issue 156 | February 1986
Tigray: Ethiopia's Untold Story
Max Peberdy says that recent coverage of the Ethiopian famine has reinforced 'our stereotype of Africans as poor, pathetic and needing our know-how to get them out of trouble'. By describing the work of the Relief Society of Tigray (REST), he destroys this stereotype. Peberdy went to the Ethiopian province of Tigray and found that: 'if the face of what appears to be overwhelming odds the people of Tigray have formed a relief organisation. They are running feeding centres, reception camps, hospitals, clinics and orphanages staffed by their own people. More recently they have started upon long-term agricultural development programmes; programmes intended to prevent such suffering occurring again'.
What makes the relative success of REST all the more remarkable is that it has been achieved during a harsh climate of civil war. Ethiopia now has the largest standing army in Africa; much of it is deployed against the Eritreans and Tigrayans. Yet the Tigrayans, unlike the Eritreans, are not fighting for independence. Instead they want economic equality for their region. Since a peasants' revolt in 1943, Tigray has been seen as the 'enemy' by successive central governments. Exorbitant taxes are levied and services have been kept to a minimum. Up until very recently there were only three high schools for a population of five million. Ninety per cent of the population was illiterate and infant mortality was well over 50 per cent.
Tigray has constantly appealed to the Ethiopian government to allow food convoys to pass safely, but the government has said that this would be 'helping the enemy'. Travelling under cover means that convoys often take five times longer to reach their destination. They frequently move by night and remain stationary and heavily camouflaged during the day. REST works though local village committees who are responsible for organising the collection of the food that arrives in this precarious fashion.
Migration routes are also organised. Once families get to the western region they report to a REST check point where they are fed and receive urgent medical treatment, then they are allocated to a camp or village. This uncomplicated but effective system seems to be working, at least for those who are strong enough to reach the food centres. REST has also implemented a revolutionary land resettlement scheme which has given land to Muslims and women, in contrast to recent government policies.
The dire combination of famine and war has produced a large number of orphans, an anomaly for a culture which relies heavily on the extended family. Yet REST has provided for these children. Seventeen hundred orphans occupy what is called the 'two-mile orphanage', because it consists of a two-mile stream of small buildings and tents. There is no electricity, but the children use the dried sap of trees to make a crude version of a candle. Nothing is wasted and the resourcefulness of these youngsters is quite remarkable. They have obviously learnt this self-reliance from their elders.
Tigray is an impoverished province in one of the world's poorest countries. Yet despite the odds these people are helping themselves with only a little outside assistance. This book is a testament of their mammoth efforts, undaunted by the hostility of their own government. Looking to the future Peberdy hopes his account will change our attitudes in the West: 'partnership, not patronage is how we should view our relationship to the people of Tigray. They are doing everything in their power to help themselves; all they need is a little help from outside, and surely that is not too much to ask.'
Big Deal - the politics of the illicit drugs business
Big Deal examines the trade in heroin, cannabis and cocaine and its huge importance, in terms of export earnings, to the Third World. The contributors use a range of styles, from New Musical Express to Graham Greene, to highlight the efforts of industrial countries to suppress a trade for which they are the main markets.
'It's a lovely feeling to be wrapped in that anxiety-free, cosy, cotton-wool womb-with-a-view that heroin temporarily provides,' writes Lewis but this book does not advocate the use of heroin. It argues that unemployment among the young has increased its usage. In order to offer an alternative to the deadly attractions of heroin, the book argues that cannabis should be legalised.
Cannabis, argues Maylon, is a Third World commodity like any other except that it is more profitable. 'Ganja' provides Jamaica with $1 billion (£700 million) in export earnings, or more than bauxite, sugar and tourism put together, he claims. In Lebanon militia groups export cannabis to help finance their activities.
The United States, the biggest single importer of cannabis, employs its Drug Enforcement Administration to crack down on the foreign trade, despite the fact that half the USA's cannabis is home grown. Last year, for instance, 3,000 hectares in Colombia were sprayed with a defoliant chemical.
'The hypocrisy of the USA's position is astounding,' he adds. 'The industrialised West hard-sells booze, tobacco and even pharmaceutical drugs already banned domestically to those same areas which it demands cut off their cannabis exports'.
Big Deal reads like a first draft rather than a completed book, but Lee O'Bryan's chapter on the youth drug culture in London is a brilliant piece of writing. It's a pity that this much-needed study of a frightening and powerful subject did not have tighter editing and a clearer conclusion.
A HUNDRED and twenty years ago Henry Mayhew described a watercress seller. She was eight years old, but had lost all childish ways. She told him of her life.
'When the snow is on the ground there's no cresses. I bears the cold - you must, so I puts my hands under my shawl, though it hurts them to take hold of the cresses, especially when we takes 'em to the pump to wash 'em. No: I never see any children crying - it's no use.'
Mayhew was a journalist who explored the streets and slums of London. He talked to beggars and pickpockets; chimneysweeps and showmen; dockers and gamblers. He met mudlarks, children who lived, or existed, on what they could find in Thames mud at low tide; and sewerhunters, who crawled up the sewers for what could be got from there. He reveals lives that astonish us today. They astonished the middle-class readers of The Morning Post quite as much; in fortnightly articles he showed them the lives of the London poor.
He did it without condescension, without exaggeration, pulling no punches. He was a sober, conscientious journalist; and a brilliant one. He saw miseries to terrify, but he found good things as well: theatres and street-shows and, amid horrors, the astonishing survival of the human spirit.
He reveals something of the practical economics of the time. He calculates how many dockers are put out of work by an offshore wind and finds that '1,823 stomachs would be deprived of food by the mere chopping of the breeze'. He investigates with Victorian thoroughness. He doubts the earnings boasted of by the sewerhunters because every household in the capital would have to lose one shilling and fourpence down drains and gratings to account for them. Even so, sewers gave a relatively good living. He repeats, but discounts, their stories of the herd of wild pigs living in the drains beneath Hampstead. The phrase is tarnished now, but in his writing all human life is there. His characters live. Journalism is a temporary trade, but Mayhew is still good reading today.
London in the 1850s was an exploding city. A generation before it had been a town, scarcely reaching Oxford Street Agricultural depression, growing population and the new railways brought the same uncheckable expansion that has caused Calcutta, Bombay and Mexico City to double and redouble their population inside ten years. And as in those cities, the newcomers camped in slums and shantytowns without water or drains; appallingly overcrowded; and desperate. Mayhew described the living that could be made - just - by collecting and re-selling the dog-ends of cigars. London was a city where people could, and did, starve to death.
Mayhew believed it did not have to be like that. He knew that the respectable were not born better, and did not work harder, than the poor. It was lack of opportunity, and lack of education, that divided them. Many of the people he wrote about achieved a dignity unsuspected by his readership. Others did not, and were so degraded by hardship as to be hardly human.
Extreme urban poverty on the scale he found was something quite new. It was too new a problem to have a solution. Today's stock responses - slum clearance, new towns, high-rise living - have all been pretty disastrous; then they had not even been thought of. Even the framework for those thoughts did not exist. The standard belief was in Charity and the Workhouse, and even Charity was dangerous. These Victorians were living in an industrial age but thinking as a rural squirearchy. Mayhew brought it home to them that the nineteenth century had caught up.
He did his share of charitable work but knew it was no sort of answer. His hope was in education and he kept his worst anger for those who squandered their own advantages while they scorned the achievements of the poor.
Those ideas are the standard liberal fare of today. Then they were new. Before Mayhew it was possible to believe that the poor were idle and feckless and had only themselves to blame. After him it was not. He showed Victorians the country they lived in, and the lives of some of the people who made England rich.
Mayhew was born in the same year as Charles Dickens. They wrote on the same themes; but where Dickens used melodrama to rouse a nation's conscience, Mayhew stuck to fact. His water-cress girl, his chimney-sweeps, his five-year-old crossing-sweepers are dogged truth. The Death of Little Nell set thousands weeping. Mayhew had no need for Little Nell. He was Dickens for real.
Many different collections and editions of Mayhew's works are in print.