The stalls of the market are stocked with fat watermelons and bundles of the gray grain used to make injera, Ethiopia's spongy bread. Inside the town's cafe, brass coffee makers hiss and foam and give birth to perfectly frothy cappuccinos that flirty waitresses serve with plates of heart-shaped cookies to flirty male customers.
It all seems so pleasant. And yet, just a few miles away from a place so full of life, there is a village going hungry, stumbling quickly toward death.
"Our village is like a dry stream. There is nothing," said Ibrahim Hammed, 75, who sat on top of pebbles and rocks outside of his dusty mud hut. "We haven't had any rain. Our crops are dead. We have nothing to eat."
His 2-year-old granddaughter, Zera, sat on his lap. Her round face twitched in pain. Her eyes were crossed. Her swollen lids fluttered open and shut as eight, then nine, then 10 flies landed on her face. Her belly has grown swollen from malnutrition, and her eyes have grown so weak that she may go blind.
Millions of Ethiopians face the threat of starvation, reinforcing the country's global reputation as one constantly struggling to feed its 67 million people. With a ferocious drought shriveling crops to dust, 11 million Ethiopians -- about 16 percent of the population -- face food shortages this year, according to the U.N. World Food Program.
There are two realities in Ethiopia: one of famine and one of relative plenty. Even during a grave food shortage, most of the country is still able to feed itself.
In the current crisis, 15 percent of the nation's harvest is affected, mostly in the eastern and northeastern parts of the country, according to Belay Ejigu, the acting minister of agriculture.
"There is so much potential in our land and our soil," Belay said. "Much of our land does very well, and all the while, other regions are suffering. We need to do more to change that. Otherwise this will be our nation's stain on the Earth."
The reasons for the disparity are not as simple as one area having a drought and another having enough rain, experts said. For example, Dilfaqaar and Zera's village, Dere Kiltu, suffer from the same lack of rainfall. Dere Kiltu's inhabitants are subsistence farmers; when they cannot grow food, they are unable to feed themselves. But Dilfaqaar is a market town that thrives off buying and selling. When a local food crisis cuts off the supply of goods from nearby farms, Dilfaqaar's traders are still able to purchase food from farmers and suppliers who come in from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, which is about a five-hour drive away.
Likewise, meat is plentiful in some parts of Ethiopia. In market towns such as Dilfaqaar, slabs of butchered meat hang from the inside of kiosks waiting to be spiced, cooked and served. In the city of Debre Zeyit, about 50 miles from Addis Ababa, truckloads of food are loaded onto trains for export to neighboring Djibouti.
"And still, even during a good year in Ethiopia, 5 million people need food assistance a year," said Wagdi Othman, a spokesman for the World Food Program in Addis. "Why? Not everyone can grow their own food. And the food that is here is not going to those who are hungry. It is going to make money. Most people are surprised to hear the country has any food at all."
For most Americans, Ethiopia became a symbol of the world's inequities in 1984, when famine killed 1 million people and the MTV video and song "We Are the World" brought images of hollow-eyed, stick-figured men, women and children into suburban living rooms. But the tragedy came to the world's attention belatedly, because the Marxist dictatorship of Mengistu Haile Mariam refused to acknowledge that 8 million Ethiopians suffered from food shortages until enterprising journalists exposed the crisis.
This time, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi did not hesitate to make a public plea for emergency food aid. "Our greatest downfall is that one day it does not rain in certain areas and then we have this massive problem again," Meles said in an interview. "People recognize the frequency with which the droughts are now coming. The reasons are many. But unless we act now and act very fast, the country will be totally unmanageable."
He stressed, however, that Ethiopia could no longer continue to be the world's "charity case" and that emergency food aid alone will not transform it into a country that can feed all of its people. Their number is growing by nearly 2 million each year, according to the United Nations, and the farming plots here are, on average, the smallest of any nation. Much of that land is over-used, because farmers plant the same crops, depleting the soil of nutrients, and almost all of the farming is done by machete, not by machines.
"The problem is, we have too many people for the level of agricultural technology we are using," Meles said. "We have used these methods for centuries, but it's urgent that we update them."
The crisis would be less acute, according to aid agencies, if villages such as Dere Kiltu had the kind of water projects that would make it possible to grow food without large amounts of rainfall. Collecting water for cooking, bathing, drinking and washing clothes is an all-day chore in Dere Kiltu, performed by women walking with large yellow jugs. When water is scarce, there is not enough to irrigate crops.
Helping Ethiopia build water projects and ensure that droughts no longer stop food production brought famine watchers and international aid groups to Addis Ababa last month to talk about why this country again needed help. Andrew S. Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said that improving agriculture is an overlooked investment, but is essential to solving Ethiopia's recurring problems.
"People can be healthy and well-educated and starve to death. Working on agriculture is not sexy and it's not something you can see like a health clinic or a school," Natsios said. "What we need is a major effort to end hunger in Africa through agriculture. The time to make those developments is now."
For many aid agencies, saving lives in a crisis often takes priority over longer-term development. USAID, for example, will spend $200 million in food aid and $4 million in development assistance for Ethiopia this year. The World Food Program's 2003 budget for spending on development aid is down 20 percent from last year, and its director, James Morris, who visited Ethiopia in January, pointed out that Ethiopia receives the largest amount of food aid per capita in the world and yet receives the lowest amount of development aid.
Last month, the United States contributed 262,000 tons of food aid. But Ethiopian and World Food Program officials said they need 1.4 million tons of emergency food, which would cost about $500 million, just to get through the year.
War and politics have also hampered development, aid organizations said. Between 1998 and 2001, Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea fought a devastating, expensive war. Both countries reportedly spent $1 million dollars a day on the fighting, at a time when foreign donors were pulling out of development projects.
During the 1984 famine, politics also played a role. Mengistu's military government, known as the Dergue, systematically moved farmers who they believed to be disloyal and resettled them into camps where they died of famine. In the northern province of Tigray, which had been in rebellion for 11 years, no aid was given. In 1985, 1,500 Tigrayans were dying each day.
Today, poorly conceived policies and lack of development are taking a toll even in the country's once plentiful breadbasket. Zera's village is one such place. Her grandfather remembers when other family members would come to eat from their farm.
But today Zera waits as the volunteers from the World Food Program's local office hand out high-protein biscuits to the children of the village. When the children receive the small packages they simply hold them, as if they are too important to open right away.
Zera's sister, however, ripped open their package. And she sat in the dust, feeding Zera one biscuit at a time.