First Person

Reflections on a hot day in Ethiopia

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I just finished working on a video with our video producer Rob Baker here at Oxfam. It’s about a type of well used by the Borena in Ethiopia. As I was coming to work on the train this morning, whooshing past the grey, frozen salt marshes north of Boston, I was thinking back on the brief days I spent in southern Oromiya.

Outside the village of Olladida there is a huge pile of cow dung. My Ethiopian colleagues tell me that here in southern Ethiopia a big dung pile is a status symbol. In a place where no one will tell you flat out how many cows they own (any more than an American would tell a stranger how much money is in their checking account), the size of your dung pile speaks for itself. I have to wonder if my colleagues are yanking my chain.

I once owned a small house. This dung pile is a lot bigger.

There were few cows around that afternoon, many were probably at the clan’s well, just a few miles away. I had been there earlier in the day with a small, hand-held video camera that I was learning to use. (One of my early camera man achievements: not dropping the camera down the well.) During the dry season, this well is one of the only places to find water anywhere near the village.

We were visiting Dida Ollo, the 68-year-old subclan chief. He is a man so revered that the people named their village after him. He says they settled here just 18 years ago. The Borena used to move around a lot, looking for water and pasture, but both are now scarce. When the local organization Action for Development (AFD) built a school, they decided to put down roots because it was near their eela, the word they use for well.

We sat in Dida Ollo’s home with him for a few minutes. He built the mud house for his two wives and 13 children. He says their eela represents much more than a source of water.

Dida Ollo and his daughter. Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam America
Dida Ollo and his daughter. Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Oxfam America

Their entire clan was organized around its maintenance, and sharing responsibility for bringing the cool water up for their cows.

I told Dida Ollo that I was impressed with what they had done with their eela. His clan constructed the concrete troughs and other improvements you can see in the video with the help of AFD and Oxfam. His clan supplied all the ideas and the labor.

Dida Ollo said he had never met anyone from Oxfam, so he was happy that I had come with my colleagues from Addis Ababa. “Not only did you come, but you are kind enough to visit me in my humble home. I have only this small house, so to know that you would come here without looking down, and speak to us as equals, is an honor.”

Somehow I never got around to asking him about the dung pile. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+