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Zemedkun Baykeda Habtyimer

Zemedkun Baykeda Habtyimer

Responding to hunger in Ethiopia

Tim Shenk
October 14, 2008

AKRON, Pa. – Zemedkun Baykeda Habtyimer speaks from experience when he describes hunger in his country, Ethiopia, which is now in the grip of a massive food shortage.

Habtyimer grew up in the 1960s and '70s as the son of tenant farmers in eastern Ethiopia. His parents were forced to contribute labor and crops to their landlord and could not save enough food for their family.

"We suffered, really, real hunger," Habtyimer says. "That is the real situation we have now, and when I see children emaciated, I feel it."

A severe drought earlier this year has left about 12 million Ethiopians in need of food assistance, according to the Ethiopian government. Of that number, nearly 5 million are at risk of starvation, Habtyimer says.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) is distributing food to nearly 100,000 people in southern Ethiopia in partnership with the Meserete Kristos Church Relief and Development Association (MKC-RDA) and the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB). Habtyimer served as executive director of MKC-RDA until taking a leave of absence in September to study and work with MCC on food relief issues.

Hunger is a continual problem in Ethiopia because farmers depend on rain to irrigate their crops, Habtyimer says. When the rains fail, as they frequently do, farm families are left with nothing.

This year's drought was compounded by a global food crisis that caused the price of basic foods to triple in Ethiopia. Farm families that lost their crops could not afford to buy what they needed, Habtyimer says.

MCC and MKC-RDA acted quickly to distribute food in June and saved many lives in the vicinity of Boricha district, Habtyimer says. Children who had appeared sickly and malnourished became healthy in a few months.

MCC and MKC-RDA previously distributed food in the Boricha district of southern Ethiopia after droughts in 2001 and 2004. MCC and MKC-RDA also work in this area to promote soil and water conservation, tree-planting and road construction. Last year, Ethiopia's president, Girma Woldegiorgis, honored MKC-RDA with an annual "green award" for environmentally sustainable development.

However, Habtyimer says that the drought has made it difficult, if not impossible, to help farmers prepare for the future. The immediate needs for food and water are too great to worry about anything else, he says.

Habtyimer says that a long-term solution would require giving farmers an alternative to rainfall to water their crops. Irrigation is very expensive, but it may be necessary, he says.

"Ethiopia is rich in material resources – a lot of rivers, lakes, and the soil in the Rift Valley is very, very fertile – but nobody is doing something to tap those water sources," Habtyimer says.

MCC is appealing for $1.5 million in contributions to provide emergency food assistance in Ethiopia and other countries affected by food shortages. Contributions should be designated "Food for All" and may be made online at mcc.org/donate or through any MCC office.

Habtyimer is available to speak publicly about the food situation in Ethiopia. For more information, please contact Ed Nyce at 717-859-1151 or ebn@mcc.org in the U.S. or contact your nearest MCC office in Canada at 888-622-6337.