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3 - 2005 Summer - Valley of Vision

By Jane Sutton-Redner, Photographs by Jon Warren

“Everything is here,” say people in Antsokia Valley, from the farmer to the widow to the schoolgirl.

Understand: This is rural Ethiopia. World Vision’s truck is usually the only motorized vehicle around, sharing the road with herds of cattle and sheep, loping camels and pedestrians. No power lines mar the verdant panorama; the only electricity here comes from a generator. Addictive coffee can be found, but not Starbucks; and if you need an Internet café, you’re out of luck.

As far as Antsokia Valley residents are concerned, they do have everything. Thriving crops fill this 31-mile basin in the country’s central highlands—tall stalks of sorghum and maize, delicate strands of the indigenous teff grain, trees laden with oranges. Irrigation ditches feed mountain spring water to the thirsty fields. Children go to school; the sick find relief at health centers. And the weekly market draws crowds who buy and sell every variety of locally grown produce and farm animal.

But everyone remembers when there was nothing, when the land drained of color and dreams turned to dust. People in Antsokia call it “those bad times.”

More than 20 years ago, a stubborn drought exacerbated by draconian government policies plunged Ethiopia into one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 20th century. Nearly 1 million people starved to death or perished from hunger-related diseases. When the BBC broadcast images of sick, skeletal children, the $4 billion global outpouring was unprecedented—and unrepeated until the recent tsunami crisis in Asia. Lifesaving help arrived from all corners: children donating coins, rock stars raising money, governments sending grain shipments, and humanitarian organizations mobilizing manpower.

Yet today, 6 million of Ethiopia’s 67 million people remain dependent on food aid, due to a burgeoning population coupled with shrinking incomes, erratic rainfall and widespread deforestation, land rights issues, and a host of other factors. Ethiopia continues to receive international relief aid to avert a
recurrence of 1984’s horror. Relief aid keeps people alive, but it’s development aid—funds that tackle chronic problems at the root—that ensures they thrive.

If there is good news to be found in Ethiopia two decades after the famine, it is where development aid provided passionate people, innovative programs, and community-empowering solutions. Antsokia Valley is one such place. World Vision arrived there during those bad times, determined to stay as long as it took until things got better.

Hope on the Horizon

Two decades after the famine (see photo above) Antsokia Valley is thriving with crops that are protected from flocks of birds by children with slingshots.
“World Vision belongs to Antsokia; Antsokia belongs to World Vision,” says longtime resident Girma Wondafrash, 65. Without him, the relationship might not have existed.

Twenty years ago, Girma was the local government representative responsible for some 30,000 people—all in jeopardy as the drought deepened. “One household I knew lost 10 members,” he recalls. “There were eight to 10 people being buried in the same grave. Children were left alone without parents to care for them. I saw a baby trying to suckle at his dead mother’s breast.”

In a place without phones and a time before e-mail and fax machines, Girma’s only way to call for help was to travel 220 miles south to the capital, Addis Ababa, where he spent a week arranging for the central government to formally invite World Vision to work in Antsokia. Shortly after, an American paid a visit— John McMillin, then a World Vision relief director. But there was a hitch: John said he couldn’t bring equipment and supplies into the inaccessible valley.

“What about an airfield?” Girma proposed. Doubtful, John agreed. Operational in Ethiopia since 1971, World Vision had been airdropping food into drought-plagued communities three years before the famine hit TV screens—and it was World Vision’s Twin Otter plane that helped BBC journalists break the story. The resulting surge of donations in 1984 enabled the organization to scale up relief operations from $3.5 million to $70 million and add almost 800 staff.

Desperate for World Vision’s help, Girma immediately met with an engineer to design the airfield. He marshalled thousands of people to contribute labor. “Even those who weren’t strong helped,” he says, describing people using their hands and feet to remove rocks and level the earth. That afternoon, just as workers added the finishing touch—white cloth flags along the landing strip—World Vision’s plane appeared on the horizon.

The airfield provided World Vision’s entrée into Antsokia Valley. By 1984, it was one of eight locations that collectively fed more than 150,000 people a day and provided medical care for thousands more suffering from the kind of diseases that prey on weakened bodies: cholera, typhoid, and malaria.

From the beginning, World Vision had special plans for Antsokia Valley. “The people who designed the programs could see what could happen—what did happen. They were visionaries,” says Dr.Ted Engstrom, World Vision’s president at the time. “Antsokia became a model for other organizations of what could be done in a barren patch of valley.”

The Visionaries Go to Work

Mehiret Abera, 7, washes at a tap in her yard. Access to clean water has greatly improved through World Vision’s intervention, saving many families long trips to distant
water sources.
One of John McMillin’s first tasks in parched Antsokia was locating a water source—using, to everyone’s amazement, a makeshift divining rod. “When I first struck water, the camels stampeded us to get to it,” recalls John, who now runs the Oceanographic Institute of Dominica. “I knew better than to stand in the way of a thirsty camel after spending months riding them from Pakistan to Tashkent. But, for not moving promptly, I got a nasty bite on my shoulder that still bears a scar.”

John hired talented Ethiopians, including Yemane Birhane Michael, then a 31-year-old fire-extinguisher salesman from Addis Ababa. Yemane had just served in a feeding camp north of Antsokia. “There were people who couldn’t chew. They couldn’t even smile, because they didn’t have food for a long period of time, and their jaws were locked,” he says, demonstrating a teethclenched grimace. “After three months, you can’t believe it, they were better.”

Yemane was struck by the drought’s devastation in Antsokia when he arrived. “There were no trees. No nothing. The people were really miserable,” he recalls. The first priority was to feed everyone high-protein porridge for the severely malnourished; dry rations for the less critical cases. World Vision hired local people to work in the centers as cooks, cleaners,and guards, paying them in the most precious commodity at the time: food.

Once people felt strong enough to return home, Yemane gave them seeds, tools, and livestock for restarting farming. Then John’s team started a massive agricultural recovery project. A 250-acre pilot farm served as a testing ground for new farming methods and crops never before grown in the valley, such as sweet potato and cabbage. A tree nursery raised fast-growing eucalyptus for building materials and local tree varieties for controlling soil erosion. The nursery created hundreds of jobs by employing people to tend the grounds and pack tree seedlings in a special blend of alluvial soil and fertilizer. To date, Antsokia farmers have planted 20 million trees.

Ayalew Yimam, then a young man in his 20s, worked in the tree nursery. Several months earlier, however, he lay in World Vision’s medical tent, watching people die all around him. Stricken with cholera, he had withered away to 80 pounds. “It was the will of God that allowed me to survive,” he says. “On top of that, there was the professional care. The nurses and doctors served us all day and all night. We got not just food and drink, but prayers. That helped us live.”

Ayalew has made the most of his second chance. The 40-year-old married father of two daughters owns a small cafeteria, financed in part by a World Vision loan. The Christian behavior he observed from World Vision staff slowly made an impression, changing him over time to a devout follower of Christ.

The quiet, slender man struggles to encapsulate all that has happened since the famine. “That time is unforgettable,” he says, sitting on his cafeteria patio while customers sip tea nearby. “It’s not just history you can read in a book. You can see it here, in the health centers, the schools, the running water in our yards.” For Yemane, who now designs projects for World Vision, the past evokes nostalgia. “We were doing something worthwhile,” he smiles. “Whenever I think of that time, I feel like crying. It was so beautiful.”

The New Brass Ring

Seid Abera, 14, was once sponsored, but his family can afford to send him to school without assistance. His father, Abera Negussie, earns about $50 a month from his fruit crop alone.
In Antsokia Valley terms, 41-year-old Abera Negussie is economically comfortable. He raises maize, sorghum, and a variety of produce on three acres of farmland. The father of five also keeps sheep, goats, and chickens. He’s particularly proud of the way he calls the chickens to feed. When he emits a high-pitched “coocoo,” the birds come running in a riot of fluttering feathers and clucking. “World Vision taught me that,” he says.

During the famine, Abera was a broken-hearted man whose wife deserted him after their 19-month-old boy died. Since then, he has seen a lot of changes, both in his own life and his community. “Whatever we have—new schools and a health center, agricultural help—it’s because of sponsorship,” he says.

World Vision introduced child sponsorship in Antsokia in 1990. The funds opened up educational opportunities for individual children while bringing benefits to the entire community. But at first, people were skeptical.

Tadelu Taddesse, 70, remembers when staff introduced the concept. “They told us they would take photos of the children. Many people were reluctant. There was a rumor that foreigners would come and take the children away to Europe or America,” recalls the spry great-grandmother.

Appointed a “sponsorship caretaker” responsible for checking in on children in her village, Tadelu received training from World Vision. “It was I who first taught the community that sponsorship was a good idea,” she says proudly, describing how she communicated the benefits for the children. She offered her grandson,Yesuf, to be the first child photographed. Yesuf, now a father of two sons, was sponsored up to the sixth grade.

Two of Abera’s sons were also once sponsored. No more—“I can send them to school myself,” he says. His boys help him around the farm, and oldest daughter Mehiret, 7, collects eggs from the chicken coop. But he does not wish for his children to follow in his footsteps. Orphaned young, Abera never had the chance to go to school. Like many Antsokia parents, he looks to education as the new brass ring—now within his children’s reach, thanks to the schools built with sponsorship funds.

The difference education has made from one generation to the next is dramatic. In a modest mud-and-wood home, Tamene Tesseme, 57, and his 41-year-old wife, Zewdie, shyly relate their memories of the famine, when two of their daughters nearly starved to death. Their 17-year-old son, Emmanuel, sits nearby, a baseball cap pulled down over his brow as he works on his physics homework. Eager to join the conversation, Emmanuel says in fluent English, “I listen when my parents speak about the famine. I heard that a lot of medical people took care of children. This is why I want to be a doctor, to care for people with diseases. I think I should work hard to prevent another famine.”

Zewdie and Tamene have just three years of schooling between them. Yet their only son is already making plans beyond their imagination: To raise money for medical school, Emmanuel will work as a translator, showing English-speaking tourists around Ethiopia’s historic sites.

Such new ideas are incubated at Mekoy Secondary School, which World Vision and community members built in 1998. (Before that, the closest high school required a 12-mile walk.) More than 780 students attend class in two shifts. In the science lab, youth huddle in small groups, preparing to test hydrogen. Across the compound, students in math class watch a program on Venn diagrams on a plasma-screen TV mounted to the wall—the government finances the equipment and provides education programming via satellite.

“Students have seen others who have gone on to university. We’re very happy when our students have a chance to go to university and get jobs,” says Abebaw Lemma, 32, the school’s director, explaining that not so long ago, just a handful of youth could make that leap.

Facing Their Fear

Ask anyone in Antsokia Valley what will happen if another drought comes, and the answer is always positive. “People know how to tackle any problem,” says Girma Wondafrash.

In Antsokia, the average household food stock lasts about 10 and a half months, twice the reserves of rural dwellers in other parts of Ethiopia. Some of the farmers even have bank accounts in Kombolcha, a city about an hour’s drive away. No one grows just one crop anymore, and with variety comes insurance— if one crop fails, something else will grow. Ayalew Yimam explains, “When it appeared that the rain wouldn’t come, I used to be fearful. But now we know more—how to make use of water for irrigation; how to grow better crops.”

“Real change is in the attitude of the people,” says Getachew Wolde Michael, World Vision Ethiopia’s national director. This is taking hold in Antsokia Valley after two decades of deliberate, consistent guidance and plenty of donor support. But other communities aren’t so far along.

During the famine, World Vision worked in Ajibar, 320 miles north of Antsokia, a mountainous place where the harsh wind whips up dust from the dry, denuded earth. When relief workers arrived in early 1985, 10 to 15 people were dying each day. After stabilizing the population through feeding centers and food distributions, World Vision started an agricultural rehabilitation program similar to what was done in Antsokia Valley.

But four years later, staff had to evacuate when fighting between government and guerrilla forces came too close. “We were desperate when we heard World Vision was leaving,” says Yiman Mohammed, 45. “World Vision had many plans for planting trees, drilling boreholes, and practicing irrigation.” All those activities went on hold until 1997, when conditions improved and staff returned.

The interruption puts Ajibar’s progress well behind that of Antsokia Valley.This is evident in the poor condition of the children, many with eye infections; the modest scale of the farmland; and the lack of trees to cut the wind and hold the soil. World Vision has introduced reforestation, horticulture, irrigation, and microfinance, and 4,500 children are assisted by sponsorship.

Yet families remain vulnerable to the capricious climate—and haunted by the past. Bizuabeb Abebe, 45, lost an infant son in 1984. When asked if she worries that this can happen again, she looks down at her 8-year-old daughter, Ayel, who clings to her side, and compulsively combs her fingers through the girl’s thick, dark curls. “Yes, we fear another famine,” she says. “We never stop thinking about it.”

Seeds of Faith

In full bloom, Antsokia Valley is a far cry from the barren place it was in 1984, often described as a dustbowl.
Back in Antsokia Valley, a group of children gather for evening choir practice in the Ambowuha Meserete Kristos Church. First they practice in formation, lined up in rows facing their guitarplaying choir leader, but as dusk creeps in they sit in a circle around a lantern and continue to clap and sing.

The church is just a stone’s throw away from a weather-beaten corrugated iron building that served as World Vision’s staff residence during the famine. The proximity is deeply symbolic. During those bad times, World Vision planted seeds of a different kind in Antsokia Valley.

Chirotaw Getaneh worked in World Vision’s feeding center when he was 23, helping to feed hundreds of people a day. The satisfaction of saving lives wasn’t all he received from the experience. The prayers and hymns the staff shared during their daily devotions made an impression on him. In 1987, he became a Christian.

“It was a great change,” he says. “I was chewing chat [a locally grown narcotic], drinking, fighting—all the social evils. After accepting Christ, I had a happy life. Now we have a church here. We witness the kingdom of God, and many people have accepted Christ.”

Chirotaw, now 43 and a church elder, sits in the darkened sanctuary, watching his 10-year-old daughter Genet practice with the choir. “I have nothing but thirst for you … everything I need is in your hand,” the children sing, their features lit with the golden lantern glow.

Twenty years after the world mobilized to fight the famine, everything is here. And Christians like Chirotaw know that faith is the seed from which all of it bloomed. It was faith that brought people in this valley of death back to life—a new kind of life, not dependent on rain or crops, but on each other and God.

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