We have been in the warm and welcoming company of the Harar Catholic Secretariat the last few days. In Ethiopia, there is always reference to the highlands and the lowlands. The lowlands are the deep valleys that wind their way through the many mountain chains here, while the highlands encompass the villages that crawl up towards the peaks. We are heading to the highlands today, climbing higher and higher along the way. The arid air gives little life to the land. The terraced slopes look dry and sparse. There are many fields of sorghum whose long stems and big buds look healthy, but just as often, the view is of vast fields of maize, completely dry and brittle, the yellow stalks looking lifeless, while the sleeves stand completely bare of any fruit. It is a telling image of the realities of life here. Challenges are ubiquitous, and just as one crop might thrive another will fail and wither. In times of drought, these challenges seem to pile on to one another. Many in the region we are visiting today have lost livestock, a vital part of a family’s livelihood. This includes goats, sheep, oxen and donkeys. The importance of livestock is in stark evidence in Ethiopia. It’s impossible to drive 100 feet without seeing some goats munching along the hillside. And even in Addis, people herd oxen across the street, slowly circumventing oncoming cars, and donkeys waddle along with huge bags strapped across their backs.
The Harar Secretariat has set up a livestock re-stocking program to buffer some of the losses. Vouchers are distributed to those who have been identified as the most vulnerable, and they can then use them to purchase livestock. We are at one of the markets where this activity is being organized. There are sheep of all different sizes and there is some serious bargaining taking place. A pregnant sheep will sell more than a baby, but it all depends what will best serve the purpose of the purchaser and this is one of the advantages of a program like this one - it gives people the freedom and power to choose their own livestock and negotiate the price. It also injects money back into the local economy, as all the vendors will trade in the vouchers for cash. One woman, who has eight children, lost two cows from the drought. With her vouchers she has purchased a sheep, but also a scythe and spade with the vouchers she had left over from bargaining. She will be able to breed her sheep and eventually have more. Today, there are 50 people receiving vouchers, however, the Harar Secretariat plans to extend the program to 1,500 people. It may not replace all the losses that people have suffered here, but at least it is a start.