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.
According to the Amhars (largely from Addis and the Bahir Dar and Gonder regions further North), the Oromo also drive differently. They call Oromo mini bus drivers Al-Qaeda, or, flicking a hand at them overtaking, say they chew ‘too much chat, too much chat,’ a local amphetamine. They say they drive like crazy people, and that was our experience first-hand when we were taken back from Ambo in an Oromo bus last week, after our first transport broke down. It was a scary ride! Fortunately, Lakew is a cautious driver and when an Al-Qaeda approached, he would slow right down and move almost off the road.
After about three hours and just past the turn off to the medieval monastery, Debre Libanos and the Blue Nile Gorge, we began slowing down and suddenly, there was ‘our’ garden; large and terraced, high above the misty Rift Valley.
It was a very strange feeling to finally be standing on the land I had imagined for so long. It is beautiful!
The area marked out for the garden is terraced in an attempt to provide drainage, which Lakew says is the biggest problem with the soil. In the wet, the water just forms huge puddles and doesn’t drain away. In the dry, young plants struggle as the clay ground hardens and cracks instead of retaining water. Hopefully, the terraces, together with the new water pump from the bore and a truckload of red soil to break up the clay will help with this.
Next to the garden area, Lakew plans to build a coffee shop with tables with information on them about the herbs, toilets and a park with a children’s play area. In five years, he hopes to have about 250 herb species growing well there and as shade he’ll plant Blackwood (for prostate cancer) and Kosso trees (for tapeworm).
We will start by building a small herb spiral as a demonstration, and plan to design the garden using permaculture principles; composting organic materials like vegetable waste to build the quality of the soil, manage pests naturally and make the best use of water and energy.
We had to leave the garden because Lakew’s friend had arranged for three herbalists to meet us in the afternoon. It was market day and we drove straight through the middle of it to reach Lakew’s place for the meeting – people, animals, goods, grains, spices and chickens everywhere. It was also still Timket epiphany time and it looked like anyone who wasn’t at market was making their way back from the church on the hill above Fiche, in white shawls and traditional embroidered dresses.
When the three herbalists arrived, we sat down in a dim room around a traditional coffee ceremony; the smoke from the beans roasting over charcoal and frankincense filling the spaces between us and the introductions. After Lakew had explained who I was and what I was hoping to do – research and document traditional medicine and help protect the herbs themselves – the eldest man nodded and said; “This is very good, I support this. We are losing our herbs. Herbs I used to find in my area are not there anymore.” His response was encouraging, as was the fact that all three herbalists were entirely comfortable to be filmed or recorded, and to be part of the project.
First, I was interested in how they had learned their trade. One of the herbalists, who was slightly disabled, said he was taught by his mother – his father had died when he was young. The older man had learnt from his grandfather who was a priest. He then added that he had 29 children and six wives! He was quite a character; he spoke the most and seemed very knowledgeable but they all agreed that the women in the community are the ones with the best understanding of the herbs and this has come out of necessity: the men being away for work or at war, and the need to look after sick children on their own.
We talked about some of the herbs. I brought up two of my favourites; Withania (Gizawe) and an Artemisia species (Ariti). We worked out that we use them for similar ailments, with the added benefit from Withania of dispelling evil spirits (buda) in Ethiopia. Amongst other remedies, the herbalists talked about Withania for the stomach and described how the smoke is inhaled for the whole system as a restorative. This restorative property – particularly in convalescence or recovery from illness – is a main usage in western herbal medicine but does not seem to be recorded in Ethiopian medicine.
We spoke for two hours in that room, me recording what I could of the conversation with translations from Lakew. We would have stayed longer had I not said “beka – enough!” I was suddenly so tired my brain felt like it might explode with all this information.
We agreed to reconvene soon, hopefully with someone from the university joining us. The herbalists said they’d bring along samples of the plants they use next time, so that we can talk more about their medicinal applications and identify them properly for lodgement at the University herbarium. I’m especially interested in how women use the herbs in the home and it was arranged through one of Lakew’s relatives, who knew a lot about the plants herself, for us to interview a group of about five local women on our next visit as well.
The old man had to leave, he said he had to go to market. I said; “Well, if you’re going to market then you will need a boursa (bag)” and gave him and the others a Blackmores bag as a present, which went down very well. Off he went up the road with the bright teal and white bag over his shoulders, and we followed shortly after.