Fields of memory
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher has a surprise when he returns to his village in Ethiopia.
A region of rats, hares and squirrels has started to provide for its people.
NEIL COOPER /
My village is on a dolomite plateau in the shadow of the volcanic Mount Mariam Fo, in the Tigray region of North Ethiopia. Tigray became notorious in 1974 and 1985 for being very short of food.
One of my earliest memories as a child of this harsh landscape is of isolated, big acacia trees and silt-laden floods at the beginning of the rainy season. When I visited my village in 1972, 11 years after leaving it, all the trees had gone. Slabs of white stone had replaced them.
I went back recently expecting worse desolation. Surpris-ingly I saw more trees there than when I was a boy. I started asking questions. Our parish head-priest is the Reverend Tsegay, an older cousin and my godfather. He recounted all that he knew from the tales of his father and uncles, and elders before them.
‘Do you see the walls of my house?’ he began – some of the stones had been blackened by fire. ‘My house was burnt and rebuilt three times during the civil war.’
‘Do you remember Reverend Gebru? He became blind in his old age. One afternoon, the soldiers came. The able-bodied ran away but Reverend Gebru was burnt alive in his house. We lost people, harvests, livestock. But life goes on, and our children can rebuild all over again.
‘When the Government soldiers were driven away for good, we were free. We had long discussions on how to improve our situation. First we shared the land according to family size. We all got shares on the harsh plateau and much smaller shares on the better valley soil. We developed our own rules to protect trees. For firewood now we only take branches.’
‘What about food?’ I asked. ‘Do you produce enough to eat?’
‘Some do and some don’t,’ he answered. ‘The plateau to the east of us has better soils, so the people are more self-sufficient. The highlands to the north are also fertile. Combining our labour and the goodness of the land, we can feed ourselves and others. We need to debate among ourselves to decide how we can all co-operate.’
‘Why have people been hungry?’ I persisted.
‘Because of our sins,’ he said. ‘We sin-ned and brought civil war on ourselves. War disrupts everything. A farmer cannot give year-round attention to the land. Livestock die, and the land cannot be tilled without oxen. Without manure the land cannot give us enough food. Farmers need continued peace to protect their land with terraces. Without terraces, the soil gets washed away.’
‘But all these problems were there when I was a boy, and there was no civil war then.’
‘You are right. As our grandfather told me, there used to be community elders who decided on cutting down trees, hunting animals and other matters. Then the emperors of Addis Ababa appointed outsiders to rule us. Wanting only our produce, they were not interested in helping us manage our land. Then came the Italians and their young bandas [Ethiopians serving in the Italian army and administration] who loved shooting at anything that moved. Now, even after 40 years, we only have rats, hares and squirrels left. In Haile Selassie’s time what remained of the community elders’ authority was destroyed. The more selfish in our communities then set about ravaging the environment. But, at last, we have a chance to reverse it all.’
‘How?’ I asked.
‘Look! Do you see the terraces on the slope across the valley? Our neighbouring village built them and their crops grow better because more water enters the soil. Each dry season, every able-bodied person joins in communal terracing programmes. Eventually we will terrace the slopes of Mount Mariam Fo. The valley will look as it did when you were a boy. We have lost some soil, but what is left is deep and enough to bring the valley back to wholeness.’
‘Have you used chemical fertilizers?’ I asked.
‘Yes, in the valley. But then valley soil is good to begin with. In shallow soils the chemicals burn our crops and leave us without food and deep in debt. We are not keen on them. But we are in a quandary. We do not have enough animals to produce the manure we need and there is not enough pasture for more animals. The grazing area is shrinking because there are too many of us and we need to plough more land for crops.’
Weizero Amete is 62 and lives in a neighbouring village. She agreed that there were too many people in the area. I tried to explain that women could be helped not to get pregnant and asked if they would accept such help. ‘It would be a godsend,’ she said. ‘They would not age before their time as I have done.’
‘How about their husbands?’ I asked.
‘Our daughters fought as freedom fighters, as equals to men. Our men no longer order us about as they used to.’
It was the middle of the rainy season. There was a thick growth of wild chickpea flowering and fruiting in the black soil.
‘We call it “rat chickpea” and know that it breeds with the main crop,’ said Reverend Tsegay. ‘In the old days we planted chickpea on deep, rich soil at the end of the rainy season so it would grow on the remaining moisture. When rains are good, we still do this. But when the rains look unreliable, we plant it on poor soil during the season. Barley is another crop we plant when we expect poor rains. Wheat needs good rains. When we dare not guess, we plant a mixture of both.’
Finally I asked: ‘When you had to run for dear life from war and famine, even as far as the Sudan, did you lose your seed?’
‘The careless and the lazy had problems to get seed after they returned. But for most of us, no matter what calamity befalls, we bury seed in pots in sheltered places. When we return we dig them out.’
The affluent world, through the IMF and the World Bank, has imposed structural adjustment on Ethiopia, and claims that it is a success. Thanks to creative small-scale farmers on marginal lands, and their counterparts on the more reliably-watered areas of Ethiopia, production has improved briskly now there is peace. It does not matter that the credit goes to Government economists and to the IMF. But it will matter if the Govern-ment and the rich nations of the world offer farmers no help.
Tewolde Berhan Gebre Egziabher is the son of a peasant-farmer priest from Tigray. He is a plant ecologist working on the National Herbarium at Addis Ababa University.
Western commercial agriculture is unsuitable for most countries and poor ones in particular. For its high yields it demands huge amounts of capital and energy – sophisticated farm equipment, large doses of fertilizers and pesticides. Every kilo of wheat grown in the US uses 2,000 litres of water. In many parts of Europe both ground and surface water are polluted by farm chemicals and waste. Meanwhile crop yields are tailing off, pests are growing resistant to pesticides and the costs of water and soil treatment are increasing.
This does not have to mean a naive ‘return to nature’. In many poor countries traditional ways of farming can be vastly improved by appropriate – and small – inputs of new technology. But ‘appropriate’ is the key word.
Rapid population growth, wars and drought are extra factors in sub-Saharan Africa’s food crisis. Over half the population is too poor to buy food even when it is available. A good part of the blame lies with the West’s continued global domination.
Working for change
Tigray Conservation Project
FARM-Africa (UK), 9-10 Southampton Place, London WC1A 2EA. Tel: (020) 7430 0440. Fax: (020) 7430 0460. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
©Copyright: New Internationalist 1995