In February, the Rift plateau country around Fiche town is coloured with red aloe flowers and eucalypts. It was market Sunday, and after meeting Gule and Emayu for a raw meat lunch, we left the spices, tuktuks and sheep on the main street to see the Etse-Fewus Association’s ‘Healing Herbs’ garden on the escarpment behind town. It had been a year since we’d last visited.
We saw bushes of orange marigold, wild rosemary and lemongrass. A guardhouse of mud-brick and grass, a concreted dam to capture water in the rainy season. Young Kosso trees and Yeferes Zeng were growing along the new fence lines.
The Kosso will shelter the more delicate herbs from the wind and rain, and will one day be used to treat tapeworm infections. The Yeferes Zeng, Gule told us, is for headaches and ‘to protect the property’. The handgun on Gule’s belt? To keep thieves and hyenas away when he’s on night guard duty.
“If people come in the night to steal even one herb, this is a big problem for us, we have worked so hard to collect these plants,” he explained. Like most of the Etse-Fewus Association men, Gule works on his farm plot or as a share cropper most days; he sleeps in the guardhouse heremost nights.
Gule told us the next step is for Etse-Fewus is to link the project to market. The group want to be able to process and package the herbs themselves – as dried herbs, ointments and essential oils – to generate income.
To do this, he explained, they’ll buy chickens to build the quality of the soil with manure. Some of the members will bring their private beehives to the communal garden to help pollinate the herbs and increase honey production for the group. They will work together to keep growing.
Here’s a short clip from February …
Congratulations to the Etse-Fewus ‘Healing Plants’ Association in Fiche. The kebele local government has just granted them 1,000 sq metres (1/4 acre) of land to build a community medicinal herb garden!
The herbalists and householders – who have been part of the Botanica Ethiopia project from the beginning – formed their own association earlier this year to support one another in growing medicinal home gardens. As one member, Ato Abi, said at the time: ‘You can’t tie a bundle of sticks without a tie, can you?’
Back in January, Botanica Ethiopia and Etse-Fewus took their ideas to the city council and were told that if they could get their own household gardens to flourish, the kebele would look at giving them land for community use. Today we received the good news.
“This is a great achievement from the local government side to provide the association with this very important input,” said our project liaison officer, Tessema, in Ethiopia today. “Now we need to build their capacity with support such as hand tools and water facilities to implement the garden.”
“We’ll start our work at the beginning of the rainy season,” says herbalist and priest Merigeta Enbakom. The community is hoping the ‘big’ June-Sept rain starts falling soon – the February rains never came.
Here are some photos of Etse-Fewus members in Fiche.
In this interview in Addis Ababa in February this year, Tessema Bekele, Executive Director of Ethiopian NGO the Emmanuel Development Association (see the blog post “An interview with an extraordinary Ethiopian“) tells Kristin Gomes from Botanica Ethiopia about how the EDA welcomes skilled volunteers to participate in community development programs.
High on the agenda for our visit to Ethiopia was to make contact with the School of St. Yared in Addis Ababa, founded in 2009 by Hope for Children, an NGO supporting orphans of HIVAIDS.
Nearly 75 per cent of school-aged children in Ethiopia have no access to formal education. Hope for Children realised early on that providing orphans with loving, caring homes until they turned 18, was not enough to lift them out of a life of poverty. Without a solid education, these children would not be equipped to make their own futures.
Jacqui Gilmour, of Hope for Children Australia, was inspired by a school in Tanzania whose guiding philosophy was that the way to prosperity for a nation is via education of its children. Jacqui met Yared, a 23-year-old who grew up on the streets of Addis and knew from personal experience the difficulties faced by millions of bright street kids who have little hope of an education.
Yared had earned a scholarship to study in America, but when he and Jacqui discussed the idea of a school he was inspired to stay in Addis and help other kids, from the poorest backgrounds, to have such a chance. These smart children are a major resource for the country – if only they can jump the obstacles in their path and access opportunities to learn.
He found a building and grounds for St Yared and is now Principle of a school with 80 Kindergarten and Year 1 students. As well as classes, the school provides children with three free meals a day; encouraging attendance by reducing the need for them to go out to work each day to help with the family income.
This month, Oxfam launched its GROW campaign with a new report on food security. The campaign is for a world without hunger and the report shows how our global food system is failing the very poorest.
“Hunger is not a natural phenomenon. It is a man-made tragedy,” wrote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a GROW ambassador, last week. “People do not go hungry because there is not enough food to eat. They go hungry because the system that delivers food from the fields to our plates is broken. And now in this new age of crisis — with increasingly severe and extreme weather and dwindling natural resources – feeding the world will get harder still.”
For me, three facts stood out. The first was that 80% of the world’s hungry people are directly involved in food production. Oxfam says that the 500 million small-scale farmers in the world together feed one-third of humanity – but they themselves go to bed with empty stomachs. I remembered the figure that 80% of Ethiopians are small-scale farmers.
The next was that crops in sub-Saharan Africa will yield 20–30% less (and maybe even less) by 2080 because of climate change.
The third was that foreign investors had bought 110 million acres of arable land & water in developing countries in 2009 (the size of California and West Virginia combined).
I remembered our driver, exasperated with locals in the remote south who were using a steamingly-fresh bitumen road to walk their animals to market one morning; “The people love these Chinese roads because now their clothes are not covered in dust – but they don’t know they might die walking along here!” – Beeeep! I remembered Chinese cement factories and acres of European flower farms along the lakes region south of Addis Ababa. I also noticed much less obvious poverty on the streets of the capital than I had on a trip five years earlier.
In 2010, Ethiopia offered 7.4 million acres of virgin land to foreign corporations to grow food for export.
Cement factory and teff fields - South Ethiopia. Image: May Slater
With a history of extreme drought and famine, a future especially vulnerable to climate change and a present at the centre of a farmland grab by fast developing countries like China, India and Pakistan – How can Ethiopia protect its natural riches and provide for the health of its people into the future?
We spoke to Dr Tesfaye from the Ethiopian Institute of Biodiversity Conservation about protecting Ethiopia’s unique natural heritage and why this is important.
The land behind Lakew’s house in Fiche drops 2000 metres into the Great Rift Valley; it becomes teff and grain crops, and salty white river banks, as far as the eye can see in any direction.
Actually, this tectonic rift, or trench, runs more than 6000kms from Syria in Southwest Asia, through Ethiopia and down to central Mozambique – and from here, all of Africa’s Great Lakes were formed.
It was on the slopes and crags of one cliff face (which we were also told is one of the top hang-glide launch pads in Africa!) where we would spend an afternoon in the high plateau sun; collecting and tagging native herbs for identification at the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation.
We set off with Lakew, Dr. Tesfaye and the Fiche men who knew this ground so well. We came back with a mini living pharmacy of plants and a troop of ten local boys, out of school for the afternoon, who called themselves ‘The Soccer Team’.
Here is some footage of this incredible place…
Because early mornings in Fiche are crisp, we’d chosen a spot in the sun by the back fence of the garden to interview Zerefenesh about her herbal remedies.
We stood on the hill, introducing ourselves, with the land and the road out of town behind us. But as we began, we quickly lost our voices to the painfully loud, metal-grating-stone sounds of a semi-trailer that had lost its brakes; hurling down the hill, smashing through the front fence of the garden and flipping over onto the terraces just metres away. Its load of rough granite was thrown far, the upturned cabin – crushed, and the front tyres, still spinning, were in flames.
We were helpless to know what to do other than to stop the children near us from going any closer. People came running from town and across the farmland around us to help; throwing earth and water and branches on the truck and trying to help the passengers out. No one was killed; all three crawled from the window and, amazingly, the worst injury was the driver’s broken arm.
We set off on the road North from Addis Ababa to see the garden site in Fiche for the first time, and to meet with local herbalists to introduce ourselves and the Living Pharmacy project.
As we drove further into Oromo territory the landscape changed to broad, sweeping valleys of farmland, hugged by distant hills and forests of young eucalyptus trees.
The high central plateaus, which cover half of the country, are some of the most fertile land in East Africa – and Oromia is said to be the breadbasket of Ethiopia, producing more than half of the nation’s crops.
We passed fields of grain and pasture for cattle, and started to see garies or horse-drawn carts and little tuk tuks along the road. Women, some quite old, walking bent-double with bundles of sticks for firewood on their backs, children herding cows and goats, and then random groups of young men by the road, jumping together in circles with tall sticks in the air. It’s still Orthdox epiphany time here, and this is the traditional Oromo dance to celebrate. The Oromo people are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, with their own culture and language, Oromingna.
I’d been told that an old and well-known herbalist was willing to meet me to talk about his work. He lives at a monastery 18 km out of Addis, so Lakew picked us up early one morning and we traveled north to Menagasha.
Print: Adelaide Slater
On the outskirts of the city we passed acres of huge flower greenhouses, which are taking up so much land and apparently rendering it useless for growing anything much at all in the future. Past these, Lakew pointed to one densely treed area with cottages in the distance and said it belonged to the Fistula Hospital – I think it may have been the Desta Mender Centre for permanent residents, who have been treated for the injury but who cannot return to a normal life in their village or community.
We arrived at the home of Merigeta, a herbalist/priest who has built a church near his home and sees many patients a day.
Before he appeared, we met his assistant, who asked us to sit on a long bench under a plum tree and brought us a plate of the small fruit, inviting us to eat. Lakew looked at me and said “Ah well, let us pray they are ok,” and we wiped off the dust and hoed in.
Where better to begin a study of Ethiopia’s healing plants, than a city whose name means ‘New Flower’ – Addis Ababa.
Elizabeth d’Avigdor 16/1/2011
After a long flight, with a host of delays to do with visas and extra aid baggage, we stepped out of the sparkling airport in Addis at six in the morning and were very nearly knocked off our feet by a mad donkey, tearing at fast trot between the taxis along Bole road and headed goodness knows where… We’re in Africa!
And I’d forgotten how much there is to love about this place; even dusty, chaotic Addis Ababa.
Many things look as they did five years ago, though the recent investment and development in the city is obvious. Those construction sites with wonky tree-branch scaffolding now share parts of the road with rows of expensive looking houses and office buildings. There are new sealed roads, but still of course, the dusty grey bundles of rags and tarps by the side of them. Sadly, this is still how many live here.
After just a few days, I feel like I’ve been here for a long time. It’s familiar, I feel quite at home out and about, producing a lot of laughs with my feeble attempts at Amharic. I’ll always stand out as a Ferenji (foreigner) but I’m getting the hang of the language again and the Ethiopian ‘way of doing things’ – nothing much is organised ahead of time here; almost everything is done face-to-face.
But a bit like the manic traffic and the road rules (or seeming lack thereof), most things somehow just work and our first week has been a full and productive one.