There was a party here recently for three French nurses who are leaving this feeding center. Parties being a rare commodity in these famine-cursed highlands, it had been planned and talked about for weeks.
A carload of French nurses, from a hospital nearly 60 miles away, showed up for the soiree, packing with them some slinky black dresses.
A couple of goats were butchered. Cases of beer and wine were laid in, along with several gallons of tedge, a stout Ethiopian mead. Fresh batteries were installed in the portable cassette player. One of the first songs played at the party featured a hearty lyrics about "Drugs, sex and rock 'n' roll."
But for all the planning and anticipation, the going-away party was a subdued, almost melancholy affair. The three nurses who were leaving would not be replaced. Replacements, it had been decided, would not have enough work to do.
The feeding center at Korem is losing its reason for being. There were 55,000 persons here last year, most of them starving and sick. Last month, there remained about 15,000. By Ethiopian standards, they are well fed and healthy.
Places like Korem breed disease when they are beyond the control of medical workers, as Korem was for more than half a year. Once brought under control, as Korem has been for the past few months, they breed dependency. Relief workers agree that the sooner Korem is emptied, the better.
Yet for the nurses and doctors who left their jobs in European hospitals to come to Ethiopia, there is a wistful feeling that perhaps the best and most useful time of their lives is ending.
"It was glamorized so much in London, and there was so much to do when I got here," said Valery Thomas, 29, the senior nurse at Korem's child-feeding center, which is run by the British chapter of Save the Children.
"Children were near death all around you. If you didn't get an IV into them within two hours, they would die. It was terrible, but it was very exciting," said Thomas, who has been here since May.
There were then nearly 4,000 " Our clinic runs pretty much by itself, which is as it should be. It is a bit dull." -- Valery Thomas, nurse at Korem severely malnourished children in the feeding center. Now there are 276.
Save the Children laid off 200 employes recently. For more than a year they had been cooking up great vats of high-energy porridge for underweight children. The porridge is no longer needed. More than a thousand children were discharged in a single week last month to go home with their parents and eat dry rations.
"Our work is just as important, to make sure that these children come back regularly for the dry rations. But our clinic for sick children runs very much by itself, which is as it should be . . . . It is a bit dull," said Thomas, who won't be going home for six more months.
The going-away party was held in a barn that the staff of Doctors Without Borders, the private French relief agency that works here, has converted into a dining hall. More than 80 persons crowded into the hall, most of them Ethiopian employes of Doctors Without Borders.
The Ethiopians seemed especially subdued. They had heard about the previous day's big layoff by Save the Children. It is only a matter of time before they, too, will lose the best paying jobs to be had in this isolated village perched 1 1/2 miles high in the mountains of central Ethiopia.
Doctors Without Borders pay young aides in Korem's hospital $100 a month. Truck drivers get $250 a month. That is big money in the world's poorest country, with a per capita income of $120 a year.
The billion-dollar famine relief effort in this country in the past year has been a great boon to the entire economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ethiopia's foreign reserves have ballooned from $41 million in the fourth quarter of 1984 to $152 million in the third quarter of this year.
After the goats were eaten and a few score bottles of wine were drained, the dancing started.
Marie-Josephe Villerval, one of the departing nurses, invited Dr. Dessalegn Bayih, an internist from the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, for a farewell dance. To a twangy Tigrayan folk song, they fluttered their shoulders in the manner of an ancient Ethiopian dance.
Villerval, soon to return to a hospital in the northern French city of Lille, had been asking people to dance most of the day. She had danced with squealing children in the feeding center, with sad-eyed hospital assistants and with the stick-carrying zabanias, young Ethiopian men who keep order in the camp in return for food.
At one point in the party, the music stopped as Villerval, along with the other two departing nurses, were presented with white embroidered gowns of traditional Ethiopian design. A nervous teen-age boy from Korem appeared on the dance floor to read a farewell tribute to the nurses. The nurses dabbed their eyes and stumbled through their thank-yous.
Near the midnight curfew, when the party was nearly over, Villerval was asked what six months in Korem meant to her.
"I am not sure what I think," she said. "I will think when I go home."