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When drought struck Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985 a horrific tragedy unfolded as the food crops millions depended upon slowly succumbed. The horror was made all the more memorable because it unfolded before the eyes of the world, as television beamed the scene into households from Germany to Japan to Australia. Few viewers had ever witnessed in real time the specter of walking skeletons, children with bellies swollen as if pregnant, babies dying at their mother’s breast. The images shocked the common conscience. They still do. “The world has seen a lot of suffering,” said U.S. congressman Tony P. Hall, “but we still judge hunger against the depths of Ethiopia’s hell.”

Among the millions of sufferers were southwestern Ethiopia’s Sombo people, who relied on cereals for their very existence. In the mid-1980s their fields of tef, sorghum, and maize produced little or nothing. Faced with empty shelves and empty stomachs, the Sombo decamped en masse. From their villages in Ilubabor Province they headed eastward, some trudging as far as 500 km to Woliso, a town hardly 100 km short of Addis Ababa itself. On this long and painful trek many died, but in the green highlands the survivors discovered a wholly new type of food resource, a vegetable taller than a house. During their enforced exile in that salubrious region so close to the great capital, they taught themselves to cultivate this huge herb. Returning to Sombo, they carried planting materials home, and the alien food grew to be part of their everyday diet. Already that has paid off. In 1992, a year of constant downpours, most of the coffee crop and up to 90 percent of the cereal crop succumbed to disease. This time, though, there was no famine and no trek in search of succor…the Sombos lived off their gigantic vegetable. Then, in the year 2000 drought again afflicted Ethiopia. By now the new food was well and truly grounded in the Sombo soil and culture. Once more, the suffering caused by empty shelves and long marches never arose.1


This story and much of this chapter’s detail come from The Tree Against Hunger., posted at We are grateful for the authors providing so much information, much of it effortlessly via the worldwide web—a clear example of its broadcasting power; perhaps no other lost African crop has so quickly

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