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Relishing the rain in Ethiopia–when it comes

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To reach their fields, farmers must cross a seasonal stream in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America
To reach their fields, farmers must cross a seasonal stream in southern Ethiopia. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

We had a lot of rain here in the Boston area this spring. Endless rain, it felt like. Would it ever stop?

I’m embarrassed now to have whined about it when I think what some steady rain could do for people in the Horn of Africa. Many of them are desperate for it.

The late 2010 rainy season failed completely in many parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia. And in some districts of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia, the March through May rains have been only about 10 percent of average. For herders and farmers who depend on every drop, the consequences could be severe: Already there are reports of hundreds of thousands of animals having died.

Climate change is leading to longer, hotter dry periods, shorter growing seasons, and unpredictable rainfall patterns—all of which make it harder for farmers, both experienced and just learning, to decide when to sow and cultivate their crops.

I was in southern Ethiopia about two-and-a-half weeks ago to visit a small-scale irrigation project Oxfam America had launched along the banks of the Dawa River, which had been running perilously low. The project is intended to help herders develop an alternative means of making money. In a region subject to increasingly frequent drought, raising animals for a living often means profound hardship for families who must scramble to find enough pasture and water for their herds.

But a few days before we arrived in Negele, the rain had finally started: a shimmer of green cloaked the landscape and the Dawa churned chocolaty with silt. We never made it to the irrigation site because a seasonal stream nearby had grown wider and deeper by the day, blocking the passage of our truck. For all my grumpiness about missing the opportunity to see the fields that herders-turned-farmers had planted, I knew the rain was a blessing. Everywhere we went—south to north—it felt that way: people reveled when it fell. It meant hope for their harvests, pasture for their animals, life.

Though we were stuck on the far side of the seasonal stream, the rushing water didn’t hold the locals up for a second. Slipping off their shoes, they waded in and strode across, navigating the soft, truck-swallowing sand with ease. A father and daughter coaxed their donkey, laden with grain, into the swirls; a brother and sister filled their water jugs from a still pool close to the bank.

On our drive back to Addis Ababa, we passed through waves of sun and rain, rain so heavy it blotted out the road for a few seconds when the skies opened. But everyone was ready: They had been waiting. From the window of the car, I watched one young boy dash down a path from a cluster of huts to a gulley where the rainwater raced along the side of the road. Ankle deep, he stood there, relishing the rush as it splashed his legs.

Enset leaves, as long as canoes, made fine umbrellas. Slicing through the wall of rain, people marched along beneath them. Others had folded the leaves into funnels and propped them into big yellow jugs which they placed beneath the roofs of their huts to catch the precious run-off: It was water they wouldn’t have to lug home on their backs.

And far north in Tigray, where people have suffered deeply over the years from shortages of rain, the farmers were ready there, too. Small channels about as wide as a hoe crisscrossed the dirt track along which we drove.

“Whenever there is rain in the highlands that encircle the Raya plain and here, people are busy in the fields digging the channels to direct the rain water to their fields ,” said my colleague, Girma Legesse, as we bounced through the channels after a downpour in Raya plain. “Water from the highlands doesn’t go anywhere but into the fields.”

About 80 percent of the world’s hungry people live in rural areas—like Tigray and along the Dawa River—where most of them work as small-scale food producers. As they struggle to feed their families, Oxfam’s GROW campaign is aiming to increase the productivity, self-reliance, and economic opportunity of small-scale farmers—especially women.

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