Fruits, Labour and Progress in Antsokia Valley, Ethiopia


Children in Ethiopia

It was 1984 when news of the famines in Ethiopia broke in the UK; I was 4 years old. Antsokia valley was one of the worst affected areas, and I’ve been there for the past 3 days, visiting people who lived through it, and learning about how the area has changed and learned to support itself, with the help of the aid organization World Vision.

Four million people were affected by the famine, and there were 15-20 deaths each day. I met the man who informed the government of the situation at the time, Girma Wondafrash. A community leader, he told the authorities that people were starving, initiating the relief effort. He spoke about how he mobilised a community to build an airport in Antsokia, overnight, in order for emergency aid to be delivered. A remarkable story. I think about Live Aid and Bob Geldof and all those images of desperate people on the telly, as I’m hearing the story from the man who actually started the whole thing, sat right in front of me.

Girma Wondafrash.

We’ve been travelling out to World Vision’s ‘area development programmes’, along dusty roads where women and children walk, carrying water, bags of onions and sugar cane; men herd cattle or tug lines of camels bearing wood or straw, scarves piled on their heads to shield the sun. Donkeys plod relentlessly with burdens of rocks. The landscape changed as we arrived here from Addis Ababa; what were once patchwork shades of brown change to green as crops flourish. Red onions are a major source of income, a variety called ‘Bombay’ which can be harvested 3 times a year; some are exported but most are consumed by Ethiopians. The fields in which they grow are now irrigated, and we walk along irrigation streams to a fruit farm. I find out just how effective the system is by plunging my foot into a puddle of sloppy mud.

Onion farming.


World Vision’s development programs run in 3 phases: the emergency relief phase, which is what we saw with emergency feeding programmes during the famine, rehabilitation, and then development. After the emergency feeding ended, the Ethiopian land and its people were in such dire need that a lot of work had to be done in preparation before rehabilitation could even start. The people didn’t know the capacity of the land; where previously they’d been growing simple grains, now they grow vegetables and fruits – avocados, mango, papayas, bananas, oranges and limes.

Bananas on the tree with magnificent flower.


Oranges and avocado.

At another farm we meet a man called Abebe Aragaw who survived the famine and now runs a flourishing fruit business. Trees groan with the weight of huge papayas and mangoes, the latter being a good example of how the seedlings have been modified in research centres to ensure better rewards for the farmers; the new trees yield much more fruit, more often. At another farm we see modified trees that are smaller, meaning women are able to harvest the mangoes. This seedling development is clearly a major boost for the farmers.

Abebe on his farm. Ethiopians are smart dressers; clothes may be threadbare, but they still turn out in suits.

Abebe with his lunch box, made from animal hide.

Desta Aragaw, a member of a farmers’ association, on his farm in Antsokia Valley.

Ripe apple mangoes on the tree.

We also see fresh coffee beans; coffee is one of Ethiopia’s major exports and is crucial to the economy. Aside from that, it’s incredibly good. I’m a hardcore tea drinker, and yet I’ve stuffed several pouches of coffee in my rucksack to bring home.

Coffee beans.

Abebe shows us around his farm with pride, and describes how he has plans for the next ten years, including setting up his own shop. Every Ethiopian we meet seems to have a clear goal for the future, not a single person faltering at the question. They have developed strength and self sufficiency and the will to keep moving forward is strong. The lush farms, buzzing with insects and bird song, seem so far away from the images of planes dropping emergency rations on parched soil. It’s hard to believe it ever really happened.

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  • Avatar
    Reply Chris March 16, 2013 at 7:18 pm

    That first photo of Girma Wondafrash is Pulitzer prize worthy. Just incredible.

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    Reply Alicia (foodycat) March 16, 2013 at 7:43 pm

    Oh god, I am a disrespectful, horrible person. I kept reading Wondafrash as Wonderfresh. I am really enjoying these insights into Ethiopian life.

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    Reply John Gionleka March 17, 2013 at 4:26 pm

    Reading your journal has been inspirational not least when
    Witnessing the generosity of the people in Ethiopia. Well done Helen

  • Avatar
    Reply Mark Upton March 17, 2013 at 6:52 pm

    “Abebe with his lunch box, made from animal hide.”

    You didn’t!!!

  • Avatar
    Reply Ashley Bee (Quarter Life Crisis Cuisine) March 18, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    A truly amazing journey. Thank you so much for sharing.

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    Reply Jor March 19, 2013 at 1:01 am

    I appreciate you being specific about the location although I never heard of this “antsokia valley” I think its in tigraye regional state. It might be the name outsiders gave it but Its important to note that not all of Ethiopia was affected by the famine of 84. It was the northern region, people generally tend to think the whole country is some type of basket case, Ethiopia offers good opportunities in agriculture because of the good climate and can actually become a regional net exporter of grains and fruits.

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    Reply Toast and Butter March 19, 2013 at 5:38 pm

    Very inspiring post, thank you. I think it is really worth learning about the positives that have stemmed from the disastrous famine, and what is achievable. There is never enough news reporting on the positives, which seem to just focus on the doom and gloom of African turmoil. Thanks for sharing something alternative! Anne

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    Reply niamh March 23, 2013 at 3:38 pm

    Wow. Inspirational people. Beautifully described, Helen.

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen March 26, 2013 at 9:34 am

      Thanks Niamh x

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    Reply Saba March 25, 2013 at 2:59 pm

    I’ve just put down a book titled : ‘Squandering Eden – Africa at the Edge’ by Mort Rosenblum and Doug Williamson (1990). In it the authors touched loosely on the Ethiopian famine of 1984 and called the UN and other foreign aid groups ‘Famine Groupies’ who were doing nothing but applying a band aid to the problem without creating any actual solutions. So I was pleasantly surprised when I accidentally stumbled upon your blog and found this article! Thanks for sharing. Glad to hear that the authors were wrong when they predicted that Ethiopia’s hunger would only grow worse

    • Avatar
      Reply Helen March 26, 2013 at 9:33 am

      Wow. That’s interesting. No the whole point about this part of the aid was that it was helping to help themselves in a sustainable way.

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    Reply Goose April 1, 2013 at 5:19 pm

    Some people certainly know their onions.
    Takes me back to my coffee roasting days at Keith Spicer’s, a long time ago mind. Dorset though ,not Africa.
    Ethiopian Mocha beans, I think, seriously long time ago. Kenya beans were always a good call, graded and vetted, like French wines. AA ,AB, C and Pea berry. Must Google and refresh my memory.
    Good pictures, Great post, keep up the good work. A donation to Mary’s meals this week, me thinks.

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    Reply Tadesse July 21, 2013 at 10:31 pm

    It is really interesting to hear again. I know the place and God is doing wonderful things not only in the physical realm but also in the Spiritual ways. God is so gracious to give His blessing to the destitute area.

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