For those of us old enough, the images from Africa that haunted our television screens for a large part of 2011 will have taken us back more than a quarter of a century.
All those years ago Bob Geldof mobilised the world with ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’, and raised awareness, and many millions to support those affected by famine in the Horn of Africa. Yet here we were some 27 years later and the same old scenes were playing out once more.
Hunger, starvation and utter despair – will it ever end? Has nothing been achieved for all the money, time and effort that has gone into trying to end this kind of African human tragedy?
Both of these questions are totally legitimate – as is the frustration and bewilderment, that millions of people in Africa appear to be as vulnerable to this kind of catastrophe today, as they were more than a quarter century ago.
I should say now however that I know from my own experience that things have changed in Africa a great deal over the past 25 years, and that even in the tragedy and suffering that we saw recently in Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya, there are signs of hope for the future.
But first, I would like to say that I have something of a ‘vested interest’ in what happens in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.
It’s a connection that started way back in 1984, when the images from Michael Buerk’s BBC report on the famine prompted me to change my own life, and begin a career that has seen me spend my life since then working to support the poor of the developing world.
I worked in Ethiopia with a relief agency for a number of years, and a very important little part of this incredible country came closer to home in recent times, when my wife Jacqui and I adopted two beautiful Ethiopian angels, Mia and Sophie to create the family that we have today.
I have traveled to Ethiopia many times, and was back there only last month, when I traveling with a group of Irish volunteers to take part in the 10km Great Ethiopian Run, and raise vital funds for the charity I work with - Self Help Africa.
Ethiopia is a magical place – from Old Testament times it was Abyssinia, home of The Queen of Sheba. It is unique in so many ways – having its own language and written script, its own very distinctive and distinguished people, its own culture, music and food. Ethiopia is a proud nation and only country in Africa that did not have a colonial occupier for a large part of its recent history.
During the Great Ethiopian Run I subjected my traveling companions to many stories about the place – and could be heard explaining the 13 month Ethiopian calendar, it’s Christmas in early January, the remarkable life and career of its Emperor Haile Selassie, and even his place in the hearts of Jamaican Rastafarians.
But I talked also about the changes that have taken place – changes that I believe had been made possible in large part as a result of the growth and development of agriculture in Ethiopia, in recent times.
As we ran the recent Great Ethiopian Run through the streets of a booming capital Addis Ababa, it has impossible not to note the transformation that is taking place in the country today.
There is still great poverty for sure, but so toO there are emerging new glass fronted office blocks and hotels, major new multi-lane roads, and a city that is alive with enterprise and thriving businesses.
In the countryside the transformation is to be seen too – and none more so than when Self Help Africa’s Irish runners travelLed to Sodo, to meet some of the communities who are working with the organization today.
We visited several households in their thatched roofed homes and ordered compounds, saw farmers cooperative groups, and women who were making a living as a result of small credit loans they had received to set up their own businesses.
These are simple people living simple lives, many without electricity and nearly all without running water to their homes, but they are getting by, and are doing much better than they had done in the past.
When we visited we saw that their grain stores were full, they had vegetables growing in their compounds, and they were proud to report that they could afford to send children to school, and were in a position to invest in small ‘luxuries’– such as pots, cooking utensils and clothing for the family.
The picture was one of ‘self help’ – people who were working hard to make their lives better. These were people who had been given a hand up, not a hand out from charity, and they were proud of their achievements.
Which brings me back to the recent famine crisis, that caused so much suffering for so many poor and vulnerable people in the Horn of Africa.
As with all major humanitarian crises there is never just one cause – and in Africa in 2011 the crisis was the result of severe drought, political instability and other factors.
However, there was evidence too of some progress - as Ethiopia, which despite enduring the worst of the drought, was not as badly affected in terms of human suffering as neighbouring Somalia.
The recent history of Somalia is a troubled and difficult one – and much too complicated to get into here, but suffice to say, in my view the impact of the crisis in Ethiopia was not felt as severely precisely because of the progress made by its agricultural sector.
In Ethiopia up to 80% of people rely directly on farming for their survival and economic well being, so it stands to reason that better farming – where people can grow more, earn more, and can have different crops from which to make a living will be able to cope better when a crisis does occur.
The fact that no area of Ethiopia was hit by what was officially defined as ‘famine’ is a testimony to the hard work of a great number of people to increase the country’s farming production systems in the recent past.
Self Help Africa cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, take credit for this situation. But I do deliver that the organisation I work for has been a contributor, and has played its part in helping the people of Ethiopia to move towards a time where hunger and poverty will no longer be a part of their future.
It is a long and slow road certainly, but as my running friends and I saw on our recent visit to The Horn of Africa, it is a journey that is both richly rewarding and worthwhile.