Through stories, songs and memories, these narrators talk about the sharp contrast between past and present. Concerns include conflict, deforestation, a decline in pastoralism, and the impact of agriculture.
The narrators in the Ethiopia collection are all Boran, part of the larger Oromo ethnic group. Formerly nomadic pastoralists, they have in recent decades combined agriculture with animal rearing, partly at government instigation, and partly because of the decreasing viability of livestock herding as a livelihood.
The area formerly known as Borena – their traditional grazing area which borders northern Kenya and Somalia – consists of a highland area, characterised mainly by forest and agriculture, and a larger lowland area where the pastures lay.
But since the late 1980s, increasing drought and desertification have destroyed pastures and water sources, and the forests of the higher land have been dramatically reduced by population pressure. Partly as a result of this, as all the narrators point out, conflict has intensified between the Boran and the Digodi pastoralists.
While conflict between these two groups is longstanding, the nature of the tension has changed over the last few decades. Both have been affected by the shrinking of grazing land as a result of the expansion of cultivation and environmental deterioration. Competition over scarce pasture and water is therefore fiercer than ever.
But there are political and historical factors as well. Under the Dergue, Ethiopia’s military regime, which deposed Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974, large areas of traditional grazing were enclosed for ranching, thereby reducing access to pasture.
When the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front overthrew the Dergue in 1991, it established a new administrative structure, and Borena was divided into two regional states. The Digodi and other Somali pastoralists came under the Somali regional state, and the Boran and other Oromo pastoralist groups came under the Oromiya state.
The administrative structures caused confusion over ‘ownership’ of land, as they do not coincide with traditional clan borders.
The two groups now compete over shared grazing land in the Borena (now Guji) zone of Oromiya state, and the Liben zone of Somali state.
These interviews were gathered with the Boran in Siminto kebele (the smallest unit of local administration) in Guji zone. The community of Siminto is about 20 km from the nearest town, Negele.
Their key concerns are the tension and conflict with the Digodi and their daily struggle to make a living from the land.
Though they have by necessity become farmers, the Boran’s harvests are meagre and unreliable due to poor rainfall. Their animals have become weakened by the constant heat, poor pasture and inadequate water supplies; all of the narrators observe how vulnerable to disease livestock are today.
This part of Ethiopia has two main rainy seasons. The main rainy season (ganna) usually occurs between March and May, while the short rainy season (hagaya) falls between September and October/November. The long dry season is called bonna, and it falls between December/January and March.
Since the late 1980s, however, weather patterns have become much more erratic. The higher land, which is traditionally called the ‘cold area’ and where the Boran used to migrate with their animals during dry seasons, has a slightly cooler climate, but this too is changing.
These narrators now spend most of their time in the drier lowlands, characterised by acacia trees and grassland; they say that since the state boundaries were imposed, they have lost their old route to the uplands.
Through personal stories, songs and their memories, the narrators talk about the sharp contrast between the past and present in their community. Key concerns in their lives today are conflict, deforestation, the decline of pastoralism, and the impact of taking up agriculture.
Livestock numbers have dropped dramatically due to drought, and those that remain produce little milk. Whereas, before, they had milk in abundance, as Loko’s song celebrates – “…My cattle / Beautiful cattle of mine / I drink your milk full-mouthed…” – they now drink tea, even feeding it to calves. Even very young children are given tea not milk, with the result, Duba says, that their health suffers: “their abdomens swell, their bones are not strong…”
The Boran took to farming “from necessity”, when pastoralism became less viable. But one of the difficulties associated with agriculture is, they say, that as more land is taken over by cultivation, less pasture is available for their remaining livestock.
Another mixed blessing is that the introduction of growing and cooking grain has brought a demanding new form of labour for women. Ibrahim explains, “Now they are compelled to grind grain day in, day out.”
All the narrators, especially women, now depend on a combination of livelihoods. “Poverty makes you clever,” remarks Loko, a resourceful 50-year old mother of 12. But all are struggling economically, not least because of reduced purchasing power: “In the old days, a young cow was sold for 25 birr, and these days that is the price of a soft drink!”
Deforestation is another concern: many emphasise the importance of not only conserving the forested areas they have left, but of planting for the future. As Duba says, people are “now planting trees, bringing seedlings from anywhere” in order to ‘rehabilitate’ the land, water sources and pastures.
For although these Boran are now involved in agriculture, they still see themselves as pastoralists at heart. As Diramo puts it: “Our life is tied to our cattle. When the cattle are fat, we get fat; when they are emaciated, we too lose weight.”
[A note on currency: The birr is the unit of currency for Ethiopia. In 2007 9 birr = US $I]