First Person

Ethiopia’s rain a mixed blessing

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Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America
Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson / Oxfam America

A year ago when Oxfam colleagues and I took the long and only road from Ethiopia’s capital—Addis Ababa—toward the country’s southern border with Kenya, the landscape was parched and dusty. The corn had shriveled on its stalks, people fretted about failed harvests, and everywhere water seemed to be in short supply.

 But today, as we roll south dodging goats and cattle, waves of green—corn green, teff green, banana green–wash by our car.

“Oh my god,” says my colleague Selome Kebede, her eyes glued to the window, “I love the green. I love the color of teff.”

Luminous under the gray sky, fields of Ethiopia’s staple grain stretch along both sides of the road. Among the furrows, puddles lay still, evidence of a fresh rain—rain that has come in startling abundance this year, rain that Oxfam’s Tibebu Koji says hasn’t fallen like this since 1974.

We pass the Awash River, so full it has spilled its banks and spreads in a thin sea across the fields that farmers will plant with watermelons and tomatoes when the dry season comes.

But in this topsy-turvy time, when rain continues to fall weeks past normal, when will that dry season arrive?

We talk about teff—the tiniest of seeds that serves as the fermented base of a pancake-like bread called injera—and the hunger it has for rain. Not heavy rain, says Tibebu, but reliable rain.

“I can’t live without teff,” says Selome. Nor can most Ethiopians. At almost every meal I have eaten on every journey here, injera is the steady standby, offered rolled in baskets or stretched flat on big metal platters ready to soak up the meat or vegetable dishes spooned on top of it.

At dusk, mist mixes with smoke seeping from the thatched roofs of huts that dot the road and tuck into the trees. Families have started their evening fires—with all this rain and the sure harvests it has encouraged I can imagine they have a solid meal simmering. For many people here, that’s not always the case: about 7.5 million of the Ethiopia’s poorest rely on the country’s Productive Safety Net Program, which provides food and sometimes cash in exchange for work on community projects. During times of drought, which have increased in recent years, the ranks of the hungry can grow by the millions.

In Agere Maryam we stop for the night and scout out supper in a small restaurant. As we settle in to eat, a whishing fills the room: more rain. A waitress dashes in, soaked, with a plastic bag on her head for a rain hat.

George Bayissa from our partner organization, Action for Development, joins us and tells me that this area has two rainy seasons—a long one from mid March to the end of May, and a shorter one from the end of September to the middle of October. But that’s during normal times, he adds, and now is clearly not normal. He chalks it up to climate change.

For herding families in the region, and for those who rely on their fields to grow food, the rain has been a blessing. The pasture is abundant , there’s enough water for animals to drink, and the crops are doing well, says George.

I fall asleep listening to the rain pelt the puddles on the pavement  outside my door and thinking about Selome’s quiet prayer in the car: For rain—not too much and not too little, but just enough so everyone in Ethiopia can eat. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+