Walking through a rocky valley of the Tigray region in the northern part of Ethiopia, each footstep launches a cloud of dust into the air. This region, which is close to the Eritrean border, is one of the most affected by the recent food crisis. Even now, after some rain arrived at the end of August, as you walk deeper into the valley, you can’t help but notice that the cisterns are already dry and the fields are wilted.
This part of Ethiopia is nearly always on the edge of hunger, so when rains don’t arrive or are in poor quantities, it can be disastrous. People find themselves not only without food from their harvests, they are also left with no income to buy food. The regional diocesan branch of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat (Caritas Ethiopia) has been putting in place projects to help communities cope with this insufficiency. We are walking deep into the mountains of Tigray to the site of a cash-for-work program. There is the quiet of pastoral life in the air – a few cattle grazing, the laughter of children playing, the crackle of people’s feet under the dry grass as they walk with umbrellas to shade themselves from the sun – but these tranquil noises are soon punctuated by a burst of activity in front of us. Over 40 people are working away to build a check dam. Men and women are busy excavating the rock ledge, hauling stones, shoveling a trench and building the wall.
The dam will serve to hold water when there is rain. As Sebhatu, the Development and Social Coordinator at the diocesan office explains, with emergency projects there is always an attempt to link emergency with development. In this case, in the immediate people work for a few weeks and get paid, which allows them to purchase food, and at the same time they are building a dam, which will hopefully allow the community to have longer access to water in the future. There are 45 such projects around the diocese of Adigrat. Men and women work alongside each other at the site. The women wear long skirts, with traditional scarves wrapped around their heads to cover their hair, yet they too carry pick axes and chip away at the rock.
For Birhane, 36, this project has been a blessing. She has four teenagers to support and says that private construction companies would never consider hiring women to work. "They think that women can’t perform. This is tough work but it is the only work that is available, and I appreciate that I can do it. At least, now we can purchase some grains."