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1,000 Words About Ethiopia

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Cross posted from BorderJumpers, Danielle Nierenberg and Bernard Pollack.

We started this trip in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, a place most Americans associate with war and hunger because of the famines of the mid 1980s and 1990s. Even today, more than 6 million people in Ethiopia are at risk for starvation so we think we had mentally prepared myself for seeing very desperate people. Instead, though, we found farmers and NGO workers full of hope for agriculture in their country. That's been our greatest surprise about the continent in general - how vibrant, entrepreneurial, friendly, positive, and alive people are here. Six months and fifteen countries later, we're now in Dakar, Senegal, feeling more hopeful than ever that things are really changing.

The trip is surprising in a lot of different ways. While we've seen extreme poverty and environmental degradation during our trip, we've also been impressed by the level of knowledge about things like hunger, climate change, HIV/AIDS and other issues from the farmers we meet. The people in many of these countries know better than anyone how to solve the problems their facing, they just need attention-and support-from the international community. In Africa, maybe more than anywhere else we've traveled, a little funding can go a long way (if used the right way).

We met Kes Malede Abreha, described by our guides/interpreters as a "farmer-priest," on his farm near Aksum in the Central Zone of Tigray region. A small, wiry, soft-spoken man with a neatly trimmed beard, Kes Malede is one of the leading "farmer-innovators" in his community. Roughly eight years ago, he started digging for water on his very dry farm. His neighbors thought he was crazy, telling him he would never find water on the site. His wife even left him, moving their children into town.

But about 16 meters down, Kes Malede hit water. After his wife returned, he began sketching ways that would make it easier to "push" that water to the surface. He developed a series of pumps, improving on each one. The one he's using now is built from inexpensive wood, iron, and metal piping, all available locally. It can push or lift water not only to the surface, but also through a system of hoses to irrigate his fruit trees and farm crops, including teff, sorghum, tomatoes, and other vegetables.

As part of a group of farmers who can apply for and receive funding for their innovations from the global, NGO-initiated organization, Prolinnova, Kes Malede is teaching other farmers in the community by example, showing them how small investments in technology can make a big difference on the farm.

Before he developed his water-management system, Kes Malede and his family lived in a one-room house and could grow only enough staple food to feed the household. Today, the family lives in a bigger house, grows a diversity of crops, and raises chickens, cattle, goats, and bees. Kes Malede's investment in more beehives has not only provided income from honey production, but also helped pollinate his fruit and vegetable crops. He's now helping other farmers-the same ones who thought he was crazy-by teaching them about his water lifting system and by selling modern, box-style beehives that allow farmers to both manage the bees better and harvest more honey.

Also, we've been reading about how China is investing in African agriculture for a few years now, but this week is the first time we've really seen what that means on the ground. As we traveled from Addis to Aksum, it's impossible not to notice who is building the roads here. Hint: it's not the Ethiopian government. The Chinese, even though they can't legally own land in Ethiopia, have brought in bulldozers and trucks to improve already-existing roads and build new ones. Along with building roads, they've also built good will with Ethiopian policymakers and farmers because better roads allow farmers to get their goods from farm to market more easily.

In Aksum alone, the Chinese have built more than 150 kilometers of roads and provided cell phones for farmers -- allowing them, for the first time ever, to check prices before they go to market and to call ahead for supplies and materials. The Chinese are also leasing huge amounts of land for isolated compounds stacked with pre-fabricated homes, complete with satellite TVs and Chinese cooks, for the road engineers.

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But this investment isn't entirely altruistic. China, a nation of more than 1. 3 billion people and counting that is concerned about its ability to feed its own population today and into the future, is buying up Ethiopian-grown cabbage, carrots, onions, and other crops to ship back home. One of our guides/interpreters said that sometimes the Chinese show up at markets near Aksum before they open, buying up all the goods before Ethiopian customers even arrive. It's an ironic situation, to say the least, as news reports warn of impending famine in the southeastern region of the country, where more than 6 million people are on the verge of starvation.

Because we are limited by length, here are some additional observations:

1) We ended the trip in Addis Ababa, which is one of our favorite cities in Africa. Alongside the bumper to bumper traffic, are people hearding flocks of sheep, vendors walking between cars hawking everything from mentos to vacum cleaners.

2) Lots of government control over services, the one major internet company was frequently out of service, sometimes spanning across the entire coutnry.

3) It's a terrific place to be vegetarian. Most restuarants observe "fasting" days twice a week, and almost all menus have good veg and vegan options.

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4) It's generally pretty safe. We never felt scared or threatened in any way. Tourists are welcomed. People are extremely friendly and as excited to learn about you are your culture as you are about them. While it may be off-the-beaten path, it will be a visit you never forget.

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