John Arnold: My trip to Ethiopia filled me with hope, now I fear for its future

An estimated nine million people are now suffering from malnutrition and in danger of starvation in Ethiopia, due to recent conflict there, writes John Arnold who once visited the country
John Arnold: My trip to Ethiopia filled me with hope, now I fear for its future

John Arnold presents books to Ligala Hitosa High School in Ethiopia, on his visit to the country in 2008 as part of the Self-Help charity.

I WAS saddened and very upset in recent days learning about what’s happening in Ethiopia.

When I heard Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney speak in grave tones about the deteriorating humanitarian situation there, it worried me even more.

Growing up, I knew very little about this vast African country. The Emperor Haile Selassie was often in the news years ago – he was reputed to be a direct descendant from King Solomon - supposedly the wisest man that ever lived! His ‘line’ had reigned as rulers and Emperors for nearly 2,000 years.

Selaisse was overthrown in 1974 and assassinated the following year. The Civil War which followed dragged on, bloodily, until 1991. Since then peace has come dropping slow with simmering unrest bordering on violence never far away.

As well as internal strife, relations with nearby Sudan have been very poor. Famine has also stalked the land on several occasions. The country has long been a centre of attention by aid agencies under the guidance of the United Nations.

Ireland has a long history of rendering both food and economic aid to this huge country. 

Back maybe in 2005 or 2006, I was asked to ‘take up’ a Church gate collection here in Bartlemy one Sunday for an organisation called Self-Help.

The ethos of Self-Help could be easily summed up using the well-known phrase - some call it a proverb: ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; show him how to catch fish and you feed him for a lifetime’.

We all know that where starvation and absolute famine are imminent, talk of growing crops or producing livestock for next year is of little use. 

In such terrible situations where it’s life or death immediate food aid is the only possible solution to prevent death.

Self-Help and other similar groups worked on the basis of assisting people in African countries ‘on the ground’ with small monetary loans. Their vision was based on the future of rural communities in Africa, ensuring people had access to food, shelter, education and health care. The means to achieve this end was not by ‘hand-outs’ but by increasing the income which people could earn.

A tiny loan the equivalent of €100 is a massive sum for a poor family or even community in poverty-stricken countries. If invested properly in crop production, animal husbandry, bee-keeping or simply ensuring a water supply, the long term effects can be massive and can continue for generations.

One of the Self Help Fundraising co-ordinators, Con Lane, suggested to m early in 2008 that I might travel to Ethiopia to observe the work of Self-Help. I wasn’t over-enthused by the idea initially - I’d have to raise more than €5,000 to be part of a Self- Help trek.

Con was persuasive and, with the money needed raised and all my ‘shots’ for exotic diseases got, I was on the way to Africa in October, 2008. It was just a month after we had lost the County Senior Hurling final by a point, one solitary point, to Sarsfields so I suppose my Ethiopian venture couldn’t have come at a better time.

We spent ten days in the country and looking back now, 13 years later, I must admit if there was one place I’d love to return to it certainly would be Ethiopia.

The population then was just under 80 million and today it stands at more than 110 million. The vastness of the country really stunned me. On buses in the countryside, one could see for miles and miles away, flat countryside with a teeming rural population.

During our time in the country we visited several Self-Help funded projects and saw at first hand the fantastic improvements in the standard of living of communities where Irish funding had been invested. Of the €5,000 I had raised, €3,000 went directly to help giving loans and grants to so many small projects.

I felt proud, not in any ‘Amn’t I a great fella to be doing this’ kind of way; no, just proud that the people at home who gave generously to me were making a difference on the other side of the world.

Of course, my efforts were just a drop in the ocean, but then every little helps.

I flew home from Ethiopia in a reflective mood. I’d seen at first hand the many problems which effect African countries. On the other hand, I knew that it’s better to light even a small candle than to simply curse the darkness.

It pains me terribly to observe what’s happening in Ethiopia at present. No foreign powerful army trying to take over, but civil strife and open warfare amidst different factions - all of whom claim to be Ethiopians.

War is never pretty - even so-called ‘just wars’ are horrible and the use of rape as a means of warfare is terrible. It’s just one facet of the awful carnage going on at present in that beautiful country.

On our last night in the capital, Addis Ababa, in October, 2008, the 25 of us on the trek were invited to a reception in the Irish Embassy. Our genial host was the newly appointed Ambassador Shiela Maguire, who told us that about 70 Irish people lived in the country. Links between Ireland and Ethiopia were very strong, she pointed out, with Trocaire, Self-Help, the HOPE Foundation and GOAL all very involved in improving the living conditions of so many.

In recent times, Ireland has spoken out at the UN about the injustices and atrocities being perpetrated in Ethiopia. Because of this, Ireland has become a ‘persona non grata’ in the blinkered view of the Ethiopian establishment.

Just last week, six of the eight staff of current Ambassador Niamh Brennan were given a week to leave. Minister Coveney has deemed it appropriate to urge Irish nationals to leave the country. 

For many, this will be a heart-wrenching departure as most are involved with vital humanitarian work all over the state.

Minister Coveney first visited the country in 2017 and another visit had been planned in the coming weeks which has now been cancelled.

Since 1994, Ireland and Ethiopia have enjoyed diplomatic relations and in the last five years Irish aid in one form or another for Ethiopia has totalled more than €160 million.

One of the immediate results of the terrible conflict over the last 18 months is that an estimated nine million people are now suffering from malnutrition and in danger of starvation.

While people starve, the fighting between Government troops and Tigrayan rebels continues. The United Nations, and Ireland too, have been accused of ‘meddling’ in the country’s ‘domestic affairs’.

When I was in Ethiopia in 2008, I saw the contrast between opulence and riches in certain places and the sight of thousands scavenging on the municipal dump in Addis, in an effort to gather food scraps in order to stay alive.

I saw all that, but still I had the impression of a country slowly but surely striving towards a better future for all its people. Now I’m not so sure about that future anymore.

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