Oxfam's cash-for-work projects help rural Ethiopians get through drought

By Sophie McGrath
Muuse Xoosh says even if he tried to sell his animals at market they wouldn't fetch enough to cover his living costs.

Hanura Awalay sits cross-legged in the midday sun, her hands hidden inside a loose robe. It’s the same color as the sky: a light, soft blue, once again. Here in the remote community of Gobablay, in the Shinile zone of southern Ethiopia, there has been too little rain.

Awalay, who has nine children, has lived here her whole life. Since the death of one of her sons, she has single-handedly raised five of her grandchildren---a task made all the more difficult by an increasingly punishing climate.

“Here we are agro-pastoralists – farmers who also keep livestock. We depend on rain-fed crops but in the last few years drought has come frequently and led to crop failure,” said Awalay. “I used to have 100 sheep and goats, but now I have less than 30.” 

This year, a climate phenomenon known as La Nina has made the situation worse, causing drought across East Africa, which in turn has depleted the remaining pasture. For Awalay, whose livelihood has been wrecked by the last few years, this is the final straw. 

“Livestock are our capital, but they are dying.,” she said.  “There’s no forage, no grain, nothing for them to eat during the dry season. Because of the drought, everything is scarce. We don’t know what to do. We are waiting for Allah from the sky.” 

The small ponds which usually provide Gobablay with water have dried up, so people leave at 5 a.m., and again in the evening, to traipse dirt roads to get water.

All around the Shinile zone, the story is the same.

“I have more children than animals now,” said Muuse Xoosh, joking before he grew more serious. “Now, even if I went to market and sold my animals, the money wouldn’t cover my living costs.”

A father of eight children, Xoosh currently depends on day labor for an income.

“I have no other means of surviving,” he said.

But this work is not reliable, as Abdi Bille, a father of seven, knows. When he doesn’t get work, he cuts down on meals, eating just once or twice a day--- a far cry from the days when he could depend on his cattle for milk, meat, and income for other food. 

But in the last few months, Awalay, Xoosh, and Bille and thousands like them have at least been able to rely on one source of income:  Oxfam’s cash-for-work projects. By helping construct fences, trenches, dams, and other structures that protect and improve the pasture and farmland, they earn a steady income for weeks at a time. 

“The money has absolutely changed the lives of me and my family”, says Xoosh, who earned $75 from two months of employment. “I used it to pay for my family’s daily expenses including food and clothes.  Since we’re poor, the children lacked clothes”. 

Awalay put her $91 towards food and clothes too, and her grandchildren’s education.

“In the past when my grandson asked me for school supplies, I couldn’t give him anything," she said. "But now when he says ‘I lost my pen’ or ‘I need a book’, I can get him one”. 

The income isnnot just keeping people going it also means they don’t have to migrate to seek better conditions elsewhere.

Support Oxfam's response to the current food and drought crisis in the region.