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.
Seasonal migration occurred in the past without causing excessive conflict between different pastoralist groups. But tension and competition with other ethnic groups, mainly the Digodi, have increased since new regional state boundaries were drawn on the Boran’s traditional grazing lands, with the establishment of Oromiya and Somali states in the 1990s (see introducing the testimonies).
Duba says they are no longer able to travel from the lowlands to the ‘cold area’ – the higher land – in the dry season: “The route that we took to travel between these places has been given to the Somalis.”
And as drought has continued and water and pasture have become scarcer, competition for resources has become even fiercer. As Chuqulisa says, “It is during acute droughts that we enter into conflict with other clans.”
Ibrahim and Gurracha outline the recent history of the conflict between the two groups. Gurracha says that the Digodi have armed militias whereas the Boran only have sticks, and mentions what he sees as government bias in favour of the Digodi.
According to Huqa inter-clan conflict claims many lives every year, but Iyya says there have been no clashes in the last three years. Nevertheless, he emphasises that even when relations are not actually violent, they are “unpleasant”; lack of actual confrontation “does not mean we are in a state of peace”.
Ibrahim says they’ve made many representations to the government to be allowed more land but all their requests have been ignored. He comments: “There is an Oromo saying, ‘He who throws a stone in a dark cannot see where it falls’. We forwarded our questions, [but] could not find their whereabouts.”
Loko links the community’s preference for male children to the increased incidence of conflict, explaining that they see them as potential defenders of their property and fighters against their enemies.
The Boran took up agriculture relatively recently, when the productivity of livestock began to fall – in Duba’s words, these “problems forced us to become involved in farming”. Before then “cultivation was unknown”.
Several narrators say they learnt agriculture “from the Dergue”; Huqa says it was introduced to his community about “30 years ago”. The crops grown are barley, wheat, maize and haricot beans; the land is not good for growing teff, the staple grain of Ethiopia, according to Arima.
Narrators seem, at the very least, ambivalent about agriculture. Duba concedes that farming has had some positive aspects but says it has also “destroyed many things”. As the land was taken over for fields, they lost a particularly nutritious type of cattle feed, made from ‘black’ soil.
“The ploughing of land has also destroyed the grass,” Duba says, a point that several others (including Huqa) emphasise. Although adopted as a ‘solution’, agriculture has increased their problems in some ways by reducing the land available for pasture.
In addition, crop yields are very low because rainfall is erratic and insufficient. Gurracha says they can’t sustain a livelihood from farming and don’t produce enough to last through to the next harvest. Furthermore, as Iyya points out, when they clash with other clans and are forced to flee, they take their animals but “you can’t take crops with you”.
Like others, Iyya feels they are “spoiling” land for cattle by turning it over to farming, yet the future and their culture is still tied up with cattle: “[As] to your question whether crop cultivation could improve our life or not, definitely it will not… In our area one’s life changes for the better with animal rearing. It is the cattle that bring about such change in life.”
The testimonies show that the massive drop in availability of milk, butter and other animal products has not in any way been compensated for by crop-growing activities.
Milk production is so poor that Arima says not only do people drink tea now, she has been reduced to giving “tea to my calves and cows; that is why they don’t give milk”. But farming is producing yields too low and erratic to make up the food shortfall. Gurracha says they now suffer “serious food insecurity” and that the longest they go without a food problem is three or four months.
Market forces are particularly cruel in times of drought, when people often have to sell their animals to buy food for their families. This is a clear indication that they are desperate. And as Huqa points out, the price of food goes up but that of animals decreases. According to Arima, grain is three or four times more expensive during drought.
Gurracha says the government hands out “some kilos of grain” but that amount only meets families’ food requirements for about 20 days, or 30 if used very sparingly.
Narrators date the beginning of the process of desertification to the severe drought of 1984-5, when widespread famine occurred. Ibrahim recalls how “people were forced to eat roots of trees… Large numbers of old people and children, in particular, died of hunger.”
Since then the seasonal rains have been unreliable and there is often drought for months on end. “Drought is serious now,” says Chuqulisa. As a result, “disease spreads; children fall ill, people can’t be well nourished; living becomes expensive; the price of animals falls. There is nothing good about desertification.”
Several narrators talk about the better climate of the higher land where they used to go. “The upland was everything for us. You can compare it to a mother,” says Rufo, an elderly woman. “[There] were shady trees, vegetation and grasses. We used to shelter ourselves when heavy rain poured down. Bees do not buzz any more in the forest and no honey is made in the stems of big trees.”
Like other narrators, Gurracha is well aware of the “direct relation” between deforestation and desertification: “As the volume of the forest dwindled, the rains also decreased in quantity and conversely the heat increased.”
Iyya too says they now understand rains and forests “go hand in hand”, and Ibrahim comments: “As a consequence of deforestation… conditions have changed… The heat is becoming a terrible threat.”
All mention that the forests are seriously depleted. Chuqulisa says people “mercilessly” cut down trees. Arima feels they did this largely “out of ignorance” of the consequences, even though traditionally, large ancient trees were considered sacred. She says they “regret” having used up so much of the forest: “We destroyed our own natural resources.”
Duba says people migrating from the Somali region and Kenya are also responsible for much deforestation. “They were greater in number than those born here… They came from areas where there are many problems, and once they were here they started to cut down the forests and burn them.”
Today it seems that the cutting down of trees for firewood and building materials has dramatically declined, and not just because there are so few left; several say anyone found cutting down a tree is fined five head of cattle.
Huqa points out: “After the coming of SOS Sahel… we have learned about the need for environmental protection.” Nevertheless, several women talk about having to cut wood out of economic necessity, to produce charcoal.
Gurracha believes, like Duba and others, that the solution to their problems lies in planting trees – if the land is covered by plantations, he is hopeful that the weather will be “rehabilitated”.
Chuqulisa and Huqa mention that now people have made the connection between deforestation and drought, they need no persuading to plant rather than cut down trees: “Previously it was by order that we were told to plant trees. Now everybody in every kebele is willing to plant a tree,” says Huqa.
People are making efforts to conserve what remains of the original forest. Chuqulisa found some of her land taken away for this purpose and demonstrates understanding of the importance of rebuilding forest: “They said [my land] is part of the area reserved for forest. They did not intend to hurt me.”
She says others who lost land reacted similarly, accepting the decision “graciously” and without complaint: “They want the environment to be protected as in the past.”
In the past there was plenty of ground water close to the surface, which people could rely on during the dry season when forest streams dried up. Now, they say, some of the water sources have been buried by sand and the water table seems to have dropped significantly.
Gurracha says they lack access to dirty water, let alone clean water; they travel through the night to distant water points and have to queue for a long time when they get there. Women in particular suffer today, he says: “Now they go long distances carrying jerrycans on their backs.” Arima says it takes from dawn to dusk to collect water.
Huqa gives an example of the cultural impact of worsening environmental conditions and water scarcity. The time-honoured practice of washing a corpse before burial had to be abandoned on a recent occasion as there was no water to be found despite a two-day search.
Duba says drought “has a lot of effects on the culture”, pointing out that it is no longer possible to fulfil all their ceremonies, such as slaughtering the right quantity of livestock at the changeover of the gadaa system.
Iyya is clear that lack of water is the reason “development is regressing”, and he also talks about impact of water scarcity on education; the dry conditions mean few teachers are willing to stay for long.
Systems of mutual assistance are being seriously eroded because of the general poverty.
As a mother of six separated from her husband, Chuqulisa benefited from the community’s sense of responsibility for those who are less well off: “I have five goats and a camel. The clan offered me the animals.” But she says the tradition of collectively “rehabilitating” someone who has suffered serious cattle losses by giving him cows is being weakened.
Chuqulisa also sheds light on the community system of managing and protecting the clan’s animals, explaining that traditionally, a person who sold cattle frequently would be questioned by the elders and reminded that his cattle do not belong to him alone but are also the property of the clan. The clan had the power to “excommunicate” the man from customary activities. Now the traditional rule “is still there, though it is not as seriously followed”.
Unlike Chuqulisa, who feels that “love is lacking among people now”, Arima says that in Boran culture they still support one another, and that the tradition of those in a better situation helping those who have less is how they “balance life”.
Duba explains how difficult it is to fulfil their old rituals and customs that involved the slaughter of many livestock now that they have so few animals. One of these ceremonies takes place at the changeover of the gadaa system, under which groups or age-sets assume different responsibilities in Boran society every eight years.
The gadaa system guides religious, social, political and economic life, and appears still to be functioning but less strongly than before. Many narrators, especially the older ones, date events in the past in terms of these eight-year gadaa periods, rather than by calendar years.
Government assistance in some areas – such as food aid – is acknowledged, but generally people feel the state could do much more to help them, especially over the issue of access to land. Ibrahim, like others, reports that though they objected to the “unjust decision” over the reallocation of land “we have not yet got the justice we sought… Government is a mighty power. We can’t quarrel with it…”
Huqa says the government has made “no great effort” to solve the water shortage problem – it sent engineers to drill for water but they abandoned the work after hitting a rock. Iyya says various experts have told them there is water nearby, but none has been found.
Ibrahim mentions that under the Dergue there was an “animal project” called SORDU, which provided medicines at reasonable prices; the current government has put it under the Ministry of Agriculture, which appears to be less popular. “We asked to have the service rendered to us like in the past, but we got no response,” he says.
Gurracha remarks that the government is “as important as God” – yet, he says, the food aid it provides is insufficient and, anyway, it is only temporary relief and cannot bring about a “fundamental difference”.
Older narrators all speak of how healthy they were in the past. Arima claims: “A long time ago we did not know diseases.” Diramo is not alone in linking current levels of ill-health with the change in their diet: “Animal products are preferable for our strength and health.”
Like Arima, she says there were no diseases in the past and women used to drink as much milk as they could after fetching water and collecting fuelwood. Now “they become skinny because they get nothing”.
Poor nutrition as a result of the lack of milk and other animal products, and inadequate crop yields is mentioned by many. Iyya also feels they are more vulnerable to ill-health than they used to be due to lack of animal products. Parents now have to give their young children tea instead of milk, and Duba links this to increased illness: “They are attacked by common colds and are faced with diarrhoea…”
Persistent drought and “crazy heat” have also brought new health problems, including an increase in malaria. Many people, including Ibrahim, mention suffering from a ‘cold’. The symptoms they mention vary; it seems that health officials use the term for a variety of illnesses including ‘flu, respiratory infections and tuberculosis. Several narrators complain about the way that health institutions “indiscriminately tell you you have a cold” and fail to offer the right treatment.
Gurracha says women used to regain their strength after giving birth by drinking lots of milk and blood; now they remain weak. Chuqulisa says miscarriages occur as a result of excessive labour combined with poor nutrition; nursing mothers become weak and thin.
Narrators describe the multiple difficulties women face as a result of desertification and the decline of pastoralism. Since they adopted farming, women have taken on a new burden, grinding grain for hours every day until their “palms are wounded”. Walking long distances to collect water and firewood in intense heat, and preparing and cooking food has left women “exhausted”, says Rufo.
Chuqulisa is unequivocal: “We women are the number one victims” of desertification. Iyya is similarly convinced of the negative impact on women. In the past, he says, “women had ample time… good looks and posture. Today you can see an enormous change… They work more than men…”
Several male narrators express real concern for the women, recognising that the adoption of farming has significantly added to their workload, while poor nutrition is undermining their strength.
Women exhibit great resourcefulness as they find different ways to make an income. Many make and sell charcoal; Chuqulisa hires a donkey and transports and sells firewood; Loko has beehives and sells honey. She also sells on items such as tobacco, tea and sugar, which she buys in bulk on her visits to town. “I have become familiar with business,” she says with some pride.
Chuqulisa, who sees the increasing pressure of population on their environment as a key factor in its deterioration, says that many people ignore family planning options, seeing its adoption as a “disgrace”. Huqa talks about his joy at the birth of not one but two baby boys. “Is there any pleasure as great as this?” he asks. “For a Boran man it is more than any other joy to have a baby boy.”
The community’s preference for male children, according to Loko, is explained by the fact that men are needed to defend their cattle and other property, but she says “…we do also feel happiness when we have a baby girl.”
Several people, including Iyya, express deep concern about the future of the next generation: “We are worried that our children will not have a good life.” With the decline in natural resources, education is seen as essential for the future.
Yet he and Ibrahim both make it clear that drought and desertification have had a serious impact on education. Children are often malnourished and unable to concentrate; teacher turnover is high; and many families can’t afford essentials such as stationery.
Education beyond the primary level is out of the question for many as there are no local secondary schools and parents “can’t afford to rent houses in towns for the further education of their children either,” says Ibrahim. All the same, he is certain that “only education can bring about transformation”.