An Ethiopian Journal

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Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity, faces up to family planning

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Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity, faces up to family planning
By Paul Rauber | Photography by Ian Berry/Magnum
July/August 2008


BEFORE GETTING OFF THE PLANE in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I’d dismissed as weird romanticism the notion that one’s first visit to Africa can stir oddly powerful emotions. But here I am, tearing up on the tarmac at the thought of being back where our human experiment began. After all, it was nearby in the Awash valley that Lucy, the 3.2 million–year–old mother of us all, was unearthed. Scientists no longer call her our oldest ancestor, but most agree these dry African plains are where we became human.

Not that Ethiopia feels like home; it is more like an alternate universe. Signs along the road from the airport welcome the new millennium, which didn’t arrive here until last summer. (The rest of the world had switched to the standard Gregorian calendar by the 18th century, but Ethiopia has stuck with the Julian system, which runs about eight years behind.) Even the clocks are different, with the numbers starting at the bottom rather than the top, so Ethiopian one o’clock is our seven.

The dominant language is Amharic, with its own space-alien alphabet. Such iconoclasm is partly a result of the fact that, alone among African nations, Ethiopia was never colonized. The Italians tried and failed, but when Ethiopia finally kicked them out, it kept their spluttering, wheezing espresso machines. The birthplace of humanity, it turns out, is also the birthplace of coffee and appreciates a good macchiato.

Without even the benefits of caffeine, Lucy’s children went forth from the Awash valley and multiplied, populating the earth and not neglecting their native land. (Ethiopians, a very handsome people, have better cause than many to procreate.) The country’s population has quintupled in the past 70 years to 77 million, and demographers expect it to more than double again by 2050. Its fertility rate is one of the highest in the world, with an average of 5.4 children per woman. The consequences are predictably severe, both for the country’s natural environment and the health of all those kids, half of whom are undernourished. (The starving children of Ethiopia our parents invoked to get us to clean our plates are still hungry.)

Even so, the previous Marxist dictatorship forbade even talk of family planning. The current regime readily acknowledges its necessity but lacks the means to pay for it. The enormous need, coupled with Ethiopia’s relative lack of corruption, has made the country a laboratory for innovative family-planning efforts financed by foreign organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That’s why I’m here with a delegation of population activists from the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society: to see how Mother Africa is providing for her many offspring.

The prickly euphorbia in the foreground surround and protect a young fruit tree. Along with contraceptives, education, and healthcare, selling fruit gives local women the opportunity to better provide for their children.

MY FIRST MISSION IS TO OBTAIN an Ethiopian press credential–something “strongly urged” by U.S. officials, who pointed out that the country’s still-authoritarian government has a lamentable record of press freedom. After much haggling, I secure a cab to the Ministry of Information and plunge into the vehicular chaos of Addis Ababa’s rush hour. My shuddering Russian Lada taxi jostles along with heavily laden jitneys, trucks piled high with firewood to feed millions of home fires, and young men driving cattle and goats down the central thoroughfare. The air is thick with diesel exhaust. Even though the average American produces 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and the average Ethiopian only a tenth of a ton, I’m thinking that next to my taxi driver I’m looking pretty good.

When I emerge several hours later from the crumbling Soviet-style highrise of the Ministry of Information, my driver is still waiting. (Apparently I hadn’t driven as hard a bargain with him as I’d imagined.) Figuring that since I was now credentialed I might as well do some journalism, I inquire about my driver’s sex life. Yes, he is married and has one boy. His wife uses contraceptives from a local clinic. What does he think of Addis? “Too big.” The government says 3 million people; this guy says at least 6 million. And it’s too expensive: He pays $100 a month for a lousy one-room apartment. Any more kids on the way? “Maybe in two, three years. Maybe one more. But that’s all.” What with food, clothes, and school, he says, it just costs too much. Call it free-market family planning.

WHILE ADDIS ABABA IS A HUGE, sprawling slum with barely existent sanitation, a spotty water supply, and rampant unemployment, crime, and disease, it has a lot going for it compared with the countryside. In the city, the government provides family-planning services and education, which is a type of family planning itself: Here as elsewhere, uneducated women have three times as many children as women who get at least some secondary schooling. Morning and afternoon streets swirl with drifting and eddying streams of students in their bright school sweaters: yellow, maroon, baby blue.

Unlike many developing countries, however, Ethiopia explicitly discourages migration into its capital, with the result that 85 percent of its people still live in the countryside, spread everywhere humans might possibly live. Fields are planted on the steep slopes of hills, in the turmoil of freshly cleared forests, or terraced in precipitous canyons. The universal use of wood for fuel has reduced the country’s forest cover to less than 3 percent, and most of that is eucalyptus plantations. Native woods survive only in odd, protected corners–one of the oddest being the huge grounds of the British embassy in Addis, the largest embassy in the world outside the U.S. behemoth in Baghdad.

Through the arcane fellowship that links birders all over the world, one of our colleagues from Audubon–which, like the Sierra Club, has many members devoted to population issues–wangles us an invitation to tour the embassy grounds, guided by the wife of a U.K. diplomat. It is (for the nonbirder) a blur of speckled mousebirds, white-cheeked turacos, tacazze sunbirds, and blue-breasted bee-eaters as we wander among the comfortable stone residences, well supplied with lawn bowling and croquet pitches, not to mention lovely verandas and arbors for one’s afternoon gin and tonic. Farther up the hill, however, the trimmed lawns give way to thick forest, and our host begins to look concerned. “We’re encroaching on leopard territory now,” she says, peering intently into the underbrush. Apparently a number of leopards have managed to slip past the double row of razor-wire-tipped fence surrounding the embassy and have thus far eaten all but two of the compound’s domestic cats. At night, she says, they prowl around the perimeter watchtowers, while guards huddle above and hyenas gather on the far side of the fence. Even now the sky is full of white-backed vultures and other carrion eaters. If we really want to see scavenger birds, our host recommends a visit to the local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, provided we can stand the smell. A night visit might even yield a hyena sighting. Darn the luck, we have to leave early the next morning.

WE TRAVEL SOUTH ON A FINE NEW ROAD, courtesy of the People’s Republic of China (which is currying favor through roadbuilding and infrastructure projects all over East Africa). Vibrant images swirl past: rainbow-hued fruit stands; mountains of charcoal; hundreds of white-veiled worshippers and mendicants crowding around an Ethiopian Orthodox church, listening to the prayers via loudspeaker; and lines of unrefrigerated meat markets with fresh carcasses on hooks and butchers with big knives at the ready. Despite its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is a very carnivorous country. In the countryside, livestock is wealth, and everywhere child shepherds brandishing sticks watch over goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys. While the poor subsist on chickpeas and spongy injera bread, anyone who can afford to dines on meat. The result is that nearly all land not given to cultivation is pasture, and most of that is severely overgrazed. The elephants and rhinos that used to roam here are, for the most part, long gone, crowded out by domesticated biomass.

Once past the Sino-Ethiopian Friendship Society industrial parks that crowd the outskirts of Addis, we descend toward the Rift Valley, and the landscape turns to classic East Africa savanna: rolling grasslands dotted with trees and family compounds ringed with thornbushes (a safe corral for the livestock at night). The houses are circular mud huts roofed with thatch or occasionally corrugated tin–the only feature distinguishing this millennium from any other. The birders point out a flock of white storks–the archetypal northern European chimney nester and baby deliverer–settling in a field. (Europe’s populations of both storks and humans are in decline, but baby deliveries are still going strong in Ethiopia.)

At a tired resort by a mud brown lake, we break for lunch. An African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) prowls the resort’s perimeter, the mitochondrial mama of every domestic puss on the planet. Except for a slightly leonine cast of the head, the cat is indistinguishable from Scabby, the feral tabby who hangs out in my Berkeley, California, backyard. If Lucy had a cat, this would be it.

I walk back toward the main road along a dusty dirt track, children crowding around begging for a scripto (pen) or proffering crude soapstone carvings of the cars and trucks they see passing them by on the way to another century. Outside a dusty shack, a tiny boy with a distended belly wanders aimlessly, alone. Luckily for him, the predator population in this part of the world is much reduced.

As we descend from the high Abyssinian plain, the vegetation becomes more lush and the population denser. Outside the Rastafarian community of Shashemene (Emperor Haile Selassie gave a nearby valley to his Jamaican fans), we find a few remnant patches of native forests–and thus colobus and vervet monkeys and a wild profusion of birds. In a bustling village called Wondo Genet, a stream doubles as a laundry and car wash. Folks are beautified in open shops, peddlers sell mildly narcotic khat leaves, and lively Ping-Pong battles rage at three tables. (More tokens of Sino-Ethiopian friendship?)

Access to water, rural people throughout our trip tell us, is their single largest problem, with women and children often obliged to walk miles in search of a potable supply. Here it’s not so bad: Kids queue up at a hose connected to a well in the forested area above the village. In its streets, horse-drawn buggies carry sugarcane, firewood, and passengers. One poor beast is trying to pull a cart overloaded with six people; in lieu of a ticket, a policeman lets the air out of one tire.

Most Ethiopians live like this or next door to it. Eight in ten get by on less than $2 a day. This means that, in practice, many live almost entirely outside the cash economy. An old man labors behind a single plow drawn by two oxen; a slim young woman hews wood in the doorway of her hut with a handmade ax; young men look up from reaping, sickles in hand; a child drives cattle in a circle, threshing grain; and old women run down the road, bent double under heavy fardels of firewood. Later, Adey Abebe, my translator, asks me if I am shocked by what I’ve seen. Not really, I say. It feels very familiar, like the fairy tales of my childhood or the many books I’ve read about ancient times.

“Really?” she says, raising an eyebrow. “Even Ethiopian people coming from Addis, which you can see is very poor itself, even they are shocked when they come here. You must have read very many books.”

Growing Need, Declining Resources

In the past decade, U.S. funding for international family-planning programs like those in Ethiopia has declined by almost 40 percent. During those years, 275 million more women in the developing world came of childbearing age.
The Sierra Club’s Global Population and the Environment program is working to get the United States to invest $1 billion in 2009 in international family planning. You can help by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to respond to the unmet need.

To read more about the Club’s population efforts, visit, where you can find details of the Club’s legislative proposals and other stories from the Ethiopia study tour in the program’s 2008 population report. —Paul Rauber

HAND IN HAND with a preindustrial lifestyle goes a preindustrial death style. Life expectancy in Ethiopia is 48 years. One in 13 babies dies in infancy, and one in 8 never sees age five.

In much of the country, there is only one doctor for every 55,000 people. Soils utterly exhausted by 5,000 years of cultivation are giving out, and drought plays havoc with agriculture in a country with almost no irrigation. When the rains fail, famine follows, and suddenly a fifth of the population depends on food aid from abroad.

The present size of Ethiopia’s population–and the likelihood of its doubling by mid-century–exacerbates all problems and frustrates easy solutions. Two out of three women who would like to use family planning can’t get it, and in the countryside only one woman in ten uses contraception at all.

Into this gap rush scores of nongovernmental organizations, the largest of which is my translator’s employer, Pathfinder International, whose Ethiopian operations are largely supported by USAID and the Packard Foundation. One of its many Ethiopian programs seeks to boost family planning, healthcare access, and environmental-restoration efforts through improving the lot of women and girls. When we step out of our van to visit a Pathfinder project in the hills west of the large provincial city of Awasa, we hear women singing.

Waiting for us in a clearing at the top of the hill are a hundred women, ululating, clapping, and dancing in a traditional welcome ceremony. They have good reason to celebrate: Many are being taught to read and write for the first time, have access to contraceptives and basic healthcare, and have been given two fruit trees per family, along with seeds and support in growing marketable vegetables.

“Because we didn’t have education before, we lived in extreme poverty,” says Martha Petros, a 37-year-old mother of nine who sports, in the local fashion, three delicate scars on each cheek. “I had so many children because I didn’t know any better. Now my children will go to school, and learn even more, and definitely have fewer children of their own.”

Elsabeth Zergaw, the stately president of the Southern Women’s Association (the local group working with Pathfinder to administer the program), recites the statistics: 881 women in literacy classes, 72 going on to formal education; 456 women tested for HIV; 450 mango and avocado trees planted; 30 kilograms of vegetable seeds distributed; and zero female genital mutilations.

When your goal is to improve the lot of women, pretty near the top of the list comes ending the practice of cutting off all of a woman’s external genitalia three days before her wedding. To prove that the practice had indeed ended in this village, Zergaw introduces four grim, cold-eyed ex-genital mutilators in white robes who have agreed to “put down the knife.” (These women now have no means of livelihood, they say, and reasonably wonder who will support them in their late career change.) Next up are six very, very happy uncircumcised brides in their mid-teens, who stand basking in the applause of the gathering. Bucking centuries of tradition clearly took bravery, since it was apparently not clear in advance whether the husbands would accept uncircumcised brides. “This information empowered not only us but our husbands,” says one young woman who interrupted her honeymoon to speak to us. “Even though we’re married, we have not lost anything. We have been saved, and we want to save others.”

This is the women’s show. Around the edges of the crowd loiter the men, some observing the spectacle from the branches of trees. I corner one, Solom Jaro, 30, father of three boys and a girl, and ask what he thinks of family planning. “I now have a better understanding of reproductive health,” he says diplomatically. Meaning what? “Now I know I have too many children.”

TRAVELING WITH BIRDERS can be its own diplomatic endeavor, as nonbirders strain to remain sociable despite their ornithological ignorance. On one birding jaunt between site visits, an Audubon guy ID’s a “speckled pigeon,” whereupon the birders put down their binoculars, jot in their notebooks, and move on.

“A special pigeon?” exclaims an innocent Sierra Club staffer. “Why is it so special?” The birders ignore her, and she falls in behind them, crestfallen. (In the future, I advise her, it’s safest to stick to neutral queries like “Who’s that little guy over there?”)

My own avian stamina is put to the test some days later when three of the Auduboners hire a guide and head north of Addis to the Suluta Plain, kindly consenting to let me tag along. As they rack up scores of new species, I am content with spotting an ortolan bunting, the small songbird that, when it makes the mistake of migrating to France, risks being roasted and eaten whole. In the canyon country around the monastery of Debre Libanos, we see a lammergeier soaring above us–an enormous vulture famous for dropping bones from a great height onto rocks, then swooping down to eat the marrow. According to Pliny, Aeschylus was killed by a lammergeier that dropped a turtle on his bald pate, mistaking it for a rock. (Happily, I’m wearing a hat.) But my newfound birdwatching zeal fails when, by the grounds of the old baboon-patrolled monastery, our Ethiopian guide cheerfully points out a Rüppell’s robin-chat in a bush just above the head of a decrepit old woman begging for help.

Some birds, in their rarity, can be salvation to humans in their profusion. The pastoral community of Berga, in a broad, grassy valley west of Addis, has been raised above its neighbors solely by virtue of being located adjacent to the core breeding ground of the endangered white-winged flufftail. Traditionally, local people picked up a little money by harvesting the tall grass that sheltered the birds’ nests, a practice that was leading to their rapid extinction. Then the tiny Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society persuaded birding organizations in South Africa and Europe to pay local people to protect the nests, improve their community, and reduce the average number of children per woman from the current seven.

Guided by battalions of kids and flanked by young men racing through the fenceless communal fields on horses, we troop down to the small Berga wetland to view the miraculous eucalypt beneath which nest the blessed birds. (The birds are on vacation in South Africa, so there’s no danger of inadvertent flufftail omelets.) Next comes a tour of the new facilities: two mud-and-wattle schoolrooms serving 400 students up to fourth grade; a small dairy where local women make cheese; and a tiny health post where Gete Dida, 26, and Shitaye Tura, 22, dispense first aid, sanitation education, and contraceptives. (Most of the 840 women who come here, they say, prefer injectable Depo-Provera, which they only need to think about every three months.) For planned births, there is a tiny room next door furnished with nothing but a dusty delivery table. The sight would put most U.S. women I know off childbirth altogether.

Ato Bekele, a Berga community leader, boasts of the success of its public-health campaign, which has, among other things, raised the average marriage age for girls from 12 to 15.

“Life has improved,” he says, “but we still have a long way to go.”

Most marriages in the area are arranged, Bekele says, which gives the group leverage with the arrangers. “But sometimes,” he adds smiling, “they are lovebirds.”

AFTER TEN DAYS IN THIS heartbreaking country, all of us miss our families. Those who don’t have children miss their pets, which, as a whole, are better provided for than most Ethiopians. (Yearly income in Ethiopia: $104. Amount spent annually on a U.S. dog: $1,571.) One member of our party tells of a friend who keeps her elderly cat’s large-cell carcinoma in check via blood work performed after weekly consultations with a team of experts in Australia. The amount of money mentioned could give 25 young Ethiopian women a college education.

Love is crazy that way, though. What wouldn’t we do for those closest to us? I finally stop asking the participants in the programs we visit what they hope to get out of family planning, because everyone says the same thing: “We want a better life for our children.”

In Ethiopia, names are full of meaning. A child born after another has died might be named Mitke, “substitute,” or Kassa, “compensation.” More poetically, Abebe means “blooming like a flower.” If allowed to blossom, the family-planning programs we visited here just may deliver that better life everyone wishes for their kids, including, perhaps, a generation of Fitisams, a traditional name for the last child planned, literally “the end.”

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra whose family has a total fertility rate of two.

ON THE WEB To watch a slide show of more photos from Ian Berry’s trip to Ethiopia, visit


Written by Tseday

September 9, 2008 at 6:36 pm

Posted in Ethiopia

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