Ibrahim puts his people’s current difficulties – both the “crazy heat” and the conflict over land – into a wider context. He feels strongly that his own government has not treated its own people fairly, favouring the Somali ethnic groups by handing over land that used to belong to the Oromo/Boran, and that it does not listen to complaints.

Ibrahim explains that even the camels, which used to survive the drought, are “suffering… no less than the cattle” because there are no leaves for them to graze on. Although planting eucalyptus has “to some extent alleviated the problem of wood shortage”, it is expensive.

Desertification has also had an impact on education – children are often unable to concentrate due to poor nutrition and worry, and families can’t afford essentials such as stationery. All the same, Ibrahim believes that “only education can bring about transformation”.

Previously our territory went as far as Sirroo and Sufoo. Now we are not allowed to move with our cattle to those areas, because they were recently given to our Somali neighbours under the pretext of kebele (smallest unit of local administration) classification. Due to fear of ethnic conflict, we are now not allowed to travel far…

With the growth of the population, people resorted to farming instead of rearing animals. In fact, this has not provided a solution. The land is apportioned for farming and settlement; but the result is only poverty and hunger… Those who are fortunate can sell their labour, earn a little money to purchase kilos of grains, and share that with relatives. That is how we survive.

Deforestation and wood shortage

The cause [of deforestation] is poverty. So as not to die of hunger, individuals cut down trees and sell the products to purchase a tinful of grain.

We do not have kerosene lamps or electric lights. We use firewood to light our homes and cook food. We are forced to go far in search of firewood. We have reached the point where we have great trouble because of its absence… We do not even have trees for house construction…

We rent houses for our children who are pursuing their education in the town. There too they need firewood to cook food. They take firewood from here… In my opinion the solution to our problem is expansion of education. Through education we shall improve.

Whether in this vicinity, or nationwide, we have to plant trees. Planting eucalyptus trees has to some extent alleviated the problem of wood shortage, but it is expensive.

“Animals are seriously affected”

As a consequence of deforestation the atmospheric conditions have changed… The heat is becoming a terrible threat. As for the impact on animals, they are seriously affected… Animals like goats and camels chew leaves from the trees. Now they do not have leaves. The cattle also have no pasture… Whenever the dry season becomes severe due to the absence of rains, the cattle die in great numbers.

Even camels, which are drought-resistant by nature, are suffering… no less than the cattle. Usually we overcame the problems caused by losing cattle during drought, because the camels survived. Now, even camels are struggling…

Water could be available if trees were planted and atmospheric conditions rehabilitated. Then there would be no crazy heat.

The persistence of hunger

It started to affect us in the year 1977 EC (Ethiopian calendar; 1984 AD). In fact, I was too young [to remember] that time. But they say it was so horrible. People were forced to eat roots of trees owing to the acuteness of the famine… Large numbers of old people and children, in particular, died of hunger. It is recorded in history how grave the catastrophe was in our woreda (district) that year.

[Since then, hunger] has been persistent. Often the community in this locality is famine-stricken. Inhabitants of this area are always making efforts to get rid of poverty. They try to develop more plots of land… They plough the land with bare hands – about 95 percent of them do not have oxen. Their financial position is too weak for them to buy oxen to exploit more farming land.

Two or more people have tried to use tractors to plough the land, but they are well-to-do. Because of lack of oxen, we cannot produce sufficient crops and ensure food security. This is our major problem…

Normally the dry season lasts for the three months of January, February and March. April and May normally fall in the rainy season. But it is not raining in the normal rainy months. The abnormality is the result of desertification. When the land was covered by trees we had the chance to collect fruit… When you have trees you do not starve…

Falling animal productivity

Cattle rearing constitutes the life of this community. However, the lack of adequate rain has had an impact on that tradition. As desertification continues to expand, pasture is lacking. In the past we were able to take the cattle far away for grazing. Now the fields are barren.

In the past the cows used to give birth to calves frequently. Now they stay two, three years without giving birth to calves. This is purely due to lack of fodder. They do not give us as much milk as we require either, which means there is no milk for children. Sometimes cows are unproductive for about five years due to lack of pasture. Even if they do give birth to calves, they can’t feed them, let alone provide extra milk for us.

Escalating health problems

Previously we never experienced cold even if we did not wear clothes. We never used to be sensitive to the sun’s rays, no matter how intense the sun was. Malaria was occasional. Now it is common due to the problem of desertification. Previously it used to prevail only in lowland areas. Now it is rampant everywhere.

If you happen to go to health institutions they tell you indiscriminately that you have “cold”. The problem is that you cannot find an effective cure [for the symptoms].

Increasing threat of livestock disease

In this area, previously we knew animal diseases known as dadhi (causing blindness), harkaa and hudha (affecting lungs and respiratory system). These are not, as such, dangerous diseases. Now a very dangerous disease known as ciita (anthrax) is killing animals extensively. This had never been seen or heard of in this area before.

There are other types of diseases too. These are called dhukuba dudda and tetete (disease affecting the bones). They threaten the animals’ lives. These dangerous diseases are not yet being properly addressed by the government or any other relevant body. But unless these diseases are controlled we will lose many animals, including oxen, which are supposed to be used for farming. These two diseases are affecting the cattle in a major way…

Rising cost of treatment

There had been an animal project called SORDU since the time of the Dergue (ruling military committee; 1974-1991)… [It] provided medicines at reasonable prices before it was put under the ministry of agriculture – it was not with our consent that they brought the project under the ministry. We asked to have the service rendered to us like in the past, but we got no response. We know there is laboratory equipment in the project office. But people working there tell us there is no laboratory when we take our animals to them for treatment…

[Now] they refer us to private veterinary pharmacies and we purchase the medicines from outside. That does not mean they refer us to pharmacies after the animals have been checked by laboratory test – they simply prescribe medicines, so they won’t be effective… The problem with these pharmacies is that they do not have the necessary medicines on the one hand, and that their prices are unaffordable on the other.

Conflict over regional boundaries and grazing rights

We, the inhabitants of this area, belong to the Oromo society. Our village is called Siminto. We are bordered by communities like the Digodi, the Mariyana, which are Somali ethnic groups. We used to hold the grazing lands in common. In 1997 EC (2004 AD) we conducted a plebiscite.

Unfortunately it was decided in [the Somalis] favour – undemocratically…under circumstances where we were unclear about what was going on. We objected to the unjust decision and appealed to the zone administration [in] Oromiya regional state. But we have not yet got the justice we sought.

Government is a mighty power. We can’t quarrel with it… If the government bodies wanted to distribute the land to those who live on farming and animal rearing, if they wanted us to share the land with each other, they should also have allowed us to live on an equal basis. We should be entitled to the rights [the Somalis] are entitled to. The constitution and the laws must treat us equally. If we protest against this measure, the result will be bloodshed, we will be raided, our cattle will be taken away…

We have raised these questions several times. Regrettably we have not received fair answers. There is an Oromo saying: “He who throws a stone in a dark cannot see where it falls.” We forwarded our questions, but could not find their whereabouts.

“A new type of labour” for women

In the past the common type of work for women was milking cows and managing milk products… [The changes in] our way of life…impose an entirely new type of labour on women…

Now, as a result of desertification, we are buying grain for consumption. Women are supposed to prepare food. They do not have a flour mill around here. So they have to grind the grain by hand in a mortar. That is a new type of labour… Their burden is immense as the number in the household is huge. In some families you may find 15, 20 or 30 members. The housewife is forced to grind grain by hand to the extent that her palms are wounded.

As there are no roads linking many villages to main roads, it is not possible for the women to go by car to the place where flour mills are available… Now they are compelled to grind grain day in, day out.

Another difficulty that women face is collecting firewood. They travel long distances to collect this. Due to absence of water in this area, women walk many kilometres to fetch this too. They leave early in the morning and come back after dusk. In the past they used containers like gourds to carry water, but with the absence of trees these containers are not available. Now women carry plastic containers holding 20 litres. They travel about 12 km carrying these jerrycans.

Another problem that women face is food deficiency. During delivery they do not get sufficient food as in the past. So they cannot resist illness… Everybody has food deficiency. I emphasised the case of women because they give birth to children… Some may have as many as 12. Therefore women are more vulnerable.

“Only education can bring about transformation”

Conditions are not favourable for our children who go to school. You know, they do not fully concentrate on their education. They know their families are starving. They are worried they might have to quit their classes at any time, because their families won’t be able to support them. Moreover, families cannot supply necessary materials like exercise books, pens and other stationery. Clothing is another problem. They can’t [afford to] rent houses in towns for [the further education of] their children either.

Lack of all these necessities troubles the minds of students. These examples tell you how the problem of desertification manifests itself in education. Despite all these hardships, our children go to school mindful of the fact that only education can bring about transformation…

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.