Sept 19th: Woito meetings- Tsamako & Birrale communities and CASE

The team traveled to Woito in the morning. Travelling west in the mountains from Konso, parallel to the Kenyan border along a surprisingly wide new road that is being built (not without a few problems, see photo!), the hill landscape changes with views of distant lakes and green cotton plantations below on the plains.










As we descended from the mountains to the plains, the temperature rose radically as we entered a hot flat acacia scrub land, with quite different flora and fauna. Here the cultures and languages are quite different from Konso. Tribal communities mainly herd animals, but may also now find work in the irrigated privately-owned plantations or grow crops suitable for a semi-arid climate.






After unloading the two extra passengers riding in discomfort on the car roof (bought by Darourt and Mesfin for their forthcoming family celebrations of Mesqala festival), we sheltered from the sun and met Horra Galcha, Manager of Culture and Art Society of Ethiopia (CASE) Woito Project and other staff for traditional Ethiopian food served on injera pancakes. The two parties introduced each other and discussed arrangements for a meeting with local community elders.



That afternoon, we had a meeting in the tree shade with 13 male and 7 female elders from the Tsamako and Birrale communities. (The Tsamako tribe has about 10 000 members.) The purpose of our visit, mission and work of LCS were explained for the elders via a translator. The elders, whose contributions were dominated by Gosha Armirie, the tribal leader, appreciated and supported the LCS activity. As they said, tourists come and just want to take photos of us and leave, this is the first time visitors have sat down with us to talk. Continuing about the problem of tourism in the region, they said that some local people come to Woito just to try to be paid to have their photos taken. They advise people to stay at home, and have the tourists come instead to a local community-run lodge where they can buy things and eat local food and watch organised dances, so confining the impact.

On a question from the visiting team about their culture, the community elders tellingly said “You can easily imagine the status our culture is in simply by looking at our environment. You can see that our environment is badly degraded; and so is our culture.”

There are have been problems for traditional herding due to the introduction of enclosures e.g. around the very large local cotton plantation, and the water requirements for irrigating the latter. In the last 10 years, such privately owned plantations may not bring any benefit for local people and so there have been conflicts. (When they were established, workers from the highlands came to cut trees to sell for a quick return as firewood . In the last 5 years there have been attempts to educate for a re-forestation with indigenous trees.)

The elders emphasized that there has been a high rate of deforestation, and a serious shortage of rains in the area. “The last good rain was a year ago, we used to expect two rains a year.” There is therefore a high concern on basic food continuity. Besides, the community members expressed their insistence in their culture. They said. “Though it is the fate of our culture to be degraded, it is inevitable that still we continue living in our culture.”

A serious problem they raised about their livestock was that their traditional vetinary knowledge has become eroded over time and now there are few people with sufficient knowledge of traditional medication (and possibly a lack of herbs). But the number of modern practicians for animal health is also insufficient, thus they lack proper animal health care. The community members often try to imitate some modern procedures when they give medication to animals. They would buy some tablets or injection chemicals from contraband suppliers and try the procedures themselves on sick animals. Many such attempts result in the death of the animals owing to problems related to expiry dates, dosage and mismatch between the medicine and the disease. (LCS noted these symptoms of poor indigenous knowledge transmission between generations).

It was noticeable in this dialogue that not only men, but some women in the gathering spoke out with their views. This was to be the exception during the LCS visit, as most of our meetings were with the elders of male-dominated social groups. (In fact this bias became the reason why the LCS visitors specifically called for a meeting at the end of the trip to hear the views of female community representatives). The meeting closed respectfully with the mantra from both sides: “You are human beings, We are human beings. God bless you”.


After the meeting with the community members, the LCS team met Culture and Art Society of Ethiopia Woito Project Office staff in their office to review the community meeting and learn more. According to CASE staff members, the Woito project is presently coordinating 11 culture and natural resources protection associations in the surrounding area. CASE has been active for the last 3 years in the locality and have also been working with park rangers and wildlife protection agencies to try to stop animal poaching (sometimes using machine guns!) in and around the local Stephanie Wildlife Reserve.

CASE reported their experiences in relation with critical issues of bicultural diversity. They reported that the Tsamako and Birrale communities in the area formerly had a variety of 36 types of crop before the introduction of the modern improved seeds to the land promoted by the Government. Some time after the adoption of the improved seeds, they were left only with the new maize, which requires fertilizer. (Probably a monoculture is more vulnerable to the variability of a semi-arid climate too.) Now, the CASE project office has collected the original types of indigenous crop from various areas and distributes the seeds among the community members.

Returning to the issue of the lack of skilled vets and the misuse of modern medications, CASE staff mentioned that they have also been trying to re-introduce traditional of 'ethno-vetinerary knowledge, for example the use of dog's urine to overcome the problem when a cow rejects a newborn calf. They also confirmed the LCS view that traditional knowledge is transmitted through storytelling and the value of myths and proverbs -there is no written language for some of the local cultures. CASE also mentioned the tribal separation of the male and female societies - boys (should) respect their father's peers, girls their mother's. Women are not the decision makers. When the children go to school they are often left alone at home to do everything.

One aside that was made was that some time ago, people got outside aid for free, but now labour is expected in return. People are sometimes reluctant to work to get this assistance now (dependency syndrome).

The Government priority on education can also bring some conflicts, as the youngsters are more focused on going to urban schools, help less with the farming work and can put their culture aside, e.g. referring to their parents' 'backward attitudes'. In the last year CASE has been trying to address this problem by introducing two or three 45min. sessions a week on local culture and traditions into the local school curriculum. A male and female elder are paid by CASE to give these sessions in the Woito and Aerbore schools. (LCS noted the opportunity here to build on this cultural revitalization bridgehead in the schools - amplifying it via LCS methods, digital equipment and e.g. multimedia exhibitions. Unfortunately, there is no local-language radio station that can be used.).

In all this was a very illuminating day, with strong memories, friendships made and much learned by the LCS visitors.

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