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Symbol of Ethiopia's famine now a college student

Monday, October 18, 2004

MEKELE, Ethiopia -- She was famine's poster child -- a 3-year-old Ethiopian girl snatched from death and gazing at the world through exhausted eyes, her emaciated body wrapped in a white burial shroud.

In 1984, Birhan Weldu's face haunted the Band Aid rock concert for hunger relief. Today, she is a healthy college student who represents both the success of the relief effort and the world's failure to deal with the root causes of famine.

"I was lucky," says Birhan, whose mother starved to death. "Sometimes I can't believe I survived, because hundreds of thousands of children like me lost their lives."

One million Ethiopians died from the 1984 drought. Millions of them still depend on food aid every year, with some years worse than others because of cyclical droughts.

Birhan's face was etched into the world's consciousness from Canadian TV footage screened at the London concert that raised $14 million for famine relief. She and her surviving family met with Band Aid organizer Bob Geldof and she was introduced to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Ethiopia this month to mark the 20th anniversary of the aid effort.

Weldu Menameno, her father, recounted how he and his family left his drought-stricken village in Tigray province, the epicenter of the crisis, and joined thousands of people in search of food in Mekele, 500 miles north of the capital, Addis Ababa. Weldu's children carry his first name as their surname, as is the custom in parts of Ethiopia.

His oldest daughter, Azmara, died on the journey and Birhan became terribly ill.

"The nuns who were helping feed people said she would die within 15 minutes," recalls 57-year-old Weldu. "She was dying in my hands."

"I wrapped her in a shroud and prepared to bury her, but I didn't have a shovel to dig a grave," he said. "A lot of people were dead, lying on the ground like leaves, and I didn't want that for my daughter. Eventually some people helped dig a grave."

But as the farmer prepared to bury his daughter, he noticed a slight pulse. He badgered the nurses to look again, and intensive care restored her health.

Twenty years later, the family is still in Tigray, living on $60 a month from farming and charity. Crops were good this year, but there's no telling when drought will strike again.

Birhan is 23 now and training at an agricultural college. She lives with her father, stepmother and six brothers and sisters in a stone shack.

While grateful for the aid that saved her life, she knows it won't solve Ethiopia's problems.

"What we need are schools to educate ourselves, dams for farmers so they are not dependent on the rains. We need health centers and industry for people to have jobs," she said.

The Ethiopian government is soon expected to appeal for food aid for 12 million people. Last year, 14 million would have starved without Western handouts.

The population has rocketed from 40 million in 1984 to 70 million today, while per capita income has dropped from $190 to under $100.

Birhan met Geldof and Blair at the second meeting of the British leader's Africa Commission, which is researching ideas to end Africa's poverty, conflict and disease.

Blair declared Birhan a symbol of hope.

"Despite all the problems Ethiopia has, they have still made progress," he said.

African leaders blame Western policies that have saddled Ethiopia with so much debt that the interest is more than the entire $149 million budget for health care.

But international economists blame Ethiopia's stringent land ownership rules, government red tape and restrictions on private businesses and foreign investment.

Western governments pour 700,000 tons of food a year into Ethiopia, and this year one quarter of Tigray province's 4 million people depend on it. Birhan hopes she'll see the day it's no longer needed.

"We need to be stand on our own," she says, "and not always be reliant on aid."


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