Five years ago on October 24, the world was awakened to a growing famine in Ethiopia by film footage broadcast on network news.

The scenes of dying, skeletal figures prompted immediate response, and in the next few months, governments, churches, and humanitarian groups forwarded more than $1 billion in supplies and manpower to feed hungry Ethiopians.

Since then, many of the scenes have changed. Development groups have dug wells, built roads and bridges, taught new methods of farming, brought in experimental crops, and turned dusty hills and plains into fertile, productive farms. Development projects have reclaimed once-barren fields and replenished water supplies.

But famine still threatens Ethiopia. Michael Priestly, the United Nations’ special representative for emergency prevention, expects things to get worse before they get better. Priestly points to the history of drought-caused famine—an average of one every 11 years for the past 250 years—and compares the population growth of 2.9 percent a year with the agricultural production increase of only 1.1 percent a year.

Tsega Wolde Mariam, field director for World Vision Ethiopia, puts it another way: “Once people eat everything, sell everything, then move away, as thousands did in 1984 and 1985, it takes a long time to get back to the stage of self-sufficiency,” he said. “To plan ahead and store for the future takes even longer.”

A representative of the Christian Relief and Development Association, an umbrella group of some 60 nongovernmental agencies, points out that almost all of its members are doing economic or agricultural development. But the gap between crises that demand immediate relief is too short to accomplish much. “You start a project that needs five years or more to take root, but in two years the rains stop and you have to put development aside for relief,” he said.

In the north, where famine hit the hardest, government fighting with guerrilla groups interfered in years past with relief efforts and still makes development work difficult.

Green Again

There are, however, success stories. Five years ago, hardly a green plant or a sack of grain could be found in the Ansokia Valley, 200 miles north of Addis Ababa. The valley was cut off from the main road by a river that each year claimed the lives of dozens who tried to cross it. After a year without rain, the villagers sat in their homes or by the roads, weak and hungry. Hundreds died of diseases brought on by malnutrition.

When the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission learned of the situation, it appealed to World Vision, which set up camps at both ends of the 50-kilometer valley and began feeding 30,000 people a day.

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When rains came in the spring of 1985, development workers passed out seeds, tools, oxen, and grain to 10,500 families and sent them back to the villages to plant. At the same time, they gathered the leaders of the 17 peasant associations in the valley and set priorities for community-based development projects.

During the next four years, farmers dug wells and capped springs to pipe potable water to distribution points in the village. They terraced hundreds of miles of hillside to stop erosion and dug 300 check dams to catch soil. A bridge was constructed over the Borkena River, opening the valley to trade and providing a route for other supplies. With the help of the government and the development agency, farmers planted more than five million tree seedlings, some of which now reach 30 and 40 feet.

Today the valley is green. Corn is ready to harvest, and papaya trees are bearing fruit. Small vegetable gardens grow, and new crops such as coffee and bananas are adding to the income as well as the diet of the people.

However, despite progress in agricultural and economic development, Ethiopia will remain a client for relief for the foreseeable future. Rains have been only 25 percent of normal rainfall this year in Eritrea in the north, for example, and relief groups are gearing up to provide grain for the area. The continuing need for relief has led some observers to fear the aid projects are producing dependency on outside support. But a recent sociological study reported no signs of dependency.

The UN’s Priestly is also encouraged by the attention given to drought-management strategy by the Ethiopian government, which was criticized five years ago for lavish spending on an anniversary celebration while millions went hungry. Last month the government approved a National Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Strategy. And it has studied the techniques used in countries such as China, India, and Botswana to set up an early-warning system to deal more effectively with famine-producing conditions when they occur. “Hopefully,” said Priestly, “this means we won’t see the terrible scenes of five years ago ever again.”

By Ron Wilson in Ethiopia.

New Growth for Ethiopian Church

Like the country’s plains and valleys, the church of Ethiopia has suffered times of hardship during the past 15 years, but has seen conditions improve in recent years.

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When a military coup in 1974 toppled Emperor Haile Selassie, by legend a descendant of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the church suffered. The new Soviet-aligned socialist government, under Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam, closed down missionary radio stations, grounded mission planes, looted churches, and jailed hundreds of Ethiopian Christian leaders. Yet churches met and grew.

In recent years, perhaps because the government has been busy dealing with a failing economy and separatist movements, pressure on believers has relaxed. Today the government generally ignores Christian groups that are discreet and move their meetings from house to house. And because many churches are carrying out badly needed economic development or reforestation projects, the government looks upon them as development organizations.

The state recognizes the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (Coptic), which claims about 40 percent of the population, and today fills many of its 12,000 or more churches. Forty-five percent of Ethiopians are Muslim; less than 1 percent belong to the Roman Catholic Church. The other 15 percent are either evangelical or claim a tribal religion. Word of Life Evangelical Church—with a fellowship of more than one million believers—was founded by the Sudan Interior Mission, which still has more than 100 missionaries in the country.

Recent reports indicate house churches are growing in areas where Christians have spearheaded relief. Though evangelism is illegal, the compassion shown by relief workers has prompted many beneficiaries to ask questions that open doors for sharing the gospel.

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