Life in the Midst of Famine – Guest Blog by Brian Newman

In the mid 1980s the world learned of a catastrophic famine in east Africa. It was centered in Ethiopia. In late 1984 the BBC ran a story showing tens of thousands of people in danger of starvation, and eventually the world responded with an outpouring of aid.

I had just completed college and was working as a journalist in New York. In response to the famine, I took a job with a relief and development agency and soon found myself in a far-off place called Alamata in northern Ethiopia.

My job was to report on the famine, to show the world what was happening so we all could respond in compassion and save people’s lives.

In the Alamata feeding center, thousands upon thousands of people flooded into the camp in late 1985 as they suffered from prolonged severe malnutrition. Although I went to the camp as a journalist, I quickly figured out that I was a relief worker first and put down my camera and notepad to help in any way I could.

Many people – Ethiopians and foreign aid workers – worked 12 or 14 hour per day to try to save “just one more life,” as the motto went.

Over 3 months I watched scores of people die each day. A few died in my arms. Every morning Ethiopian mothers and fathers would take their children who had died overnight to a grave site outside the camp. They would chant a funeral dirge as they solemnly carried their small children up the hillside.

That went on every day for 3 months. It was haunting, like living a nightmare from which you never woke up.

My faith was shaken to the core during those months.

Why did God not stop this seemingly random suffering?

Couldn’t God provide enough food for people, even through famine?

And was God even present in this feeding center?

The sheer magnitude of the famine overwhelmed my senses. In a feeding center (called Korem) 30 miles north of Alamata more than 30,000 people crowded into the camp – far more than where I was serving.

In all, more than 8 million people were victims of famine in East Africa from 1983 to 1986. And 1 million died. These statistics were devastating to me.

Three things happened that began to make some sense out of the suffering. They did not answer all of my many questions, but they provided perspective and understanding.

  • First, I began to learn about the horrific corruption of governments and other institutions that, in part, caused the wide-scale famine. The terrible fact is that the Ethiopian government of the time used people as pawns in various wars, including a burgeoning civil war within the country. It is true that the rains did not come in 1983 and 1984, and that was one cause of the famine, but human beings made it far worse.

(I read a book at the time by journalist Jonathan Gill entitled A Year in the Death of Africa that opened my eyes to many of these dynamics).

  • Second, and more important, I witnessed firsthand the service of amazing Ethiopian Christians to save the lives of their countrymen. I worked alongside Bekele and Fikru and many others who would have given their lives to save the lives of people desperate for food and water.

And as I lived with and served with these great people I remembered David’s words in Psalm 27:13-14:

I remain confident of this:
I will see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living.

Wait for the Lord;
be strong and take heart
and wait for the Lord.

I witnessed “the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” At the time, the Ethiopian highlands were also the land of the dying, due to the famine. But even in the midst of the dying there was life … and compassion … and service … and Jesus in the midst of it all.

  • Third, Ethiopia and the rest of East Africa recovered. God restrained the evil that could have killed far more people. And today, while people continue to be in need in Ethiopia, in other ways the country is thriving. God has raised up leaders with integrity and faith in that country! God is doing a new thing in Ethiopia.

Reflecting on those harrowing months I spent in Ethiopia, the long-term lesson for me is this: God never gives up on people. He does not abandon his creation. Indeed, Jesus himself suffered and died for the suffering of the Ethiopian people.

Pastor Brian Newman