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Visit to Africa: Malta, Ethiopia, and Lalibela

By Jimmy Carter

Malta: After refueling in Bermuda and the Azores, we spent the afternoon and night in Malta. Although brief, it was a surprisingly interesting and delightful visit. There are few countries on earth that have had a more varied history, and with English an official second language, it is very easy for American visitors to experience what Malta has to offer. Most of us only remembered the Knights of Malta, the Maltese Falcon, and the account in the Book of Acts about Saint Paul's shipwreck, his immunity to the bite of a poisonous viper, his good treatment by the island's "barbarians," and his healing of their diseases.

Maltese archeologists accompanied us to the oldest free-standing stone monuments in the world, complex temple structures along the seacoast that predate the pyramids and Stonehenge by more than 1,000 years. They also permitted us to tour one of the underground burial sites within a residential area of Valletta, which is being renovated with UNESCO assistance. This is a four-level structure carved beautifully from solid rock, in which approximately 7,000 Maltese were buried about 5,000 years ago. Among other interesting sites was St. John's cathedral, where many of the Knights are buried and where two superb Caravaggio paintings are displayed. Malta is a tourist treasure, and we would like to return for a longer visit.

We had lunch with former Nationalist party president Tabone and supper with the Labor party prime minister, Alfred Sant. Both of them are proud of Malta's neutrality, at ease with their good relations with neighboring Libya and the European Union, and quite friendly toward the United States. In fact, Prime Minister Sant spent three years in the U.S. when I was president while he obtained a PhD in business administration from Harvard.

Ethiopia: Our main purpose in coming to Africa was to assess our Global 2000 agricultural project in Ethiopia and 11 other nations. Our first two days were spent in field trips, mostly southward along the rough and winding road through the Rift Valley from Addis Ababa to Awassa, about 150 miles as the crow flies.

Ethiopia is a special case for us. In 1994, Rosalynn and I took Prime Minister Meles Zenawi out to see some of our test plots. He became extremely excited and launched a massive government program based precisely on our crop production techniques. Total yields jumped from 5.5 million tons in 1993 to 11.7 million tons last year, and Ethiopia is now exporting surplus corn and will be self-sufficient in wheat this year. Usually, we would have 15-20,000 farmers in our production program by this time, but since Meles now has 600,000, we have limited ours to only 2,500. This lets us concentrate on post-harvest projects: farm storage, marketing, and processing.

Our farmers are building wicker enclosures plastered on both sides with mud and straw, about 3-feet off the ground, providing protection from moisture, rodents, and insects. Losses during storage are reduced about 25 percent. The families we visited usually received about $60 for a unit of their grain at harvest time in December; with high yield and good storage, they held a quantity until July and sold it for four times as much. Working with the government and lending agencies, we want to do this all over the nation.

Commercial and development banks are making loans to cover about 75 percent of the cost of crop production and micro loans to local entrepreneurs -- 68 percent of which are women. They are weaving and sewing, custom grinding grain into flour with small power mills, baking bread from maize, wheat, and teff, distilling "moonshine" from maize (it tasted better than most of ours from Georgia), and opening retail outlets for their products.

Ethiopia has great irrigation potential, since some regions already contain large lakes, and almost all could build numerous small dams to capture water during the rainy season. We visited one 75-acre farm, operated by private entrepreneurs, that was using sophisticated Israeli drip irrigation techniques to produce Pioneer hybrid seed corn and special products for the European market -- so far green beans, snow peas, and strawberries. They maintain strict quality standards and use refrigerated trucks and Ethiopian Airline to get their products to Holland within three days after harvesting. It was interesting to note that although all Ethiopian land is owned by the government, farm families feel that their right to work the land is permanent; 13 farmers had rented their land to this irrigated farm for 10 years, and several were employed there as day laborers.

African farmers are proud, ambitious, competent, and hard working. They respond almost immediately to new ideas, and plow most of their new profits back into improvements of their homes and agricultural equipment. One farmer was producing potatoes, and he and his neighbors had been afflicted with a blight that limited yields to about four tons/hectare. With a new variety we are helping to introduce, yields have jumped to 25 tons/hectare, and special storage houses for seed potatoes permit them to sprout without damage. They can now produce two crops each year.

We met Prime Minister Meles near Awassa the second day, and I rode back to Addis with him. We never stopped talking for 3.5 hours about a wide range of subjects, including U.S.-Ethiopian relations, which Meles considers good now that a controversy over C-130s is being resolved. We discussed a list of reported human rights violations (he acknowledges that many exist but are being corrected). I expressed concern over the lagging Guinea worm progress in S. Omo and Gambella regions, where 371 cases were reported last year (he promised to intercede with regional health officials). There will be a nationwide polio vaccination program for 8.5 million children, with Immunization Days in November and December this year (he will give it his personal attention). The Carter Center is making plans for five public health education centers (he said that Ethiopia will furnish the funds we can't raise). We also discussed problems among private agriculture businesses as they try to compete with those run by the ruling party, and the need for a rapid expansion of Quality Protein Maize production (a corn that is, in effect, a complete food). I found him interested in a possible news media project with our Center and Duke University similar to those we've done among the former Soviet states.

Under his leadership, Ethiopia has zero inflation; a 7 percent annual economic growth rate; surprisingly comprehensive plans in education, health, agriculture, and state and privately owned banking; and improvements in transportation. They are privatizing mines, hotels, bottling plants, and many other industries. They have a moderate foreign debt, most of which is to Russia for weapons purchased during the previous Communist regime. One of the biggest uncertainties is Meles' commitment to an unprecedented devolution of authority from the central government to the various regions in Ethiopia. At this early stage, this results in frequent differences between national law and policy and what is actually done in the regions. I have questioned this philosophy of his for the past 10 years, but he is convinced that it is the only way to maintain harmony among the disparate ethnic groups that comprise the nation.

Lalibela: Ever since we first came to Ethiopia, we have wanted to visit the Lalibela churches, carved in the 11th century. These monolithic structures are in a remote northern region, almost inaccessible during the rainy season. This time, a new airstrip had been completed, and we flew up for a visit. We were given a grand ceremonial welcome and treated royally by the Coptic Christian priests and other leaders. It is a remarkable experience to see how King Lalibela at that time (during the crusades) thought that Jerusalem would be lost and attempted to construct the elements of the Holy City in the northern mountains of Ethiopia. Eleven churches are carved out of solid rock, and are maintained quite well with the help of UNESCO, the Ethiopian government, and local people.

Personal problem: During the first night we were in Ethiopia, I awoke with a severe itching of my left knee, and saw that it was red, as though bitten in two places. The next morning it was painful and swollen, but we proceeded on our 2-day field trip. Back in Addis, the medics examined it, were unable to determine if it was caused by a spider or other insect bite, but prescribed oral painkillers and antibiotics. When my knee didn't improve after two days, they finally decided to give me intravenous antibiotics and strongly recommended that I return to Frankfurt and Atlanta for culture tests and more effective treatment. With great reluctance, I cancelled my planned visits to Mozambique and Mali, sent apologies to the presidents of the two countries, arranged for Ambassador Gordon Streeb to substitute for me in Mali, and returned home. I will try to reschedule visits as soon as convenient.

At the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a team of doctors examined my knee, increased the antibiotic treatments in strength and frequency, and the next morning we flew on to Atlanta. At Emory, the doctors changed the treatment slightly, began more tests, and recommended that I spend the next two days with my knee elevated above my heart. The infection is now under control.

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