ChukulisaChuqulisa is divorced and supports her six children by selling firewood. Her land has been reclaimed by the community but she doesn’t mind, as this change is part of local conservation efforts.

She says life in the past and life now are “incomparable”. In her view, the drought has been caused by the increase in population. She says that although people receive family planning education, they don’t put it into practice as children are considered gifts from God.

Chuqulisa talks about social changes, saying that “love is lacking among people now” and that the tradition of collectively “rehabilitating” someone who has suffered serious cattle losses by giving him cows is being weakened. She thinks that their lives will only change for the better”if population growth is checked, tree plantation is undertaken and available trees are preserved”.

How do you compare those days with the current time? They are incomparable. In those days there was love among people. The well-to-do were able to help those in need.

As a child I used to look after cattle. My parents were not rich. But they had cattle and goats. We had plenty of milk; we had a lot of butter. Even a single cow gave plenty of milk. So those who had few cows never had a problem. The cattle also had pasture and water nearby. I also used to collect fruit.

There is a big difference [nowadays]. Love is lacking among people now. Those who have something do not share with those who have nothing. Individuals do not help one another… Life is also difficult now. Cows do not give milk. The reason is that they do not get sufficient pasture.

The weather also changes frequently, as you can observe. Drought is serious now. The cattle have to go far to obtain pasture and water… In fact, it is the cattle that are most affected by desertification. By our estimation we lose 1,000-2,000 head of livestock annually…

[In addition] disease spreads; children fall ill, people can’t be well nourished; living becomes expensive; the price of animals falls. There is nothing good about desertification.

Drought breeds conflict

[In the past] the rains used to come periodically… If it failed to rain three times in a year we thought it was a time of drought. You know, this place where you are now sitting had big trees and permanently green grass… The ground also could hold water when it rained. The water, preserved in the ground, made the grasses grow well. There were plenty of trees and sufficient pasture…

There was no need to take the cattle far in search of food. Now the heat is so severe. You can’t find a large tree to shade yourself from the sun. Villagers have left this place. They went away with their cattle. There’s nobody around. The women have also gone in search of water…

It is during acute droughts that we enter into conflict with other clans. It is during this time that the Boran wander with their animals in search of pasture and water. A group called the Digodi moves around with the same purpose… The two groups clash, [both] claiming the land is theirs. The conflict is so serious and it claims many lives. I think it is the overwhelming population pressure that has brought about the drought.

“They consider family planning as a disgrace”

As the population increases, the intensity of drought increases. I am 36 but I gave birth to eight children. Two of them died; six are alive. According to Boran tradition you have to get married early. After marriage it is a must to have children…

With many children, a person needs to have farming land as cattle alone can’t sustain the family. Thus the land that was used for grazing is now used for agriculture. That means there is no longer sufficient grazing land for animals. I remember as a child that the grass was so tall here that it covered us when we hid…

Both governmental and non-governmental organisations provide [family planning] education. But people do not put into practice what they have learnt. They say children are gifts from God and He cares for them. They consider children an asset. They consider family planning as a disgrace. Marriage is also taken as an obligation for girls.

I do not know the solution. Only the Almighty knows it. But I recommend that child spacing should be practiced by a family instead of having many children without interruption.

Lack of trees

Previously there were large trees in this place when we had optimum rainfall. When the rain stops, you find streams and trees. We had also water on the surface for a long time. We exploited that. You can also find ponds along the roads. Now you can’t even find ground water, let alone surface water. The reason is drought. There are no rains…

The [other] reason is the clearing away of trees… People destroyed the forest. They cut down the trees mercilessly for house building, timber, etc… Those who regretted the devastation of the forest are now caring for trees [because before] there was fresh air, regular rain, abundant water and pasture…

All that comfort has gone now with the clearing away of trees. That is why people have now started caring for trees on their own initiative. Now a person who is found cutting a tree without permission is fined about five head of cattle.

Women and children suffer

We women are the number one victims [of desertification]. We go far to fetch water… [The water point] is 5 km away from here. Women get tired and ill, travelling that far, as the heat is so strong. In the dry season we can’t get milk, so we have to cook food. To cook food, you need water. We can’t just find a flour mill like the people in town. Grain is ground by hand. Women do that. If we had milk to drink like in the past, there would be no need for us to cook food.

Not only this. A woman has to find food for calves that are kept at home. She has to collect firewood. If she is a nursing mother she becomes weak and thin. There are also miscarriages as a result of the heavy toil. Even food expenses are a headache for her. In the rainy season she at least gets some relief, because a little milk and butter might be available.

Because of the absence of milk we have to buy tea for the children. That is an additional expense: tea and sugar. The children are not healthy because they are forced to drink water indiscriminately – pure or impure. They suffer from internal diseases. Lack of water also causes sanitation problems. We spend money on medication. Yet with desertification the price of grain rises and that of cattle falls.

Shortage of water

A major problem is shortage of water. Lack of water poses a severe problem for us. We bring water from faraway places. Women set off early in the morning to collect water and come home in the evening, carrying jars on their backs. They travel long distances. Animals die from lack of water…

Another problem is animal diseases. For instance there is a disease called tetete. In the dry season it affects the spines of animals and kills them immediately. There is also another disease called arika. This disease infects animals in the dry season when they eat the roots of grasses, pulling them from the ground. Their limbs swell, and a bad smell is released from the dead animals. It pollutes the air, and people who inhale it become sick.

Traditions of self-help and community management

[There is still community assistance] though not as satisfactory as before. If the community can prove that a member has lost a number of livestock, clan members contribute cattle and help him. That way the person will be rehabilitated.

Those who cannot contribute cattle give milk for the children of the man who has lost his cattle. The man who has recovered must also help others in return. But the difficulty that a person faces must be serious [for him] to receive assistance, whether the cause is drought or not.

A person is also questioned, according to Boran tradition, if he frequently takes his cattle to sell – the Boran do not sell their animals without reason. The elders ask him why he does so. “What is your problem? Why do you sell your cattle? Do not forget that your cattle are not your private property alone. They are also the property of the clan. We understand: your trouble is our trouble,” they say to him.

If they think his problem is convincing enough, they advise him not to use the money he makes for trivial things like drinking. If he spends the money only on such things he will be punished [and] the elders prohibit him from selling the animals. The clan also excommunicates the man from customary activities… The traditional rule is still there, though it is not as seriously followed….

“Perhaps there will be improvement”

I don’t have any source of income. My husband left me because we could not agree…we had quarrels. I am alone, caring for six children. I hire a donkey, and transport and sell firewood to earn our livelihood. I transport the firewood turn by turn, for the donkey owner and then for myself. I have a small plot of land. I also have five goats and a camel. The clan offered me the animals.

The plot of land has now been taken away from me. They said it is part of the area reserved for forest. They did not intend to hurt me. The kebele (smallest unit of local administration) residents discussed how the forest is being destroyed mainly because of settlement in the reserve areas and because of the farming the settlers undertake. They took the land away from me to care for the remaining plants [and] to check the expansion of desertification.

I was given a substitute plot. But I have not started using the land because it is far from here and needs me to invest more [time and energy] on it than I can afford… [Some people] have now moved from the forest reserve area and settled in other places. They didn’t [complain]. They want the environment to be protected as in the past. They want to get rid of the drought and have better weather conditions.

They are part of the decision making. They are tired of the drought [and] regret the damage done to the forest. They took [the decision] graciously because they want the forest to be preserved…

Perhaps there will be a little improvement [in our lives] if population growth is checked, tree plantation is undertaken and available trees are preserved.

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.