Thirty minutes from the city of Bahir Dar, at the end of the sole, dusty road leading through a tiny village we ducked into the cool interior of a mud-walled duplex. Six or seven of us crowded into the front corner of the last home on the left, no larger in its entirety than my own family’s dining room. A ewe peeked from behind the door as its owner, baby slung across her hip, emerged from behind a half-wall separating the sleeping area and the sheep pen from the rudimentary kitchen and living area. Overhead a single light bulb, cool and dark, dangled by its cord. Here, in the middle of the day, the sun was enough to light the room, but even when it fell below the horizon at night the light bulb would remain off. Electricity to power it, she told us through a translator, was too expensive.
And it was like this that we would communicate with her about her life, her daughter, her hopes for the future — when her ewes gave birth to lambs she hoped to sell them to earn money for light — one question at a time, with the help of a translator. If her daughter hadn’t spent the entire time chewing and sucking on a corn-stalk we might not have thought to ask her about their eating habits, but what we discovered when we did would give a frame of reference to so much we’d seen before and would see after as we traveled in Ethiopia, trying to make sense of a life so very different from our own.
“How often do you eat?” It seems like such an innocent question until the mother standing before you answers — “I know we should eat at least twice,” she said, “but most days there is only enough for once.” And once is a vast improvement over the conditions of the past, her village is home to a USAID ENGINE farm program site that has provided farming education, seeds, fertilizers, and ewes like the one behind her door. Put simply, her village is home to a program that has provided access to more food for her family and neighbors.
This month, as millions of Muslims around the world fast all day in accordance with their religion, NPR is running a story about the Ramadan Challenge of shopping and cooking while hungry during the one month religious observance. It’s a challenge that is noble, steeped in many thousands of years of tradition, and is no doubt staggeringly difficult for those who undertake it, but also ironic in the way it highlights global hunger and extreme poverty — especially since much of it is concentrated in areas of the world where the Muslim tradition is strongest now or has had deep roots in the past.
In Syria, just across the border from Israel where I was reporting from last month, Muslim civilians caught in the middle of civil war struggle with starvation daily. Fist fights break out over packets of flour and the number who suffer can only be counted in rough estimates and educated guesses. In Pakistan more than 40 million people live in extreme poverty that results in malnutrition and disease. In Egypt, back on the African continent just north of Ethiopia where we first began this story, food instability has spurred repeated civil uprisings. There, too, for families living in poverty children are often fed just once per day, not by choice but because there is nothing more to eat.
Within the Muslim community the problem of extreme hunger is not unknown; Islamic Relief UK receives about one-third of their annual donations during the thirty days of Ramadan as families use their time fasting for reflection and give generously to charity. From without however, the issue is not nearly as clear, too often muddled by politics in the media.
The fasting of Ramadan is a noble undertaking indeed, I just hope coverage of families fortunate enough to be able to choose to participate does not overshadow the millions for whom fasting daily is normal and without the promise of a generous dinner spread at sundown — regardless of religion.
Diana Prichard is a freelance writer and hog farmer. International reporting trips she’s taken with ONE (Ethiopia, 2012) and AIFL (Israel, 2013) to report on food, poverty, agriculture, and politics informed this piece. Follow her on Twitter: @diana_prichard and Join ONE to fight extreme poverty.
Image courtesy Diana Prichard