President Bush’s recent trip to Africa attracted my attention for several reasons. It was not only for Nelson Mandela’s moving and principled refusal to meet him (it just about seems that you can only count on the over-70s—Mandela, Chirac, the Pope—if you want to hear words of consistent opposition to the war and respect for the United Nations), but also because I was reminded of the movements of mediaeval courts studied by Jacques Le Goff. The kings of that time used to frequently be on the move, this was not only so they could control their territory but also for economic reasons: while they were travelling, the upkeep of the royal family and all the staff, a lengthy cavalcade, was the responsibility of the nobles hosting them; it was a welcome saving for the royal coffers. And the subjects would do all they could to meet the king, even if only briefly. It was a popular belief that the “royal performer of miracles” could cure scrofula, tuberculosis and all kinds of other illnesses just with a touch of the royal hand. Well, seeing Bush moving around the African continent reminded me slightly of the events at the time of Louis IX, only the healing cures he promises do not pass via a paternal touch of his hand but through paternalistic ‘aid packages’.
The fact that the United States will not ratify agreements to slow down the destruction of our planet and the fact that he maintains that the US somehow has the “right” to pollute to a much greater extent than would be given by the number of its inhabitants (with 2% of the world population, the US emits 40% of the gases responsible for the greenhouse effect), is unimportant. Because there he goes, waves the magic wad of banknotes and solves the problem. And if there were no other sources of information apart from the “accredited” media, including the Italian TV news services, you would be none the wiser. You would hear the same old story and the world would seem to be simple: people are dying of hunger in Ethiopia – but here comes the USA, and who knows how much other aid from the developed world, and they will be a little better off.
The only thing is that organizations like Slow Food receive other information. And our international section has contacts and joint projects with Ethiopia. On his return from a recent trip, one of the section heads told me about fertile land, productive and well-tended agricultural areas, knowledgeable farmers who were in the forefront of recovering land laid waste by fertilizers (yes, courtesy of the Green Revolution, which had one of its leading training grounds in Ethiopia). I was told about a rainy season which left the valleys green and lush and abundant harvests of cereal with increasing yields. Of course I also heard about poverty, but it was a poverty with ‘dignity’. And I was told that there were at least two low-lying dry provinces, where droughts regularly cause disasters. But I was told that the agricultural resources of the country would be enough to feed those provinces; it is a fact for example, that some food producers are exporting part of their produce to countries like Djibouti. I was told that the problem is distribution, infrastructure and an urgent need for agrarian reform which would allow small farmers to own the land which at present is all state-owned.
In May an article by Lutz Mükke in Die Zeit which described a journey through rural Ethiopia during the rainy season. It mentioned how distorted and limited the coverage from the media or international organizations is. Comments describe Ethiopia in difficulty, but do not say anything about its resources; Ethiopia has considerable potential, but is saddled with an image of disaster, as well as irrational aid which does not help the country to develop self-sufficiency.
Self-sufficiency, what an idea. Ethiopia is something of a Christian bulwark in a totally Islamic area. The United States has a special ‘regard’ for Ethiopia. And if throwing all those subsidized agricultural surpluses at Ethiopia is not going to help it on the road to self-determination, it certainly won’t be Bush who will worry about it.
First printed in La Stampa on 26/07/2003