The place looked familiar—the small building with mud walls under a big sky. But this time, three years later, a sea of tall grasses swallowed the now-empty structure, their stalks glistening with the rain that had fallen the night before.
We were in the village of Ilancho in the Siraro district of Ethiopia’s West Arsi Zone where erosion has carried off a great deal of the precious topsoil leaving gaping rifts between fields and homes. When I first visited this spot in 2010, the earth here was packed hard. What grass there was grew in stubby patches nibbled to the ground by the cattle and goats people depend on for food and income. At the time, we met an elderly man, Ganute Kampiso, who remembered the landscape of Ilancho from his youth, when trees crowded the hills and the pastures were lush—so different from the Ilancho of today except for a few places, like here, where a transformation has begun to take place.
Three years ago a cash for work program carried out by Oxfam America and its local partner, the Center for Development Initiatives, had engaged villagers in a land restoration project in Ilancho. It had included planting trees, digging trenches to slow the flow of run-off in the gulches, and closing degraded areas to give them a chance to recover.
Today, in a 12.5-hectare stretch of gorgeous grasses, that spirit of preservation is thriving, and proving what’s possible with a little bit of patience. The local government has set aside this small chunk, said CDI’s Tamrat Belay. By day, a guard makes sure it’s left untouched and by night, sticks topped with the dung of hyenas and planted strategically along the narrow paths keep intruders—two-legged and four—out.
The dung is a warning: Villagers believe that if the grass is disturbed, hyenas will come in the night and eat their animals.