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A traditional form of help allows families to rebuild herds in Ethiopia

By Coco McCabe
The numbers on their backs allow for an orderly distribution of these goats. Photo: Coco McCabe

The sun was sinking behind the hills of Kanbi, a village in southern Ethiopia, as Qaballe Sirba, 30, made her way home with a small herd of goats and a smile on her face one day in August. The goats were a gift from DUBAF, an Oxfam America partner, which has been working with villagers here to help them find lasting solutions to the constant hardship drought has brought.

Restocking community herds using a traditional model known as “hirbaa-dabaree” is part of that initiative. The system is based on sharing: In times of crisis, when a herding family’s animals die because of drought or disease, others in the community who are better off give the destitute family animals from their own herds, helping that family recover their losses.

DUBAF’s program, designed to help an initial 220 households, works in the same way. The first round of beneficiaries each received seven goats. When those goats produce offspring, families will give those kids to their needy neighbors, thereby helping to build up the assets of the village’s poorest residents.

“A person who does not have assets can have an opportunity to build assets,”said Boka Gababa, who also received a small herd from DUBAF. “He can raise goats and get milk. And he can meet his household needs after selling the offspring.”

For Sirba, the chance to create some security for her family followed a long string of severe challenges. Both she and two children became sick with a lung illness. Then her husband fell into a ditch and became paralyzed, leaving Sirba as the sole bread-winner. And then, the drought and food crisis of 2008 struck—forcing the family to survive on just one meal a day.

“If I raise the goats—and God help me on this—I will get out of this problem,” Sirba said.
In Kanbi, life has become much more difficult than when Godana Gollota, 75, was a child.

“When I was a very young boy, before I got married, people depended on livestock,” he said. “Nobody farmed. They had enough milk—and food in general. When we compare the current period—even the last three years—the rain failed. It was drought. And crops failed as well.”

Added Damise Jilo, 39, “Before, we were pastoralists. Gradually we lost our livestock and started farming—and practicing farming and animal breeding side by side. But then, the crops started to fail, too. It’s very difficult.”

Determination is what drives Roba Gababa, a 70-year-old man.

“We cannot discuss about the rain. It is out of our control—only God can decide that,” he said. “But we don’t keep quiet. We have tried farming. We’ve invested in grain and we’ve seen we can get something out of the land—so we keep on trying, even though the rain is not reliable.”
Some families are irrigating, said Jilo, but it’s backbreaking work: They’re doing it by hand, lugging water to their fields in jerry cans, without the aid of pumps or pipes.

“If we can get support in this, we can do better,” said Jilo.