Maryam, Ambiya, and their mother Aisha Darsa
MCC Photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Maryam, Ambiya, and their mother Aisha Darsa with the goats they received through a goat restocking project. The project targets two communities in the Afar region of Ethiopia that were severely affected by the onset of drought from 2012 onward. 470 households will receive 10 breeding goats (9 female and one male), as well as short term food for the goats as needed.

Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, and millions have been affected. In May, Winnipeg journalist Julie Bell travelled deep into the Ethiopian desert to see how pastoralists are adapting and how MCC is helping. This is the story of what she found. (Keep an eye out for the fall issue of A Common Place which will feature more about this project.)


AFAR REGION – Ethiopia.  The 40 degree heat wraps around me like a blanket and my bottled water has turned from icy cold to tepid. I am in the desert in a remote area of Ethiopia, wondering if we will ever find the nomadic group of goat farmers we are seeking.

I am a writer with MCC and my assignment is to report on a goat restocking project. Over the past several months, working with a local non-governmental organization, MCC has helped hundreds of pastoralists rebuild their herds by providing more than 4,700 goats.

But locating them (both goats and pastoralists) is turning into a major challenge. My photographer, Matthew Sawatzky, is also from Winnipeg. Matthew and I have travelled together several times to report on MCC projects around the world; from rebuilding after the Nepal earthquake to drilling wells in Mozambique and programs for people with HIV/AIDS in Ukraine. But this journey into the Ethiopian desert is one of a kind.

Matthew and I have travelled together several times to report on MCC projects around the world... But this journey into the Ethiopian desert is one of a kind.

Today we are moving, convoy-style, in two four-wheel drive vehicles loaded with extra fuel and bottled water. Three other MCCers and staff from the local NGO are also on board.

So far we have encountered a washed out road which forced a detour of several hours. We travelled through mountain ranges and across a desolate landscape of volcanic rock. When the highway ended, we went off-road into a sea of sand.

Now one of our vehicles is lost. It went the wrong way when we left the road.

As we wait in the sweltering heat, the driver of our vehicle is on his cell phone, trying to guide the wayward vehicle back on track. I look around and wonder how anyone can survive in this environment.

When the highway ended, we went off-road into a sea of sand.

The answer is: not easily, especially recently. The pastoralists who have occupied much of the Afar Region for generations rely on their livestock for milk, meat and income. A severe drought that began in 2010 turned traditional grazing lands into useless stubble. First the camels and cattle died, followed by most of the goats. By 2013, almost 90 per cent of the livestock had perished. 

As drought persists, many households in kebeles (local communities) across the region have not recovered. There is no milk and no meat.  Many families are surviving on one or two daily meals of watered down soup and thin bread. Some parents are eating even less than that, offering their food to their children.

When the second vehicle finally arrives, I ask our driver how we will find our way across the endless sand. He works for the NGO and says he will follow the same track forged by the Isuzu trucks that transported the goats.

But now we are driving into the dusk, unsure if we can reach our destination before we lose the light. There’s a man walking across the sand and we stop to ask him if he knows where Namma Gubi is – the kebele where some of the pastoralists and their new goats are based. He says he knows how to find it, but we cannot get there before night comes.

It reminds me of driving in the snow and slush after a winter storm in Winnipeg, as the tires spin and try to find traction.

He climbs into our vehicle and navigates us around bushes and small trees, across almost dry riverbeds, through sand that’s ankle deep.  It reminds me of driving in the snow and slush after a winter storm in Winnipeg, as the tires spin and try to find traction.

The man’s family is building a fire outside their traditional house made of palm leaves and tree branches when we arrive. He tells them we are their guests for the night, and they pull the sleeping mats outside of their home to help us set up camp on the sand nearby.

It is a night, an adventure, I will never forget. As the sun sets, our entourage beds down under a canopy of mosquito nets.  We listen to the family chat and watch the stars overhead.

With sunrise and a breakfast of water, sardines and bread, we are off again. We know where the kebele is, but we don’t know if the pastoralists we are seeking have taken their new goats kilometres away to better grazing land.

After a short drive, a house appears on the horizon. Finally, we have found Namma Gubi. A family of pastoralists and several goats are there.

After a four day walk to the market, she earned enough to buy a half bag of grain.  It was enough to feed the family for only a week.

As Matthew snaps photos and a worker from the NGO translates, we hear what life has been like for 27-year-old Aisha Darsa, her husband and three children. As the drought progressed all of their cattle died. Over the last two years their remaining 20 goats died. The family made mats from palm leaves and whenever she could borrow a camel from a relative, Aisha loaded it up with mats. After a four day walk to the market, she earned enough to buy a half bag of grain.  It was enough to feed the family for only a week.

Not far away, sitting in his house, 67-year-old Mohammed Asirmo describes the drought as “very, very bad.” Over the last few years, he watched his last 50 goats die of starvation or illness. He walked for days to a community where the government was distributing bags of grain. It wasn’t enough to feed himself, his wife and seven children.

But in our culture, we have learned that whatever we have at the time must be enough, he tells me. So we share what we have and make do.

Now five of Mohammed’s goats are pregnant, and one has given birth. We have milk for our children again, he says.

Then a smile, as Mohammed talks about the goats that MCC delivered several months ago. The project provided 470 households, including Aisha’s and Mohammed’s, with ten goats – one male and nine female.

Now five of Mohammed’s goats are pregnant, and one has given birth. We have milk for our children again, he says.

And now he is talking about hope. I have hope I can keep my goats healthy, rebuild my herd, he says. If my goats are healthy, then my household is healthy, he explains. Mohammed says there are other signs of recovery. Recently there’s been rain and there’s grass sprouting in some of the rocky areas where livestock traditionally graze.

As Matthew and I walk back to our vehicle, I have a new goal. I am seeking out the tiny green patches of new life in the desert. I think about the journey of these pastoralists over the past few years – from devastation to the birth of optimism.

I think about MCC, as it works quietly and with compassion in remote and forgotten places like this around the world.

And I imagine the day those first trucks emerged from the desert here in Namma Gubi – carrying baby goats. And hope.

 

Julie Bell was a reporter and producer with CBC for 30 years. Today, she tells stories about people around the world as a writer for MCC.

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