George is a portly primary school teacher with a teddy bear face. He invited me and a Dutch volunteer to an evening of tej (honey wine) and tibs (roasted meat) at his house in town – “we can drink and dance and watch my television”, he said, “and bring females if you can!” The evening ended up being much more placid than the images in his mind, but he was a very entertaining host. “Tej is very good with meat”, we were frequently reminded. “But if you drink tej without meat then you’ll get intoxicated. Are you intoxicated?”
“No no, just taking it slowly”
“Please, drink more, my student made this so there is extra honey”, he would say, leaning across the low table to fill our glasses from his eight litre jerry can. The comment about meat reminded me of a time two weeks ago when I was enjoying a Sunday afternoon in the sunny courtyard of one of the town tej bars. An old man in a three piece suit and bowler hat with a multicoloured wooden stick settled down beside us. “Tej is medicine for the stomach”, he said, “but my doctor says you must eat breakfast before drinking”.
I had given George a plastic recorder two months ago (received with repeated hugs), hence his invitation to dinner. I hear him playing it as he walks past Strawberry on his way to inspect the construction of his new house. “Ethiopian music is different – we use do re me fa si do, the pentatonic scale”, he explained, and he gave us a rendition.
Ethiopians are immensely proud of their ‘cultural music’. Every region has its own distinctive style of music and dancing and you hear traditional-style music wherever you are – in bars, on buses, from the radio and television. Every evening, the state channel ETV shows videos of actors in traditional dress, vigorously and proudly performing their regional dance against a remote backdrop of desert or mountains. We watched this on George’s TV for a while. There was an advert for a soap set in the US about how Ethiopian immigrants struggle to find jobs and get involved in crime. “Propaganda”, announced George. “I would get paid ten times more sweeping streets or washing cars in New York than teaching here in Konso. But the Government don’t want us to believe this”.
He went on to explain that food prices for staples such as maize and rice had shot up in the past few years, but salaries are not keeping up. “Three years ago I paid 85 Birr for a quintal of maize, now it’s 300 Birr. In the same time, my monthly salary after tax has only increased from 1,800 Birr to 2,100”. (US$1 = 16 Birr). Ethiopia’s annual rate of inflation rose to 25% in March, mainly due to food and fuel price increases. More and more food, especially bananas, coffee and meat, now leaves Konso and other rural regions for the more profitable markets in Addis. I met a truck driver refuelling in a tej bar, who had just bought cattle from Konso and would now drive them to Nairobi (two day’s drive) for sale.The improvements in roads is making transport costs cheaper. A study done at the London School of Economics shows that the timing of road construction relative to the economic development status of the community is vital in determining the beneficial / detrimental effects of the road. If built too early, the road will generally take primary goods from the undeveloped rural community (Konso) to the developed urban community (Addis/ Nairobi). Here they will be processed, packaged and sold to end consumers – stages that are generally much more profitable than the initial sale of agricultural produce. In comparison, if processing and packaging capacity is first built in rural areas before the road arrives, then the farming communities can earn more from their goods. Whilst raw agricultural products leave Konso, plastic, metal and electronic goods arrive in increasing quantity, mostly originating in China. The Chinese goods are amazingly cheap and amazingly poor quality. If a pair of shoes or an electric plug breaks soon after purchase, the common cry is “Aaargh, China”.
The music was later interrupted by ten minutes of state news – we were treated to the standard clips of the newly operational Abay river dam. It is the largest of a series of hydroelectric projects built as part of the government’s ‘five year plan’, a scheme dreamed up with Chinese backing that proposes Ethiopia can become a developed country with five years of investment in infrastructure such as energy projects, roads, universities and airports. The plan started three years ago, the year 2000 on the Ethiopian Calendar. The news clips, (seemingly the same ones every day), show the beaming faces of builders working on the dam, gleaming machinery and huge amounts of water gushing through dynamos and over waterfalls (calming any environmental fears that the river’s flow downstream might be affected), all backed up by triumphant music.
The construction of the dam, is however, a controversial topic. A couple of months ago as the dam was being filled, the Egyptian government threatened military action due to damages to agriculture and industry – the Abay river (or White Nile) flows out of Ethiopia, through Sudan and on to Egypt. For a few days ETV reacted by exclusively broadcasting images of Ethiopia’s military might: fighter planes, tanks, ranks of well-armed soldiers. The government doubled the military wage. Fortunately it seems that diplomacy has, at least for now, smoothed things over. But it’s interesting to hear on the international news that the Chinese government has accepted that their own flagship energy project, the Three Gorges dam, has permanently reduced flow downstream. As the dam filled, farmers built their own dams and water harvesting to make the most of the reduced flow. Now that the water released from the dam should equal the input, the farmers’ dams and water harvesting are still in place and those much further downstream are suffering.
Other hydro projects in Ethiopia are also causing problems. A dam in the Omo Valley has brought an end to the natural annual floods downstream. One tribe used to rely on flood-retreat agriculture, meaning that they planted their grain into the mud as the flood waters receded, with the plants getting all their moisture from what was present in the soil. The dam has allowed the creation of a number of irrigated agriculture projects and industry such as a sugar processing factory, but at what cost, and to who’s benefit? The irrigated land and potential areas for expansion are being sold to Arab and Asian governments and private investors for tiny sums of money. The Ethiopian government technically owns all land in the country and leases it to users. In the past, tribes in the Omo Valley would own long leases and pay nothing to the government, but the government is calling an end to these leases to facilitate the sale of land. I don’t know what, if any, compensation the traditional land users are receiving.
The government is fond of selling the electricity it produces to neighbouring Kenya and Sudan meaning that Konso suffers frequent black-outs. In fact, the electricity is more often off than on. For this reason, local people regularly come to Strawberry to charge their mobile phones where we have power from solar panels and a small wind turbine. Being off-grid, having ownership of our electricity generation, is much more reliable. It’s also more efficient. In the UK, half of all electricity produced is lost in transmission and storage between the power stations and the point of use. Nuclear energy, which, (like large-scale hydroelectric), divides opinion amongst environmentalists, is not advocated by Permaculturalists who want to see resource needs met on-site or at the local scale. The events in Japan have highlighted the safety and environmental concerns of nuclear energy. It’s also an extremely expensive method of generating electricity, particularly when decommissioning costs are included. Permaculture advocates small-scale, localised production of energy and Permaculture resource books proffer a number of methods to reduce consumption through effective design. For example, a windbreak of trees and shrubs can reduce a temperate-region-household’s heating consumption by 30%. We have built a fridge at Strawberry that doesn’t require electricity. A chamber (an old one metre cubed water tank) is buried in a terrace. One pipe, 20 metres long and buried two metres underground, feeds into the chamber. Another is painted black and reaches five metres up like a chimney. The sun heats the chimney, drawing up the air inside. Some work needs to be done on sealing the chamber, but this should draw in cool air through the underground pipe. A similar principle is often found in vernacular architectural techniques in hot regions, for keeping houses cool.
I am constantly surprised by the passive acceptance Ethiopians appear to have of the performance of their government. Shouldn’t there be anger and protest that government officials are lining their pockets selling electricity abroad whilst the local clinic can’t keep certain medical stocks because there’s not reliable power for refrigeration? “We’re gagged”, said George. Indeed, Ethiopia comes near to the bottom in global rankings of press freedom. “You have to support the party if you want a good job”. Last week there was a national holiday to celebrate ‘20 years of democracy’ – or 20 years of one party, one leader rule. A huge improvement on the Derg no doubt, but corruption and suppression of political freedom is a big problem.
The recent Arab country uprisings haven’t spread to Ethiopia. People aren’t connected to social media to the same extent and aren’t aware of the lack of free press. Some people did try to organise a demonstration via facebook, called something like ‘Ethiopian Freedom Revolution’. The demonstration was to take place in Meskel Square, a huge open area in Addis used in past times for military parades, and named ‘Revolution Square’ in Derg times to commemorate the overthrowing of Haile Selassie. The government’s reaction was to ban facebook for a while and to block the event page permanently. The mobile phone network also didn’t work for three or four days around the planned date of the demonstration, but I don’t know if that is necessarily linked. The demonstration didn’t happen. “When I was at school we prayed every morning to thank God for giving us Emperor Haile Selassie. Now we must praise the government”, smirked George.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the main rebel faction that deposed the Derg in 1991, still head the coalition government today. Although there have been recent moves to increase the ethnic mix of the government, the top jobs are held by Tigrayans. I was lucky enough to visit Tigray twice in April, once with my girlfriend’s parents and once with my family. The region is infamous for its famines (the last major famine triggering Live Aid), and it is dry and desolate. In Konso, the rains pass overhead on their way north from the equator around April/ May, and pass back over as it heads back south around September. Being so far north, Tigray is about the place where the rains turn back so it only gets one rainy season per year, around July. Sometimes the rains will not reach far enough north, and in these years there will be drought. Farming here is clearly challenging, and there was much more food aid here than in Konso. Stone bunds have been built around most of the hillsides, and ponds, pits and dams are all used for water collection and storage. Most ponds were bone dry, but some rivers still trickled, fed somewhere by springs.
The Tigrayan people straddle the Ethiopian-Eritrean border. Their skin colour, hair, language, music, dress and religion are all very different to the Konso people. Travelling within Ethiopia can feel like travelling between countries. As well as being known for droughts, Tigray is home to The Ark of the Covenant, housed in a church in Aksum, and is a strongly Orthodox area. We visited churches, hand carved from the rock as early as the 6th Century, high up in the Gheralta mountain range. The cave-like churches and their painted interiors have an antique and mystical feel to them. There are very few visitors – most are used as they have been for unbroken centuries, a local priest hosting a local congregation, reading from velum Bibles inscribed in Ge’erz, the elderly men leaning on prayer sticks, the kibero drum and frankincense accompanying the chanting. At one church the priest came running from 3 miles away. He hadn’t expected tourists; there hadn’t been any for a week. Just before we left he produced a watering can full of tella (a sour grain brew), to celebrate the relevant Saint’s day, which we shared around. The most stunning church we saw was Abuna Yemata. To reach it requires a two hour ascent including a vertical section of rock climbing and a metre-wide ledge with a 300 metre drop to the side. But the painted walls inside are stunning, as are the illustrated velum bibles and the views of the land below.
As we descended from Abuna Yemeta, I asked our local guide whether he had ever visited Konso. “No. In Konso the people there are crazy. And dirty”. This is the general view held by the north of people from the south. Whereas the north has a long history of Christianity, the south is a jumble of different tribes, more recently converted. Konsinya, the local language of Konso, is more similar to the Shona spoken by my Zimbabwean friend than to Amharic or Tigrinya.George is actually from the Amhara region, just south of Tigray and home to Lalibela. Despite living and working in Konso for a number of years, he still held a similar view of southerners. He is planning on finding a new wife, having been divorced for the past ten years, and will be looking in the Amhara region. “Why not take a Konso girl?” I asked.
“The Konso people are unclean”, he replied. “After using the toilet they, how you say, sweep their buttocks with stones.” Later in the evening he said: “By the way, if you need to pass urine just go outside the house. Please, treat it like your home!” It is true that, without running water, few Konso people will have ever taken more than a bucket shower, and the sorghum fields are their toilets, but they are a remarkable community. They are particularly proud of three things: there is no stealing amongst the Konso, the women are strong, and they are good farmers. The no stealing reputation was put at risk the other day when we went to town to fill the car with manure. We generally visit a few compounds, cleaning out their goat and cattle sheds thus providing them a service whilst giving us enough manure for our tree planting programme. We made the mistake of not clearing the arrangement with one house owner, and she took exception, taking our shovels hostage and guarding the gate to the compound with a lot of shouting and waving of a sickle. We sought the mediating skills of a nearby resident who suggested we sort the situation at the police station. Fortunately, twenty metres short of the police station she changed her stance, so we turned the car back and regained our shovels to cheers from the gathered crowd.
The women are certainly strong, even elderly women carry to the market huge bundles of firewood on their backs, sometimes from miles away, and it is the women’s job to collect water from the pumps and carry it home in jerry cans. Men don’t carry things on their backs, only on their heads or shoulders, and they carry much less. One day, Berke, a worker at Strawberry, collected from town an 80kg bag of sorghum. It was a sack of food aid received by her cousin who lives in a nearby town, and sent as a gift. A volunteer and I helped Berke carry the sack back to her home, each carrying it a third of the 40 minute walk. (There was another sack but this was, she said, too heavy for us). As she lifted the sack onto my back a guy on the road shouted: “farenji, are you a woman? That’s women’s work!” Berke is only 17, or at least that’s what she thinks. Konso people generally don’t know there age, especially if, like her, they have never been to school: yesterday we collected manure from an old lady’s house in town; she proudly claimed to be 1,000 years old. Her blind husband sitting next to her, silently smoking ganja rolled in newspaper, didn’t disagree.) Instead, everyone belongs to a generation. There is a new generation every 15 -or-so years, symbolised by the planting of a ‘generation pole’, a juniper tree. We were welcomed at Berke’s house by a toothless grin from her mother and a calabash of warm chegga. It was an archetypal Konso household, with a sleepy cow and (empty) sorghum store, built on stilts and made of mud and thatch, just like a small house.
Berke typifies a young Konso woman, hard working and strong, with little or no formal education. She’s also braver than the men. She has dispatched three snakes in the past three weeks including a bright green back-fanged tree snake found in the garden, drop-for-drop its venom the most poisonous in Africa: she smacked it against its tree perch with a shovel. Female years in education has a strong negative correlation with fertility rates, and family size and population growth are very high in Konso. Even when girls do attend school, they often fall behind the boys. As a teacher explained to me, girls have many more responsibilities at home – cooking, collecting water, cleaning, looking after babies – and as a result struggle to find time for studying. Berke is also typical in never having left Konso, not even to Arba Minch, the nearest big town, which is two hours away, or three if you hit rush hour (the time that the young boys, with plastic bottles of chegga over their shoulders, drive the cattle along the road and home after grazing and watering). One day Berke brought her Bible to work. It’s the only book I’ve ever seen written in Konsinya (which uses Latin script). “Look, here’s a map of Ethiopia!”, she said excitedly, pointing to a map of The Holy Land at the front of the book.
Education is the route out of local village life for those with big ambitions. George’s son Gabriel, returned late in the evening as he’d been out celebrating the end of secondary school with his friends. He’s 17 but doesn’t drink and isn’t allowed a girlfriend. Instead he plans to do the two years of high school before going to university. “What do you want to study?”
“He likes maths and science, like me”, George answered for him. “He wants to be a doctor, but my plan for him is to be an engineer, of rockets and airplanes and jet engines. How you call it? Ah yes, an erotic engineer”.
As part of the five-year-plan, the government has greatly increased the number of university places. It’s still an expensive investment out of reach for most, but there are scholarships from Chinese and Indian universities and businesses which a number of ambitious teenagers I’ve talked to hope to win, including Gabriel. Unfortunately, the expansion in university places hasn’t been backed up by adequate training and hiring of lecturers and tutors. Last week there were riots at Arba Minch university, the students protesting that they had only received two weeks of lectures in a whole term, and even then these were provided by lecturers bussed down from Addis. The students smashed all the windows on the campus. Five were shot dead by the police.
Ethiopia can be a depressing place. Failures of governance are much the harder to accept when you see the harsh realities of poverty every day: it’s rarely romantic. A malnourished child crawling under the benches of a tej bar, aged 18 months but his legs too weak to support him; women with bare and blistered feet, bent double under their loads going to market; children forced by their parents not go to school but to work for money. Yet it is true that, particularly up in the surrounding hills in the more remote villages, there is an amazingly positive and generous spirit among the Konso people. The sanguinity is infectious. And you can draw amusement from the small things, such as the clothes: a boiling hot day and a boy wearing a multi-coloured one-piece ski-suit; children wearing just the hood of anoraks; Obama ‘Yes We Can’ t-shirts; belts that wrap one-and-a-half times around the waists of the bony old men; the click-click of a pair of purple and green cross-country ski boots on the tiled restaurant floor; and my personal favourite, the printed text ‘I gotta whole lotta lunch’ stretched across the chest of an amply sized woman.