Building a better well

By Chris Hufstader
The improved Negelle eela well near Dubluq, in southern Oromia.

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The dry season is a deadly time of the year for the Borena people. They struggle to keep their cows alive, as they are their wealth, their future, and their pride. But there is little water and the pastures are usually bare of grass. Herders move their livestock around looking for something to eat as the dry wind whips the dirt into red dust devils, twisting silently hundreds of meters into the blue, cloudless sky.

In the area near Dubluq, Borena clans have wells with earthen ramps leading their cows down to flat areas with mud troughs so their animals can drink water passed up, bucket by bucket, by teams of men in a vertical chain, all singing to keep rhythm. These traditional eela wells, also called singing wells, are crucial in the dry season, and the clans have a schedule for which herds can access the wells on different days.

One of the wells near Dubluq is a bit special. The Negelle well has a wider entry ramp leading to a large flat surface surrounded on three sides by concrete troughs and a large reservoir. Dida Ollo, leader of the Maleu Gida sub clan, stands next to the Negelle eela and smiles, showing his impossibly straight, white teeth. "My clan and my community are overjoyed," he says as his clan members pass water up to the troughs in preparation for several herds expected that afternoon. "Imagine," Ollo says. "We can water up to 1,600 cattle in a day. With our old eela we could only take care of much fewer cattle."

The contrast with the older traditional wells is clear: In some of the older wells the herders stand precariously on a rickety, makeshift wooden ladder, passing the water up to an earth trough about 15 feet long. Each day they must create a mud out of water and dust from a termite mound to line the trough to reduce seepage. It is more work to serve fewer cows: About 15 cows can drink at one time. The neighboring Negelle well can serve 70 cows at one time, and has a steel ladder and platform system on which the herders stand securely passing the water buckets up and down.

Dida Ollo's clan asked Oxfam America's partner in Dubluq, Action for Development (AFD), to help them rehabilitate their traditional eela. Clan members donated their labor, sold cows to buy materials, and worked with AFD to optimize the design. Oxfam America contributed a grant for part of the cost.

Just enlarging the entry ramp made a huge difference, decreasing the angle and widening the width from two to 13 meters. Nasir Tonea, the construction foreman for the project with AFD, says "Before we leveled the entrance, it was really steep. And only one cow at a time could enter. After they drank, they big cows had trouble getting out, we would have to get behind and push. Now we can have 70 cows leaving to one side so they can let another herd of cows come down—they let them in because they can see they are thirsty," he says. "They have better manners than most people on the roads nowadays."

Dida Ollo says the rehabilitation made a huge difference. "The difference between the old and new well is like night and day." He says they sometimes allow other clans to water their cattle at the Negelle well when the other nearby traditional wells can't cope with the demand in dry times.

Next to the Negelle well there is a plaque that reads, "Dubluq well rehabilitated with the partnership of the local community, Oxfam America, and Action for Development." Now 68, Dida says this is part of his legacy: "When I pass away future generations will know we accomplished this together." It's important to him because it enshrines his participation in important Borena traditions. "There are two sacred things in Borena life," Ollo explains later at his house. "The first is to raise a girl and give her hand away in marriage. The second is to bring the clan together to work on our eela."