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Lost in Ethiopia

Lost in Ethiopia

I sat on the plane very anxiously: I’d never been to Ethiopia, nor Africa for that matter, and was now heading there for four weeks, knowing no one, and with very little organised (in hindsight, I wish I’d done a little bit more work during the summer).

Upon landing and taking two days to acclimate in Addis Ababa, Bahir Dar, the city I was to be based in, beckoned me with her siren song. Driving there was the first time I was really struck by the different world I was in – a leisurely and bumpy 500 km, 12.5 hour drive, only slightly more than the 6 hours I’d expected. This journey offered me an extended introduction to rural Ethiopia: monkeys, thin air, the Blue Nile (which was incredibly brown), and kind people. It also gave me the opportunity to play the song “Africa” by Toto as we drove in a storm (“I bless the rains down in Africa”…), so I took that as a pretty big win.

The next few weeks were draining but consistent: gender-separated focus groups investigating how women’s empowerment in agriculture informs water security. More specifically, we investigated the gender gaps in the production of cash crops, the gender gaps in the uptake and efficiency of sustainable land management techniques in agriculture, and how we can incentivise men to actively empower women in institutions in the area (could probably do with this last topic in most of the global North as well!).

The idea behind this is reasonably simple but difficult to implement: if we can empower women to use improved agricultural techniques effectively, the water availability in the area will improve (which, for example, can be used for irrigation in dry season farming and for livelihood uses), and soil erosion will reduce during times of too much rain (which will allow for improved yields). Given over 85% of the Ethiopian population is involved in agriculture, and climate change is bringing increasingly variable rainfall to the area, this is something that can have significant beneficial impacts.

The (yet to be fully analysed) initial results from the focus groups indicate that women are disadvantaged relative to men with regards to availability of time, education, access to information, access to training and confidence, to name a few. Encouragingly though, there is optimism by men and women alike that change is on the horizon. The participants’ unwavering belief in the importance of education and its significance to empowerment, and the (relatively) recently introduced educational policy encouraging girls and boys to receive equal educational opportunities, mean people believe the empowerment of women is not far away and the development that comes with this will happen in their lifetime. YEET!

At a personal level though, the significance of this fieldwork wasn’t in the work being done or results being found. It was in the cultural and life experiences that enhanced my worldview, provided me memories, or simply left me flabbergasted at what was happening at that moment. These experiences include:

  • Conducting a focus group discussion while a farmer’s AK-47 sat on the table pointed directly at our note-taker and another farmer rested his chin on the end of the barrel of his semi-automatic rifle (while I’m sure/hope the safety was on, I made no sudden movements);
  • Having (what felt like) food poisoning for three weeks – a character-building experience of endurance I had never before seen in my lifetime;
  • Learning that Katy Perry’s song, Roar, is huge in Ethiopia. Naturally, I did my duty and showed as many people as I could that the west has better music to offer including AD/DC, Billie Eilish, Arcade Fire and Kendrick Lamar; and
  • Witnessing and being unwittingly involved in a couple of significant religious events.

One key experience that this trip introduced me to was isolation. Never before in my life had I felt so isolated in various ways. Despite being able to video call friends and family, I felt very alone and, at times, completely overwhelmed (it amazes me how people used to conduct this type of work before such methods of communication were around). While I won’t delve into this much, I feel this is an important aspect of the trip to mention. Before leaving for my trip I had only heard positive reviews from others about their fieldwork which led to a naïve vision of what the trip would be like. For some, including myself, fieldwork can be tough and isolating, but it is a crucial part of what we do to improve the lives of others, and remembering this–along with advice from friends and family–is what got me through.

By Rob Ferritto (Western Australia & Green Templeton 2018). Rob is studying for an MPhil in Water Science, Policy and Management.

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