The Compass Edge

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  • The Rift Valley

    Posted by Brian Jones

    3 November 2003 – plains (36k image)

    The Rift valley stretches directly across Ethiopia and dotted with accacia trees and villages. There is an abundance of wildlife particularly birds, many of which are endemic to Ethiopia.

    In the photo you can see fields of Teff, which is a grain that is widely used in Ethiopia for the production of the staple bread injera.

    Life here is pretty good at the moment and the whole country is really fantastic. Did you get a message about my holy water experience? I went last Sunday to St Mary's church, which is on a hill above Addis. It's a fantastic, round orthodox church (I'm in the process of converting by the way as I think that orthodoxy is amazing) built by the emperor Menilik and his wife Ta'itu. There's a little museum attached to it which is full of olympic gold medals pledged by the Ethiopian distance runners. I'd heard that the place had a holy well attached and it after a walk through a beatiful forest I arrived at a bamboo bridge surrounded by a multitude of people. I was accosted at the bridge by a stern looking monk who demanded to know if I had fasted that morning (I had), whether I had "known" a woman in the last 3 days ((nope)and whether I smoked (I havent been). After removing my shoes and leaving my camera I was allowed to cross the bridge and was ushered into a long low building packed with hundreds of people in white 'gabi' prayer clothes. There was an orthodox priest in one corner intoning in Ge'ez the ancient religious language here and a rough partition in one corner. i was adpted by Yohannes a very cool guy who spoke unaccented English and turned out to be an economist and food security specialist. Peering around the partition I saw about 70 totally naked men squatting on the floor and being doused with jerry cans of water from the well. I had a dawning sense of something about to happen so was almost relieved when Yohannes said 'ok take your clothes off and go and squatt over there'. I dont think I've ever been naked in front of so many people before many of them female but what the hell. I squatted received the attention of three burly lads armed to the teeth with near freezing holy well water. It felt a bit like being repeatedly punched in the head, particularly as they kept forcing my head up for extra dousing. I could hardly stand afterwards and was visibly shaking as I got dressed but the way in which I was clapped on the back and had my hand shaken and people generally smiled at me made it all worth it. I stood to one side wondering what was to happen next and suddenly about 100 naked Ethiopian maidens appeared and filed past me to receive the same treatment. I have to confess I didnt know where the hell to look :-)

    Eventually I was let back over the bridge with some specially prepared holy bread and walked up to the church with Yohannes. It was a hell of a way to wake up early on a Sunday morning but I think I might try to do it again. this orthodoxy is amazing although I havent got used to kissing the church door posts yet :-)

    For the moment I'm still in Addis but have been down to the south and I can report that the whole country is completely amazing and I suspect that you would enjoy it enormously. Diverse is a word that appears to crop up in every conversation about the place and I can see why. I'm trying to learn Amharic which seems to be inordinantly difficult but my efforts to date are well received and hopefully in time I'll be able to stumble along with more fluency although inevitably the language where I am going to be is totally different !!

    I left for Walayita a week ago today (last monday)with Pantaleo, Negga and Feargal, who are all technical advisors either based here in Addis or in Oxford. The idea of the trip was to view some of the project sites and for me to get an idea of where I was going and aid me in planning the upcoming survey. The journey south takes around 6 hours and the extraordinary thing is that you drop down from the high ground upon which Addis is built, to the floor of the Rift Valley. The Rift valley is strange in that it seems both impossibly 'different' whilst also being incredibly familiar from countless documenataries. I am sure that you would recognise the the colours and shapes, particularly the accacia trees that dot the entire area. They seem to have a shape that is totally African to me and I always half expect to see a leopard stretched languidly along a branch, its tail hanging down invitingly. Sadly I havent yet seen any leopards and it seems that much of the wildlife that once roamed the plains is no longer in such abundance although I believe that there are areas in the south where it is possible to see elephant, lion, wildebeest etc. There is however a true abundance of birds, many of them endemic to Ethiopia and it's truly a joy to see the sheer quantity and variety that you commonly see here.

    The drive down to the project area in Walayita (Sodo, Awasa or Sheshamene if you look on a map) is very long but infinitely interesting because it takes you through extraordinary landscapes dotted with the accacia and little villages of round thatched tukels (huts) with long horned, humpy cattle and remarkably large numbers of donkeys, horses and carts. As evenning approaches the animals and people throw up large amounts of dust that catches the sun and it's easy to see why this is such a remarkably photogenic place.

    We stayed the first night in a little hotel in a place called Sodo about an hour from our destination. It's strange how tiring sitting in a car can be and I slept the sleep of the blessed to be awoken ridiculously early by an extraordinary large number birds all trying to outbid the others vocal extravagance. The remainder of the drive was on very unmade up roads and took some time but eventually we pulled into Areka, which is the capital of Bolosso Sore woreda which is the administrative area within which we work. The town consists of a main street of beaten red earth with houses along set back slightly from the road. Population pressure is one of the chief problems of the area and it's easy to see in the shere quantity of people that are around on the streets. This number of people seems to be behind much of the problems in the area as the average land holding is less than one quarter of a hectare for an AVERAGE family size of 8!!

    The area is incredibly fascinating and extremely complicated to understand because if I had been plonked down in the middle of Bolosso Sore and asked what I thought, my initial reaction would be that it looked relatively well to do with green everywhere, crops in the fields, false banana trees in abundance and fat cattle wondering around. It certainly doesnt look like a place where there is currently a very serious humanitarian situation. However, there are too many people for the area and people simply do not have enough land or other assets to make a living for themselves. Many of the crops in the field have already been sold or mortgaged to pay for past debts or current needs and to make matters worse it looks as though the crops this year will be quite good, which, counter intuitively means that the market price will fall and people will not be able to make any money with any crop that they might have to sell. However, it's horrible to talk to farmers and hear that the crops that currently stand in the their fields were sold months ago for very poor prices and they will have nothing when they are harvested. On top of this the general public health environment is very poor with lots of malaria, TB and HIV around. Almost all the children I saw have scabies or conjunctivitis or more usually both and it's clear that there is a very serious problem of chronic malnutrition. The situation is all the more sad because traditionally the area is productive and one of the regions NOT associated with famine. It is certainly going to be a challenge to unpick all of the complexities of livelihood and health in the area.

    For the Tuesday I spent time with the Oxfam team in Areka talking about the situation and meeting the nutrition people. I managed to get out into the town and see one of the Therapeutic feeding centres (TFC) run by another NGO and in the afternoon went out to see some of the more rural areas. Once again I was struck by the greeness of the place and the apparent abundance of crops in the fields and so it was a shock to talk to people and see what they actually have in the way of possessions in their homes, which amounts to very little of absolutely nothing. There is an edge of desperation to peoples description of life that is sadly becoming familiar from other contexts.

    One of our stops was a school where Oxfam is providing water and it was amazing to see these small class rooms with bright murals on the walls and with over 1000 children crammed inside! It was difficult to comprehend the numbers of children per classroom but it was orders of magnitude more than 30 per teacher and I suspect 300 is probably closer to the truth!!!

    We spent that evenning in another hotel by a lake but arrived too late in the evenning to appreciate the beauty of the place and it was only the next morning that I saw how amazing the place was, full of trees, flowers and birds. Sadly the slog back to Addis was all to imminent and it was late evenning before we were back at the guest house. The next couple of days were taken up with a large strategy meeting with people from both the region and Oxford and it was good to see the discussions and wrangling over programme direction. I think that there is a recognition that we need to have a great deal more information on livelihoods and that if we want to do something useful we need to committ to more long term strategies that link both humanitarian and development activities.

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