Sign Up

The African Famine

Would you expect to learn a lesson in human generosity during a devastating famine?

November 16, 2002

Would you expect to learn a lesson in human generosity during a devastating famine?

In 1984, the rains failed in the Sahel. Again. Dry years were nothing new, not on the arid southern frontier of the Sahara. The rains had been failing on and off for centuries, for millennia, as far as anyone knew.

Once the Sahara itself had been verdant and lush, home of hippos and pink flamingos. But long ago, the swamps had begun to dry up — and the sands of the Great Erg — the North African desert — pushed relentlessly southward.

The hardy rural people of the Sahel zone — the Sudan, southern Ethiopia and Chad — had long ago learned to cope.

There had never been much help from outside, not under the old Malian or Kanem Bornu empires, or under colonialism, or in the brief period since independence.

The people had been forced to learn the brutal truths of self-sufficiency in an arid land. They would live and die by their own efforts.

Sometimes the droughts were accompanied by famines — and whole communities perished. But some always survived.

And, over the centuries, they had learned to cling to their existence by maintaining their own stores of grain — and carefully husbanding their seeds and precious water supplies.

So they could survive even if the rains failed one year. They could survive even if the rains didn't come the following year either. But when the rains failed in 1984, it was after 16 straight years of meager rainfall. It was too much.

As a result, thousands of desperate families trudged along the dusty roads of the Sahel, starving and suffering.

At first, hardly anyone outside the Sahel noticed. Most of those affected were rural peasants and villagers remote from the main urban areas — and their plight received little global attention.

It wasn't until BBC television cameras alerted the world to the dimensions of the great human tragedy unfolding that the world began to pay attention.

It became apparent that that much of sub-Saharan Africa was similarly afflicted. The United Nations estimated that some 200 million people in 20 African countries were severely affected by the drought and related famine conditions. The survival of 30 million people was at imminent risk.

A few weeks later I was with one of our convoys as it moved slowly along a dusty road in western Sudan. We were heading for another temporary refugee camp, yet another of the many we had heard of that were severely overtaxed, supplies dangerously low.

The camp was still some way off. I wasn't expecting to see anyone out there in that searing hell, so it wasn't until we had almost gone by that I noticed two or three hundred people sitting in little clusters in the dust by the side of the road.

There was nothing else there — no village, no huts, no trees, no shelter, no water, just the people. It couldn't by any stretch be called a "camp." And, indeed, the Sudanese officials with whom we were traveling protested that we shouldn't stop because they were merely people — not an official relief center.

I overrode the protestations of the officials, insisted that we stop and commandeered a truck loaded with bags of meal, ordering the men to drop off a bag for each cluster of people.

Our own vehicle had stopped close to a woman with two small children. She sat on the ground, watching us with a transparent mixture of hope and anxiety. Emaciated as she was, she was beautiful and dignified.

She was watching us, only partially shielded from the burning sun by a tattered scrap of cloth held up by two sticks.

The aid workers finished their work and clambered back into the truck. As it began to pull away, I saw that somehow the woman had been missed. Perhaps her little family group had been too insignificant to be noticed.

I saw the silent anguish on her face as she watched the truck drive away, but she made no protest. She stared after the retreating vehicle, her anguish succeeded first by despair, then by resignation.

I could not leave that way. For her and her children, it would clearly be a matter of life or death, I had our driver catch up to the truck — and make it return.

After it had dropped a bag of meal at her feet, she told us through an interpreter that her husband and two other children had died along the route.

She and the two babies had had nothing to eat for several days, many days, how many she couldn't remember, there were too many to remember.

She told her story carefully, slowly, as though it were a legend to repeat to the children, then she rose to her feet and with tears in her eyes pressed into my hand a small object carefully wrapped in a piece of paper.

It proved to be an egg, smaller than a hen's egg, which she had been saving for her children. She wanted me to have it.

I have never been so moved — or so confused. What could I possibly do? It was unthinkable, utterly unthinkable, to take the gift.

But it was also unthinkable to affront her by refusing it — her dignity was the one thing the world had not been able to strip from her, and to refuse would have been an act of gratuitous cruelty.

In the end I took the egg, and through much tactful diplomacy on the part of my Sudanese colleagues was able to give it back to her — for her children, as I made sure they told her. It would be a special treat for them before I left.

As the convoy drove away, I looked back. Her head was bowed slightly, staring down at the bag of meal. There was no sign of the small paper parcel. She had secreted it away.

Whenever anyone asks me the "why" of my long life of public service, whenever anyone asks why I continue my optimism in the face of what seems like gathering anarchy and imminent ecological catastrophe, whenever anyone questions the utility of foreign aid or the politics of relief, whenever anyone, someone who should know better, demands in a fit of postmodern Western anomie why they should bother to "fix the unfixable," the woman in the western Sudan desert comes to my mind.

That woman had managed to miraculously preserve the human gift of generosity in the face of unspeakable privation.

That precious egg — wrapped so carefully in its torn scrap of paper — has become for me a metaphor for the largeness of the human spirit. In the face of that memory, pessimism becomes an act of betrayal.

Reprinted with the permission of TEXERE. Copyright 2001 by Maurice Strong, all rights reserved.