55-year-old Abebe saw the impact of the famine in the Antsokia Valley, losing his childhood friend. Now he's a successful farmer and Antsokia is alive and thriving. Photo by Ilana Rose, World Vision
Standing amid the lush green landscape of Ethiopia’s historic Antsokia Valley it is hard to believe it was ever known as the “Valley of Death.” Prior to my arrival a few weeks ago I had heard stories and seen photos of the valley in 1987, when it was literally a “dust bowl,” after years of little to no rainfall culminating in one of the world’s worst famines. It is different now, the contrast is just extraordinary and I was struck with awe as we drove into the valley; an oasis, a panorama of life-giving green fields and crops.
It has been 30 years since the news of famine in Ethiopia broke to the world with images of skeletal children with distended bellies and stories of food scarcity and desperation. For many living in developed countries it was their first interaction with starvation and poverty.
I met Abebe Aregaw, a 55 year old man who was born in Antsokia Valley. He farmed Ethiopian staples like sorghum and teff as well as coffee plants. But when the rain slowed and then ceased he saw the transition of his birthplace from a productive, fertile land yielding an abundance of food to a dry and bare valley. Everyone was affected.
Sitting under the shade of his fruit trees Abebe shared his memories of the toughest months he lived through thirty years ago. His childhood friend was gravely unwell. He was skin and bone, frail and dying. So Abebe killed one of his two remaining oxen to feed his weak friend. But sadly his friend passed away before he could get the meat to him.
In our time spent in Antsokia Valley we met the gentleman who alerted the government to the dire situation in the region. Girma Wondafrash was the area’s Government Administrator at the time. He told us that for months, on average thirty people – of all ages – were buried every day. The trees were dry and wildlife was lying dead out in the open fields. There was no harvest, little food and a whole valley desperately needing to eat. The community was suffering; he would have 500 people outside his house asking for help. He travelled to the country’s capital Addis Ababa in September 1984 for meetings on how best to respond to the community’s need. Straight after, he went to World Vision’s office to request assistance. World Vision staff returned to Antsokia Valley with Girma and started an emergency response soon after, initially focusing on distributing food.
When the first rain broke the drought in May 1985 the streets were full of celebrations. Rain was a sign that the community could begin planting crops which would eventually harvest enough to feed themselves rather than relying on food aid.
After the initial emergency food distributions, World Vision began assisting community members to build up agriculture and local business so the community could be self-sustainable. Abebe received farming tools and seeds. He now has half a hectare of fruit trees and employs 5 people during harvest. He sells his abundance of fruit in local Antsokia Valley market stalls and to larger towns in the region.
Today Antoskia Valley is a picture of life and growth. Tree filled mountains form a backdrop to hectares of green crops. Farmers plough their fields and cattle roam the valley floor. The town buzzes with people in their market stalls and children playing and heading to school. Thirty years on from the “Valley of Death,” Antoskia is alive, well and thriving. When there are so many heartbreaking stories of suffering around the world, I couldn’t help but be hopeful that we can make a difference in very difficult situations, it just takes time.
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