Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ethiopia Update – First Weeks

God I could tell you so much!!
I had no idea how ancient, magical, and culturally rich Ethiopia was. I came here because of its diverse crops and have in turn learned so much more about their farming techniques, village systems, seed sharing and exchange, ancient Christianity, wonderful food, song and dance, and their overall attitude toward life.

I don’t have time or composure to write it all now, so hopefully we will meet later and have time to talk and for me to show you my pictures so far. I first want to say that nobody is starving here right now (well maybe a few beggars, but there are beggars in NYC too) and there is no war. The famine was a result of droughts which were caused partly by massive deforestation. The famines were worsened by war and corrupt leaders. Now, there is a drought but the harvest season just ended so most farmers have enough food. Nearly 90% of the country is farmers. The farming and rural culture is so ancient here. They are still farming in a very similar way to how the common man farmed and lived here at least 500 years before Christ (cave paintings and clay sculptures depict plows, seeds, and techniques that are still used today).

Seeds have a deep spiritual and cultural value here. When I asked one farmer where his seeds first came from he responded by saying, "What do you mean? I know where I came from. I came from my parents and their parents as well, all the way back to god. My seeds came as a gift from my father when he died and his father did the same for him. Ultimately the seeds are a gift from god and connect me with my family and our entire history."

This farmer (Weldu) and his family has been the highlight of my time so far. I spent four hours with them and my friendly guide/ translator (the local agricultural coordinator). Weldu and his wife took down their giant pots and for hours taught me about their seeds and all the associated stories and techniques. The pots they store the seeds in are handmade from clay and dung. They smoke the pots with burning hot peppers and goat dung to protect from insects. They make a concoction from 6 local plants to coat the seeds and further protect them. Thy excitedly showed me over 22 varieties of wheat, sorghum, barley, fava bean, chickpea, teff (the local grain and staple crop of Ethiopia), etc. They have varieties for every weather condition and soil type. There is an incredibly complex system of how to intercrop and manage each crop. Each crop also has a story and a special way of preparing.
With laughter filling the room - his wife made numerous cultural dishes and drinks for me (popped sorghum, injeera with wet, and tala (local beer from millet, barley, sorghum, and gesho).

One sorghum variety was named "the one which saved grandma"(when translated) because it was the only crop which survived the drought in 1970’s and helped to save the family from starvation. Other varieties where named because of the Priest who gave them, the meal they are used for, a certain nutritional value, texture, shape, or the type of soil they grow in. Weldu, like all Ethiopian farmers I have met, spreads out his risk by planting a diversity of crops and varieties over various soil types and conditions. The farmers know all details of each variety and use a complex system to determine which crops or types to grow depending on the grain, the quality of the soil in that area, or the predicted needs of the family.

There is so much more I could write on this topic. Like in India, Seed Saving and growing a diversity of crops is not a choice or fun hobby for farmers here. Many farmers were baffled when I asked why they grow such a diversity of crops. Without a knowledge of the corporate system and worldwide agricultural crisis, they explained to me how they would die if they ever grew a monoculture. The diverse crops are grown as a risk prevention strategy. However, the farmers also explained to me the various cultural uses of the crops. Some barley is used for flat breads, while others are used for making tala (a local beer). Certain sorghum is good for Injeera while others are good for porridge. White Teff produces less, but it is highly prized and farmers grow it to sell in market. Red Teff produces more on marginal soils, and farmers like the taste and nutrition better, but don’t sell in market. Flax is grown on areas with poor soil conditions. Pulses like fava beans or lentils (depending on the region) or used in crop rotation when farmers see the soil needs improvement. Teff is grown in soils that flood. Finger Millet and Sorghum is planted if the rains come early while faster growing crops like Teff are planted if the rain comes late. Fields for Teff are plowed 4 times, while wheat fields are usually plowed 2-3 times. Animals are walked over the fled after teff is broadcast to ensure its contact with the soil and discourage birds from eating the seed. “Hamfas” is a system of intercropping wheat and barley – the varieties for this system are special and have been selected over many years. These fields give higher yields and are the harvest is mixed together and milled for certain local breads. A special variety of wheat is grown for bread used in the church during certain festivals. These are just a few of the agricultural/ seed techniques I remember off the top of my head.

I will write more later about Farmers traditional knowledge/ methods. Email me if you have specific questions!

Today I generally feel very good. But, I have concluded that I could never be a rock star. It is exhausting being mobbed by children and people at every turn. In the rural areas the children swarm me just to look, laugh, and touch me. My guide translated and told me I was the first white person they had seen. They were asking "How I lost my color and why I looked so funny".

The town where I stayed for the past few days here is a tourist center because of its ancient churches, temples, and tombs. The Aksumite civilization thrived here from the 4th century BC to the 7th Century AD (these dates are heavily debated). It is believed that Christianity reached here just one month after Jesus Died. And there is a special building here which houses the "Ark of the covenant" - the rock with the Ten Commandments written on them. Only one monk lives and guards the ark for his entire life. When he dies another one is chosen. Nobody else can see the Ark. The churches are cool, but the tourists piss me off and around the town I am constantly swarmed by children begging for money or sweets. They all have the same act - they make a sad face and say their parents have died or they are starving. The majority of them are lying and just trying to milk the tourists. They are poor, but giving money does not help at all and just furthers a terrible system of reliance on foreign tourists instead of their farms.

I have determined that I don’t really care about seeing old churches or tourist sites much. Instead, I love talking with farmers and wandering crazy markets filled with camels, salt, ancient grains, incredible baskets, etc.

One cool farmer I met today hand dug a well 12 meters down (crazy!!). He would pull himself out each day by a rope of leather, and horse and camel hair. When he finished the well he designed and built a water pump from all spare parts or trash he found (old bike tires, spare car parts, candy wrappers, etc). Now, him and his neighbors have water for their crops and can deal with the drought! They are growing vegetables and fruit to make more income.

Overall, I am amazed not by the poverty, but by the joy here. Some rich Italian tourists I talked today told me all they notice is the barefoot children and flies on their faces. What I really notice is the constant laughter and smiles on children’s faces as we skip through the fields together. Also, I really notice the deep laughter in the old women’s guts as they show me their seeds.

Here is a quote from the book “Shattering: Food Politics and the Loss of genetic Diversity” by Pat Mooney and Cary Fowler about Ethiopians Seeds – very similar conclusions to my experiences

"Back in the early 1970s, a scientist from Purdue University made the journey to Ethiopia to gather sorghum. Some years later, we were told that he forwarded a copy of his laboratory analysis of the farmer cultivars to his Ethiopian hosts. According to the report, he had 'discovered' that one sorghum accession had very high protein content and excellent baking qualities. He could have saved himself some laboratory time had it occurred to him to ask the farmer who first gave him the seed about its characteristics. Ethiopians call their variety sinde lemine, which translates as 'why bother with wheat?'

"When Yilma Kebede tells the story, he literally shakes with laughter. Lounging with one leg stretched out on an office sofa, Dr. Yilma talks of another high-lysine sorghum, the name for which is 'milk in my cheeks.' As team leader for sorghum breeding at the research institute in Nazret, Yilma has developed a healthy respect for Ethiopian farmers and their contribution to sorghum. His natural easy-going style left him though, when he recalled an earlier visit from Ciba-Geigy officials who tried to sell hybrid grain sorghum to his government. 'It is ours,' he told us. 'Sorghum originated here in Ethiopia .'
Across the room, Yilma's colleague, Dr. Melaku Worede, shares both his irritation and his solutions. Melaku is charged with one of the toughest and most important jobs in the world. He is the director of the Plant Genetic Resources Center , the genetic conservation campaign for Ethiopia .

"In and of itself Ethiopia could be regarded as a Vavilov center. Its fantastic terrain of mountains, valleys and plateaus, combined with a long history of cultivation, make the country one of the most botanically diverse and important points on the globe. Ethiopia is home to major world crops like sorghum and many millets, as well as coffee. Less well-known outside the country is its teff crop, which is still the most important food staple. Thousands of years of farming have made the region a secondary center of diversity for wheat and barley as well.

"But Melaku Worede stresses that his country's ragged landscape is only part of the story. The other part is its people. 'A farmer will take me to his bin and I will look in at the barley or teff or sorghum and I will see nothing. To me, it looks the same.' Melaku waves his arm. 'But the farmer will just reach in and show me that this one is for this soil and this one is for that and this one makes good injura [Ethiopian bread made with fermented dough] and so on. I am the scientist with the training. But farmer knows his seed.' "

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