As mentioned previously, when I asked you, the readers to choose which cuisine I should cover (in addition to Italian), you decided I should write about Ethiopia. I gladly take this task for a variety of reasons, mostly because I enjoy the food from that area of the world, plus there’s a bit of symmetry, as Ethiopia’s and Italy’s histories are inextricably tied together, thanks in large part to Italy’s misguided desire to colonize the area on two different occasions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Both of those incidents are filled with tragedy and triumph and deserve posts unto themselves. As neither of these moments of history are directly food related, I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to research them.
However, it would be impossible to write about Ethiopia and their food traditions without mentioning the regions recent difficulties in feeding their citizens.
The most important item to understand about the 1984-85 famine in Ethiopia is that it has to do as much with politics and infrastructure as it does with drought and locust plagues. Here is a country in which 50% of its gross domestic product is agriculture, yet still has difficulty in feeding its people when the food supply is reduced by x amount.
Consider the following: The government of Ethiopia at the time had insurgents in every administrative regions, some areas having more than others. For those with more insurgents than others, the Ethiopian regime tried (and often succeeded) to with hold food shipments to those rebel areas. This most certainly exasperated an already a near-impossible situation.
Since that time, the government of Ethiopia has been overthrown, but the situation has not improved all that much politically. Kjetil Tronvoll, of the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, stated that “There are between 10,000 and 30,000 political prisoners in the country”. In November, 2005 following widespread civil unrest throughout Ethiopia, the government arrested the leaders of the political opposition, newspaper editors, labor union leaders and other and charged them with treason and genocide.
I mention all of this because recent reports have stated that several environmental conditions in Ethiopia (and other countries in the area) make famine in the area a high probability. Recent droughts, together high cereal prices, overpopulation in the region, armed conflict, ban on livestock imports to markets in the Persian Gulf States, all have increased food insecurity. As the Food and Agricultural Office of the United Nations have reported “Initial estimates indicate more than one million people in the Somali Region to be facing severe food shortages. Over $40 million are urgently required to stave off starvation. The onset of the dry season (January to March) is expected to worsen the situation.”
Amartya Sen, an Indian economist best known for his work on famine, human development theory, once said “No substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent and democratic country with a relatively free press.” It’s clear that Ethiopia doesn’t have a such a system.
Now let’s add the International Monetary Fund to the mix. According to a July 2003 report in the Wall Street Journal, the IMF pressured the Ethiopian government to pull out of the agricultural markets in favor of an under-funded and inexperienced private sector. However, little provision was made to support this fledgling free market with storage facilities, transport and financing. Or, to put it another way, the IMF pressured Ethiopia to move towards capitalism, yet has provided little in the way of financial aid to help set up a food delivery infrastructure. That’s akin to asking a person to deliver pizzas without providing them a car or gas.
The human drama surrounding this catastrophe will no doubt be heart-wrenching to all of us viewing from a distance. The political drama that unfurls will also be interesting, as no government can exist for an extended period of time if it cannot feed its own people.