In the past few years, Ethiopia has faced the dual crises of conflict in the Tigray region, in the country’s north, and severe drought and food insecurity in the south. It’s estimated that more than 20 million people are in need of food support, including the millions who have had to flee their homes as a result of these crises.
Abraham Alembo, from Tearfund’s partner the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church Development Commission, shares about the challenges of serving communities in a hard place like this. Story by Emma Halgren.
In November 2020, the people of Tigray found themselves caught up in a conflict between federal and regional government forces. Tearfund’s partners the Ethiopian Kale Heywet Church Development Commission (EKHCDC) and Tearfund Ethiopia both ran emergency responses to provide food, shelter, water and hygiene services to more than 16,000 internally displaced people, along with rehabilitation programs to support people to return to their homes and livelihoods.
In southern Ethiopia, the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 40 years created severe food insecurity and a hunger crisis. EKHCDC, with support from the Emergency Action Alliance through Tearfund's partnership, provided support for around 1300 households, many of whom had to leave their homes to be closer to essential relief.
Tearfund also supports EKHCDC in its development work, running literacy and numeracy programs for pre-school aged children, and water, sanitation and hygiene provision. Abraham Alembo, who is head of humanitarian aid and peace building work for EKHCDC, says the organisation's work is holistic and Christ-centred.
“I think the church is engaging in a holistic ministry to address the needs of the people – the physical and the spiritual needs of the people. We are following Jesus’ model. He was addressing spiritual needs and at the same time, physical needs. He fed those who were hungry, he healed those who were sick and physically deformed. At the same time he was preaching the kingdom of God so that everybody should join that kingdom and get eternal life. So both physical and spiritual needs go hand in hand. We can’t separate one from the other.”
In the context his organisation is working in, as in other hard places around the world, the level of need far outstrips available resources to address that need. How does an organisation like EKHCDC manage this?
“That is the most difficult challenge we face in our direct connection with the community,” said Abraham. “The need is very high. The people who need the support are too many, but our resources are very much limited, and it is very difficult to select the most affected groups because everybody looks affected. Their situation literally tells you that they are really in a hard situation. Just to balance our response, we will usually focus on the most affected groups. To do that, we set selection criteria, just to differentiate one affected group or one affected family from the other.”
They work closely with local churches and government bodies to determine which locations should be the focus of their humanitarian response.
“The weight of the challenge for one household may not equal the challenges of other households. If the household has a very large family size, we give priority to that household. If the household is female-headed, we give priority to that household. If there are some malnourished groups in the household, old aged and more vulnerable groups, we give priority to those. Everybody has need, but we give priority to a person who is going to die tomorrow. If a person is going to die next week, we give priority to the person who is going to die tomorrow. That is the logic we follow.”
While mechanisms like this are important to ensure that responses are effective and the people in most severe need receive life-saving support, what about the emotional – and spiritual – impact of witnessing overwhelming need, day after day?
“Usually I am known by my tears,” Abraham says. “It affects your emotions to be honest, when you see people who are really in need of food. It is very difficult. You know, I still have this picture in my mind and in my sight. I visited one of the IDP camps in Mekele and saw a lady who was carrying a baby. She was malnourished, her body features tell us that she is anaemic and malnourished, [but] she is giving her breast, which has no milk, and this child is sucking no milk. It is very difficult when you see such a challenging environment for the people you are serving, it does not give you comfort. So, sometimes I get time to cry and to pray.”
He says security issues also pose a serious challenge. “When we go to the northern part of the country, the security situation is fluid. It changes time after time, and you can’t trust what tomorrow brings – you can’t predict what tomorrow is going to be. In the south even, when we travel … there are armed groups on the highway, sometimes they block the road. It's risky.”
Abraham describes a particularly tense and frightening time in 2020, when he and his colleagues found themselves caught up in a security situation in Mekele, the capital city of the Tigray region.
“What we did is we knelt down and prayed in tears,” he said. “We were praying and praying in tears. Then, when it was time for me to pray, the Lord gave us a verse from Deuteronomy 31, verses seven to eight. It says, the Lord is the one who goes before you. He will be with you. He will not leave you nor forsake you. Do not fear, do not be dismayed. That’s the word which encouraged us.”
After some time, they were able to leave the area and drive to a safer region. Other vehicles were being ordered to turn back or surrender their keys to armed militia, but Abraham and his colleagues passed through without being touched or even stopped on the way.
“It was challenging, but the God who gave us this verse was faithful. Nobody touched us. … That is the miraculous work of the Lord,” said Abraham.
In the acute phase of humanitarian responses the focus is on saving lives, but EKHCDC also builds in a restoration phase, to help communities look to their future. For example, while rains have now come to some drought- affected regions, this has not provided relief for the vast majority of people who are dependent on livestock for their livelihoods. In Borana, one of the regions where EKHCDC has been working, more than one million people lost all their means of living – animal and crop production – as a result of the drought, with nearly 1.5 million livestock having died. Those livestock that survived were very weak and producing little or no milk, which is a major source of nutrition for children.
One of EKHCDC’s responses has been to assist pastoralists with restocking – providing them with small ruminants like goats and sheep – but also to encourage them to think about other ways of supporting themselves in the future – for example, destocking and putting money in the bank.
“Restocking can cover the economic gaps of the community,” he said. “[But] the rain has less advantage for the people in Borana, because they are pastoralists. In Borana, life is totally connected with the lives of the livestock. In the future, the communities should think about some other ways to build their economies.
“The people say that the challenges they faced recently have never happened in the past history,” said Abraham. “If they face such a drought, maybe it is for some months, for half a year. This is for two and a half years, continuously.”
EKHCDC is committed to serve communities through the challenges that arise in the future.
“Commitment and faithfulness, it matters,” he said. “When you engage in humanitarian works, you have to put yourself in the challenge that people are facing. As long as we are taking [on] the mission that Jesus started, we have to be in his commitment also. Yes, there are challenges in the environment, there are challenges in the operations, but we have to commit ourselves to serve the people.