Famine Scorches Africa
FAMINE—that dreaded affliction—now devastates a huge sector of Africa. Just how much of the continent is affected is hard for non-Africans to visualize.
Take a map of Africa. Place your finger at the westernmost spot on the bulge, on the countries of Senegal and Mauritania. Then, move eastward below the Sahara Desert through Mali, Upper Volta, Niger and Chad. You have just covered well over two thousand miles—what is called the Sahelian region and home for over twenty-five million persons. For five years much of this area has been burning under the heat of one of the severest famines in living memory.
Now, jump over Sudan to Ethiopia. There also two heavily populated provinces are in the midst of severe drought and malnutrition. Yes, from west to east, northern Africa is seared with famine. Though there has apparently been exaggeration in some reports coming out of Africa, the fact remains that conditions are serious.
Conditions in the Sahelian Zone
In the Sahelian region the daytime temperature is customarily 115 degrees Fahrenheit in the shade. Such blazing heat without the benefit of rain at the proper time has made once semifertile land impotent. The few crops that manage to cling to life in the dispiriting heat are stunted, half-grown and wilted. Trees stand like stark, brittle skeletons. Where once there were pastures, now there is desert.
Rivers have turned to sand. Watering streams are no more than infected mud-holes. Up to 80 percent of the livestock—thousands of head of cattle, goats, sheep and camels—have given out and dropped to die on the parched, cracked earth.
The most crushing damage, however, has been to the people. Last summer officials estimated that if rain did not come, or if large amounts of food did not continue to be donated by outside nations, some six million persons would die. A catastrophe of such proportions seems to have been averted, at least for now. The exact number of persons who have actually died is not known, though most estimates speak of ‘untold thousands’ perishing.
Numerous factors make it difficult to determine the precise number of deaths. Many of the victims are nomads who live and die in the desert, far from the population centers. Then, too, deaths are often attributed to diseases made deadly by hunger rather than to starvation itself.
So severe have conditions become in the desert region that some tribes in Chad have begged not to be vaccinated against an outbreak of diphtheria. Why? Tribesmen reason that to die from the disease would be faster than by starvation. Severity of conditions is also indicated by reports of shepherds who deprived themselves of water and milk so that calves might have a chance to live. At one point even valuable camels are reported to have been punctured for their water supplies. Other nomads are said to have squeezed dung for moisture.
The grave effects of starvation are particularly manifest in young persons and older ones. Relief workers tell of children deformed by hunger and often too enfeebled to wait for ‘soup line’ handouts.
Reports of food shortage have emerged more slowly from Ethiopia, but the picture is no less ghastly than that from the western part of Africa. Between April and August 1972, one U.N. report claims, maybe 100,000 persons died in Ethiopia. Some officials assert that the figure was, in actuality, much higher.
In any event, since then countless others have died. In just thirteen relief centers located in one of the provinces, between 700 and 1,000 persons were recently reported dying each week. And, says a worker at one camp: “If these people are dying off at such a rapid rate, then we can be absolutely certain that they are dying by the hundreds if not thousands in the countryside.”
One firsthand account of conditions at the relief centers is provided by Jonathan Dimbleby and published in The Guardian. He depicts the “hopeless images” there:
“A child sucking desperately at the dried-up breast of his starving mother; a woman, stricken with dysentery, trying but failing to stagger out of her shelter before losing control; a boy of perhaps 12, arms and legs like matchsticks, struggling to carry a pitcher of water no heavier than two pints of milk; another cradling the head of his dying father—wherever we turned, the same despairing eyes.”
So desperate has the condition become that a medical assistant at Kembolishia camp claims: “If there is another crop failure I think we are going to have a mass catastrophe on our hands.”
What Caused the Famine?
But why do these situations exist in West Africa and Ethiopia? The one immediate major cause, of course, has been the lack of proper rainfall.
The Sahelian region is now in its sixth year without substantial moisture. Drought has perpetuated itself there, creating a seemingly endless cycle. As the soil gets hotter it dries out, becomes dusty. The relative humidity is lowered and this, in turn, impedes the formation of rain clouds. As a consequence, there is more heat; so the cycle continues. Major rivers, natural barriers to the encroaching desert, then shrink. As a result, the Sahara Desert now appears to be advancing southward annually.
There have been some slight breaks in the cycle of drought. Yet these have not been sufficient really to help. After a brief rain farmers might plant their millet, sorghum or peanuts, only to have the sun wilt the plants. Last season some farmers planted seed three or four times after a spurt of rain. Yet, because of a lack of continuing moisture, few of these crops came to full growth.
The drought cycle has been kept in motion in other ways—by man. During the drought some farmers, in hunger and desperation, ate the seed they had stored away for the next year. One diplomat from the region commented on the unusual nature of this action: “In my country, a farmer keeps his seed religiously. Year after year, he selects the very best grain from his crop and keeps that for seed. But this year, they are eating the seed. I never saw that in my life.” When the seed is eaten, there is nothing to plant the following year, even if there are fine growing conditions.
Men aggravated the Sahelian drought in yet another manner—by overgrazing. During the early 1960’s when there seemed to be plenty of food for the domestic animals, herdsmen were encouraged to breed far more animals than the pasture grounds could amply feed. These were also often very hardy animals, specially vaccinated to resist disease. Then, when rain did not appear for several years, people moved farther south with these large herds to where water and pasturage still existed. Vast areas of marginally fertile land were then slowly, but thoroughly, stripped of all vegetation.
Problems with Relief
The very nature of the way this famine developed also has contributed to its severity. Extreme famine conditions came on slowly. Unlike some food shortages of modern times, this one has therefore lacked a certain “sensational” aspect. The rest of the world was thus unaware of what was happening in the afflicted region. So, relief was also slow to appear.
Apparently officials in the very countries involved did not fully realize the magnitude of the starvation until nomads began leaving the deserts and coming into the cities in search of food. The capital of one West African country thus grew in a few months from a population of 40,000 persons to 120,000.
On the other hand, it also appears that the full extent of the famine may have been purposely covered over by certain officials in some of those same nations. In this way they sought to keep their “image” as a developing country untarnished before the rest of the world. Their big cities did not always welcome the hungry nomads from the deserts. Clashes of violence are reported to have taken place between refugees and the settled population who considered the nomads “parasites.”
Other African nations were accused by Africans of lacking concern and being slow to respond to the need for help. Said the government-owned Tanzanian Daily News: “What is happening to Africa’s brotherly spirit? . . . We talk so much about African unity and solidarity, but when it comes to action we keep our hands in our pockets.”
Then, too, in some cases, apparently relief organizations from outside Africa were greatly hampered from bringing speedy assistance to the endangered areas. Their own and others’ massive bureaucratic red tape and mistakes triggered more than a few delays in food delivery. Nevertheless, in time a number of relief and humanitarian organizations arranged for vital supplies to be found, shipped and distributed by railroad, truck and even camel. Airplanes were used to parachute food to nomads in the desert.
But what about the future?
Can Such Famines Be Ended?
Short-range plans call for continued relief shipments. It has been estimated that about 662,000 tons of food must be donated to the Sahelian region this year. However, even if the rains do return within a few months, it will take many years for the damage to be repaired. Cows that have been ravaged by starvation can no longer calve. People have been driven off their land and are facing a whole new way of life in cities.
Then what about the long-range plans? Can Africa’s famines be ended for good? Most officials, when they are truly honest, will admit that the prospects are rather bleak.
True, some talk about damming rivers to provide water for crops in years of drought. But that very procedure provides breeding water for blackflies, resulting in the dreaded “river blindness” in this region. Thousands of persons so afflicted already are not able to do farm work; this only adds to the economic problems.
Other experts talk about “education” as solving Africa’s food problems. But to many Africans “education” often means no more than an attempt to force Western ways on them. Joseph Ki-Zerbo of Upper Volta argues that it results in Africans’ actually being made dependent on outsiders. He writes in Ceres, a publication of the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization:
“In Africa, where vast territories lie fallow year after year for lack of equipment and training, waiting to be valorized [made valuable], populations that maintained a balance of self-sufficiency, albeit mediocre, until the end of the 19th century are depending ever more on American millet, Soviet rice, European flour and semolina to keep alive. The underdeveloped countries are crouching more and more under the rich folks’ dining table.”
No, men of this world have no real solutions to offer for the problems of famine in Africa. But God, the Creator of the earth and the one who incorporated in it the capacity to produce food, does have the answer. The food problems of the suffering people of Africa, as well as those of persons in the rest of the world, will be solved lastingly only by the kingdom of God.
Jesus Christ prophesied that during “the conclusion of the system of things” there would be, among other severe problems, food shortages. (Matt. 24:3, 7, 8) The fact that these conditions abundantly persist, in spite of large worldwide food organizations, well-intentioned men and the latest in technology, emphasizes that we are seeing the fulfillment of that prophecy.
The Bible also foretells that God’s kingdom will end man’s selfish domination of the earth and cause earth to be a paradise, with plenty for all its inhabitants to eat. This too will soon be fulfilled.—Matt. 6:9, 10; Ps. 67:6, 7; 72:16.
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