FINCHAWA, Ethiopia — Machete in hand, Batire Baramo steps out of her mud hut before dinnertime and begins whacking at the base of a struggling young tree.
A cornfield lies nearby, every stalk stunted and barren. A coffee bush wilts in a patch of earth so dry that each footstep kicks up a puff of gray dust.
Roots and stems from the false banana tree -- so named because it never bears fruit -- are all there is for dinner today. Batire will pound them into a pulpy mush that offers little real nutrition but at least will quiet the hunger of her husband and seven children. When those parts of the tree are gone, she will boil the bark. When the bark is gone, she will search for something else.
"This place is cursed," Batire says of the family's half-acre plot.
Life on less than a dollar a day, as most Africans live it, is the unending pursuit of sustenance. In the Horn of Africa, it is a search rarely satisfied.
Ethiopia is one of the five poorest countries in the world and the largest per-capita recipient of humanitarian aid. Nearly half the population of 67 million is malnourished. Every year, millions face starvation. For the very young, life often ends in a sad, blue death.
Behind the statistics lies a harsh reality that helps explain why hunger is such an intractable problem in Africa. When life is so consumed with survival, tomorrow is routinely traded away to fill stomachs today.
Foreign aid groups spend so much money feeding the starving that they never have enough left to prevent the next famine. The causes of Africa's hunger -- drought, war, disease, corruption, overpopulation -- never go away. They fade during the relatively good times, only to return.
Even in the good years, when the rains come to Ethiopia, subsistence farmers barely harvest enough maize, sweet potato and other crops to feed their families. Batire has never had the luxury of allowing her small clumps of false banana trees to fully mature, which would triple her yield. Instead, she shears the trees as soon as her family needs something to eat.
In the cruelest times, people eat sporadically, hoping that a day of searching by whole families can turn up more than morsels.
When everything is gone, the hungry seek handouts from the government or aid groups. But by then, disease often has gripped them. Severe protein deficiency brings on a condition known as kwashiorkor, which condemns its young victims to live their last days marked by telltale blue spots, their faces frozen in mournful expressions.
"If the diseases don't kill us, the drought is coming behind to finish the job," Batire says.
She already has seen half a dozen neighborhood children die this way. And many times, her own children have gone to bed hungry. On those nights, Batire sits trapped in the family's windowless, one-room mud hut -- powerless to feed them yet unable to escape their cries for food.
The round hut, or tukul, that Batire and her husband, Ledamo Ataro, built when they were married 20 years ago has a floor of hard-packed dirt flecked with ash. In the fireplace, the false banana porridge simmers in a black pot resting on three clay jars.
Their village in southwestern Ethiopia sprawls amid farmland that in good years produces coffee beans for Starbucks and other high-end labels.
But 2003 was not a good year. It didn't rain in February and March, preventing the family from planting maize, wheat and other crops. The summer rains were sporadic.
Dinner is the only meal of the day. Before eating, the family offers its thanks for whatever food it has. Ledamo -- a tall, wiry man who is perhaps 50 -- is served first because he needs strength to provide for the family. His wife and children get to eat if anything is left.
Batire, who is about 40, wipes the sweat from her face with the ends of a blue head wrap as she bustles around the family's plot on an endless round of chores. The soles of her feet are cracked and stained with dirt.
The oldest child, 15-year-old Letimo, is a muscular youth. But his siblings' skinny limbs and slightly bloated bellies attest to varying degrees of malnutrition. From oldest to youngest, their limbs gradually become thinner because, in the words of one aid worker, "when you eat from a pot the strongest one eats first."
Each child owns one set of clothes, which means they all sit naked when Batire does the wash. Of the children, Letimo has the only shoes, a pair of red rubber slippers.
The children have never been to school and probably never will go. Ledamo says he can't afford to pay the fees and buy proper school clothes. Besides, he needs the children to search for food and help him grow their crops.
In good years, the Ledamos earn about 30 birr a month (about $4), selling produce in the village market. The family spends about 5 birr each week to buy staples it cannot grow: oil, salt and pepper.