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  • But Hearts Did Not Go Dry! Oral Memories of the 1977 Famine in Ethiopia
  • Netsanet Gebremichael (bio)

In 1985, "We Are the World," the iconic song—written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to raise money for the victims of the Ethiopian famine—defined a cultural moment for the West. In so doing, it fixed a certain dynamic of that disaster throughout the world, framing the USA as a giver and Ethiopia as a recipient, with its lyrics depicting the USA as a center for humanistic intervention. The USA was "the World" and "the children" destined to "make a better day" for Ethiopians. The simplicity of such a framing cost Ethiopia's national imaginary to be synonymous with famine in the 21st century, overshadowing and failing to account for the local humanistic interventions made by Ethiopians for Ethiopians, as Bogalech Degefa recounts in the following oral history.

Bogalech describes the intervention of one Wro Minda—made in response to the scarcity of food items at the market in 1977. In her recollections, she particularly highlighted Wro Minda's role in distributing vegetables to her neighborhood at a lower price. Wro Bogalech recounts Wro Minda's act as a heroic act of justice during a time of crisis, which made memories of Wro Minda indispensable among her neighborhood even after she had passed on:

During the 1977 food crisis, Minda's mother used to sell vegetables as part of her livelihood. One of the pressing issues of the day was being able to find food in the markets. Either it had been hidden by businessmen for a bigger profit, or it was too expensive for those who could not afford to buy it. It is during this time that Minda's mother intervened by making vegetables [End Page 97] such as potatoes and spinach available to people in her neighborhood. To this date, she is remembered as a person of good deeds in this neighborhood.

Bogalech Degefa was born in 1958 and lives in a neighborhood called Kebena, around the Arat Kilo area in Addis Ababa. She felt that the community was indebted to the thoughtfulness and kindness of Minda's mother for the positive role she played to halt the shortage of food in her neighborhood. Bogalech recounts the 1977 famine in Ethiopia as a moment of food scarcity and a supreme moment that witnessed individuals' acts of kindness. Bogalech's account brings up the issue of how to represent local temporal markers of famine in Ethiopia. The year 1977 in the Ethiopian calendar is equivalent to the 1984 Gregorian calendar. During the oral history interview conducted on memories of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia, I recognized that most people who had witnessed the 1984 famine in Ethiopia refer to it as 1977, instead of 1984, following the Ethiopian calendar. This encounter illuminated the significance of keeping 1977 as the local temporal marker of the 1984 famine crisis in Ethiopia. This is by no means to limit or erase its transnational legacy of global humanitarian solidarity that is equally represented by the time marker of "1984," but rather to build bridges between local and international descriptions of the famine crisis in Ethiopia. The inclusion of the local nomenclature of "1977" that actually indicates "1984" is not only a work of translating temporal references but is also an account of a temporal landmark of local memory that is embedded in the year 1977. Locals almost universally referred to the 1984 famine as Ba 77 derq, meaning during the times of the '77 drought. Therefore, 1977 is not only a time marker, but it is also the indigenous social-oral memorial to the famine crisis in Ethiopia, as it is widely known in the international media and popular imaginary. To dismember it from its local meaning and significance and translate it as 1984 would erase local memory altogether. Perhaps, by deliberately choosing 1977 to refer to the 1984 famine, we are choosing language that listens to the local interiorities of the famine experience in Ethiopia, namely three of my interlocutors, Wro Bogalech Degefa, Wro Behabtua, and Wro Mulu Marye. [End Page 98]

The creative spirit of Minda's mother, who...