“An African Nightmare,” Newsweek, November 26, 1984.
Nearly 30 countries in Africa are officially listed as hungry, and in some of them, whole populations are in danger of extinction. The warning signs had been there for two years, and little to no relief came until the situation had escalated to a tragic disaster. The famine could have and should have been prevented, but wasn’t and now it is too late for many people in these African countries.
Red Cross relief stations opened in a town in Ethiopia, since then people have flocked from everywhere just to find some kind of food. Some individuals traveled many days and many miles just to get to the relief stations. Only the relatively fit could make the long journey, while the weak and diseased individuals died along the way. Already, as many as 200,000 people have died in Mozambique, and in Ethiopia the famine has killed at least 300,000 people. An additional million people could die before the disaster is over. It is the worst famine in African history and many people are feeling the harshness of this disaster. The drought has spread across the continent killing most of the grain crop, and in some areas “90 percent of the livestock died off.”
The last big famine in Africa occurred only ten years prior, killing about 300,000 people, which doesn’t even compare with this latest drought. A decade prior, relief workers said that it would never happen again, and that famine is “predictable” and “manageable.” Now ten years later, Africans are in the same predicament of starvation and disease as they had been not long before. The first warnings of disaster came two years prior, but were ignored by Western governments and relief agencies. Relief started coming only once the media began covering the disaster and broadcasting the situation worldwide. The effects of the drought over this long period of time had gotten steadily worse because of the continued population growth and lack of food production.
Many refugees were in such bad shape that they could not swallow or digest food, when the food finally became available to them. In some cases children had to be taught how to eat again, because it had been so long since they had eaten. Starvation brought other ailments with it, including influenza, measles, tuberculosis, smallpox, and kwashiorkor, a protein deficiency that lightens the skin, reddens the hair and bloats the bellies of malnourished children. Also, in many refugee camps there was no medicine for the treatment of these diseases. Doctors in many cases had to turn mothers and their children away because there was no medicine available to treat them.
Getting food to Ethiopia was easy, but the actual delivery of food to the people most in need was near impossible. One problem relief workers encountered was that Ethiopia had only one main port and one main airfield, and both were badly clogged up. The airport, which normally could only handle 3 to 4 planes a day, had “54 aircrafts” waiting to be unloaded. All the relief was good, but in many cases food would spoil before it could ever be unloaded and delivered to people. In some cases, not all the relief supplies were appropriate. In one case the Soviet Union sent 10,000 tons of rice, which Ethiopians don’t like, and in another case the British included cases of whisky in their shipment. The United States responded slowly at the beginning of the crisis, but ended up being one of the major contributors of relief aid all over Africa.
There are many things that could be done to prevent a crisis like this from happening again. First of all, large areas in Africa need reforestation, and a better balance between food crops and cash crops raised for exports. Many of the crops that are being produced in this area are exported, and are never seen by the people living in the country. “Above all, governments must spend money on agricultural development. Time is running out. Without the right investment of effort and money, Black Africa is more likely to become a charnel house than a granary.”