Women farmers and fuelwood carriers
ADDIS ABABA – About two hours’ drive from the capital, or 112 kilometers away, lies Girar Jarso Woreda, a village in the province of Oromiya. As we were speeding on the highway, our van suddenly stopped and a thin, wiry Ethiopian man with graying hair approached us. “Mogues!” someone shouted, and we were introduced to Mogues Worku Techane, executive director of the NGO Lem Ethiopia.
Lem Ethiopia works out of three sites, one of which is Girar Jarso, using the PHE or population, health and environment integrated development approach. The PHE approach seeks to bring communities together to work on these interrelated issues, with the help of local government authorities.
Descending from the van, we found about 40 women gathered by the roadside, all of them clad in the thin cotton dress favored by Ethiopian women. We were told they had been waiting for us for over two hours. They were all part of the local women’s organization, getting together to discuss community issues, including the need to adopt sustainable agriculture practices, implement healthy practices and promote reproductive health. “It is good that we are now able to gather together and talk among ourselves how we can help our families,” one of them said.
In appreciation for hosting our party of 12 women journalists from Africa and Asia and our friends from PRB, Mogues brought out from his vehicle an irrigation pump and some baseballs and volleyballs for the community. Seeing the gifts, the women applauded then broke out into shrill yodeling to show their appreciation.
For much of the morning, we met with the principal and teachers at the town’s elementary school, a representative of the Ministry of Women, the agricultural extension worker, and the community health worker named Bagalech Zewde, meaning “brightest light.”
All of them spoke of the need to organize the community as it faces serious health and environmental challenges, including falling farm production, shifting agricultural seasons, insect infestations, water shortages, and the migration of young people.
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While I sat out a trip to visit the women’s homes, exhausted from a hike to the school and health center, the rest of the party dialogued with the women villagers. At one home, the women demonstrated the workings of a rudimentary cook stove that uses less firewood than conventional models. This cuts down smoke production and protects the women from diseases resulting from smoke inhalation.
The group of journalists and women approached our van in what looked like a noisy procession. As we were about to leave, they brought out a case of chilled soft drink bottles, urging us to partake of their hospitality. Earlier, my companions said, the women held an elaborate “coffee ceremony,” serving dark, bitter coffee in tiny ceramic cups.
“These journalists have come from all over the world to observe what you have been doing,” said the women’s ministry representative. “So we must all work closer together so that they can tell good stories about us.” That we will.
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Two days after our visit to Girar Jarso, we drove to the Yeho Science and Technical Academy where Bioeconomy Africa is based. Selamawit Aseffa is the executive director of this NGO that has as its vision “to see peaceful, green, prosperous and eco-friendly trading African nations.” Together with Lem Ethiopia, Bioeconomy Africa is part of the Population, Health and Environment Consortium with Negash Teklu as executive director.
Part of Bioeconomy Africa’s focus is working with women fuelwood carriers, numbering about 150,000 in Addis Ababa and environs, of whom some 450 have been reached and organized.
The women work in hazardous and literally back-breaking conditions. They get up at dawn to trek to nearby forests or stands of trees to cut down branches and leaves, tie these into huge bundles that they carry on their backs, then walk to the capital’s markets to sell their wares. “These women have short life spans,” said Aseffa, citing damage to their spines and other organs as a result of their difficult life. Some of them have to face other challenges, including sexual assault and rape in the dark forests, domestic violence at the hands of their partners, and road mishaps as they trudge along highways to Addis.
To address the women’s needs, Bioeconomy has organized groups of women fuelwood carriers whom they convince to leave their occupation, citing not just the effects on their health but also on the environment, and give them alternative livelihoods.
We visited one such community, the Gurara Women’s Association, where the former fuelwood carriers are tending plots of vegetables and cows and chickens, all using sustainable methods taught them by Bioeconomy.
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We managed to talk with Ehet Wolde Mariam, the chairperson of the women’s association, a widow for 14 years, with four children, none of whom has managed to find a job.
After abandoning her hazardous work, Ehet Wolde joined the association and now presides over discussions that range from organizational concerns to even personal matters. “We share, discuss and support each other,” she explained.
On average, each woman earns about 300 Birr (the Ethiopian currency) a month, with profits from selling vegetables, milk and chickens pooled and then divided. Some husbands, she said, would complain about their wives being out of the home all the time, “but when they saw the money we bring home, they are happy.”
Asked what her dream is, Ehet Wolde says it is to see her daughters stand on their own and become “empowered.” Her husband, she said, would be very happy and proud of her now, “seeing me out in the world and taking a position of leadership.”