A year ago, a tall, intensely focused man found his way to the Oxfam America office in Addis Ababa. His name was Kote Ibrahim and he came with two others: Kararsa Guracha and Wariyo Dullo. They had a plan. Would Oxfam listen?
In a conference room far from their native Liben in southern Ethiopia, the men painted a picture of that place—its herders, their hardships—that was so alive those listening to the stories could almost hear the cattle's hooves on the hard, dry earth and sense the struggles of the families who depended on them.
"These marginalized people living in the bush, in the dark, I see some light (for them)," said Kararsa. "I want to expand the light. I can't do it alone. I need people like you."
Their plan was simple: To help local herders by improving the health of their cattle and finding a way to educate their children.
They weren't looking for a handout: They were looking for a partnership. And they had come as community activists armed with local ideas for solving local problems. They even had a small reserve of cash—and livestock—donated by the Boren people to launch their initiative: the Liben Pastoral Development Association.
Tackling the ticks
Less than a year later, this newly formed group now has a two-room office in the town of Negelle—funded completely by the community. It has refurbished a youth hostel so that children will have a place to stay when they attend school in Negelle while their families move off in search of fresh pasture for their animals. And the association has inaugurated its first project with Oxfam's help: a tick bath designed to rid cattle of the troublesome insects that have caused herders extensive hardship.
The ticks have been taking a toll. They cause mastitis in the teats of the cows, blocking the flow of their milk, and depriving herders of an important source of food for their families.
That day in the Addis office, Kote had come prepared with the facts. His fledging development group had surveyed 100 families in the Liben area and found that out of the 700 milking cows among them, 502 of them had mastitis.
"You can imagine the impact of this problem at the household level," said Kote. "This has great impact on food security for Boren families."
But the problem, back then, was that there was nowhere for the herders to take their cows for treatment, and some of the traditional methods of tick control were no longer effective. In the past, before there were permanent settlements scattered around Liben, herders had kept the ticks at bay by burning the rangeland. The government now bans that practice.
Using a long nail, herders collect as many of the ticks as they can off their animals. They rely on chickens and a local bird called a "chiri" to help by feasting on the engorged insects. And in some places, herders also use a mixture of salt and tobacco which they rub on their animals to discourage the bugs from attaching themselves. But more needed to be done. Lots more.
And that's why the Liben Pastoral Development Association's first construction project was the cattle dipping bath located about an hour's drive from Negelle. It's a long concrete canal filled with water and a combination of chemicals. From a steep entrance at one end, the cows wade in and swim to the other side where they walk out into a draining area. Within 30 minutes, the ticks begin to drop off. A committee elected by the local community is in charge of running the bath.
It's an investment the community takes seriously: local families raised more than half the cost of the bath. Oxfam's contribution was $25,794. The project is benefiting about 25,000 people and has been in constant use since it opened.
At a recent inauguration ceremony, Liben residents thanked Oxfam in a way that befits a herding community: They honored the organization by roasting a sheep and placing a piece of sheep skin on the wrists of visiting staffers.
Just the beginning
For the people of Liben, this is just the beginning. The same day as the inauguration ceremony, the Liben Pastoral Development Association held a fund-raiser for its next project. Kicking off the event was a well-known elder who donated a camel—which could fetch up to $290 at market. His gift set the tone. By the end of the event, the community had raised about $10,000.
"The self-mobilization of this impoverished herding community was inspiring to see," said Tim Delaney, an Oxfam staffer who documented the day's events and tallied the donations: 55 cows, 73 goats and sheep, seven camels, and almost $2,000 in cash. "These are people whose only assets are their animals. Yet they were willing to give not because they had excess, but because they realize the importance of these projects. And they know they can't sit back and wait for donors to come along and offer money."
What's next on the agenda for the Liben Pastoral Development Association? With support from Oxfam, the group has plans to improve the water supply for about 5,000 people in the village of Hadhesse Korati. The association plans to install a generator, a reservoir, and two-and-a-half miles of pipeline so that the village and its school, health post, and veterinary clinic can all have a clean, reliable source of water.
A year ago, Kote spoke about his dreams for establishing night schools so students could attend classes after they had finished their herding chores. And he stressed the need for more health clinics in the area. For women having difficult labors, the nearest functioning clinic is more than 60 miles away. Carried on stretchers, they often die before they reach it, he said.
"As a Boren man, I feel ashamed," said Kote last year. "I can't do anything for my people. People are suffering from illness. They're thirsty. They're signing (their names) by fingerprint."
But now, Kote—and the herders of Liben—have plenty to be proud of, and a way to keep moving forward.
"Social change could not have been more clearly seen than at the inauguration of the cattle bath that day in Liben," said Delaney. "Everyone in our group was amazed at how motivated this community was and what they are capable of doing."