The Afar and Darfur: A Nomadic Comparison
The only road leading to Elidar woreda in Isseylu district of the Afar region is filled with large potholes. Past the salt flats it takes us in our four wheel drive 2 flat tires (which we soon get fixed in a military base minutes away from the Eritrean border) and two and a half hours offroad driving to get past the volcanic mountain region. A mere 40 kilometers away from Logia, unreachable without a trip over semi-active volcanic territory, lies the northeastern portion of the Afar region in Ethiopia.
The land looks uninhabitable. Nothing but rocks, no grazing ground for a herd, a few kutus spread out here and there, scattered human existence. Here on the outer elevations of the Danakil depression, live one of the most robust group of people. However with the inevitable climate change, longer dry seasons each year, even the native inhabitants of this land, nomadic pastoralists since the dawn of mankind, the Afars are having a hard time putting up with the demands of the terrain they call home.
For the nomads, a healthy herd means everything. Their herd is their livelihood, their income. The milk providing essential nutrients to the children, strengthening the immune system, helping the little ones stay alive in a menacing way of life, not to mention the importance of the meat and the hide for the adults. However the affluent days of nomadic pastoralists where the kutus were donned with animal hides, meat on every dinner plate are long gone. The nomads are having a hard time keeping their herds alive, free from diseases, or with enough food and water both for themselves and their animals to see another day.
On the southern skirts of the Afar region a healthy camel goes for US$500 at the livestock market. However the herds of cows, cattle, goats are getting skinnier each year. As the animals are having a hard time finding food for themselves, most females’ milk is cut, and with the animals not able to reproduce, the health and the size of the herds are in danger. The threat which the drought is posing to the livelihood of the herds are also endangering lives of the children. As female goats with babies can barely feed their young with the little milk they produce, prone to diseases, so are the children, their immune system relying on the nutrients they receive from goat’s milk. Without milk the only other alternative food is sorghum, or should the family be lucky enough to be within reach of an aid organization, then possibly grain. However quick on providing energy but ineffective on providing essential nutrients, both adults and children in the Afar region suffer from severe malnutrition. Not able to breastfeed their young, nor able to travel long distances as before, the Afars are bound in a death trap.
Alerted by the high rates of infant mortality in woredas such as Elidar and Dubti, a few years ago a couple of humanitarian agencies started aid programmes in the region. Most involved aid distribution, one aimed at sustainable development. The latter was the reason I was in Ethiopia. Global climate change had brought with it longer droughts. Awash river, the most important source of water for both the Afar and the Somali regions was badly effected. Lack of water and diminishing pastures, both due to drought and settlement programs around the river basin, coupled with the declaration of the National Parks as no grazing zones as they were the only sanctuaries for the precious little wildlife Ethiopia had left to protect, had led to malnutrition-bordering-famine in the region. In search of food and water armed conflict between the Afars and the Somalis over grazing grounds and water ways had become inevitable. Starting off as territorial defenses, skirmishes had led to bloody violence, costing lives. Afar against Somali, pastoralist against government security, daily clashes had led communities to further arm. In North where possibly noone but the Afars could survive, the problem seemed to be a bit subdued. However with the dry season the animals would move South, and so, the people.
The situation in northeastern Ethiopia is reminiscent of Darfur on the eve of war. With one important distinction: government presence, and possibly “too much of it,” the NGO workers often complain. Ethiopia’s federal system helps ease the conflict between the settlers and the nomads to a certain degree. Afar and Somalis both have representatives, and government presence can be felt in the region. After all the Afar region belongs first and foremost to the Afars, and it is theirs to travel within. They are and have always been the majority in this large expanse of uninhabitable, volcanic, mostly dry, unfriendly land. Noone else really wants it. Well, maybe the occasional group of archeologist who would like to dig in to find long lost friends of Lucy, the hominid. As for the aid agencies, should they wish to assist the communities affected by drought, they are well aware that they need to acknowledge the fact that Afars are a nomadic group of people.
Infant mortality rates since the German aid agency started operating in the region have dropped considerably. Through the programme livestock was vaccinated and fed through a distribution network which involved government participation in Elidar. As the animals got healthier and stronger, thanks to a special feed developed in Western labarotaries for cases like this, within a reasonable time they were well within their reproductive cycle.
In Dubti, where we would travel the next day, the community itself had seeked active participation. They had elected a representative, the head of the kebele, who would in turn keep contact with the center in Logia. Thus, instead of the government official in Elidar who arranged the reception and distribution of the feed, it was a local representative of the community in question. Local involvement had went one step further here. The aid agency had appointed one of the women in the community as the person in charge of the daily distribution of the feed to the animals. The represantative made weekly trips to town, keeping ahead of developments, signing up his community to further programs such as hygene. His female counterpart stayed with the community, making things ran as scheduled.
With programmes such as these two in the Afar region, all is well until the communities start moving again. When time comes, seasons change, and the herd gets mobilized, the communities up and away with the animals. The return is often a relatively long time later, at least long enough for a three year long project’s lifespan. This is one of the biggest problems in running a year long aid cycle and following up on the developments. Afar region covers a large area. Without a local guide, it is near impossible to locate most communities. At times even the local guides prove to be useless. And unlike the nomads, the aid agencies are often stuck in the one town through which they have to operate.
This said, the management of a project, any project targeting nomadic pastoralist populations poses several challenges to local, regional and national government. The early federal set up of Ethiopia’s semi-dictatorial, seemingly democratic government helps in many ways. The Afars are provided with a region which they call their home for as long as they remember. The natural hardships which the terrain offers keep many other populations to its outskirts. They are the only ones who know the ropes of survival in this harsh terrain, and the challenge is left to the aid agencies which try to grapple with a necessary flexible order in which to continue providing aid and assistance to groups in need.
The pastoralist nomads in Darfur are also faced with similar physical challenges in their own region, diminishing natural resources, access to pastures and waterways, coupled with a void in local government and political maneuvres to gain autonomy by the central government. Were the Afars sinisterly armed by the Ethiopian government and pitted against the Somalis in greater territorial gain over the Ogaden (which would be quiet senseless, but if it did happen) it doesn’t take an educated guess figure out that similar bloodshed would unfold in Ethiopia as it did in Darfur. Neither the Somalis, nor the Afars are shy of any kind of violence when it comes to their survival. However, the recognition of the Afars and the Somalis at the policy level as nomadic pastoralist groups, with their need to travel alongside their herds, has helped keep the security situation relatively under control in this area. And the light-handed approach of the central government has also aided in preventing ethnic clashes between the two neighbouring communities. At the end of the day the Ogaden primarily belongs to the Somalis, so much as the Afar region belongs to the Afars. Were they to cross into each other’s territory, the communities are well aware that they may not be welcome. This said, should there be a severe drought in the Ogaden anytime soon, government or no government, violent conflict over water and grazing grounds will once again be a fact.
In case of Darfur, the land is home to a larger variety of ethnic groups within a smaller physical region. With territories assigned to the settled communities, and the same sought for the nomads was a large flaw in judgement to begin with. This and the later management of the situation coupled with politicizing over ethnicities, were the main causes of the events leading to widespread violence pitting the Jalul against the Erenge, the Masalit, the Fur, the Zaghawa. Should a light-handed approach, genuinely sensitive to the ethnic identities and the natural needs of the population have been taken, the extent of atrocities committed by the Janjaweed primarily in 2003 and 2004 in Darfur might have been avoided, giving freedom to the nomads, while preserving the livelihood of the settlers.
Although the West tends to mess up most of the time in its handling of Africa, with dangerous preconceptions, historic bigotry reaching from the colonial times to the present, a handful of specialized men and women working in development programmes still try to make a worthy difference. Should the effort be brought to large scale – as the model in Ethiopia can be applied to Darfur – ideally/possibly coupled with regional sustainable development projects undertaken by large corporations such as the social responsibility programmes in emerging economies much like Turkey (the sustainable development programmes run in Eastern Turkey by NGOs with funding through the Baku-Tblisi-Crude oil pipeline consorsium, BTC Co., a group of oil companies) thus eliminating the need to go for donor-shopping, a world of change can be made in the pastoralist communities in Africa.
What is needed? Regional security and a sound government heeding to the needs of the population in danger, not so much to the allure of the riches, the power and prestige their elected seats promise them. With clear direction and proper incentives from the international community this can be achieved, however a lot of work needs to be done on the ground, especially in regions in question by a workforce compromising of locals and internationals, academics, aid workers and government officials, and abroad: telling the wider audience what is really at stake in rural Africa.
At the end of the day everyone wants affluence, and Darfur and Ethiopia, both sit on a treasure chest depending on where you come from. However in the case of Darfur specifically, other than the central government, countries such as Libya and Chad, long time dictatorial regimes with vested interest in the region also have to be convinced that it is to their benefit to support such regional programmes as opposed to providing safe heaven to fighters, thus being side to chaotic violence. And it is not only the government leaders that need a shift in thinking.
During my visit in Ethiopia, I had a chance meeting with a high level FAO consultant and the NGO representative for the project in the Afar region. With the facts on the table (and the relative success of the programme was one of those facts) the project director for the livestock programme was in doubt whether their intervention was a mistake, as they were getting in the way of natural selection. With the success in these programmes, the decrease in infant mortality meant that there would be 1.4 million people alive and kicking in a territory which was already adversely effected by global warming. So I posed the question to the FAO representative on the future of the 1.4 million increase in population. His answer was promising. With a relative shift in thinking among the donors, funding for education programmes to the nomadic youth could be offerred, similar to the flexible pattern of livestock assistance. However there was one lingering doubt, those of us who have been active on the field knew very well that education programmes were hard to sell to donors, as they were not “sexy enough.” They were not quick impact programmes, and their effects could only be seen at least in a couple of decades. Sensing my skepticism, an explanation was delivered soon enough. The UN at certain levels seemed to finally acknowledge the fact that instead of simply asking for money, “educating” the donors on long term potential outcomes of the education provided to the rural youth would give this 1.4 million growth in population the option to become skilled workforce in urban areas should they choose a life different than theirs. In short, the donors would not only be investing in the project but the people.
In conclusion, does this mean that should education programmes for the nomadic youth be adopted, leading to skilled workforce ready for employment in cities, a way of life be lost? Not altogether likely. Similar projects in other regions of the world, or even natural migratory cycles based on pure economics often prove that in the long run, people choose to return to their roots. However this in itself is another topic for discussion.
Bikem Ekberzade is a photojournalist who focuses on refugees and forced migration. She has a documentary photography project called The Refugee Project and is completing a book on refugee families in eastern Chad.