Africa’s traditional subsistence economies have been subject to the whims of nature since time immemorial – as evidenced by events as diverse as decades-long drought and famine in Upper Egypt that destroyed the sophisticated Old Kingdom four millennia ago, or half remote Timbuktu’s population dying of starvation in the 1730s. But nowhere has been more prone to humanitarian disaster than landlocked Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa, one of the world’s most ancient countries.
A disastrous episode began in 1888 and lasted four years. The Ethiopian great famine started with an outbreak of a deadly epidemic affecting cattle – the rinderpest epizootic – that arrived from India via Eritrea, to the north. This spread southwards and would eventually reach South Africa, causing havoc within many cultures that relied on cattle as a vital part of everyday life. In Ethiopia, all but 10 per cent of the national herd perished, bringing destitution to both rich owners of many beasts and humble herders of few.
Subsistence farming was the mainstay of Ethiopia’s economy, but this inefficient activity produced no surpluses so the vast majority of the population relied on one year’s harvest to tide them over to the next. In 1888, the shock of mass cattle death was compounded by lack of rainfall that swiftly led to drought, crop failure and famine. It is thought today that the main culprit was the usual suspect – an irregular El Nino weather pattern – but whatever the cause, the effect on Ethiopia was tragic. As so often in times of drought, malnourished people proved incapable of withstanding illness. Smallpox, cholera and typhus epidemics ravaged those resisting starvation, while plagues of caterpillars and locusts destroyed such crops as survived prolonged drought conditions. By the time the Ethiopian great famine started to ease, one third of the country’s population had perished.
Death toll: The great famine is estimated to have caused 3.5 million deaths.
You should know: Ethiopia’s climate is of the tropical monsoon type, with average annual rainfall of 120 cm (47 in) that largely fails in summer (June to September). But when the monsoon rains fail, the consequences are invariably serious for the majority of the population, which relies on subsistence farming to this day.