- Published on Monday, 02 December 2013 05:13
- Written by Super User
By Elias Gebreselaise
Mlesse Liben an elder in his 60s in a village near the small town of Dubulke, less than 200 kms from the Kenyan Border has seen better times before.
He reminisces that the pastoral way of life he grew up in has changed beyond recognition in some cases, notwithstanding his community’s efforts to preserve their ancient livelihood.
Liben who is an elder commonly known in the area as “Aba Kofee” under the Gadda system of the Borena community, which are part of the Oromo ethnic group, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia.
The Gadda system is the traditional social stratification system of mostly Oromo males in Ethiopia and northern Kenya. Each class, or luba, consists of all of the sons of the men in another particular class.
The entire class progresses through eleven different grades, each based on an eight-year cycle, and each with its own set of rights and responsibilities.
As a pastoralist Liben tends to his livestocks and those of his “Sora erero” Borena sub-clan in order to preserve and continue this very much alive, but precarious livelihood.
“Slaughtering cattle to protect waterholes”
The Borena along with other Oromo clans the largely agricultural “Guji” and the largely pastoralist “Gabra” all of whom located in or around Borena zone of Ethiopia, have kept this tradition very much alive, although it has largely disappeared in the vast majority of other Oromo communities.
The Borena who roam the semi-arid areas of southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, have kept this tradition and made it very much relevant, on one crucial aspect, the need for water.
As an “Aba Konfee” Liben’s responsibilities are to ensure the waterholes (commonly known as “elas”) for people and livestock are used by his sub-clan in the first place.
As part of the tradition the sub-clan gets to slaughter a cattle near the waterhole, to show that who’s the owner of the waterhole as well as to ward of other clans from getting near the waterhole, either for drinking purpose or to cut down the trees that help sustain the waterholes.
The waterholes which can exceed more than 30 meters in depth, have their water come out by the local tribe’s strongest men, who can number up to a dozen at times.
The locals also perform this dangerous activity for the aged and physically weak of the , as per the community’s directive.
As part of their reward prescribed by the community elders, the men will be given priority in extracting water for them and their cattle. Those, who violate the rules from within this sub-clan or others, are subjected to a fine of five cattle and 500 Ethiopian birr.
The punishment isn’t a way of punitive justice, but rather, as a sort of restorative justice whereby miscreants within the community are cajoled and shamed into accepting the community’s norms.
Modernization Still Far
Although the Borena are using their local knowledge to help navigate their pastoral lives, they admit forces beyond their control are creating a problem for them.
One problem is finding markets, for their goods, with no official trade routes, with nearby Kenya, and the central market in Addis Ababa, and the Djibouti Port.
Djibouti port holds almost exclusive import-export trade of landlocked Ethiopia but is hundreds of kms away, which the pastoralists say have left them at the mercy of middle men if they’ve not already engaged in contraband trade.
Dida Gemechu one of the elders of the area says since most middle men are familiar with the area and can speak both Oromiffa, and the official language of Ethiopia Amharic, it gives them undue advantage.
He further says they cut into the official price of the Borena cattles prices giving arbitrary prices for the livestock, while pocketing a huge cut after selling it to merchants.
Dida also said although the government has provided them with water pumps for the waterholes and professionals dealing with the sanitation of the waterholes and the preservation of the eco-system that protects it, water disease is an issue that afflicts the community.
He blamed it on lack of proper knowledge to handle medicines for the waterholes and its eco-system as well as lack of proper management of the medicines provided to the community by the government.
Although, the Borena state issues related to sanitary management of the waterholes, for Jergo Chernet a lecturer at the Natural Resources department of the Oromia Pastoralist Technical and Vocational Educational Training (TVET) college, one issue may be an overriding concern for their future, that being climate change.
“Droughts, caused by climate change are leading to decimation in number of cattle population, leading to reduction of production capacity of both the cattle and their range land” stated Jergo.
The conflicts have been intense adding that in recent years that it has also lead to violent conflict with neighboring communities like the Somali, Konso and Burji.
Jergo further said the waterhole depth, and the frequency its being dug up has increased by almost double, in recent years leading to little or no time for the rehabilitation of the eco-system leading to drying up of the water table.
Jergo further said that pastoralists tend to have higher exposure to the effects of climate change, because they’re livelihood entirely depends on their livestock, which could be wiped out by a severe drought.
However, he stressed that farming for now isn’t a viable option as the area has a dearth of running rivers, and only has only one month of rain water. Although this makes agriculture hardly viable, some Borenas have started farming quick growing crops like cauliflower, especially near small towns.
Tradition to the Rescue
Nevertheless, Jergo doesn’t foresee the livelihood of the area disappearing any time soon, because of the creativity of the Borena land use system, as well as the communitarian way of living.
The Borena, in recent years have diversified from being a purely cattle and sheep rearing community, to a one that also breeds the more sturdy camels and goats.
This was because of the invasion of wild shrubs on the ecosystem that cattles can’t eat and digest as well as the deterioration of their range land, which isn’t as plentiful as before.
The invasive shrubs are being cut down by the pastrolists , with the encouragement of the government, and used as a firewood, although other natural trees have also been cut down to be sold as charcoal creating a dilemma.
The “Rabba Gadaa” which is the highest authority in the Borena, has also decreed that chewing the mild stimulant “Khat” and drinking alcohol is banned, and any person caught with either of those is punished with 500 birr fine and a five cattle, which are most valued in the community.
Jergo surmised that the Borena’s way of dividing the use of waterholes, whereby they’re transferred ownership between sub-clans of the community shows the community’s resourcefulness.
This he said has helped in avoidance of conflict and that contrary to perceptions, their long held tradition can show a kind of resilience and creativity that can take them to the modern world.
The community also in times of drought uses its traditional means of communication known as Dagu, about an area where there’s grass and rain.
The sick, elderly and children are left behind temporarily as the others make a temporary hut to feed their livestock and nourish themselves, as the women help with household chores.
However he warned that there’s no room for complacency, and as such with a rising population rate coupled with shrinking range lands, the Borena’s have to either manage the size of their livestock population or grow them in a more commercial mindset.
The community has so far been reluctant to use their cattle for commercial purpose, as they see them as prized property instead allowing them to increase the herd numbers, while only using their milk products.
In Borena culture, a man’s wealth and social standing is expressed by his cattle number and their physical size. This in turn has put pressure on the grazing lands, which they use, leaving them with little time to rehabilitate it and use it for another occasion.
The Borena zone is located in the southernmost area of Ethiopia’s largest regional state Oromiya, and has a population of more than 960,000 people on a land mass of 45,434.97 km2, according to the Central Statistical Agency of Ethiopia 2007 census.
Out of Ethiopia’s land mass of 1. 1 million square kilo meters of land, 60 percent of the land is estimated to be covered under pastoral communities, who nevertheless represent only 11 percent of its 80+ million population.
The pastoral areas of Ethiopia are mainly found in the north east and south east areas of the country, as well as scatterings found in the southern and south western part of the country.