What have lambs got to do with school? Everything—in Ethiopia

By Coco McCabe
Durete Abulla tends to the sheep that her family received as part of an Oxfam America program designed to help girls stay in school. Photo: Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Livestock is like money in the bank: It can help families pay for the education of their daughters.

English and biology are 16-year-old  Durete Abulla’s favorite subjects in school, and someday, she says, she would like to become a doctor. But in rural Ethiopian communities like Ilancho, encouraging girls to continue with their educations is not always a priority for families, especially if money is tight. Marriage is often the preferred option.

But Halkane Bagajo, Abulla’s mother, is determined that not be the fate of her daughter. Now, thanks to a pair of sheep, both Abulla and Bagajo may see their dreams come true.

The sheep—and goats--were part of a distribution arranged by Oxfam’s local partner, The Center for Development Initiatives, or CDI, to help struggling farming families in the West Arsi Zone build resilience to the droughts that plague their region.  For many Ethiopians, livestock is like money in the bank: When they need cash to pay for essentials such as food—or school—they sell an animal. And the small ones, like goats and sheep, reproduce quickly, helping families build a financial safety net while also nourishing households with milk.

For 114 girls in five communities in West Arsi, the goats or sheep they received means their families now have the resources to ensure they can stay in school.

“We found it is the best approach to continuing their education,” said CDI’s Tamrat Belay.

One of Abulla’s sheep has already given birth to a pair of lambs. And once they’ve grown a little, the money they will fetch at market will help her parents defray the cost of Abulla’s lodging in the distant town where her next school is located.

But for now, Abulla, who is in seventh grade, has just a 20-minute walk to her school. Her classes are held in the mornings only.

“I hope she will not get married early and she completes all levels of education and becomes someone great,” says Bagajo, who never had the chance to go to school herself and doesn’t know how to read or write. Instead, she relies on Abulla to read important documents to her such as the flier Bagajo received recently offering advice on how to save—advice she took to heart.

For her part, Abulla appreciates the opportunity her mother is giving her, especially given the local attitudes about education for girls.

“This wrong perception of the community will change if someone becomes a model,” says Abulla. “Then people will learn from that experience.”