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All narrators refer to the drastic decline of the pastoralist way of life. Many speak with great nostalgia about the “old days”, when they had large numbers of livestock, giving them plenty of milk, butter and other products.

Animals were their “wealth”, played an essential part in their ceremonies and customs, and were celebrated in their songs. Two older women (Loko and Diramo ) sing a few verses from songs about cattle that they used to sing as young girls when tending livestock.

Nowadays, cows give hardly any milk because of lack of pasture. The contrast with the past is expressed dramatically by Duba who says the amount of milk they get from 100 cows today is about the same as just one cow gave in the old days.

The cattle are now permanently “skinny”, and many die when there is drought, whereas in the past “they might become weak but they survived until the rains came,” says Huqa. According to Chuqulisa the community loses 1000 to 2000 livestock annually. Moreover, people often have to sell some of their remaining cattle to buy food.

Almost all narrators talk about animal diseases, some in considerable detail; several of the diseases are incurable, and it is hard to get hold of the necessary medication for those that are treatable.

The worst illness is the extremely infectious tetete. Iyya says they “are forced to leave” pasture and water sources if they discover an outbreak of the disease: “It seems as if we are running for our lives to escape an enemy.” While tetete is referred to as “a new disease”, several narrators stress that the cattle are much more vulnerable to disease generally because they are so weak and undernourished.

Other animals, too, are badly affected by drought and deforestation: goats have little to browse on and even camels, renowned for their ability to survive without water for months, are “suffering… no less than the cattle,” says Ibrahim.


Pastoralism is a key theme of the Desert voices: Ethiopia oral testimony project.


Arima: punishment from God

Chuqulisa: love is lacking

Diramo: tied to our cattle

Duba: solutions to problems

Gurracha: conflict devastated it

Huqa: pleasure from family

Ibrahim: the crazy heat

Iyya: conserving the forest

Loko: farming from necessity

Rufo: goodbye to farmland

Key themes

Introduction to the project




Food security




Social institutions

Government assistance