UN warns Ebola could infect 10,000 people per week—unless we act now

With sheep and savings, women in North Shewa work to improve the lives of their families

By Coco McCabe
Yeshi Senyi herds her sheep in North Shewa. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

In mid-August, Jidda shimmered with green, the open plains of Ethiopia’s North Shewa zone stretching to the sky.

Rain had been falling frequently here, and the path along which Yeshi Senyi strode required concentration to avoid slipping from the rocks into pockets of mud. Nimble in her plastic shoes and billowing skirt, she led a trickle of visitors across the fields and down to where some sheep grazed. They were hers—a slowly expanding herd started in mid-2009 with support from Oxfam’s local partner, Organization for Development in Action, or ODA.

Restocking sheep and helping local women launch a series of self-help groups are part of ODA’s two-pronged plan to tackle poverty in a region that—despite its water-logged plains—also suffers from increasing bouts of drought, preventing families from growing enough food to feed themselves.

Through the program, 250 women each received five sheep and as they reproduced, some of those lambs were to be given to another 250 women, thereby increasing the assets of 500 women-headed households. The goal was for each participant to build a small herd of eight to 10 sheep—a sustainable resource that would provide their families with both food and income.

"A person with property is respected," Senyi had said shortly after the distribution a year ago, noting that having assets could help her get a loan if she needed it. "A person with property has hope for the future—and confidence."

In August, Senyi  seemed to have both. Opening her arms wide, she herded her sheep together and introduced the visitors to her son, Adissu Hailu, who had been keeping an eye on the flock. It numbered eight now. Of the original five Senyi had received, one had died. The others had given birth, allowing her to give three lambs away to another program participant and then to begin increasing her flock.

Widowed for some time and the mother of seven children, Senyi has worked hard to ensure that they have had a chance to go to school. And in fact, one of her sons has become a teacher in a nearby community. The self-help group Senyi is now a part of could help boost her family’s security further. Senyi serves as its chairwoman.

Starting with a contribution of 1,000 birr, or about $61, donated by ODA, the 63 women in Senyi’s savings-and-loan group have now stashed away about 5,000 birr—or a little more than $300—from  which they will soon begin making loans to each other. Their fund has grown through monthly contributions of four birr, or about 24 cents-- that each member makes. The group also rented a small plot of land to grow tomatoes and potatoes. Their harvest earned them 600 birr, about $36, which they plowed back into their fund. And down the road, they’re thinking about buying some cows and producing milk for sale.

"I am so, so, so happy," said Senyi.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Nearby, rain had begun to thump the thatched roof of Zeleka Tebelu’s hut. Inside, she pivoted toward the open door—the only source of illumination. Light from the gray afternoon brightened her face. Or was it something else that was shining there? The confidence that Senyi had spoken of earlier?

Tebelu was chairman of a self-help group, too, this one also launched with the support of ODA, and already some of its members had taken loans from the group’s savings. With the money, one member had bought sheep and planned to sell the offspring; another woman had bought crops at a market and was reselling them for a profit.

Tebelu herself had been buying and reselling a local green that’s used to make a kind of beer. But she had also branched out into another enterprise—removing the edges from plastic tarps and turning the strips into strapping, which she then sold. The work had already earned her 700 birr, or almost $43.

“She’s a gifted businesswoman,” said Tebelu’s husband, Birhanu Gabrewolde. “Formerly, we lacked money. Now we have money. She created a happy family.”

Tebelu, who has six children, has used some of her earnings to purchase a few necessities for her family: Wrapped for safekeeping in a plastic bag, a new purple and green blanket hang from a beam under the roof. Propped next to it was a blue barrel, still shiny and new.

But Tebelu was dreaming bigger than these few comforts—and her drive may get her there.

As the rain outside turned the yard to mud, Tebelu glanced up into the shadows of the thatch over her head. With 2,000 birr, or about $121, she said, she could replace it with a metal roof. And after that, she added, she wanted to pour her earnings back into her work, expanding both her business and the opportunities for her family.