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Ethiopia travel diary, part 2: A taste of beauty and hardship

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I just got back from an incredible first trip to Africa, where Oxfam and our partners are helping people overcome drought in southern Ethiopia. This post continues a series of blogs that I wrote along the way.

This morning I sat in on a great interview with Terefua Bagajo, one of the data collectors for Oxfam’s drought early warning system (DEWS). I was happy to hear her say that DEWS  is not only helping local people predict and prepare for droughts, but also improving women’s standing in the community.  “Women speak more now, and women are listened to in meetings,” she said.

Borena women from Gutu Dobi.
Borena women from Gutu Dobi.

Although, after meeting Terefua—and many other confident, charismatic Borena women—I wonder how anyone could not respect what they have to say.

Women, even young girls, do a lot of the heavy lifting here. They care for children, prepare food, and walk for miles to collect each day’s drinking water.

And with the last three years’ decrease in rainfall, times are not easy for them and their families. There’s sometimes only enough food for one meal a day. The dried-up corn withers away in the fields. The majestic, humped Borena cattle, which traditionally form the wealth of the people, are growing skinnier by the day. But the women carry on, undaunted by obstacles beyond anything I’ve ever had to face.

And despite what we’d consider a lack of material comforts, this is also a place of real beauty, where people take pride in their culture and their community.

Women and girls glimmer with elaborate jewelry and patterned shawls that bloom, flower-bright, against the washed-out blue sky. Traditional incense perfumes the warm air with a sweet-smoky scent. Recently, people started painting their earth-walled houses in colors made of clay—brick red, dove-gray, soft pink—trying to outdo each other with graceful, swirling patterns.

And today, our last day in this area, we were lucky enough to witness a community-wide coffee ceremony in Gutu Dobi. Wrapped in a traditional leather chancha belt decorated with cowrie shells and rattling gourds, Loko Dadacha (one of the women leaders profiled in the film) prepared and served coffee beans brewed in butter and hot water. Everyone in the community drank of this rare luxury, starting with the elders, who then spoke a formal blessing. My colleague Tita whispered a translation to me, saying that they were blessing the land, the cattle, the people, and the rain.

One of the decorated Borena homes. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America
One of the decorated Borena homes. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

I didn’t think I would do it. But when the cup came to me, standing on the sidelines with the rest of the Oxfam crew, I lifted it to my lips and drank.

The brew tasted strange—oily, salty, almost rancid, with the unexpected hardness of a raw bean on my tongue—but I didn’t regret sampling it. Having been lucky enough to meet the Borena and spend a few days documenting their story, I could only hope that the elders’ blessings would come true.

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