Lately I’ve been running almost every morning in Abi Adi. Then on the weekends I like to extend these runs into adventures out into the countryside surrounding Abi Adi. I’ll set out early in the morning to hike around for a few hours. The most striking thing about these adventures is that I’m never alone. People live everywhere, including in this extremely marginal area. There are tiny little villages with churches and primary schools scattered around the region in places I would normally overlook. Most people living in these little hamlets are subsistence farmers relying on the fertility of the land. They employ many of the same techniques used by their fathers and their fathers before them.
All the agricultural land in this region is plowed (several times per year) by ox-pulled plows. There are no tractors, tillers, or irrigation systems. Automation is as scarce as clouds in the dry season. Modernization and agricultural reform are slow in coming, but every once in a while you’ll see farmers with backpack sprayer units or someone planting a new type of seed.
I’m not qualified enough in agriculture to make any real judgments, but here’s what the US Government’s Feed the Future program has to say about Ethiopia: “Ethiopia’s economy is dependent on agriculture, which accounts for 46.6 percent of GDP and 90 percent of exports. However, challenges persist: smallholder crop yields are below regional averages; market linkages are weak; the use of improved seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides remains limited; and only six percent of cultivated land is currently under irrigation.”
It’s easy to see why this system is so fragile when you consider the main reliance. If rains don’t come, or don’t come in the right way, crops will fail and international support will be needed. According to Bahru Zewde, an East African Studies expert, “the Ethiopian peasant has historically endured the largest number of recorded famines in Africa and that there were few recorded famines which did not include Tigray.” Ethiopia took on the ugly spotlight of world news back in the mid 1980s when famine, exacerbated by war and inhibited food-aid distribution, swept through the country. One of America’s responses was USA for Africa. Michael Jackson, and pretty much every other popular singer at the time, collaborated in the supergroup USA for Africa to create the song We Are the World. “We are the world, we are the children, We are the ones who make a brighter day, So let’s start giving.” While things have stabilized significantly since then, food aid continues to this day.
Therefore I can walk four blocks from my house in Abi Adi and point out the distribution warehouse that is used to facilitate food handouts. USAID and the UN’s World Food Programme – Productive Safety Net Program fund this center and others like it which are responsible for supporting around 5.6 million Ethiopians per year in 2011. Canadian wheat and American corn and vegetable oil continue to pour into rural Ethiopia through this channel. This can lead to a huge debate about the role of aid organizations: sustainability versus instant aid for desperate populations. Something about “teaching a man to fish” right? I’m going to couch that debate for now since it’s too big and messy and both sides have merit. According to NGO and government data, the number of beneficiaries relying on food handouts is going down. Meaning that they are in fact “teaching people to fish.”
One example of this comes from Feed the Future, President Obama and the State Department’s initiative to fight food insecurity and global hunger. One of Feed the Future’s implementing partners is the United States Peace Corps. This means that all volunteers in Ethiopia have received training in gardening to improve self sufficiency and nutrition especially for marginalized populations. Last year I invited a counterpart from the People Living With HIV (PLWHA) Association to attend a regional training in Mekele, Tigray. We learned the basics of composting, healthy soil, crop rotation, and water conservation to create small and efficient home gardens. We were told that compost can basically save the world by empowering everyone to have productive gardens. These gardens then lead to healthier lives, more money, stability, and empowerment; “If I can grow these things, what else can I do?” So you see, compost really can save the world! Anyway, my counterpart has gone on to teach his fellow PLWHA Association members how to implement some of these techniques at home. Other Peace Corps Volunteers have run with this concept such as Corey/Lora and Josh and Jen. You can read more about their work with gardening on their blogs.
Anyway, on my runs or hikes along trails that are only passable to humans and their animals, I’m greeted with friendly and curious smiles. People see me sweating, running off into the countryside, and ask me what I’m doing and where I’m going.
This crazy ferenji must be lost.
I explain that I’m “making sport” and going to some small town or a mountain or some other futile destination for “enjoyment purposes.”
Doesn’t he know that the town and the market are behind him?
These hikes are a luxury for me. People make these trips daily or weekly to get to the town or the market. It’s common to pass people carrying everything from ornery livestock to bags of grain to woven reed mats to bundles of firewood. On my most recent trip up Mt. Tsalera, I passed a guy carrying a huge load of straw on his head. This trail was super sketchy with cliffs, mud, and other life threatening obstacles. He just passed on by before I stopped him to ask for a picture. No big deal, just the morning commute.
A few days ago I talked to one of my friends who is an English teacher at the school on top of Mt. Tsalera. He climbs up there from Abi Adi (a few hour hike) to teach English at the school. He told me that he heard about my little adventure climbing up Mt. Tsalera a few months ago. He related the farmer’s words, “this ferenji sport guy came up here and took away the bad spirits. He has a good ability to communicate in Tigrigna.” haha! I don’t think either of those statements is true, but I was happy to hear that I’m well received after I leave and am not thought of as a spy or something worse.
Other times I will pass kids who may have never seen a ferenji (foreigner) in the flesh. There are women on the trails who smell sweetly of local butter used in their hair and eucalyptus smoke from spending their morning baking fresh injera over wood-fired traditional ovens. When you think you’ve found a secluded spot, a spot where no one goes, you’ll be passed by a herd of a hundred goats and the attendant goat-herder boy. There are no places that are untrod by hoof and foot, at least not that I’ve found. It’s to be expected when you consider that humans, in one version or another, have been living here for …well… since the beginning of humanity.
One time a few months ago, I was walking around Mt. Duramba with some friends. As we were about to descend back into Abi Aid, an older man named Hagos invited us for coffee back in his house. We followed him and his donkey home where his wife welcomed us into their home, a simple structure built out of eucalyptus poles packed densely with mud mixture. It reminded me of Yoda’s hermit cottage on Degoba with built in nooks and hooks for convenient storage of wooden spoons, cloaks, pelts, and spare parts. It was a clean and comfortable home devoid of drywall, electricity, plumbing and other ferenji inventions. Towrah prepared a nice coffee ceremony and we enjoyed their generous hospitality. We even ate injera with mystery wat and passed the time by speaking in Tigrigna and Amharic.
There are no cars, no electricity, and no other way to get to these places except by foot.
This is the Peace Corps I thought I was getting, not the one with wireless internet, running water, Skittles in care packages, and refrigerated beers. The difference between the town and countryside is stunning: seemingly worlds apart, but really it’s only a few kilometers. How can you have two situations with so many differences within two kilometers of each other? It’s stunning.
I’m still exploring. There are so many places to go. You can set out in any direction and find some little town or hamlet. Just this Saturday I ran to Gs’kimelesay a little town about 10km out the old Italian stone-paved road. I found a primary school, the boys soccer team practicing, and little cafes and tea houses. …And lots of curiously friendly people heading into Abi Adi wondering why I’m out there.