Three Days in Afar, remote Ethiopia

Posted by Francesca Rutherford on Thursday 20th October 2016

Three Days in Afar, remote Ethiopia

With Valerie Browning founder of APDA, Afar Pastoralists Development Association

7-10th October 2016

Sara Loxton, Ethiopiaid supporter, accompanied our chair of trustees, Alex Chapman, on a visit to our partner, Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), who we support to erradicate FGM in the Afar region and who also provided essential emergency relief during the drought this year.

8.00: Alex Chapman and I are halfway between the Afar towns of Semera and Logiya ready for the arrival of Valerie Browning. We’re already sweating in the heat.  Today’s plan is to head north east for two days through the Afar desert to visit families benefiting from Ethiopiaid’s Goat Restocking Project following the end of the drought and the arrival of the rains. 

275 families have received the goats, scrub grass has pushed through the rocky desert and the birakats, homemade underground water cisterns built by APDA, have enough water - for a few weeks. What no-one wants to talk about is that with the arrival of the rains have come locusts and Acute Watery Diarrhoea.  This Biblical, parched land is possibly most people’s idea of Ethiopia. We are at the southern end of the Danakil Depression known as the hottest place on earth.  A land of lava lakes, live volcanoes, salt pans and plateaus black with the detritus of past volcanic eruptions. Here the dusty air scrapes your lungs and, if there was ever a place where an ice cold beer was needed at the end of the day, this is it – but like the arid scrub, it is completely ‘dry’. The Afar people began converting to Islam in the 10th century and although they retain older beliefs that certain trees have sacred powers, the majority are now Sunni Muslims eking out a subsistence existence unchanged for centuries in this harshest of lands.

2.00: Lunch, Eli Daar.  We have long since left the terrifying Addis-Djibouti trunk road. Djibouti is the only port for landlocked Ethiopia. Most imports are transported on overladen trucks with poor brakes and no acceleration, driven by drivers chewing khat to stay awake as they push across the huge distances.  Shedded loads, dropped containers and collisions are common.  Private vehicles are rare.  I think we’ve seen two cars today.  It’s a relief to leave the road and begin our climb across the eerily beautiful salt pans. It took longer as we had a flat tyre which Mohammed, our driver, dealt with swiftly despite temperatures in the 40s. Lunch is shiro, a bean paste, eaten on the floor of a corrugated shack and shared with our 5 fellow travellers – all part of APDA:  3 Health Extension Workers, the driver and Valerie Browning.

It is now 24 hours since Alex and I met this inspirational Australian nurse and I can honestly say I have never met anyone like her! Energy, compassion, humanity, courage and humour wrapped up under the traditional dress of the Afar women, Valerie has lived among the Afar nomads for almost 30 years since marrying Ishmael Ali Gardo, an Afar Clan Elder. Known as the Angel of Afar and Maalika (Queen), Valerie has worked tirelessly to improve maternal and child health, improve literacy and eradicate harmful practices such as FGM through the organisation that she and her husband began in 1989: APDA. This is her home

4.00: Beneficiary Meeting. A formal title for our first meeting with a family who have received goats from funds raised by Ethiopiaid’s Emergency Appeal.  It is hard to spot the domed huts amongst the rocky landscape and as we stumble across the basalt we see no signs of life until a tall man appears from behind the rocks.  Two women then rise up from a deboitas, the 3 metre wide by 1.5 metre high hut made from palm leaf matting.  Two children are with them.  There is nothing here.  No trees, no shade, no water, just dust and stones.  How can anybody live here? Then, the man moves rocks from one of the piles surrounding us and pulls out a baby goat. Then another… and another!  These are less than a week old and are kept in the stone shelters while the rest of the herd has been taken to graze.  The family received ten goats in the restocking programme; nine females and one male and the herd is already expanding. This programme is life changing. The family had nothing because of the drought and had been identified by APDA as vulnerable. They now have a chance.

6.00: Manda. We continue across this lunar landscape past rusting tanks, relics from the Derg’s violent rule. We have dropped off one of the Health Extension Workers who sets off on foot towards the horizon clutching his paperwork. Valerie tells us that they now have 224 Health Extension workers, grown from 20, and that they are well accepted and respected amongst the people they work with. There are 1.5 million Afari and one in two has stunted development caused by malnutrition. When they do eat, it is always the same thing – legumes.

As the sun begins to set, the Landcruiser pulls left towards a few scattered huts and more stone byres.  Children run towards us and goats skitter past – some painted with the letters APDA across their backs! Women appear. They have a lovely welcome ceremony of hand kissing and are thrilled by Valeries’s unexpected visit. They produce canvas sheeting and a blanket which they arrange on the ground having moved some of the larger rocks out of the way.  This is our bed for the night.  Alex, Valerie and I will sleep here surrounded by the others who are happier outside.  A gentle breeze catches us as the sun drops into the distant lava field and the moon rises behind us. We sit while Valerie chatters away to everyone.  It is three years since this extended family were forced by drought to pack up and move their few possessions south.  They dream of walking back home.  Valerie dreams of walking with them. 

The Clan Elder appears at supper time and after formal greetings Valerie begins business.  She discusses births, teenage marriage, education standards and FGM.  The Ethiopian Government has banned the practice but Valerie is keen to find out if this law is understood and upheld. It appears that the Government’s ban has reached even here but Valerie wants to check and she’ll need daylight for that.

We shall sleep well under the shooting stars.  I have never been anywhere as silent as this.

6.00: Manda – The following morning.  Apparently, Alex tells me, I woke the whole tribe with my snoring.  They appeared to find it funny.  Hope so… Breakfast is sweet tea from a blackened pot followed by sweet coffee.  The cups are shared.  They have so little. The goats will make a difference. Twenty ‘households’ within this community received ten goats each – again, nine females and one male. We walk over to the other side of the village to meet other beneficiaries and Valerie asks to see the youngest baby girl. She’s a few weeks old. Alex and I step back and try not to meet anyone’s gaze.  Valerie inspects the infant and falls silent.  She has been cut.  Her clitoris has been removed using a razor and pulled out with a spike.  The concession to the law makers in Addis Adaba is that the labia remains and she has not been stitched. It is hard to see this as an advancement but I suppose it is.  The traditional birth attendant and cutter tells us that she bled a lot. I can’t hold back the tears.

11.00: Buure.  This is where Mohammed, one of Valerie’s most trusted and respected associates comes from.  We stop for a Coke (yes, even here) before heading out to meet another group of pastoralists and beneficiaries.  They have also been displaced because of drought but look healthier than the people we spent the night with. Again, Valerie is able to mix social chat with health and welfare information before inspecting the youngest baby girl. She discovers that the same abuse has been inflicted on this child. The clitoris has been removed but the labia remains and there is no stitching. She tells them all why this is still wrong. They listen politely and offer no counter argument. We all drink warm goat’s milk.  We are amazed at Valerie’s courage. Mohammed remains here to work for APDA.

2.00: Return to Logiya.  Six bone shaking hours in the car during which I realise that I have not been to the loo all day, and am still wearing my pyjamas. Valerie at last gets some kip as we drive back past the people she cares so much for, past the water cisterns and watering holes that she has built, past the places where she has organised vaccination programmes and encouraged children to seek an education. Tomorrow, Alex and I return to Addis where the new British Ambassador, Susanna Moorehead, has kindly agreed to meet us to hear about Ethiopiaid’s work. Valerie will be back in her office in the heat and dust of the APDA compound organising health workers, maternity visits, the building of a new hostel for students, checking the status of four young girls who arrived in the nearby hospital with severe infections caused by Type III FGM, filling in accounts and donor reports and preparing for the possible arrival of Acute Watery Diarrhoea.

8.00: Hotel Nondescript, Semera.  No water!

By Sara Loxton

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