Diramo, who is 70, remembers a time when grass was “the height of a person” and cattle gave plenty of milk. Despite current hardships she is “happy with everything,” particularly with her marriage, children and grandchildren. Her only regret is that she did not have an education.
She explains that her community first learned to farm under the Dergue (Ethiopian military committee 1972-91), working for other landowners. But “later, we asked ourselves why we had to share what we had produced ourselves with our own hands” and they started farming for themselves.
Although they are now involved in agriculture, they see themselves primarily as pastoralists. “Our life is tied to our cattle. When the cattle are fat, we get fat; when they are emaciated, we too lose weight.”
I am 70 this winter. I was born and grew up here in Siminto… My children are now as old as I am [laughing].
I looked after sheep and goats when I was a child. As I became older I started looking after calves, cows, oxen, and later camels. When I left to look for grass and water I took [my children] with me.
Our food was meat; our drink was milk; we dug out mushrooms from the land and ate them. Today, we eat what we produce from the farm through our agricultural activities – maize, barley and wheat. Previously we didn’t know any type of grain.
Starting to “till for ourselves”
The Dergue (ruling military committee, 1974-1991) taught us [farming]. During the regime of Haile Selassie (Emperor, deposed 1974), farming was little known among us. At first, we were using digging implements. After we saw [people] farming with oxen, we started doing that. To start with, we were farming for the Amharas, and we shared the produce equally with them.
[It was] at a place called Legulla. There is land there that is ideal for farming. Later, we asked ourselves why we had to share what we had produced with our own hands and stopped sharing the crops. We realised that it was foolish to cultivate for others and started to till for ourselves.
“Our life is tied to our cattle”
[In the past] there was no problem with water shortage, or a shortage of grass… During my childhood the grass was the height of a person. Now as the number of people and livestock has increased, it has been depleted…
In previous times, we could migrate to many other places which were [then] in Borena. Now we do not go to these places because the Digodi have settled on them. All the people and animals remain here, and consume what they get here.
During drought we go to faraway places and to get water from town. It is too far – if I leave at 7:00 in the morning, I arrive back at 2:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon…
The shortage of water and grass has led to the emaciation of cattle; we have nowhere to go; we can’t marry our children. Our life is tied to our cattle. When the cattle are fat, we get fat; when they are emaciated, we too lose weight…
Diet and health
Although both [animal and farm produce] are for our consumption, animal products are preferable for our strength and health… We do not get a surplus [of farm produce] to sell, but we face no shortage for our own consumption. [But] the [cattle] don’t give us much milk because there is no grass around here…
There is no butter. Even at this time of rain we produce very little – from many animals – for [rubbing into] our scalps. We have survived on tea since the drought started. The little milk we get, we add to tea, and give to our children.
There is a disease [now] called TB that attacks children. The government is providing vaccinations. There is also flu. There were no such diseases previously; they arose with the drought. Women become very skinny, weak…and barren. Old women gradually become emaciated and die.
There was no such thing before. Women used to drink as much milk as they could after fetching water and collecting fuelwood. Now they get nothing. Previously, they kept butter to use in the dry season. When there was shortage of rainfall, they ate their animals together with the butter… Now when there’s no rain, instead of slaughtering animals we take them to market.
“The old way of life was better”
[We used to sing] different songs – about the goats, the cattle – migrating between pastures. [She starts singing.]
Where is to be found Duba’s sanga (ox) that is fat?
Is it at Araerae?
Is it at Dirae?
Where does it graze?
Which animal is leading?
Whose animal is leading?
We would sing, mentioning the animal’s colour – whether it was red, beige – we would praise it in our song… The one I just sang for you was sung by three or four of us. We would mimic the animal’s walking style, indicate the shape of its horns, and dance while singing…
Happiness and sadness
I am sorry that I am not educated; it always worries me. If I were educated I would be one to dress finely, to sit erect at a table to dine. I am very sorry for that… As for me, the old way [of life] was better. We got a lot from animals…
Still, we are making our living, keeping both animal husbandry and cultivation side by side… I am happy with everything. I am happy that I have children. I am also very happy that I am married. I have seven grandchildren… It is my grandchildren who are at school. I wish them to be in a good position. Even when I become old, I will live, because they will help me.
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.