Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are solely those of the author, and do not reflect those of the World Food Programme or any of its partners.
As part of my field mission a few weeks ago to collect stories from the people benefiting from WFP, I visited a Relief Assistance food distribution in the small town of Limu-Bilbilo.
WFP’s Relief Assistance program is exactly what most people think of when they think of food aid. This food is generally given to rural farmers to “fill food gaps” – hold them over when their crops fail or production slows.
After we reached the town, the driver pulled the white Land Cruiser into a gated yard. There were rectangular buildings on three sides, and an enormous herd of donkeys huddled near the fourth side. In the middle were mountains of food: corn-soy blend, oil and wheat. The bags were stacked so high that people were sitting and standing on them, looking over the 2000 people who had gathered there to receive their allowance of food.
Immediately throngs of people approached the car, wearing tattered coats and dresses and scarves wrapped into turbans on their heads. They didn’t say anything at first, just stared at me. Then they began holding out their hands, begging, “One birr? One birr?”
I could have given them everything in my wallet and it still wouldn’t have been enough to go around.
I got out of the truck and followed Befekadu, a local WFP staffer, as he showed me around. He led me to the warehouse, where a small woman with a stack of papers was directing men carrying enormous bags of grain outside for distribution. Befekadu explained that many people had traveled hours to the site from their villages and had been waiting for the distribution to start since 8 a.m.
As I grew more comfortable, I started talking to people. Every story was the same. The fertile soil used to provide for the villages nearby. But a few years ago, the area started receiving excessive rainfall. It seeped into the soil and deprived the crops of oxygen. Production severely decreased. Families began abandoning their own farms and working for their neighbors for pay, sometimes even enlisting their children as shepherds in order to make ends meet. But then their neighbors’ crops failed, too.
Now communities didn’t grow enough food to survive the entire year; they needed help to make it through the “hunger season,” the rainy season when no production occurs and families run out of the food they grew last harvest.
I talked to one woman who came to the food distribution carrying her two year-old daughter on her back.
“What do you hope for the future?” I asked.
She looked to her left, casting her eyes down to the floor, then back to the translator. I repeated the question, thinking that maybe she didn’t understand.
But her silence made it clear that no one had asked her that question before.
A group of a few hundred men formed in one corner of the yard. A local official was speaking to them in Amharic.
“What is he saying?” I asked Befekadu.
“That they need to get jobs and work.”
Easier said than done in a country where there is no work to be had.
A man stood on top of a heap of bags of wheat and began calling out names. Slowly people began to line up. Groups of about six people were given a bag of food to distribute amongst themselves. Women with aluminum cans began shoveling wheat from the large USAID-embossed bags to their neighbor’s plastic bags and woven baskets. Sometimes an argument would break out, people protesting that they had received six scoops of wheat instead of seven.
As I stepped back into the Land Cruiser, the man standing on the bags of grain began shouting out more names into the crowd.