Strawberry Fields Eco Lodge is set on a two-hectare site on the edge of Karat-Konso, a small town in the Konso region at the southern end of the Ethiopian highlands. Groups of tourists stop off on their way south to visit the tribes of the Omo Valley, including the Hamer and the Mursi. Whereas the Omo Valley tribes are predominantly nomadic pastoralists, the Konso people have always been settled agriculturalists, living in permanent villages on hilltops surrounded by walls to keep out aggressors from the tribes of the valley. The hill sides are neatly terraced, planted with mixtures of pigeon pea, sorghum, cassava, mango, papaya, timber species and much more. A long-time resident told me that twenty years ago, Karat-Konso was surrounded by woodland and a stream ran down from the hills through where the Strawberry Fields site now lies. The site is governed by the principle of permanent agriculture, known as Permaculture, to create sustainable produce from the land. The aim is to meet resource demands (food, fuel, water etc.) on-site, and to manage the land so as to maintain or improve its productivity. However, in the case of the Strawberry Fields project where I am working, the biggest challenge is to regenerate the land, to reverse the damage done by over-grazing and the loss of tree cover. The project was started by Alex, the current manager, three years ago and is still very much a work in progress.
When planning a Permaculture project the principle of zoning is used, with intensively managed zones one and two located close to the residence, and zones three and four further out. I have mainly been working in zone one, which includes the seedling nursery and vegetable garden. A big project this year has been stocking a new nursery with around 18,000 seedlings which we will plant out into zones two, three and four with the rainy season. Zone two is for fruit trees and crops such as sugar cane which need a medium intensity of management, whilst zones three and four include timber species and crops such as cotton that require light management. Planning how to stock the nursery first required us to map the site to get areas of different environments: ridge tops, ridge sides and aspects, upper and lower water courses and flat land. We then developed ‘guilds’ to suit each environment. Guilds are combinations of plants that complement each other’s functions and growth. For example, beans and other legumes fix nitrogen in the soil so can be planted together with nitrogen-hungry plants. Some beans are also fast-growing and require little water so can be used to provide shade for tree seedlings. Once the trees are established, their growth and canopy provide cover for other crops which can be grown underneath. On the upper water courses and ridge sides, the main objective is to reduce soil erosion and flooding, so here we have chosen to plant quick-growing trees together with tough grasses. Grasses generally have deep and thick root systems which help to bind the soil. The trees and grasses will be planted along the contours of the ridge sides, helping to form small embankments that slow surface run-off. We developed a separate guild for the garden and orchard edge which will provide a wind-break and shade.
Zone one is well developed. There is a drip irrigation system in place with around one metre cubed of water fed to the beds each day. Hoses run the length of each bed with small holes around 20cm feeding about one drip per second. We stick acacia thorns in the holes to help regulate the drips, allowing higher flow when we plant something new nearby, or less for the more developed plants. Drip irrigation improves the efficiency of water use because it delivers the water straight into the soil, thereby minimising water evaporation from the leaf surface. Water is the main limiting factor in this area. There are two rainy seasons, heavy rainfall in March/April and some rain in July/August. The rest of the year is hot and dry. After washing clothes, the hot sun, dry air and consistent breeze can dry them in about an hour which indicates how difficult it is to reduce water loss through evapotranspiration from leaf and soil surfaces. There are a number of other techniques used around the site to maximise water efficiency. The beds in zone one are mulched, through which the soil is covered with a few centimetres of straw and grass. Mulch deflects heat from the sun and retains moisture in the soil and as it breaks down increases organic matter in the soil. Rainwater is collected from roofs and trees are planted below showers to make use of grey water. Flooding is a major problem during the long rains, and flood prevention is made much harder by the fact that we don’t control most of the water shed. After heavy rains, streams of water containing silt flow down from Sorghum Fields to the Strawberry Fields site below. Last year the lower garden and nursery were flooded. A further difficulty is that clay-rich soil, which the majority of the site is built upon, cracks easily and forms a crust when exposed to the elements. In future, tree canopy cover and root systems will greatly reduce this problem, as will leaf litter and higher soil organic matter which will help aid water infiltration and retention in the soil. For now, around 15 check dams have been constructed along the main water course. Check dams are built using old pieces of timber and live trees and shrubs are planted in them to sure them up. They don’t aim to completely hold water back, simply to slow its flow and to catch some of the sediment. Only one check dam survived last year’s particularly intense rains, and after that one rainy season already half a metre of sediment has built up behind the dam. If the water’s flow is held this gives a chance for it to infiltrate the soil, so we developed a check dam guild of trees and shrubs which will benefit from the higher soil moisture and can help to reinforce the check dam. Other flood defences include re-digging a pond and new stone terracing.
The heat has been particularly intense over the past fortnight, with one day reaching the thermometer’s maximum of 34 degrees centigrade by 11am. But the midday heat is a sign that the rainy season is coming. When it rains over a short period, endemic of the Konso climate, deciding when the rainy season has started is extremely important. Seedlings need to be 'planted out' at the start of the rainy season so that they have a chance to develop a decent root system before the hot, dry, sunny weather returns. Once the rains stop only the moisture held in the soil remains and this escapes quickly with exposed soil and clear skies. A few heavy storms last week have been followed by more dry heat so planting out is still on hold. If we had taken those storms to be the start of the rainy season and we had planted out our seedlings, most would have wilted and died. Farming under such conditions is definitely challenging.
The traditional terracing techniques of Konso farmers provide excellent regulation of water flow (reduced flooding and increased soil water infiltration) and prevention of soil erosion. The location of the Strawberry Fields site, however, means terracing is not the best option. First, as mentioned, we do not control the upper water shed so that when water flows onto the site, it would need to be controlled and would require significant infrastructure. Terracing can be used to control flood waters, but heavy floods can trash the terraces, particularly if they are built with smaller stones. Large stones are not available around the site. Second, terracing is a very labour-intensive process. Permaculture aims to maximise energy efficiency, the principle behind zoning and other site planning: anything that needs visiting more than once per day, for example vegetable beds, nurseries and toilets, should be located near the homestead. Up in the Konso hills, terraces would have been constructed with big community building efforts beyond what we can manage at Strawberry Fields.
The Konso people are famed for their strong work ethic and community-building. I witnessed this in action last week as around 1,000 people dug out a lake a couple of miles from the site. It was the final day of work; a significant day given that the digging out happens only once every 30 years. Men and children covered the bottom of the lake, up to their knees in mud, digging with a few shovels but mainly by hand, passing balls of mud up through chains of people and out of the lake. There was chanting and singing throughout and Ethiopian flags waved. At around 11, gun shots were fired to signal the lunch break and everybody left the lake, gathering nearby. The owner of the lake and other elders surveyed the work, preceded by a dancing, mad, grey-bearded chap dressed in matching multi-coloured striped shirt and shorts. Once the elders had deemed the work satisfactory, the workers marched around in a circle, chanting, firing rifles into the air, with their barefoot stamping shaking the ground and billowing out clouds of dust. A blast from a hunting horn brought everyone to sit on their heels and a megaphone appeared. The owner, another elder and a pastor gave speeches, either in Oromic or Konso language. That afternoon the lake would be complete. No woman may now see the lake until the water level has covered the victory flag pole standing on the lake floor. Warm chegga (a maize and Sorghum home brew) flowed out of jerry cans, into calabash gourds and down throats, washing down grainy pieces of Sorghum bread and handfuls of lentils. There were six of us 'farenjis' who had come down from Strawberry. We had mainly come to witness the event and had only mucked in with the work for about half an hour, but we were still beckoned over by the lake owner and other influential elders. We sat with them on the most comfortable stones and logs, underneath the carcass of a cow, which had hung from a tree for five days as it ripened. The lake owner ordered hunks of meat to be cut off and distributed them to other elders as a gift to say ‘thank you’. Other than that he sat in silence, staring ahead with unnervingly piercing eyes.
Later that day we received certificates, typed in perfect English and signed by the owner and another chief, thanking us for our participation. For the most part, there’s an undeserved level of respect held by Konso people for farenjis. The picture is different in cities where white girls get unwanted and lecherous attention. For one elderly lady, the strange sight of three white guys walking through Konso caused her to stop and loudly chuckle. For one young boy up in the hills, the sight of my white face was too much of a shock and he burst into a loud wail and tears. I was the first white person he had ever seen.