To our knowledge, this is the first qualitative study which explored women’s lived experience about the Ethiopian Great Famine. The women provided important insights about the worst famine of the 20th century, which gives a deeper understanding of the crisis.
In the study, interviewees described the famine as ‘very catastrophic’. Most of the participants described it as the biggest disaster that occurred in their life. The pain is still in their mind and they remember the time as the ‘Evil Days’. The participants concurred that the two years (1984-85) was the peak of the crisis, which is consistent with other reports (15) which classify the famine as one of the worst to have ever hit Ethiopia and one of the worst in recent world history. Up to a million people may have died, and many more were left destitute, making it one of the worst famines in recent history (1).
The participants witnessed that there was both internal and external displacement during the 19854-85 Great Ethiopian Famine. This is due to the fact that permanent emigration, rural-to-urban migration, and sometimes the settlement into new agricultural areas is one of the long-term consequences of famine (20), as people are forced to leave their homes during periods of famine. The women stated that many people migrated to other parts of Ethiopia, particularly to southern and western Ethiopia as part of famine mitigation intervention. Historically, during famines in other countries such as France (21), Belgium, Russia (22), Ireland (23), India (24), peasants migrated to different parts of the continent.
In this study, the social impact of the famine on the population was also noted. The respondents explained that people did not seek to help each other through this time and instead began doing terrible things just to survive—for example, a wife stole food from her husband (as described by a 58-year-old study participant). Initially, there is likely to be mutual help among kinship groups or friends and attempts at preferential concern for the vulnerable, especially children and the elderly. However, as famine progresses in severity and duration, normal social behavior—including personal pride and sense of family ties—gradually disappears, leaving only a struggle for personal survival. In society as a whole, this pattern of family breakdown is seen in a magnified form, with increasing disintegration of social structures, lawlessness, and abandonment of cooperative efforts as famine reaches its later stages (1, 25). Our finding is supported by studies conducted in France during the eighteenth century in which social disturbances increased with the worsening of the economic situation of the masses and the deterioration in their diets (26).
The starved people during Great Ethiopian famine described as ‘sticks’ (skeleton) or ‘dry beef’ (a body without flesh). This is explained by the relationship between starvation and protein deficiency as a result of prolonged famine (27). As the participants describe, the people were without food during the Ethiopian Great Famine for many days.
The study also tried explored the duration and the causes of Great Ethiopian famine. Different documents written on the duration of the famine reported different timing. Knowing the year of crisis is helpful to identify who was and was not exposed to the famine. This, in turn, helps to explore the long-term impact of the crisis including the health and economic consequences (28). The participants agreed that the famine duration was for two years 1983-85 (1976–1977 E.C.). There was no rain in 1983; the famine began in October 1984 and continued through most of 1985. This finding is consistent with the report of Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) which indicated that in April 1983 the main Meher (autumn) crop season of 1983 showed evidence of widespread crop failure and the famine peaked in the year lasting from October 1984 to September 1985 (29). Similarly, the reports of Gill (1986) (30) and Africa Watch Committee (1991)(2) affirmed that continuing drought meant that many harvests failed towards the end of 1985. The crisis stopped towards the end of 1986 when harvests were at almost normal levels.
As revealed by the respondents, the cause of famine was drought, which is consistent with a study conducted in Zimbabwe (31) and Kenya (32). This implies that such a dependence on rain fed agriculture makes many countries more prone to such kind of crisis, especially now in the era of climate change (33).
In this study, the civil war between the ‘Derg’ regime and local bandits were described as exacerbating the famine. This is consistent with famines in Ukraine (34), the Netherlands (35), and Nigeria (36).
Concerning the issue of whether the famine equally affected all parts of the areas and households, altogether respondents pointed out that the entire kebeles (smallest administrative units in the district) and districts near Kobo Town were affected. All the households and all socioeconomic groups of the society were equally affected and stressed due to the famine. This finding is consistent with other reports in Ethiopia (2, 37).
Regarding the coping strategies, the respondents described a series of survival strategies to minimize the impact of food shortage for all household members. Understanding coping strategies through an in-depth investigation of individual experiences can provide an insight into the various potential coping strategies to manage starvation. The respondents revealed the following coping mechanisms: longer work hours, limiting expenditures, reduction in their food intake, labor migration (search for temporary employment in towns), and sale of nonproductive assets (utensils, jeweler, wood, charcoal, furniture). This finding is consistent with other countries which were struck by famine—Russia (Leningrad) (38), China (39), Nigeria (36) and Kenya (32).
The respondents also explained about the relief in the form of food from the government. However, the aid did not reach the affected individuals due to internal and external factors including political factors.
In this study, women were interviewed about the availability of diversified foods for pregnant and lactating mothers and children which has an impact on the future health of a child. All of the women interviewed agreed that a kind of diversified diet for pregnant and lactating mother and children such as fruits, vegetables, cereals, meat, and milk were impossible to access. This is an apparent evidence to investigate the permanent effects of undernutrition in early life (39). The Dutch Famine of 1944–1945 is one exceptionally well-studied famine that supports this assumption. In this situation, a previously well-nourished and healthy population suffered an average calorie intake of 670–740 for six months and a deficient diet for the preceding year (35). This implies that all other major famines in this century have involved previously undernourished and underprivileged populations, and famine effects could be more severe because they are superimposed on chronic undernutrition and a high prevalence of infection (41).
In this study, disease such as diarrhea, vomiting, meningitis, and typhus were the common causes of death during famine period. It is known that famine is a catastrophic food crisis that results widespread acute malnutrition (42). Malnutrition weakens the body immune system which increases the body’s susceptibility to infection (43).
People also died of starvation—mainly from dysentery and vomiting. This is as a result of deterioration in the health environment—overcrowding, poor personal hygiene, and the movement of populations—which leads to epidemics of infectious disease that cause high mortality rates. This further worsens nutritional status, which is considered an underlying causes of famine mortality (44). For example, in the Warsaw ghetto in 1940, not starvation per se—but typhus, diphtheria, and virulent tuberculosis—were the great killers. Not only adequate provision of food, but also access to curative health care, environmental sanitation, and shelter can avert many deaths due to famine (45).