Visit to Ethiopia

Afar pastoralists on the move to find water, a scarce resource in the region.
Image: Christof Krackhardt.

Whenever I visit our project partner, the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), in Ethiopia we undertake a field trip to meet with the communities we are working with. APDA is a community-based organisation which was established by and for the community.  To ensure our joint partnership is successful, it is important to obtain the communities perspective on the effectiveness of The Road Less Travelled project.

On previous journeys we have left APDA headquarters in Logia and, on the road to Djibouti, travelled either northeast or south, into the Afar Desert. Here we meet APDA’s core constituency, the nomadic pastoralists and their family groupings, living in one of the poorest regions, in one of the poorest countries of the world.  Our visits highlight some of the challenges faced by those nomadic communities, and the vulnerabilities associated with a lack of education and resources. This situation is also perpetuated by the difficulties the government and other service providers have in reaching these minority groups.

On this visit our route is different, as we travel northwest into the foothills that form the Ethiopian highlands. We are visiting the woredas (administrative zones) of Chifra, Yallo and Magaale, and each woreda presents us with a different insight into the world of a nomadic pastoralist.

Over the days our route zig-zags and we meander like a river from destination to destination. It is the start of the rainy season and the night sky is filled with brilliant lightning flashes and booming thunder. Ferocious winds race the dark clouds and a torrential downpour ensues. Come daylight, the dry riverbeds are surging mud – red waters lash making them almost impossible to cross. Crossings have washed away and tracks have turned into swimming pools. So we take the long route, where at least the roads are open. Instead of sand and rock we are graced with grasses, scrub and thorn bush. When we reach our destinations instead of the dome-shaped mat houses of the nomads, we find housing more typical of sedentary agriculturalists – mud brick walls with corrugated iron roofing.

Yallo woreda is relatively new to working with APDA, having become part of The Road Less Travelled project when AACES began in July 2011. Discussions with men and women’s groups, and with the community development committees, reflect an expectation that services will simply be delivered – without commitment from the communities themselves. The men are still learning that involving women means more than giving them silent representation on each committee and instead allowing them to be actively engaged in the decision-making process. They seek to say the words that they think will appease us, but inevitably contradict themselves. The APDA staff patiently discuss with people at the meeting, explaining the benefits of inclusiveness, and how women have to be engaged in the decisions that affect them, such as childbirth. Yallo requested assistance from APDA, and the people there are reminded of APDA’s requirements for participation.

In contrast, Chifra woreda has been working with APDA for some years. The women are vocal and freely express their viewpoints. They talk openly of successes, such as getting a pregnant woman with birthing complications to hospital. The religious leaders proudly say how they have changed and now actively campaign against the traditional practices that are harmful to women. Both men and women also talk of the personal benefits they have gained from participating in APDA’s literacy, education and finance programs, allowing them to receive proper payment for animals sold at markets.

Magaale woreda is not part of the AACES program. APDA has used drought-relief funds, provided jointly by Anglican Overseas Aid and AusAID, to purchase goats enabling the poorest households, mostly headed by women, to recover from drought losses. This is occurring in two kebeles (neighbourhoods) and APDA has used the opening to begin to mobilise the communities to start building a connecting road. APDA has started to facilitate resolution of some underlying tensions between the two kebeles. Ultimately they aim to have community development committees established, but that is still some way off.

On the way back to Logia we head out into the desert to try and find one more kebele. The rains mean that families are on the move to new pastures. Camels are loaded with houses and possessions, children lead donkeys laden with supplies, and lines of cattle are moved slowly through the rocky terrain. The kebele we are seeking has moved, but we come across a hand pump installed some years ago by another NGO and recently refurbished by APDA. Along with a cistern APDA built into the riverbed that catches flash flooding, this is the only reliable water source for kilometres around.

Some days later, on the road back to Addis Ababa, I notice that the desert sands are displaying a distinct green as new sprouts of grass shoot up. In this drought prone corner of the Afar region, it appears that this year at least, there are adequate rains to provide feed for the animals.

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