much worse. That fear eats away at the residents of Kosoamba, where they dread what could happen if, next February, the rains fail for the third year.

On a day of bright sunshine and scudding clouds last week, the grasslands around the village looked remarkably like the North Yorkshire moors, with dry stone walls, skylarks and bleating lambs.

But until recent years local villages, with round thatched huts and ragged men clad in patched clothes, were places of medieval poverty. Farmers toiled with crude wooden ploughs, watching the heavens and praying for rain.

New clinics and schools that have arrived in the past 15 years have transformed life, cutting mortality rates and educating the children of illiterate farmers for the first time.

Hunger threatens to undo all that, with youngsters now out foraging and working in the fields. In the past few months several dozen have died of dysentery.

The price rises, on top of drought, are having a dire effect on education across Ethiopia and forcing cruel choices on families, according to Matt Hobson, a food expert from Save the Children UK who is based in Addis Ababa.

“These rises are a massive hit for families and something has to give,” he said “It is usually schooling or health care.”

Officials in the village estimated that about 100 of the district’s 700 children show signs of serious malnourishment, a prelude, if the famine worsens, of death.

One 11-year-old, Tesmegen Worku, had pale blotches on his face, a sign of malnutrition which the villagers call “itch”.

The boy used to go to school, but now he herds skinny cows and sheep for one of the wealthier villagers in return for a daily bowl of maize porridge. He said that he felt hungry nearly all the time, and disliked the long, boring hours with the animals.

The job is dangerous because of hyenas, which have killed many animals that are too weak to escape.

The biggest fear of the child herdsmen is that one day they will themselves be eaten if they are too weak to fight off the predators. Local elders, hunched into a circle and draped in blankets, endlessly discuss the vagaries of
Ethiopia’s food market with the expertise and anxiety of Wall Street traders.

Cruelly for them, although food prices have rocketed, nobody wants to buy their scrawny livestock, most of which is too weak to survive the long journey to a city market anyway.

The village’s altitude at nearly 10,000ft is so high that the only crop they can grow is barley, which is dependent on winter rains called the belg which have failed for two years running.

Ironically, the summer rains were good this year, so the village is green and pleasant, but it is too late in the season for barley to ripen.

Next year they will be in real trouble. Nearly all the village’s seed has been eaten, and many rely on government handouts and help from a Save the Children development project.

One of the better-off villagers, Besfat Bisat, headman of the hamlet of Ataguay, had to take four of his teenage sons out of school and send them to a nearby town to work as day labourers on a new road.

With a shudder, he remembers 1984. For the first few months of the famine he
carried his neighbours’ bodies to the little church graveyard near the village, then as his own strength waned he buried them where they fell. Finally, when the survivors had no energy left, the dead were simply left.

“In 1984 those who had cash could buy food, but now it is simply too expensive,” he said.

“What is keeping us alive now is that our government is trying to help us, but we worry about what will happen if the support comes too late.

“If the spring rains come the next harvest will be in August, but only God knows if we can wait that long. If there is no rain next spring, our fates will be clear. We will die.”

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