Monday, January 5, 2015

Life After the Return

Rest & Reflection

It’s been the better portion of a year since I left Ethiopia in April, 2014.  Since returning to Seattle I have finished my degree program and have begun looking for career paths that might provide some of the excitement and the opportunity to travel that my Peace Corps service provided. 

Back home, I’ve found myself asking, “Has it always been this dark in the winters?” “Is it always this cold?” “Have people always been so shy of socializing with strangers? Neighbors, even?” “People work a lot of hours here! Right?”  I’ve also starting wondering about the rest of the world, how much more diverse humans seem and how much more empathy I have for people in countries I’ve never visited. 

One of the great things about traveling, being months or years away form one’s own country, is that returning home provides an ability to look at one’s own culture more objectively.  People and events become more interesting and full of choices previously unknown.  For instance, after being immersed in a foreign environment the choices for food and drink, how people socialize, the degree that infrastructure provides dependable transportation and communication, the topography, and the climate (even the way the sun moves across the sky) become a topic of enthused discussion.

Behind foreignness, newness or difference, there is something for everyone to connect with, an understanding that allows contact with an underlying structure of things that can put even one’s self into context.  It is amazing to experience and it’s one of the many reasons why I enjoy traveling - the details step out of the mundane and demand consideration; the different begins to mean “familiar, with time.”  

This blog was created to share some sights and experiences of life lived as an American-foreigner within Ethiopia.  With that simple goal in mind, I think I've succeeded.  Thanks for reading!

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Tree Profile: Kigelia Africana

Kigelia Africana - "The Sausage Tree"  dwarfing a young Cordia africana

We spotted Kigelia africana hiding in plain sight during a trip back from a work site.  Many times we have passed this tree but only recently did we take notice that its fruits were obviously different from other trees.  Appropriately named the ‘sausage tree’, the most noticeable characteristic of this tree - besides being giant itself -is the large, grey, sausage like fruit it carries. When we asked people in the area about the tree, everyone knew which one we were talking about but told us that its uses where unknown and that it was the only tree of its kind around, which leaves it to a bit of a mystery for how it got there and where it came from.  I consulted a couple of references to find out more.

Grey colored sausage-like fruits hang from the stems of Kigelia africana

Leaves of Kigelia Africana

Indigenous to Ethiopia and widespread throughout Africa, Kigelia africana can be utilized for firewood, timber, fodder (flowers), dye production (from boiled fruit), and in some places as an ingredient used in fermentation process of honey beer (ripened fruit).  K. africana grows best below 1,850 m and can do well in areas receiving an annual rainfall above 500 mm.


Trees of Ethiopia (A photographic guide and description) - Kebede Tadesse

Useful Trees and Shrubs of Ethiopia: Identification, Propagation and Management for 17 Agroclimatic Zones - Azene Bekele-Tesemma

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Focus on Watersheds – Part 2: Stone Bands, Micro-Catchments, & Check Dams

Looking east over the stone bands within the Gersale Watershed enclosure in Konso

The Gersale Watershed project started nearly 10 years ago.  Each year since the project began, hundreds of participants from the surrounding villages have utilized a portion of their time waiting for the year’s rains to begin by improving their neighboring watershed.

During the first day of this year’s watershed project, a simple but effective brush fence was constructed to expand the areas under the protection of the community.  Since then, the villages in charge of managing this watershed have put its residents to work constructing various stone and soil structures along the hillsides. These structures range from stone bands, micro-catchments, and check dams and are built with the intention to prevent soil and water from freely leaving and flowing downhill. With the soil stabilized and the water slowed and enabled to penetrate the soil, plants can grow and even thrive here.

Kept free from animals and left for light harvesting of grasses and tree products (ranging from cut-and-carry fodder and firewood to fruits and construction materials) will be sold for the benefit of community projects and social services.  The next blog entry regarding this watershed project will cover the tree transplanting event, which are expected to take place sometime between late March and April.

Below are a series of photos and descriptions from the past month and a half of work within the Gersale Watershed, where I’ve been spending my Saturday mornings.

Stone Band Work 1: The process of building a stone band starts with digging trenches roughly 20 cm deep along contour lines of a hillside.  Stones are sourced in the immediate area of the stone band work, either picked up from the ground or unearthed.  Then, the stones are brought to the trenches and placed strategically at a height of about 35-50 cm.  

Stone Band Work 2: Work parties spread out and take on different portions of the Gersale Watershed.  The work starts at the top of a slope and then moves downhill. The spacing between stone bands are closer where the the slopes are steeper - the steeper the slope, the closer the bands are spaced.

Stone Band Work 3: Stone bands run along hillsides where they will provide stable grounds for trees and shrubs to be planted during the rain season.  To the left bags of food or drink or left to hang where people will gather during their lunch break or when the work is finished. 

Prepared to Work: The essentials in the watershed - chekka (a calorie rich, local beer), water, and a tool to dig with.  

Micro-Catchments 1: In some portions of the watershed, free form structures are made in preperation for transplanting tree seedlings in the coming month.  

Micro-Catchments 2: These soil structures will slow water so that it will be made available for the trees that will soon be planted here.

Check Dams 1: Stone check dams are built in places where water and erosion have already started to make a dramatic impression.  Over a few years time, a small waterway can deepen and widen.  With increased water flow, the surrounding soil is put at a risk of being washed away. Check dams both catch soil and slow water.

Check Dams 2: In this waterway, a group of  workers are constructing a series of check dams to prevent soil and water loss.  These check dams will work together to fill in the water way by catching soil that flows out with the water.  Spillways are intentionally built into the check dams so that the pressure of the water doesn't become so great that it would breach its check dam and jeopardize its effectiveness entirely.  

Check Dams 3: A series of check dams are being constructed in this waterway to reduce the rate and severity of soil and water loss.

Fellow Stone Band Workers: I really apprecieated these guys for making me feel welcomed in the watershed.  I was quickly invited into their fold of stone band construction and helped in the process as I could. 

Working with the Crew: Taking a photo opportunity to stand upright for a second.  Much of this work demands being bent over to dig trenches, remove weeds, unearth and carry/roll stones into place.  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Focus on Watersheds – Part 1: A Nationwide Movement and a Community Investment

The Community of Durayte in Gersale Watershed begin constructing a fence to expand their watershed restoration efforts

Around the country, farmers are focusing on their local watersheds in an effort to promote sustainable land management.  As the vast majority of Ethiopian farmers depend on rain fed agriculture, their work efforts within their watersheds are crucial towards reducing soil and water loss and the overall productivity and health of their local environment.

In Konso, several areas previously subjected to a combination of overgrazing livestock, erosion, and heavy rains followed by months of hot and dry weather were selected as watersheds needing restoration.  After these areas were chosen, both physical and social boundaries were instated to ensure goats, sheep, and cattle would not enter and destroy the vegetation meant to hold the top soil in place and allow rain water to penetrate deeper into the earth.

During the past month I have been observing the restoration process and working beside my neighbors to construct structures of soil and stone that will reduce the effects of erosion and provide a space where trees and grasses can be grown.  The future products of the trees and grasses within this watershed will be harvested by the community and sold at the market.  The majority of these proceeds will be support schools, hospitals, and other social services. 

The watershed we were working in first received attention 10 years ago.  Each year since then, the surrounding communities have increased their efforts and have expanded the watershed boundaries to include more and more land.  The effectiveness of their work has been steady and profound. 

Below are a few photos taken from this year's first watershed work event within the Gersale Watershed where the branches of many thorny shrubs and trees were cut to create a boundary to prevent grazing livestock form entering.  The next step in the restoration process is to construct stone bands, soil bands, terraces, and micro-basins - more on that to come.

Gathering thorny branches from nearby trees and shrubs to create a fence

Simple but effective brush fence to keep grazing animals out

The current southern boarder of the Gersale Watershed Project 

The effects that watershed restoration can have in just 3 years.  
These photos were taken in an earlier project site within the Gersale Watershed

Sunday, February 16, 2014

What the Stones Say

A group of young men gather around stones to test their force

In Konso, one way a man demonstrates his strength or the amount of force he has is by lifting stones.   Until somewhat recently, the need to record exact ages was considered unimportant.  Instead, people identified themselves by what work they were capable of doing and what labor force they represented.  Lifting stones then became a method to demonstrate to others the work force one was capable of, that one was both young and physically mature, and where one stood in terms of strength within the larger community.

An attempt at lifting the largest stone in this courtyard

The lift is pretty straight forward: pick up the stone from the ground, bring the stone to shoulder level, then raise stone above head in a controlled manner.  Drop the stone behind to release.  Repeat with greater stones as possible to find one's level of strength compared to others.  

Taking on a large stone in the old village of Dokaatu, Konso 

I went straight to the largest stone of one courtyard in the old village of Dokaatu and found I could lift it as instructed.  My pride was short lived however after I was told that the stone I handled was relatively small in comparison to neighboring villages.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Imported Art

A Child in Tears: "To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others"

Just about everywhere in Ethiopia I've seen laminated posters for sale or on the walls of restaurants, cafes, and the homes of friends or acquaintances that strike me as a little odd.  The posters that catch my attention more often fall into 2 categories: a combination of strange children with quotes and Photoshop fantasy.  I share this because I haven't seen anything like them prior to my time in Ethiopia.  Who knows, maybe I'll notice them elsewhere after I leave.

Photoshop fantasy in all its glory

How much for the enlightened baby poster?

Monday, February 3, 2014

Common Head Turner # 8

Sun's first touch.  Near the equator, the sun seems to travel straight up, making beautifully lit skies as brief as they are stunning.