Tearfund is a Christian relief and development agency working in 90
countries round the world. It is a member of the Disasters Emergency
Committee and a founding member of the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, which
seeks cancellation of the debts of the world’s poorest countries. In
June, Tearfund’s Keith Ewing visited Ethiopia and wrote a diary of his
search for media coverage for a ’green famine’ - hard work when Ethiopia
is off the media agenda.
12 June, 3pm: Tearfund’s photographer Jim Loring is bent double,
vomiting into a roadside ditch under the fiery afternoon sun, 150km
south of Addis Ababa - a combination of his first meal not agreeing with
him and exhaustion after a 28-hour journey. We have just arrived in
Ethiopia to gather news of famine conditions affecting hundreds of
thousands of people in the south of the country. It is an area where
little of the international aid sparked by the BBC’s Rageh Omaar’s
reports in March, has reached. An appeal letter to Tearfund supporters
is ready and waiting in London for our copy and photos to be emailed
back via satellite phone by midday tomorrow. Depending upon what we
discover we will also seek to alert the media on our return to
13 June, 7am: Over breakfast in the southern town of Hosanna, our host
Elias Bashaw of the Kale Heywet Church briefs us on the conditions in
the district of Hadiya, where 5,000 people have already died of hunger
He describes a ’green famine’ in which people are starving surrounded by
luscious countryside and crops that will not mature for months. A burst
of rain in April turned the land green, but there is nothing to eat
after three years of crop failure.
13 June, 10am: Elias is right. The countryside we pass through on our
way to the village of Ordie is exquisite. Terraced farm plots, groves of
eucalyptus trees, rolling green highlands. As our land cruiser pulls
into Ordie I am overtaken by a mild panic. The villagers look healthy,
far too well for us to illustrate famine. We are up against a midday
deadline for getting copy back to London. I resolve to remain calm for
the moment. The callous journalist in me is now trampling all over the
humanitarian worker. My past rather indulgent criticisms of
sensationalist and simplistic media coverage of disasters are forgotten.
In common with the media, we as humanitarian workers need right now to
dramatise desperate need with strong photos and stories.
A village elder shows us round. We walk past several mud huts, deserted
and partially collapsed. The owners, he explains, have recently died
from hunger. His words hang in the air, but still have little impact in
these idyllic surroundings. We stop in front of one such hut. Jim starts
taking photos as I conduct a minidisc interview with the elder for an
audio package to be posted later on the Tearfund web site. He tells me
that 90 per cent of the cattle in the village have died. He adds that
they are burying people every day.
In the next few minutes we cross the threshold of a parallel
We enter one hut and there on the floor is Degu Lamme, a 45-year-old
father of five who is too weak to walk or to haul his skeletal body to
Suddenly we have scratched below the surface and come face-to-face with
the ’green famine’. Degu’s cattle died from drought. Then he sold
everything he had to buy food for his family. Now the family has
We ask if Degu is willing to talk and be photographed. We learn that the
whole village knew we were coming and, like many we talk to and
photograph, Degu asks that we publicise their plight in the UK.
Motionless, and in a faint, croaky whisper, he says: ’I would ask in the
name of God that you reach out to us and give support and save our
By now some 20 villagers are peering curiously through the door of the
hut as Jim seeks to take useable images in the appalling semi-gloom of
Degu’s hut. Villagers offer to carry Degu outside into the daylight for
our benefit, but we quickly decline. It is a boundary we feel
uncomfortable crossing. Already, our presence in his home feels
intrusive. Twice during the interview Degu’s fading voice is drowned out
by the laughter of children playing in the doorway and we have to ask
for quiet. This only adds to the surreal nature of the mini media event
taking place in such desperate circumstances.
At one point I have to ask Degu’s wife, Wathiso to stop breast-feeding
while Jim is photographing. As bizarre as it seems in such a distressing
situation, an exposed breast would be a distraction in an appeal letter
seeking funds to fight famine. In line with Tearfund editorial
guidelines, we are seeking as far as possible to preserve people’s
dignity. Later in the day families are ripping the clothes off their
children to show us how emaciated are their legs and distended their
stomachs. Such images are more shocking. But we feel it is not
13 June, 4pm: We meet other villagers, including a 12-year-old girl,
Berhommesh, who collapses in front of us as we interview her father, and
14-year-old Zewdie whose eyes have recently swollen shut because of
We come away with devastating stories for the Tearfund appeal
After many hours of battling technology glitches we manage to email
Degu’s story back to London.
14 June, 1pm: We visit a village to the east called Chambulla. The
picture is the same as in Ordie. Malnourished children in need of drip
feeding, never mind food aid. I move through the crowd in Jim’s wake
interviewing those whom he photographs. A week later in London we will
conclude that to use some of the photos would be gratuitous. We will
discount one shot of a starving baby’s face contorted by a scream partly
because its distress is not solely caused by hunger, but by its mother
prising its mouth from her empty breast. The image also fails to offer
context and is too sensationalist.
15 June, 11am: Our hosts know a freelance cameraman who is able to shoot
some pictures of Ordie for us to take back to London. We revisit Degu,
who seems much weaker. Berhommesh, the girl who collapsed in front of us
two days previously, can no longer walk. We are dismayed to see the
cameraman shooting on VHS as we realise that there will be little of
broadcast quality. Jim and I discuss the likelihood of media interest in
the ’green famine’ on our return. The wall-to-wall coverage of famine in
March underlined the power of the media to play a role in averting an
But we are worried that this will mean the media feel they have ’done’
Ethiopia. Also, ’green famine’ lacks the drama of a classic drought.
There are no crowds of hungry people arriving en masse at feeding
centres. Rather, they are dying spread out, village by village, hut by
hut. And what of public frustration with ongoing disaster in Ethiopia?
The response in March once again belied predictions of compassion
fatigue. How long will it be before we give up on Ethiopians, so often
presented as helpless beneficiaries?
25 June, 9am: Back in London I start the media ring-round.
Correspondents and foreign desks, radio news programmes and news agency
bureaux are approached about Ethiopia’s unfolding ’green famine.’
’To be honest, Ethiopia is down the news agenda now,’ said one
television news editor. ’People will wake up and see that the situation
is not going away, then at some point we will rush back in again.’
’We would like to do something, but we have to cover what is happening
this week. And that happens to be Zimbabwe,’ was the sympathetic
response of one national newspaper.
’I don’t want to sound cynical, but we have done a lot on Ethiopia,’
said another national newspaper.
1 July, 9am: Positive coverage appears in the religious press, with
photos, news stories and features running in Church of England
Newspaper, the Baptist Times, Christian Herald and other publications.
This is crucial coverage in support of the appeal as church-goers
comprise Tearfund’s prime target audience.
2 July, 9am: The only national newspaper to have bitten is the
Independent on Sunday, which ordered 600 words and a photo.
3 July, 9am: A colleague greets me in the office with the words: ’Did
you hear the Today programme this morning? They ran an item on wildlife
in the Horn of Africa dying because of the drought.’