Iyya’s main worry is water scarcity, which has reached catastrophic proportions. “Because of lack of water our development is regressing,” he says. His community used to have “a highland type of climate” with adequate rainfall and plenty of ground water. “Even when the ponds dried out, we dug the ground and found the water at a shallow level.”
They have appealed to the government for help and various experts have come to the area. “[Drilling for water] was attempted three times. But they… told us there was no water.” Iyya says it is only recently that they have learnt that “rains and forests go hand in hand, making the climate moderate”. They are now planting trees and conserving what remains of the original forest.
Iyya says that clashes between clans are frequent and that when his community tries to move to areas that they used to go to in times of drought, other pastoralist groups prevent them.”We are forced to run for our lives,” he says. Crop production is not a viable alternative to cattle rearing, especially because when clashes happen “you can’t take crops with you”.
Previously when we had adequate rainfall, when there was a highland type of climate, we had no shortage of water… There were plenty of ponds… Even when the ponds dried out, we dug the ground and found the water at a shallow level…
Because of lack of water our development is regressing. The impact of water scarcity on education is also serious. Students drop out frequently because of the shortage of water. Even teachers who come to this area suffer from the shortage. We cannot help them because we do not have enough for ourselves. So teachers do not stay in this area for long…
We have appealed to the government. But we do not have any knowledge about whether water is available or not. Of course, many people come to this area. They tell us there is water around.
[Drilling for water] was attempted three times. But they…told us there was no water. They tried to penetrate deeper into the ground and reached the rock bed level, down at the bottom. But they failed to bring up water.
So, it can be said there is no water in this Siminto kebele. Being desperate, many people are fleeing the area. Different bodies visit us, but they haven’t found a solution to our problem.
It is just recently that we learnt the relationship between the rains and the forest. The weather has changed now. They tell us rains and forests go hand in hand, making the climate moderate. We understood this relationship after [experiencing] the deficit of moist air.
Now we have seen the problem. We have …agreed to consider it seriously and plant trees, recognising that the absence of trees causes shortage of rain and that the problem would continue affecting the present and next generations. We also agreed not to cut down trees carelessly as in the past, because we know the consequence is challenging us…
We decided to start crop production because animal rearing could not keep us productive. Unfortunately that business also turned out to be unproductive because of lack of rain… Doubtless, the question of empty belly is there whenever the crops fail.
The change in the climate worsened the health of the animals. There is a sort of disease that makes animals skinny…When they become weak they cannot resist the tough dry season. This disease is locally called luta… It is posing a serious problem. There is also another type of disease called sobessa [which] is also affecting our animals. Even if you get the animals vaccinated, they may relapse some other time the next year. The third type of disease is known as ciita (anthrax)… Once the animal is poisoned by this, it will not recover…
The fourth type of disease is called tetete [which affects the bones]… This is very common in the lowlands [and] a very dangerous disease. Once one of the animals is infected, it kills all animals in the byre. It never leaves any animal uninfected. It is a communicable disease [and] goes beyond the nearby villages. It kills the most valuable animals that a person relies on. We usually struggle a lot to get medicine from health institutions; unfortunately we do not succeed.
Tetete is similar to HIV/AIDS… It always finishes the animal off… The moment we realise the disease is floating around we migrate to other areas with our cattle…because we know the disease has no cure. Even if we know there is pasture for the animals in our area we are forced to leave for fear of the disease. We also leave water sources when we learn about the advance of the disease. It seems as if we are running for our lives to escape an enemy. Of all the animal diseases this is the greatest threat [and the one] that has handicapped us [most].
Humans more vulnerable to ill-health
The most common illness is what they call a “cold”. We hear that this “cold” causes sharp pain. They say it infects the heart… It affects adults and children… It was non-existent in the past [as far as] we know. We did not catch cold even if we happened not to wear clothes. Long ago people did not even use garments… Children and young people in particular didn’t have clothes until they grew into adulthood.
The elders tell us young people were strong enough because they were fed milk. Nobody cared about the cold because there was ample food. The well-fed do not feel the cold. Now it is different. Even the kids don’t get enough milk, let alone the grownups. There is no milk. There is no butter for adults. As a result our bodies are not able to resist disease. That is why these “colds” (flu, respiratory disease or tuberculosis) became serious [and able] to infect us.
Women “work more than men”
In the past women used to cut grass for cattle and calves. They had firewood available around their homes. Of course, they performed routine activities like fetching water, collecting firewood. The cattle are taken to the fields early [and] come home in the evening. All day long the women had ample time. The women had good looks and posture.
Today you can see an enormous change… They work more than men… Women do what men are supposed to do. They plough, they weed, they cut [and] transport the harvested crop on their backs to where it is threshed. And the routine activities also go on as usual. They collect firewood, fetch water. The sad thing is that they do not get water and firewood from close by as in the past.
They rise early in the morning when their husbands set out for their farms. They are with the men throughout. When the men are busy with the farming, the women have to clear the weeds… On the one hand, the women are assisting men; on the other, they still undertake all the routines that they are supposed to take care of. For instance, they collect firewood, bring water, and prepare food for the household. Above all, they travel long distances in search of water. All these are the burdens shouldered by women.
The impact of conflict: “we lose everything”
We are never at peace for two years without having clan clashes. For that matter we do not even have two months’ of peace. When we move to the areas we used to go to when the dry season is severe, [other clans] prohibit us from entering them. We are forced to run for our lives when such clashes happen. If we’d had the chance to get our cattle to the green pasture we could have got them fatter and productive…
If we take up crop production as an option it wouldn’t help us much because we abandon our villages when clashes happen. [The village] is left to wild animals and insects. When clashes happen we move only our animals with us, because they can walk with us – but you can’t take crops with you because you have to carry them. That is impossible when you’re running for your life.
Not just crops, our other property is also left behind. When clashes erupt we lose everything. Human life is lost. We sustain injuries.
“We are not enjoying life”
We’ve had no confrontation in the last three years. However, that does not mean we are in a state of peace. Had we moved to the place where we used to move to in the harshest season, we could have become involved in physical conflict. We always inspect each other at gunpoint. We conspire against each other with words. We are not enjoying life; rather we are intimidated by these unpleasant relationships.
The root cause is land… We have heard several versions of how the groups fighting us came to this place. The first version is that desertification first started happening in their area. They say our land is more fertile and wetter than theirs. In this sense they came to us in search of better land.
The second version is that this area is suitable for cattle rearing [as well as] for farming and for living. They envied us and raided us to evict us and occupy the land themselves…
The future for our children
The land that had been covered by forest unfortunately became barren. Agriculture also reduced the magnitude of the forest. Soil fertility is declining. The black soil layer has now turned reddish… We do not harvest much because the amount of rain decreases all the time… The seeds remain impoverished in the soil…
To come [back] 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 such change in life.
Culturally we used to live from animal rearing. But we are spoiling the land… Because of the unavailability of grazing land for animals, we used it for farming – and now we can’t raise animals [on it]. We even seem to be short of land where we can rest our feet, as a result of the introduction of farming.
The adults and the young generation share this land. But there is not enough. The coming generations will not even have what we have today. We are worried that our children will not have a good life.
This interview has been specially edited for the web and cut down by more than half. Some re-ordering has taken place: square brackets indicate ‘inserted’ text for clarification; round brackets are translations / interpretations; and dots indicate cuts in the text. The primary aim has been to remain true to the spirit of the interview, while losing questions, repetition, and confusing or overlapping sections.