Gorgi Coghlan, presenter for Network 10's The Project, speaks to farmer Abebe about the change he has seen in his community.
I’ve been doing a lot of looking back lately – 40 years to be exact – researching world news and events, fashions, lifestyles and Australian celebrities – as part of the team helping World Vision Australia celebrate 40 years since the first 40 Hour Famine.
We’ve calculated that more than $200 million has been raised by Australians during this time to fight global hunger. It’s been a rite of passage for three generations of youngsters who have given up food, furniture, technology or something else to get a glimpse into what life is like for people living in poverty – and to do something to help.
While looking back I’ve thought about my own experiences and how it is that I am working at World Vision today. I remember doing the 40 Hour Famine at the small country school I attended. Country living was a fun and healthy way to grow up but it was sheltered. I didn’t know much about poverty and certainly not the levels found in developing countries.
The 40 Hour Famine gave me an insight into a world I couldn’t relate to nor understand. I was awed and intimidated by the enormity of the world, its diversity of cultures and its seemingly insurmountable challenges. I remember staring at the images of African children who didn’t have enough to eat and feeling guilty that I had so much when they had so little – it wasn’t fair.
The famine in Ethiopia during the mid-1980s shocked me as it did many people around the world. I remember seeing the images on the TV as a child; hundreds of skeletal people, dressed in rags, clutching their equally emaciated children with swollen stomachs, sitting in a dust bowl, waiting for food, praying for survival. I remember the Live Aid concerts and the song ‘We are the World’ that brought together so many famous singers into one room – sharing the limelight – unheard of.
The heartbreaking images of suffering and the deaths of about half a million people moved Australians to tears and action – more than $10 million was raised over several years of the 40 Hour Famine to provide emergency food, shelter and medicine.
What we found was a country transformed.
One of the areas most affected by the famine was the Antsokia Valley. Forty years ago, this remote region was called “the Valley of Death”. It’s a seven hour drive north of the capital, Addis Ababa, on roads shared with camels, goats, horses, sheep, donkeys and dogs that have no interest in road rules.
With those old images of famine in my memory, I was amazed at how green the country is today and pleased to hear how committed the government and people are to restoring forests that were felled for fuel causing environmental degradation.
There are more than 94 million people in Ethiopia – a nation roughly the size of South Australia – and poverty is still widespread with almost 30 percent of the population still living below the poverty line. But the signs of growth and development are strong and promising, nowhere more so than in the Antsokia Valley, where the land has been transformed from a barren dusty plain to a verdant food producing region.
Over the past 40 years, more than 22 million trees have been planted to rejuvenate the land, farmers have been trained in drought resistant farming, new crops have been introduced, irrigations systems, roads and bridges have been constructed, and schools and health centres built.
World Vision has worked with the community to help them rebuild and equip the people with skills, resources and infrastructure to best shield themselves from ever experiencing such a famine again.
Where once the people could produce food for one month of the year relying on the seasons, today the community has food security 11 months of the year and many have surplus to sell at the markets. Children are no longer malnourished according to World Health Organisation standards and parents now have hope for a bright future for their children.
It’s always the people’s stories that stay with me after a trip. We met such beautiful people who went through such unimaginable pain.
Girma Wandafrash, now 84, was the local governor during this time and risked his life to convince national government authorities that there was a famine and to allow aid agencies in to help. We had the honour of meeting him and hearing his stories.
During the famine, he told us, there were 15 to 20 people dying each day, including one of his own children. He spoke of finding babies abandoned by the roadside, and how he took 18 of those children into his own home. He spoke of how people would come to his house every day asking for food and when he had none, how they would ask whether they could stay there to die. He spoke of how people walked for hours to gather in the Antsokia Valley in search of food and how eventually many found it through World Vision’s feeding centres, which saved thousands of lives.
My trips to the field continue to reinforce my belief that development work saves lives. It might not always be perfect but without agencies like World Vision there would be no help and no hope for millions of people.
While there is still so much to be done in Ethiopia, the people I spoke to have hope for a bright future and it is a country that has come such a long way.