Warwickshire writer shares his experiences of African struggles

AS severe drought in Somalia and Kenya continues to claim the lives of millions, the latest memoirs by Fenny Compton writer Ian Mathie takes a look at the frustrations of relief efforts in Africa in earlier times.

In the early 1970s, it was Ethiopia that was struck by drought. The international relief agencies got to work and were soon caring for vast numbers of people in the mountains of Wollo province with dramatic pictures filling the world’s TV screens every night.

The people of the Danakil desert, the Afar, were as badly affected – but because their region is a backwater to which nobody wanted to go, little thought was given to their plight until it was almost too late.

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Eventually a project was started aimed at persuading the Afar to adopt a new way of farming that enabled them to catch monsoon floodwater coming down from the mountains and use it to irrigate fields.

But little thought was given to the project and it was far from certain that there would be any flood water.

Ian, who Courier readers may remember for his previous memoirs Man In A Mud Hut, Bride Price and Supper With The President, was part of a team that was sent to survey, design and build an irrigated farm.

The former development worker said: “Working with the Afar, people who had a reputation for savage hostility to strangers, proved to have some interesting features and more than a few frustrations.

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“Add to that the complications of a government that didn’t really want to be involved, a project manager who wanted the scheme to fail, tribal and clan rivalries and the complications of drought, disease and raiders from Somalia coming to steal livestock - and it became a very interesting and at times exciting project to work on.”

Sadly the revolution in 1974 removed the Emperor and the Derg, the country’s new government, cut support to the Afar and nothing was done to prepare the population to face future droughts.

Ian said: “Worse, nobody was interested in even discussing such ideas.

“In 1984 drought came again, more severe, over a wider area and affecting over three times as many people.”

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He added: “Today it is happening again, in Somalia and Kenya this time and the numbers have again increased to over twelve million. In addition a new drought is now starting in west Africa, affecting a further five million people. Apart from dipping in their pockets to offer relief, what could the world do? Lots, but it requires tough politics.”

Although Ian spent most of his life on the African continent, he now lives in Fenny Compton with his wife and has been dedicating much of his time during the past two years to compiling his memories of that earlier life.

He is launching his latest offering, Dust of the Danakil, at Kineton village hall on Saturday at 7pm, where there will be a discussion of the book and a complimentary glass of wine for those who attend. Anyone wishing to go is asked to let Ian know. Email [email protected]

People can meet Ian when he gives a talk on ‘Drought relief in Africa’ to the Friends of Leamington Art Gallery at the Pump Room annexe in Leamington on Thursday at 7.30pm. Anyone wishing to attend should email [email protected]

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