The Ghosts of Famine and Drought I could not find in Eritrea
Part III: In search of Eritrean Cattle affected by “widespread food shortages” and “hidden famine”
Early Friday morning, September 16, my dad, my maternal uncle (who has earned my father’s respect for his superior bargaining skills), and I drove to Hmbrti to buy an ox from the animal market at Himbirti. Since I was the driver the previous day on this very same road, this time, I decided to sit on the passenger seat so that I can soak in the pleasure of the magnificent scenery of earth’s bounty that I had witnessed on my prior trip. The only thing I can say about the paved road between Adi gwaEdad and Himbrti is “Tesmi yeHfs”, in other words, it is so smooth that “you can recover a spilled melted butter from its surface”. The ride was smooth and the landscape was breathtaking. In fact, on this trip, I noticed a couple of lots with dense maize (corn) plants on the Adi-gombolo side of the road. The further we drove on the Asmera-Hmbrti road, the better it got. Even the cattle and sheep of the area were witnessing that it was a good rainy season for them. They looked much better than I had seen in my last tri p to Eritrea. We finally arrived at the Edaga Kebti located at the outskirts of the semi-town (Hawsi-ketema) of Hmbrti. The oxen, the cows, and the sheep we found here were much bigger than the ones I saw on the road. I hoped they were going to be fairly priced as well. We started browsing the market. While my dad and my uncle were looking all over the place without paying attention to the Razas and Hamras next to them, my eyes were fixed on the Chelays and Berhets near me. On one hand, I was scared of getting carried and thrown afar by one of the bulls, on the other hand, my eyes were inviting me to touch and feel like what my children would love to do whenever they encounter animals here in the US. What I could see and feel was nothing but gigantic herds of well fed bulls. By this time my dad and uncle had wandered away from me. I didn’t think I had any other choice but to search for them using one side of my eyes while the other side remained fixed on the Chelays and Berhets that were trying to get hooked up in front of me. I finally located and caught up with the people I was looking for, albeit cautiously and watchfully of my surrounding.
The price of the ox they were negotiating started at 32,000 nakfa. Yes, you read it right; thirty-two thousand Eritrean nakfa, over two thousand US dollars at the official exchange rate. This much for a single ox shocked me to the point that I felt comfortable with the animals pushing each other next to me. I even started giving them the buyer’s physical examination to feel the muscle that is supposedly worth thirty-two thousand Eritrean nakfa. My uncle offered twenty two thousand. The merchant got furious and started walking away fuming and humming. My uncle followed him telling him that there was no need to get upset about it; we could get a better deal from the other dealers. After haggling and cajoling each other for a while, finally they agreed on 27,500 (yes, twenty seven thousand and five hundred) Nakfa and the deal was sealed. More amazing than the price of the ox was the price tag of a sheep: 5,500 (five thousand five hundred) Nakfa. The only solace you get out of this is that what you get for this amount are genuine organically bred animals. No need to worry about steroids and what-have-you. I said to myself “How did we come to this, looking for expensive meat rather than the down to earth vegetarian diet that our culture was known for? What happened to the days where shiro, Hamli, timtimo, enTaTiE and Hilbet used to rule the day and night meal?” We need to rethink this unhealthy diet induced from the South of the border so that: (a) we could spare lots of nakfa for something else, (b) we could remain as healthy as aboy Hineshim and adey Dehab.
As it was explained to me at a later time, the high cost of the livestock was a simple supply and demand phenomenon. The animals we saw at the market were reared for food. And since the farmers were not bringing their animals to the market due to the good harvest season, the traders got a field day to dictate the price. According to my uncle, who as I mentioned earlier is considered to be one of the most knowledgeable farmers, animal prices depreciate only when nature is not good to a farmer; only when it is hard to feed himself or his animals does a farmer consider selling his animals. With the good rainy season that Eritrea saw this past summer, the farmers are not willing to part with their animals that they know everyone of them by name and love them dearly. When farmers are well off, the animal and meat market is limited to the livestock that are reared for their meat only (which in itself is new to Eritrea). This means the law of supply and demand dictates. The animals become more expensive than usual and the price of meat, milk, and food in general remains unstable.
Agricultural subsidy is one factor that is keeping western food (including meat and milk) prices to remain superficially low. Unlike in the US and some other western countries, Eritrean farmers are not getting subsidized by anybody. To be exact, the government they shouldered and subsidized for its livelihood during the armed struggle for independence, is now beginning to help them lift part of the burden that successive colonial powers didn’t care to lend a finger: it is building dams and micro-dams to help them conserve water, it is also helping them by distributing seeds that give more yield, but never in cash subsidies like the farmers in the west are spoiled with. Every penny an Eritrean farmer or pastoralist earns is a penny made by the “sweat of the brow”, not through the donation of any self-serving NGOs or donors with ulterior motives.
For those of us who might not known much about the US farming subsidy, it would be beneficial to look at how it all begun. Back in the 1930s, the farmers in the Midwestern and Southern parts of the United States were gravely impacted by a severe drought that was famously known as The Dust Bowl of the 1930s. In order to save the farmers of the area from bankruptcy, at the time, the US Federal Government created Drought Relief Service (DRS), among other things. According to the information posted on the University of Illinois webpage (http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/depression/dustbowl.htm), the Drought Relief Service:
“bought cattle in counties that were designated emergency areas, for $14 to $20 a head. Those unfit for human consumption – more than 50 percent at the beginning of the program – were destroyed. The remaining cattle were given to the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation to be used in food distribution to families nationwide. Although it was difficult for farmers to give up their herds, the cattle slaughter program helped many of them to avoid bankruptcy. ‘The government cattle buying program was a God-send to many farmers, as they could not afford to keep their cattle, and the government paid a better price than they could obtain in local markets.”
The subsidy program whose initial goal was to “coordinate relief activities” in the “counties that were designated emergency areas” has now become an integral part of the Western nations’ economic fabrics. According to the 2011 Farm Subsidy Database as posted by the Environmental Work Group (http://farm.ewg.org/subsidyprimer.php),
“[t]he federal government provides a ‘safety net’ to agricultural producers to help them through the variations in agricultural production and profitability from year to year – due to variations in weather, market prices, and other factors – while ensuring a stable food supply.”
What happened to the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, UNDP, and other international institutions funded lectures and preaching about the dynamics of “free market economy” and “free trade”? By force-feeding ideas and concepts that had long become “proverbial” in their respective nations, the Western world seems to be “kicking away the ladder” they used for themselves to climb to the moon. For more info on the contradictions of the Western nations and their applied and lectured policies, please refer to the Bad Samaritans, The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang, a professor of economics at Cambridge. Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen is also a good read.
In short, if there is/was a hidden famine, famine that people and the government might be hiding, I had failed to see it in the animals. Wouldn’t a drought that produced famine on a population rear its ugly face on animals? People can lie. Man made governments can lie. But, nature forsaken animals can not and do not lie.
To be continued…