Photo by Michael Swan.

Nomadic African life dies of thirst

By 
  • September 19, 2015

JIJIGA, ETHIOPIA - Nasri Yaseen Gourate is a young Somali man, husband and father, a hard worker with a voice among the men of his clan. But the most remarkable thing about Nasreen is that he is a Somali man with no cattle, no camels, no goats, no sheep. He sold them all.

“Now I don’t have even a single hen,” Nasreen tells me and the Catholic development agency representative acting as my interpreter.

The young man is taking an enormous gamble, abandoning the traditional, nomadic Somali life and putting his family on the line to become a farmer. He has put everything he’s got into improving a patch of ground surrounded by acacia trees and cactus, 40 minutes by Toyota Land Rover from the nearest paved road. He and nine other families from the same clan have been formed into a co-operative by the development arm of the Catholic Church in southeastern Ethiopia. Development experts from the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat have lured him with the most precious resource in Ethiopia’s vast Somali province — water.

With the help of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, the Ethiopian Church agency has drilled a well and provided a pump with a 10,000-litre fibreglass tank. The pump pushes the water uphill from the well and fills the tank. The tank feeds a drip irrigation system that allows Nasreen and the other families to jointly grow onions, lettuce, cabbage, tomatoes, orange trees, papaya, mint, pumpkin, peppers.

If they can get it over the dirt track to the paved road, there’s a market there where they can retail to the nearby town of Gashamo and wholesale to dealers who will truck the produce as far as the provincial capital of Dire Dawa.

Nasreen’s gamble isn’t an idle bet. It’s certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme. The old life of Somali tradition is dying a hard and sometimes violent death. Driving cattle across the dry, dusty plains had always depended on one thing — rain. Animals need pasture. Pasture needs rain.

In the past the rains came in a predictable pattern — the March to June Belg rains and the July to September Kirempt rains. They sometimes failed — about once every 20 years according to academic researchers — leading to terrible famines.

But when the rains came Somalis thrived, their animals fattened and the ancient, nomadic Somali culture literally trekked from one patch of grass to the next.

This year the rains have not come. In some areas there was a short, early burst of rain — enough to get the grass to germinate — followed by more long, dry days with the sun burning off the grass that had just sprouted.

The government has declared a drought emergency requiring food aid to about four million people, a large portion of them in the Somali province. Those four million are in addition to eight million people in food-insecure areas of the country. That’s eight million who receive permanent food aid as part of what Ethiopian authorities call the “safety net.”

These 12 million hungry Ethiopians — the “food insecure” in the language of the United Nations and NGOs — are part of 795 million hungry people around the world. Since the early 1990s the world’s hungry population has dropped by 216 million, a 21.4- per-cent decline, according to the United Nations food agencies.

Seventy-two out of 129 countries have met the number one Millennium Development Goal of cutting hunger by half, including Ethiopia. But all that progress, all that hope is threatened by climate change.

If not for the worst drought in 60 years, Ethiopians would continue to whittle down the number of people who can’t feed themselves. As it stands, the Development and Peace partners in Ethiopia have to fight a climate emergency at the same time as they plod along the slow path of development, teaching people sustainable farming practices that can feed their families and provide a stable income.

In the last five years Ethiopia’s ethnic Somalis have faced disastrous flash floods, extended dry seasons, late rains and no rains. Across the country, growing seasons have shortened by an average of 20 per cent since the 1970s even in the good years. In Ethiopian Somali, it’s anybody’s guess where a family with cattle might find pasture. People who once lived off the land by their wits and traditional knowledge are now living out of burlap sacks marked U.S. AID and WFP.

Again, Pope Francis tells us what’s wrong with the burlap sack solution.

“Access to safe drinkable water is a basic and universal human right, since it is essential to human survival and, as such, is a condition for the exercise of other human rights. Our world has a grave social debt towards the poor who lack access to drinking water, because they are denied the right to a life consistent with their inalienable dignity,” writes the Pope in Laudato Si’.

The italics are the Pope’s. He wants us to pay attention to human dignity.

On the Ethiopian side of the border, both the government and development agencies are trying to manage a crisis in Somali culture by providing people with alternatives, easing their transition into new ways of life. Across the border in Somalia, the environmental crisis has translated into the collapse of all meaningful government and the rise of Al Shabaab — a cross between gangsterism and political terrorism that has been absorbing the ambitions of young men who can’t live as their grandfathers did and can’t find a place in the modern world.

The 99-per-cent Muslim population in Ethiopia’s Somali province has not read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ or any of the UN reports from the International Panel on Climate Change. Most have trouble reading at all given the natural clash between nomadism and the classroom. But they know all about climate change. There’s no debate among the Somalis over whether it’s happening, or whether it has been induced by human activity. The climate has changed, their world is changing, their lives are changing and nobody knows for sure what happens next.

With the well and the pump and the 10,000-litre tank, Nasreen Gourate can ignore the rains.

“We don’t care about the rain,” he bravely declares.

In truth, he wouldn’t mind a little rain right now. The leaves on his orange trees are curling. Even with the irrigation system, it’s hard to get enough water to everything. The pump uses fuel. That’s a cost he and his partners in the co-operative will have to recover in higher prices for tomatoes and onions. It worries him, because the co-op hasn’t made any money yet.

But that isn’t stopping him and his cousins from ploughing another acre between the acacia trees to plant more tomatoes.

Nasri’s new life as a farmer depends on more than just the well and the pump. The East Hararghe Catholic Social Development Organization (ECC-SDCOH), again with the support of Development and Peace and its French equivalent, Secours Catholique, operates a nursery and demonstration farm, provides classes in basic farming techniques and helps out with tools from ploughs to spades to new, more productive beehives.

The Catholics who provide these services are not some minor charity. The ECC-SDCOH employs 750 staff — agronomists, economists, logistics experts and more. Over an area of 38 counties or kebeles, 2.8 million square kilometres, the organization serves a rural population of about 2.3 million Somali Muslims — a remarkable accomplishment for a Catholic organization in a vicariate of just 22,000 Catholics working with the world-wide Caritas network.

The organization’s executive director in the Ethiopian Somali capital of Dire Dawa, Baleyneh Belete, recalls the struggle to gain people’s trust.

“In fact in the beginning it was not easy,” he told me. “When they saw the cross they didn’t trust us. But in the end they trusted us, they believed in us and then they worked with us, in harmony with us.”

Fr. Teklebirhan Yemataye, vicar general of the vicariate and pastor of St. Joseph’s parish, is mystified by a suggestion that the development organization could be anything other than the Church in action.

“Of course there’s a relationship (between the Church and the development office),” said Teklebirhan.

“They are ambassadors of the Church. Wherever we cannot reach, they can reach… This development office is doing the work of the Church.”

In fact the Jijiga office of the ECC-SDCOH sits on a parcel of land in St. Joseph’s back yard. To get from the development office to the church you walk through a gate in the fence.

If the Pope wants a Church that reaches out to the margins, a Church willing to get dirty and bruised, a Church that isn’t a sickly, pale prisoner in the sacristy, he can find it in Ethiopian Somali.

“The priority is to help the poor so that the poor can be a person who can help themselves,” said Baleyneh. “So that person can be a complete person — socially, materially, spiritually.”

The Ethiopian Church isn’t puzzling over Pope Francis’ phrase “integral development” in Laudato Si’. It’s the only development they know.

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