Duba has two wives and 12 children. He remembers a time when raising cattle was productive, but today his community struggles to buy basic necessities. Now” the quantity of milk that we get from a hundred cows… is almost the same as the amount that we got from a single cow in the old days.”

He says that the decline in productivity is due to the shortage of rain and an “administrative decision” that has placed limits on seasonal migration and confined his community to a smaller area. Another problem is deforestation, which he feels is in part due to people migrating into the region. However, his community is”now planting trees, bringing seedlings from anywhere”.

“It is God who brings about drought,” he says. “There is nothing in our culture that can prevent it,” and explains how difficult it is now to fulfil old rituals and customs, which involved the slaughter of livestock. Duba sees land as the key to a better future, saying”If all clans get adequate land, I think it will be possible to find solutions to our problems.”

In those days, we never ploughed the land – cultivation was unknown. When we were raised by our fathers, we never cut the trees…

Although the property we owned was small, it was sufficient and there was plenty of food. If two cows gave birth to calves, it was possible to feed a family of eight, even with the calves feeding on the same milk – the whole family could depend on it. The cattle and the social life were good in those times. There was a great deal of mutual help among people. Those who had numerous cattle and those who had just a few lived equally, because we supported each other…

There was milking equipment made of wood and we milked the cows with that. We had a lot of milk to drink and we were able to get a lot of butter from it… When there were guests, they would drink the milk too. We had such a good life in those days…

At that time, children used to play hide and seek in the grass. They used to take the cattle to the grazing land, and then look after them in their enclosures. The cattle used to come back to the enclosures on their own, and the calves used to graze between these enclosures and the grazing land – they were not within our sight.

“The life we live now is hard”

Even if the rain didn’t come for six or seven months, our cattle never died or lost weight. There was grazing land during ganna (the main rainy season, March-May) and there was also grazing land for the winter time, bonna (dry season, December/January-March)… Over time the amount of milk available decreased, and so did the grazing land.

If only we had the chance to live the life that we had before. Comparing the two is shocking – the life we live now is very hard. I have 12 children and one ox. If I don’t plough this land with my ox, if I sell the ox, I will not be able to support my family during the coming dry season. It will not be possible for me to send my children to school. Even if I sell three or four cattle, it will not be possible for me to support my children.

Children’s health is suffering

The quantity of milk that we get from a hundred cows today is almost the same us the amount that we got from a single cow in the old days. There is no milk these days, nor do we get butter. It is impossible to get even one cup of milk from a cow.

We have resorted to giving [the children] tea, which we never knew of before. My child has been drinking tea since she was born. There are lots of problems when they [only] drink tea. Their abdomens swell, their bones don’t become strong, and they are full of nasal mucus. They are attacked by common colds and are faced with diarrhoea. In the old days, children never had health problems, and they never had problems during the cold weather…

“Problems forced us to become involved in farming”

I support my family by farming and by selling cattle, whereas before we had milk and butter… Nowadays an ox is sold for 3000 birr (unit of Ethiopian currency). In those days an ox was bought for only 70 birr, and if you had 70 birr you could buy two houses in the town.

I remember very well, at the time of Haile Selassie (Emperor of Ethiopia, deposed 1974), one birr bought [enough] sugar, tea and cereals for domestic consumption. With only 10 birr, our father bought clothes for eight of us. Although at the time we sold things for a lot less money, it was able to buy us a lot more things. In the old days, a young cow was sold for 25 birr, and these days that is the price of a soft drink!

Problems forced us to become involved in farming. A person who encounters problems learns… We, the Boran, never engaged in farming activities before, but we heard that there was farming in the area further away from here… in Balle and other places. We used to ask where cereals came from, and how they grew. Then all the people went there and we came to know that farming could somehow be a solution to our problems…

People “settled on our land…and cut down the forests”

We used to be so small in number before. Our land was rather cool. [Then] people migrated from the Somali region and from Kenya, with their spears, and settled on our land. They were greater in number than those born here. There were people who came with their sickles and didn’t even have shoes. They came from areas where there are many problems, and once they were here they started to cut down the forests and burn them.

There was a huge forest that was called Mankubsa. In the past it was covered by mist, which in no time would turn into rain clouds. But those people, who came from the area north of here, cut down the forests, and little by little the area was totally destroyed. This is why we are faced with desert conditions…

We are thinking about [the problem] and we ask God to help us. We are planting trees, bringing seedlings from anywhere. We are also taking care of the trees that we plant so that they will grow – we are telling our wives how to do this – we are protecting our trees. We don’t really know what else the government is thinking of doing, but we are doing this much.

Loss of grazing land

There was grass on the grazing land but now you can see that there is nothing. The land only holds water here and there. Now there is tap water, and people as well as the cattle get water from the tap. We are somehow OK with that, even if we have to wait for a long time to get our turn.

[The loss of pasture] is caused by the shortage of rainfall, and the settlement of people and cattle in large numbers in one area. The ploughing of land has also destroyed the grass.

Farming has destroyed many things. In the old days, there was a feed called haya (animal feed made from black soil, common in the past), which looked like black stone – this was destroyed by the farming. When the cattle ate that, they became fat and reproduced, but now, if it wasn’t for the salty feed that we bring from Dire, there would be nothing. We had a lot of cattle before but since we lost this haya, we have also been losing our cattle…

Cattle also threatened by disease

[Cattle diseases] are many in number. One is gade; it has been completely eradicated by medication. Second, there is ciita (anthrax); this can be treated. Third, there is one called arke, which can be treated with medication. Fourth, there is udda, which is also treatable.

Fifth, there is a disease that cannot be treated. It cannot be cured either in the modern way or traditionally. It is called tetete (disease affecting bones). A cow with this disease will find it impossible to stand. It might have just been milked, but the cow will be slaughtered right there [because it is infectious]. The government has not been able to find a solution. In one outbreak, 40 to 50 cattle might die. This disease occurs in the rainy seasons, when the grasses grow.

Conflict over land

This place used to be divided into two areas: we used to call them the desert area and the “cold area” (the higher land)…we used to go in…the dry season to the cold area. Now, the route that we took to travel between these places has been given to the Somalis – they have goats and camels. They came to the area and settled there. They were given the area by an administrative decision, and now we have only a small amount of land. Our land has been taken away, and farming has expanded…

If the concentration of cattle decreases, and if all clans get adequate land, I think it will be possible to find solutions to our problems… I carry my rifle with me whenever I go anywhere. I move around with my cattle, and I weep while I’m moving, because our enemies are there, where we were before. I am sorry that we have lost the place where we could reproduce our cattle. I am sorry that we have lost our main land…

We have battled against each other, we have killed each other – there will not any solution unless we get our land back.

The impact of drought on culture
“A person who encounters problems learns”
It is God who brings about drought. There is nothing in our culture that can prevent it… [but drought] has a lot of effects on the culture. People move from place to place: they start from Dire, and they travel through Didalibani to Filtu, they slaughter an ox and then they come back here. [But] people with cattle cannot move from place to place without water…

[Also] the gadaa system is changed every eight years. They slaughter oxen and sheep [at the changeover]; all this is part of the culture. But we don’t have enough animals to conduct all of these [rituals]… It is impossible to change the situation. Is it possible to change what God has decided? No.

Reasons for happiness

Two things have made me happy since I was born. First, I never knew people would come to Negele to build houses, and I am happy that I constructed a house. The second thing is that, before, there was no such thing as education. If I had had the opportunity of education, I would have had a degree by now. I am happy that I am able to educate my girls and young boys – I am so happy about that…

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.