On the Debre Zeyt road, Ethiopia — Our car was hopelessly wedged in a market-day tangle of goats, donkeys, trinket-sellers, and vegetable hawkers when Mamo Mulat jumped out, plunged a hand into a sack on the ground, and came back with his palm held out. ``There,'' he said. ``That's teff.''
On Mamo's palm lay a small pile of teff -- tiny, grayish, nondescript seed, almost like grass seed. One puff and it would blow away.
From this seemingly fragile grain, grown almost nowhere else in Africa, Ethiopians make the staple of their national dish called injera: a soft, pliable, slightly fermented strip of dough, served wrapped around like a napkin. The idea is to pull a piece off and dip it in a pungent, spicy sauce.
Teff is more than part of daily life. It is bound up with national culture, held in special esteem particularly in the highlands in the north where the bulk of the country's 22 million people live. But teff is also delicate. Although it keeps well in storage, it is difficult to plant and harvest, vulnerable to wind, and requires rain at precise points during a short growing cycle of 90 days.
It is also a symbol of the food aid controversy across Africa. Critics of prolonged aid argue that massive and prolonged support of the kind now flowing to the continent makes people dependent on Western grains that are ultimately unsuited to local growing conditions and expensive to buy when drought emergencies end.
The answer is long-term, these critics say: to press ahead rapidly with basic reforms in farming techniques, with research into new seeds, and with finding more water so that local people can withstand future droughts.
The current drought has hit teff hard. Some say that less than one-half of the population has been able to find teff at all since the late 1970s. Millions of Ethiopians now depend on donated Western wheat, sorghum, and maize. Government officials say they have no choice now but to discourage teff and to urge people to grow such crops as potatoes and sorghum.
``Of course,'' says the country's top relief and rehabilitation official, Dawit Wolde Giorgis, ``it would be better if our people liked sorghum and potatoes better than they do.''
But they like teff. Mamo Mulat does -- a Ministry of Agriculture official, he described its virtues enthusiastically during a long car ride to see some new soil conservation techniques.
Looking at Africa as a whole, Western aid experts say it would also be better if Africans ate more fish and more game birds instead of either staying with local crop varieties or with imported wheat and rice, both of which require plenty of water.
Researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, see considerable potential in new, drought-resistant strains of cassava and yams as well as cowpeas and soya beans.
Yet Africans, unsurprisingly, try to stick to their traditional eating habits. Ethiopian injera can be made from wheat and sorghum as well as from teff, but Ethiopians prefer the real thing.
At the moment, Dawit's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) is looking for grain in Malawi, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. All three have had good rains and should have grain surpluses this year.
Private Western relief agency officials, however, say that all grains are still in short supply.
``We've managed to buy 20 tons of sorghum from Harare so far,'' says one official in touch with a number of private agencies in Addis Ababa. ``We've tried Kenya without success. I don't know about Malawi yet.''
One Ethiopian who works for a large Western relief agency says he thinks it is wrong to try to wean Ethiopians away from teff.
``Why should other people come here and try to change the way we eat?'' he demanded. Dawit Wolde Giorgis and the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam think teff is trouble in time of drought.
The first of Ethiopia's two rainy periods each year -- known as the belg -- has begun, with many areas having their first belg for two years. But neither Dawit nor Western relief workers think teff yields will jump as a result.
``We don't have enough seeds, enough hoes, tractors, fertilizers, pesticides, or nearly enough plough oxen to take advantage of the rains,'' Dawit says. He appeals to Western donors to give them with as much generosity as donors have showed so far in sending relief grain.
Dawit, a member of the Central Committee of the Marxist-style Workers' Party of Ethiopia, adds that ``much is expected of the donor community.''
Ethiopia's main ally, the Soviet Union, provides little food, concentrating instead on transport planes, helicopters, and trucks for various uses, and military weaponry to guard the Ogaden border against Somalia and to bolster Mengistu in his civil war against Eritrean and Tigrean secessionists.
Meanwhile, families all over Ethiopia look for whatever teff they can find. If they find it -- and some was on sale in the market town of Dukem where our car was stuck in the square -- they prepare their injera with care. They make as many sauces as they can afford -- chicken, lamb, chili peppers, other spices.