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Livestock herders begin farming in Ethiopia

By Amanda Thorsteinsson


WINNIPEG — Farming allows traditionally nomadic families in Ethiopia to stay in one place, lessening burden on women.

Halima Muhammed is only five years old, but already the life she leads will be light years from the life led by her mother, grandmother, and countless generations of women before her.

Halima’s family are livestock-herders who live in the remote and arid northern Afar region of Ethiopia.

They used to depend entirely on their livestock for survival, never staying in one place for long and moving with their goats, cattle and camels as they searched for grazing land. It was a bleak and harsh existence.

They travelled by foot, sometimes for many days. The men walked alongside the livestock. The women, like Halima’s mother Medina, would follow, carrying everything the family owned, including their tear-down huts, often with a baby on their back. After a long day of walking, it was the women who set up the huts, gathered firewood, and cooked the meal.

It was a tough life at the best of times, particularly for women, says Medina, adding that because families were often on the move, it was rare for a child like Halima to be enrolled in school. It’s a life Halima will not know.

With assistance from Canadian Foodgrains Bank and its member, Canadian Lutheran World Relief (CLWR), Halima’s father, Muhammed, has switched from depending entirely on livestock for his family’s livelihood to also growing cereal crops, fruits and vegetables.

It’s a huge change in lifestyle. But, as Muhammed says, “We had no choice.”

Living in such a hot, remote region, the Afar have always had a tough go of it. But in the past 30 years or so, it’s got worse.

Increasingly frequent droughts and the growth in population squeezed traditional Afar grazing land. To survive, families had to travel further and further with their livestock through the harsh climate. Frequent famines only made things worse.

“There was famine after famine,” says Foodgrains Bank field representative Sam Vander Ende, who has lived and worked in Ethiopia for over 20 years. “In years of severe drought, the herds move frequently and for long distances.

“The livestock were their lives, and people were watching their livestock dying in the field. Everyone knew something had to be done.”
One man with a solution was Gebreyes Haile, an Ethiopian man with a master’s degree in agricultural engineering from the University of Southampton in England.

Working with funding from the Foodgrains Bank through CLWR, he began designing irrigation dams to divert water from nearby streams and rivers to land that before, would have been unusable.

His organization, Support for Sustainable Development, trains the pastoralists in how to add farming to their livelihoods.

Today, vegetation springs out of that land like an oasis in a desert. Among the crops are maize, bananas and papayas.

There’s enough surplus produced that families no longer have to travel long distances to buy food.

Now, says Muhammed, “the traders come to us.”

The biggest winner from this investment in agriculture is women like Medina, and their young daughters.

Not having to travel long distances with young children to collect food, or walk long distances with heavy loads, has lightened the burden on their lives.

“Women traditionally have much heavier workloads,” says Terefe Seife, the program co-ordinator for Support for Sustainable Development. “Men didn’t do nearly as much. They took the cattle out each day. Now, they are responsible for going out and working on the farm.”

Medina agrees. “It’s easier,” she says.

Halima runs and laughs around her family’s group of huts. She’s on a break from school, but she’ll be back soon enough, the first of the women in her family to get an education.

Muhammed looks at Halima and three siblings. “My children are not illiterate,” he says proudly.

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