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Ethiopia not Utopia!

Permaculture Aid in Ethiopia

Green Warriors in Ethiopia 2011

The word got around through my Balinese friends I was going to Utopia (I wish!). I had to correct the gossip and explain I was actually on my way to Ethiopia, in Africa, not Utopia. My mission is to run a month long Permaculture Aid Course (PAC).

I board the flight from Bali to Jakarta at O’dark hundred hours, bloody early, before dawn. I arrive in Jakarta knowing I’ll have a 12-hour stop over in a very unexciting airport. I think airports are one step from hell in some countries. In Jakarta I’m tortured by 12 hours of Abba played on the panpipes over the PA system. At least it wasn’t the bagpipes. Finally I board Emirates to Dubai. YAY!!!

In Dubai I have another 12-hour layover. This time, I opt for a hotel; just in case Abba is standard music for international airports. Dubai looks like a life size Lego-Land somebody dropped out of a plane into a desert. Definitely not my cup of tea! I’m offered a variety of tours on my way to the hotel. Do I wish to go skiing in a shopping centre? How about surfing in the worlds largest indoor surf pool, also in a shopping centre? They list off several other kinds of shopping centre torments before they realize I’m not interested. In the hotel I crash without a shower and my eyes close until the phone rings, seemingly, minutes later. “Good morning Sir, It’s 4 am”, a pleasant voice announces through the phone. A short while later I’m boarding another flight to Addis Ababa.

As the plane taxis into the terminal at Addis, I notice several wrecked airliners lying in the long grass next to the main arrival building. Maybe they are not wrecked, just waiting permission to take off!

I make it off the plane into the customs hall. My bag pops out on the carousel and I breathe a sigh of relief. In my bag, I’ve stashed seeds and planting material for my permaculture course. There are no forms or declarations to fill out other than the usual “who are you and where are you staying” stuff. I line up at the x-ray machine where a few dudes are arguing with the customs guy about import tax. As my bag goes into the x-ray the argument escalates until the customs guy stops the belt with my bag sitting in the x-ray compartment getting nuked! Oh no! Not my seeds! Yep, they copped about 12 minutes of heavy X-ray. Oh well, maybe they will mutate into giant vegetables…

Alex McCausland, the eco-lodge owner, picks me up in a beat up local mini-van taxi and rushes me off to his hand picked accommodation. It’s bloody cold in Addis at 2500 meters above sea level. We pull into a muddy crowded side street and stop in front of a house straight out of a horror movie. Alex tells me it’s a 120-year old guesthouse. It only looks 220 years old! Inside it’s like a cave made of sticks. I’m shown to a room with a worn mattress lying on the dusty floor. There is an indentation the shape of a dog in the centre and I think I see insects crawling on the worn blanket. I look at Alex with a frown. “There’s a hotel across the road if you don’t like this place” says Alex. “Lets go!” I say. The hotel is a luxury establishment compared to the 120-year old fleapit. It costs me $4 for the night and comes with hot water and 7 sheets of toilet paper!

Two days later we make it to Arba Minch in southern Ethiopia. I spy an American military base set up next to the terminal as we taxi in to Arrivals. Outside the terminal we board a 3-wheel Baja taxi and head to town at a break neck speed of 21 kmh.

At the centre of town is a large roundabout with a statue of some tribal guy with his tame lion. I do a double take as I notice the guy has an erect penis sticking out of his forehead (an unfortunate birth defect!). The town is dusty and full of huge trucks, very few cars. We are dropped off at the local petrol station and I get my first Ethiopian coffee ceremony which involves lots of fresh cut green grass strewn on the floor and little tiny cups the size of a thimble with a sprig of herb sticking out of the black oily liquid. Alex and a few others watch as I sip my first long-black from Ethiopia, the very birthplace of coffee (yeeech!). I resist spitting it out and just smile and nod. Everybody grins like they know how good that stuff is. I make a mental note to avoid coffee ceremonies in the future.

After a bumpy three-hour drive, Strawberry Fields eco-lodge appears at the bottom of a hill out of the grimy mini bus window. We pull up with a squeal of badly maintained brakes. The driver has to climb up on the roof rack to retrieve my heavy bag. I see a fence made of sticks and living shrubs with a hole for a gateway. Cheering, a bunch of people swarm out of the gate. His staff greets Alex warmly as I’m almost flattened by my flying bag. We make our way up the pathway, which is covered by heavy mulch. I see a jungle of pawpaw, pigeon pea, vegetables, acacia and lots of flowering legumes. A few staff greet me using the Ethiopian handshake, which involves shaking hands and bumping one shoulder 3 times.

In the dining room the students and I size each other up. Americans, Ugandans, Australians, British and a Zimbabwean…They’re probably thinking who is this little stocky bald guy? We all shake hands and exchange names. All that out of the way, I’m shown to my eco-hut, which looks just like a hut… I bash my head on the way through the pygmy doorway. Inside is a double bed, a single bed and not much room for anything else. I’m disappointed there is no heart shaped water bed with a velour headboard…Damn! No lights or a mini-bar either!

The training begins in our octagonal mud classroom with a dirt floor and chalk board hanging in the corner.

We begin the training with the usual introductions and each of us explains why are we crazy enough to be here in Konso Ethiopia. Everyone wants to become a permaculture trainer and make a difference in the field of poverty eradication. I hear of some amazing ideas and projects. Some of these people will become great permaculture field trainers judging by their drive and intelligence. The Ugandans are happy because they recon if Uganda is third world then Ethiopia must be fourth world! Seeing someone worse off than us can make us feel better about our situation. Yep, Ethiopia is pretty poor.

With the intro over we start on digging our first swales using locally available tools. I have ordered special steel handled “super-tools” made but I let the trainees use the crap, rubbish tools first so they will understand the need for good tools on any future project. We build an A-frame and peg out two kinds of swales. We make very skinny swales on the steep slopes the width of a finger, which I call string swales. These are filed with a dung and seed mix, which will sprout into a living erosion fence in the next rain. We also make standard swales with a shovel width trench on the up-hill side of the bund. These are covered with dry goat dung and seed. The dung will mulch, fertilize and camouflage the seed from bird life. Everybody digs and has a turn at the A-frame pegging.

On the second or third day I notice the dude that serves our meals sweating. I ask him what’s wrong and he informs me he has typhoid…TYPHOID!!? Shit! Actually lots of shit… because before long everybody else has it too and one by one we succumbed to extreme gut cramps and explosive diarrhoea as well as a myriad of not-so-fun symptoms. It’s almost like there is an assassin picking us off one at a time. Despite the hardship, the crew pulls together and continue the training with only a few missing a day here and there. If you are doing a live aid-project this shit
(excuse the pun!) happens all the time. So many infants and people die each year around the world from dehydration when they contact a disease like typhoid. Their fluids leave the body faster than they are replaced. The trainees now have more empathy for local peoples problems!

BANG! Bang, bang!...One night, I’m woken from a deep sleep by gunshots echoing from the village across on the next ridge. I spring up out of bed and race outside to listen and determine if it’s time to leave with my crew rapidly. A wailing of hundreds of people crying starts up all through the town. It is an eerie sad sound like you’d likely hear at the gates of hell as the people wail and sob... It goes on for 3 days. We get the gossip the next day. It seems an unknown assassin murdered the local magistrate. There’s nothing we can do but continue our training. The background wailing subsides eventually but starts up again a few days later when somebody from the village is stabbed to death. What are these people up to? I make a mental note not to piss anyone off in Konso…

The food at Strawberry Fields Eco-Lodge is great most of the time. There are a few local dishes, which we all vote off the menu. One of them is called…I forget the local name but we call them “balls”. Balls are just balls of dough made from local grains, in spaghetti sauce. I could barley chew them as they taste like stale goat droppings. At first everybody pretended to like the local dish just to be polite, but after 3 meals of Satan’s-balls I told Alex they would have a mutiny on their hands if they were ever served again. Nobody missed them!

Apart from that there is also “injerra”, local pancake type bread made on a hot flat plate (yeecch!). It looks like carpet underlay but tastes slightly better. Some people ate it. Lucky for me we also get bread. The absolute worse dish by far is “False-Banana”. It is bread made from a small banana-like plant that is buried for a few weeks until it is rotten before being processing into bread. I swear it smells like fresh vomit. I have to go outside when it is served! It would be a good punishment for terrorists! We also get loads of fresh organic salads from the garden and lots of tasty pasta dishes that are a hit with everyone. Alex’s wife Samira is the chef.

The kitchen needs a new stove, as the blackened hole that is being used is slow and inefficient on fuel. Alex already has a stack of sun-dried adobe bricks so I design a four-burner, “Lorena stove” and the trainees and I build it in a day. It will save up to 90% of the firewood used at present cooking on 3 rocks like a campfire. Hands-on mud-work construction is always fun and our stove project is no exception, especially as we enlist several British teenager campers to help us. Samira watches as our masterpiece takes shape. Finally she can’t help herself and grabs a hand full of mud and joins the fun. I can see she is like a western wife getting a new stove for Xmas!

Our training consists of 50% hands-on projects around the 3-hectare site. We even render the classroom walls using a mud-dung-cement mix to demonstrate how to tart up mud buildings. In the developing world mud buildings are looked down upon as primitive or poverty buildings. Actually, they are cool and can be solid structures with plenty of scope for funky design. Mud usually gets overlooked by communities for construction projects, as they see it as primitive. It’s cheap and there’s plenty of mud around! The students realize it’s potential as soon as they start making stuff with it.

Alex and I take a drive up into the mountains to scope out several school projects for our trainee-trainers to try out their new skills on. On the road I see so many women carrying huge loads of sticks up the steep slopes to their villages. Some of them have travelled 10 kilometres bent under a heavy load. They are sweating and grunting as they make the last few kilometres home. I make a note to myself to create a section in my manual about relieving the burden of women in developing countries. All the carrying jobs are done by women in Konso. Water, firewood, animal feed and goods to market, the women work like pack mules. Planting a woodlot of coppicing trees close to each village would save so much effort and time. Building Lorena stoves would cut the consumption of wood right back. People are poor when they have no time for gardening, just gathering their daily survival needs. I get angry when I see so many poverty alleviation projects never cover the basics like firewood, water or home gardens.

As soon as we leave town I see the terracing. Konso has terracing as far as the eye can see on just about every kind of slope. WOW! Closer up I see the terraces and made from stacked stones. The shear volume of terraces is staggering. I calculate the types of community forestry these guys could do. Terracing is always the hardest part of forestry and these people are the terrace champions. Instead of clever forestry on their terraces, they have inter-planted eucalyptus, and juniper trees with their corn, sorghum, and teff (a local grain). These trees are totally incompatible with food crops as they rob the soil of nutrients and give little in return. The crops around these trees are scrawny. What if these people had access to trees that gave valuable products like oil, fruit, nuts, medicine…My mind’s eye sees a vast commercial resource forest and lots of wealthy villages.

Many concrete cisterns are dotted along the mountainside, all broken and empty. Somebody spent a lot of money and effort on a poor design, idiots! I’m told a project called Farm Africa were responsible. What a waste and somewhere somebody has recorded that these people now have access to water!

We pull in to a school made of sticks and mud. I spot several school gardens that Zimbabwean permaculture trainer Tichafa has built with the kids in the year before. Maize, sweet potato, banana, paw paw and lots of vegetables grow around the drip line of the primitive buildings. Great!

We make our way into the mountain village. People are sitting around talking, playing with the children, sweeping out their huts and living a simple life the same as their ancestors have done since the dawn of time. Everywhere are permanent stone terraces making the village appear landscaped by professionals. We are here to purchase some pots to use in a dryland garden irrigation system. A woman opens a thatched grain store and pulls out several fired clay pots. I see small specks of gold in the clay making the pots sparkle. Nice! The women crowd around Alex and I as he haggles the price. While he is doing that, several women are playing with the blonde hair on my arm. I don’t know what they are saying as they chatter away but it is probably something like “ he is hairy like a monkey”. This is also a recurring theme with children. The women’s skin is matt black with no visible hair. I may as well be from another planet.

We check out 2 other sites. Each school is shabby and has only 6 squat pit toilets for 1500-3000 kids. Somebody has built a tank but the guttering has failed miserably. Another crap-aid project. Do the donors know their money was wasted? I make it our mission to build an in-ground cistern here made from earth bags. This type of water storage is cheap and can be built by village people. This cistern will catch all the roof run-off at ground level, eliminating the need for guttering. Most guttering here is home made and doesn’t last because the rains are so heavy in the wet season. This cistern will service the schools vegetable garden.

The PDC part of the training comes to a close. The trainee trainers are ready for their first permaculture aid project. Alex and his crew ferry tools, cement and empty sacks up to our first school site. When we arrive, a crowd of willing villagers are waiting for us. Some of them have brought along their own traditional tools. I check out the tools with interest. One of them, I call the sabre-tooth mattock, uses 2 metal tipped digging sticks roped onto a elbow shaped wooden handle. I laugh when I pick it up feel its odd shape in my hand. A local grabs it off me and starts hoeing into the ground where the cistern is going. I join him using a steel digging bar we welded up at the blacksmith in Arber Minch. The primitive tool puts my efforts to shame. The soil is a hard bluish, rock-like clay. The sabre-tooth mattock eats the ground while I’m only chipping away small amounts of ground. I’m impressed! This tool is what they must use digging the terraces…

Everybody, trainees, students, myself and some volunteers visiting Strawberry Fields hook into the digging. Earth bags are filled as we dig and stored around the edge of the hole. It takes 2 half days before the 6000-litre cistern is ready for laying the earth bags. We have to dig the tank 4 meters wide so we can put a roof on it for the children’s safety at the school. We also have limited time because we are on a course.

After lining the hole with stacked earth bags, beaten and compressed as we go, it’s time to render the walls with cement. In the hole, several people coat the bags with thick cement while the women mix several loads of concrete simultaneously by hand. In the midst of all this I get a typhoid attack and lay on the ground moaning and clutching my gut. I can see why people die of typhoid! I hand over the management to the team even though they have never built this type of thing before. When I finally make it back to my hut in Strawberry Fields, I relent and take some strong antibiotics. It takes two days before the vomiting and severe diarrhoea are finished. I know I’m lucky that I have access to the right medicines unlike millions of people across Africa. The trainees look after me and make sure their teacher has enough water and toilet paper. Most of them have had the same symptoms so they feel for me.

Days later, the tank is finished and we lop some limbs of eucalyptus trees to make a log frame to support the cisterns roof. I’m about to use a machete and a hammer to notch to ends of the logs so they hold together better. A local villager gently pushes me out of the way and starts using another primitive wonder-tool. It’s like an adze with a bent wood handle. I call it a “chippy-choppy”, as the local name for it is unpronounceable to me. The chippy-choppy makes short work of the notches and wood chips fly at the dude cuts perfect square notches. Again the primitive local tool wins the day. The local axe also makes an appearance and fells the tree limbs in no time. It’s a sharpened wedge of steel sunk into a limp like a cave-man’s club. I gain a whole new respect for their Konso engineered local tools.

As the last few days of the course approach, everybody starts talking about the food they are going to eat when they get back to their homes. The Ugandans, Jimmy and Robert recon they are going to do some “serious chewing” when they make it back to Kampala. I start dreaming of pizza…I must be getting better.

We have an end-of-course party and the crew do some skits, recite poems, tell stories and lay a few jokes on the crowd of trainers, staff and visitors. We all have a good laugh especially when one skit was a send up of me. I silently thank the Universe for sending me these excellent people to help educate the world on permaculture. I imagine the trainers they will train, the projects they build and a huge ripple effect flowing from their work. Trainers training trainers that train trainers and so forth…That’s what’s going to help change our world back into paradise!

The last few days are spent with the new trainers training a team of local primary school teachers. I film each trainer and show the film back to them later so they can evaluate themselves. The classroom training is slow because we use a not so good translator. I’m sure much of the translation was inaccurate but we soldier on. I’m stoked by the quality of my trainers. At the end of the course I get the trainers to promise to network with each other for a series of future projects in Africa. In a year we will have field schools in Uganda, Kenya and Ethiopia with a possible 2 more in Malawi and Zimbabwe. I don’t know where the funds will come from but where there’s a will there’s a way.

The staff at Strawberry Fields were great. Strawberry Fields was a bit like Faulty Towers sometimes because of language differences. Some of the staff misinterpreted requests for things and some pretty funny stuff happened as a result. We nicknamed the receptionist “Manuel” and Alex was definitely Basil Faulty. The team made a final design for Alex so he could work on upgrading the accommodation, hygiene, water systems and food production. It’s a hard job running an eco-lodge in the middle of a developing country. Alex has a lot on his plate and I plan to come back next year and help him train trainers again. Each course adds some improvements to the facilities. Step by step, Strawberry Fields is growing. Tichafa and I are planning a forestry project for the primary schools se we may have some excellent training projects for would-be permaculture aid workers to learn from. Konso is sitting on a gold mine if they have access to the training and the right tree seedlings to plant out those thousands of terraces.

Looking out the plane window as I fly out of the country, I see the farmland across the country takes up every piece of land. Small monoculture crops everywhere. There are few trees and forests or even trees in gullies. The lack of tree cover and animal habitat leave Ethiopia vulnerable to drought, flood and soil loss through erosion. Where are the native animals? Most of the national parks have been trashed. Can a culture of destruction become a culture of sustainability?

Permaculture here is the best, proven solution if we can get it into the schools. The children of Africa are the future gardeners and foresters if we can educate them. What have the UN and the International NGO’s done for Africa? Where’s the self-sufficiency and sustainability for all those billions spent? Why is the potential of Africa squandered for aid-dependency? The endless poverty spread across Africa is a massive multi-billion dollar industry. It’s time for a change of strategy or more people will die, more soil will be lost and many more billions thrown away.

There are two paths in the future for Ethiopia, one leads to destruction and the other to a sustainable paradise. The whole of Africa needs permaculture! What a huge task…educating Africa…Who’s going to tackle that job?

I’m having a go and there’s now more shoulders added to the wheel. Big things grow from little things as the song goes. It starts with a few Green Warriors…