From Cattle to Crops in Ethiopia

By Balleh, Aregu | Contemporary Review, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

From Cattle to Crops in Ethiopia


Balleh, Aregu, Contemporary Review


GUYATE Burka needed some convincing that there was any point in sending children to school. The 65-year-old admits that none of her older children, all now married, ever attended school. Like other Boran pastoral women from Siminto Kebele in southern Ethiopia's Oromiya state, Guyate's world revolved around cattle and cattle rearing only. It seemed obvious that her youngest son, Dida, would step into the footprints of his older siblings and spend his life following the tails of cattle. But years of campaigns by the government and other organisations on the importance of education finally did the trick for Guyate and she decided to send Dida to school. 'I was very ignorant about education', she recalls. 'I could not see how education could bring any benefit to a pastoral family like mine. I could not see any wisdom in sending children to school'.

Once Dida started his education it felt like a new dawn arising. 'It was as if we had lived in the middle of darkness before he went to school', she says, and adds that she now regrets having denied this chance to her older children. Covering Dida's school fees was not an issue. The family of six owned more than 60 head of cattle. This was sufficient to feed the family and pay for his school fees. Guyate's hopes were high: 'I wanted my son to gain a good education and advance himself, so that he could eventually help the family to do even better'.

The hopes were short-lived. In an ironic twist of fate, once Guyate had 'seen the light', disaster began to strike. When Dida reached year seven, a succession of droughts and severe lack of rain led to a steady decline in Guyate's livestock. One particular bad year of drought reduced what was left of the once proud number of cattle to one. With all but one of her cattle wiped out, Dida's education hung in the balance. Like many of her neighbours, Guyate found herself in a position where her traditional lifestyle had to change dramatically if the family were to survive. She was forced to shift from rearing cattle to growing crops. Even this was only possible because her brother could lend her a plough ox. The future that had looked bright now looks bleak. Guyate feels sad and desperate whenever she remembers the past. 'When we had our cattle, our meal consisted of meat and milk products. We never ate crops. Today we can rarely afford animal products in our meals'. How did this happen?

A succession of droughts and lack of rainfall have had a severe impact on the Boran community. Quite what triggered these changes is hard for people to understand. For many, this is 'the work of God'. Others draw a connection between the lack of trees and the lack of water. Dido Qanchora, 67, spent his whole life at Siminto. He remembers what the environment looked like when he was young. 'There was a dense forest in the surrounding areas', he says, pointing to a place which has turned into barren land with hardly any vegetation at all. 'In those days we had enough rain and water sources were close by. Now we don't have those trees and we don't get enough rain'. The nearby water sources have dried up. Every morning, women set out on a five-hour walk to fetch water for their families. Thirst has become a constant companion for people in the district.

Some of the damage to the forest was man-made: Dido Qanchora blames residents including himself for contributing to the decline in trees. People started chopping down trees in order to produce charcoal, he says. But, he stresses, this practice was only taken up recently in Siminto, and was born of necessity. With the sharp decline in animal productivity, selling charcoal was a source of income where nothing else was available. But the chopping down of trees has led to even fewer resources for the pastoralist community.

Dido Doyo is a government development worker in Siminto, trying to preserve natural resources. 'Deforestation is the major problem in this area', he says. …

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