Ethiopia: The Missing Faces of Ethiopia’s Poor


It’s hard to tell if Gelegay Tsegaye is smiling, since a flap of skin covers half his mouth, but his eyes crinkle when he talks and his muffled voice rings with an upbeat cadence. He’s sitting in a special ward of the Korean Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s most modern healthcare facility. Gelegay’s affability is notable because of what he’s gone through. The 34-year-old farmer from a village in Ethiopia’s Gojam region is a survivor of Noma, a rare flesh-eating infection that rots away the face.

When he was just two years old, Gelegay noticed black spots forming on his nose, which quickly spread downwards to his mouth. He received rudimentary treatment, but the diseased part of his face fell off.

Noma is only found amongst children (primary incidence is between the ages of one and four) in the poorest regions of the world, such as rural parts of sub-Saharan Africa and India. The World Health Organisation estimates there are 140,000 new cases globally each year.

Noma’s cause is abject poverty. According to the U.S. Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, “Ethiopia is among the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita GDP of 471 dollars.” The initiative states that 38.7 percent of this Horn of Africa’s 80 million people still live below the poverty line.

Noma only occurs in the poorest villages, where adequate healthcare is non-existent. And there are no official figures on the prevalence of the disease in Ethiopia.

The infection can occur when a child living in poverty suffers a cut to the gums. The cut becomes infected and Noma quickly spreads across the face. Within 10 days, 85 percent of its victims are dead.

The survivors may not feel that lucky though, since they’re left with large portions of their face missing. The affliction then becomes social, not medical.

After Gelegay’s face healed, it wasn’t painful, but the disfigurement left him uncomfortable around people. “I used to be very embarrassed to mix with people. They just pushed me away,” he tells IPS.

Here, Noma survivors don’t go to school. They’re usually isolated by their community, their families, or themselves because they don’t feel comfortable around other people.