An Association is formed and history is made
As the car made its way out of the dust of Addis on the climb up the wooded Entoto Mountain, we could breathe the clean sharp air of the countryside on our journey to Fitche, about 2 ½ hours’ drive north through incredible scenery, now quite familiar to me and something to which I had been greatly looking forward. What I was not looking forward to was embarking on another hair-raising dodgem-car ride, narrowly avoiding the “Al-Quaeda” (as they are dubbed locally) trucks and crazy minibus drivers. Oh yes, I remembered this bit, and it is sobering to see the number of overturned minibuses and semitrailers by the side of the road.
But we made it thanks to Lakew’s skill at the wheel and pulled up at the Doyu-Armon Garden, now proudly sporting an entrance gate made from eucalyptus saplings, and mounds of red soil and sand ready to be ploughed in. As I had been warned, the clay soil was cracking in the intense dry heat, threatening to crush the tender rootlets of the new plants. Lakew said that his job over the next few days was to supervise the filling of a long stone-edged trench with the good soil so that the most vulnerable plants can be transferred until they are strong enough to survive.
Abiyu and Lakew showed us the line of Set eret (Aloe pulcherrima), surviving but looking a little burnt at the edges, and Tefrindo (Gomphocarpus purpurescens) looking quite happy. Abiyu showed us the sap from the Tefrindo and explained how it is used to paint on warts. Another area sported the erect pointed leaves of Wonde cheret (Sanseviera ehrenbegii), used for ear infections. We were shown other plants, looking a little straggly but protected with straw, and, with some concern, an empty borehole. Lakew is onto it, arranging to have it dug deeper. Abiyu tells me that if the plants can be nurtured along to survive a year, they will be strong enough to flourish and cope with both wet and dry seasons. So, progress has been made but we have some work still to do in getting the conditions right.
We checked in to the Abiido International Hotel. Disappointing to find that the bath didn’t work but the trickle of hot water from the shower was a surprise bonus and quite adequate to remove the dust of the drive and reinvigorate some stamina. Heading to Shikerker’s house, I couldn’t wait to meet up with the community members who had been so generous with their herbal information for my research and it was a fun reunion. Of course they asked where daughter May and son Alemayehu were and I had to explain that the travelling team has shrunk a little this time, but they were happy to meet Kristin who was in charge of both the film camera and (even more importantly) containing my (and Lakew’s) enthusiasm to keep us on strict track. That woman has impressive skills and increasingly I realise how much I need her to keep this project aligned with objectives and being the voice of experienced caution. Although I have to confess to that heart-sinking moment when she says (as she so often did) “Yes, Lizzie, but are you considering..?” and I was glad to see Lakew looking equally crestfallen as he is worse than I am in the Big Idea stakes.
We took a hike out to the escarpment above the Jema River (a tributary of the Blue Nile) gorge, check out some of the herbs growing wild there. As often happens, kids appear and attach themselves to us and as it turns out had plenty to say about the herbs themselves. Lakew hailed two women, bent over under their burden of firewood which they had retrieved from far below, and asked them the name of a shrubby plant. They answered in Oromigna, a language of which I know about two words…I think I have to confine my simple efforts to Amharic, enough of a challenge.
And so on with what was to become the main event. I almost can’t believe what unfolded over the next two days: a solid foundation of truly textbook sustainability for the community, achieved with a minimum of fuss and a great deal of strength and intelligence demonstrated by the householders along with co-operation from City and Local Council.
The familiar faces were there, Shikerker and her husband Gulelat, Shitaye, Emayu, Zergebachew, Werkalamow, Belaynesh…along with some new faces, a healthy representation of both men and women householders and two expert Priest Herbalists – one of whom being the wise Ato Abi who was present in original discussion and research last year.
The first objective was to find out whether the community members would be interested in cultivating their own household gardens and forming an Association, combining their resources as a strong cohesive group to work out potential issues. There was immediate enthusiasm, followed by discussion – how frustrating it is sometimes to be unable to follow the language! But Abiyu and Lakew were very good about translating. It seemed that while they liked the idea of having their own household gardens, there were issues of space – some had garden space and some did not, and questions as to what would be the future benefit? This last succinctly and in no uncertain terms answered by Shikerker, who said “well, obviously, you will have your medicinal plants on your doorstep for healing your family, what more do you want?!” Everyone ‘strongly agreed’ that they liked the idea in principal. With regard to the issue of space, they agreed that as a collective those with space could share with those who did not have any. Ato Abi and Ato Getachew, the two Priest Herbalists, suggested that they could supply some plants from their own Church herb gardens. I said at this point, just to make sure I understood what was happening here: “So, you would like to form an Association?” to which Ato Abi responded in his laconic way “Well, can you tie a bundle of sticks with out a tie?”
We had kept them from their duties long enough, so Kristin, Abiyu and I repaired to our hotel, Lakew returning to his house. We reconvened later to discuss what we could do to support the householders. I suggested that it was time we brought in the local authorities to see how they might help, knowing that Federal Government policy specifically supported such initiatives. Perhaps they would consider giving land to the community? No time like the present…Lakew and Abiyu took this idea and ran with it all the way to the City Council to suss out the possibilities. They had more energy than I did, I had totally run out of steam and headed for a recovery nanna-nap. By the time I resurfaced, the blokes were back looking very pleased with themselves. It turns out their proposal was met very positively. The next step was to talk to the local Kebelle (local government) officials. So the next morning Lakew and Abiyu once again made their representations, and once again were given assurances that the authorities would look favourably upon the project.
This was very good news, more than I could have hoped for. The next day we met again with the group, this time with the two City Council representatives who explained to the assembly how to go about forming an Association. They went further, and said that if as a group they would like to cultivate their household gardens and by doing so show initiative and enthusiasm for such a project, then the Government would grant them land for a community garden. It was iterated that the Federal Government strongly supports initiatives relating to the preservation of herbs and medicinal herb knowledge and therefore giving the land for the community to cultivate was a way to do this. Normally, the Government will only give land for a maximum period of five years, but that this would be an exception in order to provide sustainability.
At this point in the proceedings, four more people entered the room, now filled to capacity, and chairs were brought for them. These were officials from the kebelle, the local council, come to contribute their support. If ever there was any doubt that this initiative would come to fruition, the presence and enthusiasm of both City and Local Council firmly dispelled it. The kebelle representative gave a strongly supportive speech encouraging members to commit to a very positive, groundbreaking initiative which would see them as the first in the area to do something which others would follow.
Some further explanation and discussion took place, and suddenly hands were raised and I realised that voting was taking place. And so the “Etse-Fawus Association” was formed, with five office bearers consisting of three men (including Ato Abi) and two women.
For days afterwards I was telling everyone this meant “Curious Plants” until I found I had misheard the translation and it was in fact “Curing Plants” (or “Healing Plants”). How easily one can get it wrong.
And so, as I understand it, my next task is to have a Seal of Association made up, along with by-laws written and letterhead designed. The officials took care to explain to me that it should read “Etse-Fewus in association with Botanica Ethiopia”.
With a sense of a little history being made, we all trooped out of the room into the sunshine, and I took Polaroids of all the Association members so that they could each have a copy. I asked “hulem desetegne?” (is everyone happy?) and there was a chorus of assent and lots of smiling.
I feel that this group is well able to address potential issues together and will get on with the job in hand, and that Botanica Ethiopia has provided the links and the bringing together of knowledge to support them in their task, and facilitated the process. This experience will provide a template in itself for other communities to follow – a job for me when I return to Australia will be to write it all up.
And so back to Addis, with some appointments lined up at the University, at the Institute of Biodiversity Conservation and with the School of St. Yared…but that is worthy of another blog article.