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Their skirts and shawls whipped by the wind, members of the Jalala Women’s Association rush from their fields, laughing, as the rain begins to fall—first in fat drops and then with a roar, pounding the metal roof of their new grain bank where they gather.
It’s dim inside, lit only by the gray afternoon light streaming through the door. But it’s ample enough for me to study their faces— solemn and engrossed—as they listen to their chairwoman, Meshu Babure, tell how this group, whose name means “love” in Afan Oromo, came to be—and how it is now changing the lives of its 150 members.
Outside, the bustle in the association’s compound in Oine Chefo Umbure has stopped for the moment as everyone takes cover. A small crew of men—with the women’s help—has been mixing cement and hauling rocks for the foundation of yet another new building, this one to house the diesel-powered grain mill Jalala recently bought with support from a group of European ambassadors’ spouses who had visited the organization. The association will use the mill to grind grain for their community and generate income for their members.
A hum of activity seems to define the place. Along with the grain mill, the Jalala women are constructing a building to serve as a store for the community, because the market that most people frequent is a long distance off. Across the yard, the frame of a small office building rises next to the grain bank, and sitting in the center of the growing complex is a mud-walled poultry facility. Beyond the compound, with the help of the Center for Development Initiatives, or CDI, an Oxfam partner, Jalala has orchestrated the construction of a school for the community where none had been before. It was to open in September for students through grade four.
The women of Jalala are working this magic in a corner of Shashemene, a district about 155 miles south of Ethiopia’s capital where a drought in 2008 severely hindered the ability of families to feed themselves and left 46 children dead. Food shortages continue to be a problem here, as most people survive by raising animals and farming small plots of land. In August, hope for a healthy harvest hides some of the sorrow that earlier hardship bred: fields of green stretch to the horizon with the promise that maize and wheat may soon fill grain banks that community members established in recent years with the help of CDI and Oxfam.
Much, though, is dependent on the rain— will there be enough to feed the crops?— and on people’s good health to carry on with the hard physical labor a subsistence life demands. As elsewhere in Africa, HIV/ AIDS has taken a toll in this region, leaving people weak and many children orphaned.
It was that sweeping problem that first launched the Jalala Women’s Association and where Meshu Babure heard the earliest whispers of what has now become her calling: to better the lives of women—and their families—in the communities around her.
A woman with an education
Babure had completed high school—the only woman in her community to do so— when officials from the local government approached her for help in educating households about HIV and family planning. Together with her sister-in-law, Basha Dachasso, Babure set out on her mission, and the pair was soon joined by two other women. That was nine years ago—in 2001.
Their task expanded when the district’s women’s affairs department decided to get a better understanding of poverty in the area and asked the team to register the names of poor women. As they went, the team picked up new members, growing from 10 to 15, until one day they found themselves collected under a massive oda tree—treasured among Oromia people for a canopy broad enough to shelter whole gatherings from the harsh African sun. There, Jalala’s true work was born: The women decided to turn their attention to the poverty that saddled so many of their neighbors.
“I was touched by a woman with a very severe problem—a woman holding a child on her chest and carrying firewood on her back to the market,” says Babure.
Soon, the group decided to start pooling their money to build a small fund from which members could take loans or draw in times of need. By 2007, the women had managed to stash away 4,000 birr—or about $245—and their ranks had grown to 50. Meanwhile, they had also persuaded the local government to give them access to about six acres of land that they started farming. This year they harvested both potatoes and teff, Ethiopia’s staple grain, and have continued to nurture a small plantation of enset, a drought-resistant plant that is a bulwark against hunger.
So far, they have plowed the income they have earned back into their association, using a chunk of it, for instance, to construct the poultry building. But as other organizations have donated goods to Jalala—heifers and seedlings—the group in turn has distributed them among its members.
As Babure retraces all these steps, members quietly pass around a stack of photos. One in particular stands out—proof of the determination that drives them. It shows a woman marching through the furrows of a field, guiding an ox-drawn plow as it digs deep into the earth. It’s work that men usually do. But the women of Jalala manage just fine.
That independence, though, came at a price. Some of the women’s husbands objected to their wives joining Jalala, which has also worked to change harmful traditional practices in the community—like polygamy. One member showed up at a meeting with blood streaming from her head: her husband had beaten her to prevent her attendance. She came anyway.
Early on, Babure herself was threatened, too, for talking about the rights of women, promoting family planning, and discussing the problems of polygamy and the economic burden it places on families.
“Some people said, ‘We will try to kill you,’” she recalls, knowing she would have to endure intimidation to achieve her goals. But Babure had a role model in Nobel Peace Prize-winner Wangari Maathi, a Kenyan woman who had suffered head injuries when she was attacked for planting trees to protest the deforestation of her country. Babure heard about Maathi and found inspiration in her determination and bravery.
Before the women of Jalala organized themselves, most stayed at home, taking orders from their husbands, says Babure, who, at 32, is not married. To encourage others to join their group, the Jalala women composed a rallying song based on some of their traditions. It’s about a fox, who represents poverty. He threatens to enter the women’s houses and bite them. The only way to fend him off is for the women to come out of their houses and join in unity against him.
“If we come together and shout loudly, people will hear us,” says Babure. “If you shout alone, no one will hear you. They will think you are mad.”
The song worked. New members thronged to the group—and slowly attitudes shifted.
Now, the community views women in one of two ways, says Babure: Either as a member of Jalala, with all the strength and independence that confers, or as someone who is not a member. Though Babure’s brother still refuses to talk to her—he disapproves of the energy she is pouring into the association to the exclusion of all else—even her mother has joined Jalala. And, she notes, many of the members’ husbands are now pitching in to help when it comes time to till the fields.
“We showed we can work,” says Babure. “We can produce. We can make a change.”