"Abdela says he grows 1,300 pounds of maize a year," Abate said.
"That sounds pretty good."
"Oh, no, it's not nearly enough," said Abate. "He says the family will suffer. They need at least 2,600 pounds to get by. He says they have to fill up on bananas and stuff."
Abdela was painfully thin, his face lined with wrinkles, making him appear much older than his 40 years. He had straw in his hair, and he wore ragged pants held together by patches. Rubber boots flapped around his skinny legs, and his double-breasted coat was ripped at the shoulder. Yet he was uncomplaining and dignified, an upright man who had already lived through a vicious Marxist regime, followed by years of turmoil, drought, war and now a young death in the family. He had learned to take the blows and carry on, as resilient as Ethiopia itself.
Like many in this proud country, Abdela knew that Ethiopia has never been colonized by foreign powers. It also has its own ancient script, its own branch of the Orthodox Church, even its own way of keeping time—by the Ethiopian calendar it is 1999 and its millennium is still
in the future. "These things make us unique," said Teshome Gebre, a resolutely buoyant man who heads up the Carter Center's health operations in Ethiopia. "We also claim to be the source of humanity—not only for Africa but for the entire world because of Lucy," he said, referring to the 3.2-million-year-old hominid fossil, Australopithecus afarensis, discovered in northeast Ethiopia in 1974.
Abdela led me uphill, past fenced gardens and scraggly coffee trees, arriving at a truncated summit where he pointed to a pebbly mound of earth sprouting weeds. "She's just here," he said. He took a step around the little grave, not a yard long. "My mother is here with her," he added, indicating an older burial at right angles to the first. Neither was marked.
The sounds of morning wafted up the hillside—children laughing, plowmen whistling to their oxen, roosters crowing in the sun. Abdela uprooted the weeds obscuring his daughter's grave and threw them aside. "I miss her," he said softly. "Of course I have a strong feeling of losing my daughter. I think about her and I fear for my family."
"Why is that?"
Abate translated: "He says almost all of his children have been attacked by the malaria. Others could die."
Elsewhere in Ethiopia, I would meet parents who had great expectations for their children, as prospective doctors, teachers, lawyers. Abdela's ambition was more basic—he simply wanted his children to live. That was enough for now.