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Saturday, July 02, 2005

Our Hopes for Africa

News & Star -- As a little girl, Mekdes Wood would wake early and help her grandmother release the sheep and cows from their overnight stable.

She would collect wood for the fire and water for the coffee and take it back to the hut her grandfather had built from earth and roofed with grass.

Kerosene lamps provided light and meals were made of pancakes and vegetables with beans or lentils. Soap was made from boiling eucalyptus or pounding berries.

If there was not much work to do in the house or on the land, she would be allowed to go to school and would sit under a tree, listening to someone from the village or local church.

Some children had pencils and would write on paper balanced on their lap. It was a hard life, but Mekdes smiles broadly at the happy memories – though the smile freezes when she remembers the sickness people suffered.

“People got sick because the water was not clean, it was from the river. A lot of people died because they had to walk miles to the nearest health centre.

“Some were carried or went by donkey. Some died on the road and some in their houses.

“Some of my friends from school died. You just got used to it. They died of a simple problem that you can solve easily.”

That was in southern Ethiopia nearly 20 years ago – about the time the world woke up to the famine that killed almost one million in the north of the country.

Despite the worldwide help that poured into the drought-stricken region and the phenomenon of Live Aid, the country is still faced with another catastrophe in the North and people are still dying of simple water-borne illnesses such as typhoid and dysentery in the south.

And life has not changed for many in Mekdes’s old village.

“It still happens today. The government doesn’t go to the areas that need the most help,” she said. It was only when she left Ethiopia that she learned of the plight of her compatriots in the North. Now 30, Mekdes, married her husband Michael, an aid worker, in 1998. He had been at Live Aid in Wembley in 1985 and showed her the video.

“I cried and cried and cried,” she said. “I couldn’t believe those people suffered like that. I want to meet Bob Geldof to thank him for what he has done.”

But as well as pressuring Tony Blair and the rest of the G8 leaders into taking action, to help the poor countries of Africa, Mekdes wants Sir Bob to start lecturing African leaders on how to look after their people.

Though things have improved for some over the years, she says Ethiopians still do not know the severity of the problems facing their country.

Mekdes, who has lived in Carlisle for three years, explained: "The Government is corrupt.

“They put the aid in their pocket and there is no free press so people do not know what is really happening. The people who give aid must tell the governments in Africa how that money will be spent and must make sure it is used properly."

Her message to all politicians is simple and stark: "All Africa is a problem, but it is a man-made problem and they can solve the problem. They should turn their faces and see the poor as their own people, as their family."

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