First Person

Three women who brightened my year

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Asnakech Hamesso

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

It was close to dusk on a mid-October day in the Ethiopian village of Karara Filicha and I was traipsing down a rutted dirt road toward a potato field, lagging behind one of my hosts. Her name was Asnakech Hamesso, and at 54 she was roughly my age. Wrapped in a pink shawl, she seemed to have the energy of a perpetual motion machine, skipping over the ruts, laughing, talking, and all the while keeping a careful eye on my progress. I was the “forenji”—the foreigner—and  clearly my pace was cause for concern.

Hamesso and fellow members of a local women’s group had spent the afternoon telling us about their new preservation facility built with the help of Oxfam’s partner, the Center for Development Initiatives. It was a small screen-wrapped building stacked with shelves for storing potatoes in dark, dry air so they could be kept fresh and sold at a later date when market prices were higher.

But it wasn’t just for themselves that the women were interested in this venture and the possibility it promised: It was for the young children—many orphaned—whom their group helps to support. Hamesso had told me a little about her own children, the education she had helped them attain, and the decades she had worked cleaning a local hospital. Now, she was on the verge of retirement—and gleeful about it.

The sky darkened. Clouds, threatening rain, piled overhead, and still we had not reached the potato field. Hamesso haulted, flashed me an enormous smile, and patted her back: Hop on, she said in sign language, I’ll carry you. And she meant it. This strong woman, half a foot shorter than me, who had proudly raised and educated a whole family on crops coaxed from a small plot of land and on countless hours scrubbing a hospital would take on one more thing: carting the forenji to the potato field.

I felt a rush of awe—for her strength, for her determination, and most of all for her warmth. In amazement, I shook my head: No thank you. And somewhere, from deep down inside both of us, up welled the kind of laughter that buoys every bone in your body.

I’m floating on that laughter still.

Bertukan Girma

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

I first met Bertukan Girma about two-and-a-half years ago when we stopped by her house in Kentery, Ethiopia, to ask her about the onion seedlings she was growing with a backyard irrigation system Oxfam had helped install. The system was simple: a bicycle wheel pump that pulled water from a well. Bertukan and her husband, Tufa Midhakso, watered the plants by hand, walking up and down the rows with big plastic watering cans. You may have seen the video, below, about their venture, and wondered, how are they doing now?

The photo above of Bertukan and her children says it all: They are thriving.

I had the chance to visit her again in October. When we walked through the door in the hedge into her yard, things looked different. There was no green blanket of onion seedlings this time. Instead, a donkey stood tied to a tree not far from a small herd of sheep. The earth was hard-packed and pocked with many hoof marks—proof that animals, a measure of well-being in Ethiopia, were abundant here.

And as abundant was that same sense of drive and possibility that helped the first few harvests of seedlings flourish. Now, Girma and her husband had moved their farming skills to a larger plot of irrigated land—a quarter hectare that they were working themselves along with an additional 1.25 hectares of rain-fed land. They were expecting to harvest their wheat and corn in a matter of weeks. They had four cows and were making butter to sell. They were building their savings.

And best of all had been the arrival of a new baby, a boy. His name?  Nigusu. It means “the king”–a fitting name, it seemed to me, for a child born into this haven of security that his mother and father are working so hard to build.

Magartu Balcha

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

It wasn’t the coffee I wanted so much—though there is no beating the Ethiopian brew—as the hope that when I went back to visit with Magartu Balcha in the Ethiopian community of Mallima Bari, things would have gone well for her. A young widow and the mother of two surviving children, Balcha had been through a deeply mournful time when I first met her two years ago: Her oldest son, who was just 9 and had longed to be in school, had drowned in an accident while she was working as a day laborer to earn enough to feed her family. There had been no money to send him to school. Grief had consumed her.

But Balcha, with the streak of determination that defined her then—and does today—had joined a group participating in an irrigation project launched by Oxfam and a local partner to build the resilience of farmers. She told me that the next time I came back, she would be in a better house and she would make me a cup of coffee—a gesture of welcoming and warmth carried out with great ceremony in Ethiopian households.

In October, she did.

Though Balcha was still in her old house—one room with a dirt floor and mud walls—she had saved enough from her harvests to begin purchasing materials to build the new one. She had paid off her back taxes. And her older son was in school while her younger one was about to start.

“[Two years ago] I was desperate,” said Blacha.”My hope of living and the future of my children were a big worry for me. Now, I’m in a better situation. All my children are safe and living with me with hope.”

Surrounding her house, a field thick with golden teff—almost ready for harvest—bent in the wind. A dozen chickens clucked outside her door, promising eggs for both meals and the market. And inside, head bent in concentration over a composition book, Balcha’s son, Tola Ayele, practiced his writing.

“I am progressing very much,” said Balcha, proudly before adding a chunk of charcoal to her fire and settling in to brew that pot of coffee.

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