It has been a hectic couple of weeks on the road for our group of three as we went through parts of Oromia, Amhara, Benshangul-Gumuz and Tigray. Covering a total of over three thousand kilometers, our journey opened our eyes to the current situation of life in rural and urban Western and Northern Ethiopia.
As chances like this do not come often enough, we were determined to make the best out of it by spending our time off the job learning about the existing economic and social realities of zones and woredas. Accordingly, we have come to understand some major positives felt by inhabitants as well as some deep rooted negatives discouraging people from participating more in the economic, social and political affairs of their communities.
The positives include tremendous infrastructural expansion, better social services, improved household income and improved quality of life as a result. On our three thousand plus kilometers route from Addis to Jimma, Bedele, Nekemte, Asosa, Gilgel Beles, Koso Ber, Bahir Dar, Woreta, Woldiya, Mekelle, Desae and back to the capital, the total length of gravel road was less than four hundred kilometers. As our engagements demanded that we go to woredas and kebeles in those places, we had the opportunity to witness the construction of roads linking urban centers with rural kebeles.
The coverage of electricity along our route is tremendous. Clean running water has also been installed in most parts of the areas that we covered. Schools and medical centers have become readily accessible along the route that we took. The straw roof huts that identified rural Ethiopia for millennia have predominantly been replaced by tin sheet roof houses. Long taken as an indicator of income levels in rural areas, tin sheet roof houses have nowadays become the norm. Television sets, refrigerators, satellite dishes and other electronic materials that make life easy have increasingly become part of rural life.
The negatives, on the other hand, include lack of good governance, intolerance towards people from other regions and corruption. The use of public office to favor some at the expense of others creates some sort of social tension. Various acts that trump good governance also create a sense of suspicion by the people over governmental administration. They also discourage people from participating in social, economic and political activities.
With good governance issues singled out as the instigators of recent unrest in some parts of the country, regions have been taking measures to avert the situation. Immediate measures such as the expulsion of office holders suspected of involvement in misdemeanours and other serious transgressions against the law have widely been taken by regions along with long term strategic decisions to curb the problem. Accordingly, the issue of good governance has moved up the ladder of national priorities to take up the top spot.
Scandals, demotions and imprisonments of suspected public officials have thus become the main stories about good governance in Ethiopia recently. In light of this gloomy development, I felt like a positive news would be like an oasis drawing people from all directions. The situation I have witnessed can also serve as a model for others to look up to.
I witnessed the story that struck me quite hard in Gomma Woreda of Jimma zone. What started out as a shallow glimpse of the economic success in the local government ended up being a fascinating closer look at cross-sectoral activities. After communicating with relevant authorities, we went down to Beshasha kebele to interview farmers who performed well during the last five years. Covered with a dense forest of indigenous trees that bear the world renowned coffee arabica within them, Beshasha is a small place with close interpersonal ties among its residents.
However, explain the residents we spoke to, the place is still haunted by a heinous conflict that put its name at national level. The fatal conflict between Muslims and Christians in the kebele had the attention of the entire nation scarring its image as a hot spot for religious turmoil. Despite this taunted image, however, residents claim to have a strong bond that crosses religious barriers and one that is too strong to be shaken by a single horrific event. They further explain that the event has left everyone shocked thrusting the issue of tolerance and co-existence further than it already was. Residents speak of a life time of understanding and respect between followers of the religions in the area and underscore that the fatal conflict is the exception rather than the norm.
In our visit of the Kebele, we have come across farmers that have transformed their lives radically over the years. These farmers live in small villas despite it being a rural kebele; they have electricity and tap water in their homes; they have built houses in the nearby city of Agaro; and they have are planning on venturing into other businesses. As much as this sounds like an exaggeration, I have depicted things as pragmatically and realistically as possible.
When I asked them about their success, they simply pointed out that it is in large down to the advice of agricultural extension workers. Before the extension workers were introduced, residents told me that they generated seasonal income that followed the pattern of coffee harvest. Their incomes went up during coffee harvest and gradually went down as time went on. The extension workers have since then helped them engage in bees and qhat production helping them generate income throughout the year and increasing their former income considerably. Their advice on coffee production has also helped them boost the quantity and quality of their produce raising its price on the market.
The farmers explain that it is this input by agricultural extension workers that has changed their lives drastically. The farmers claim that their incomes have increased in folds as a result of the professional assistance they receive from the extension workers. Years of such invigorated income have left considerable marks on their lives as illustrated earlier. Accordingly, farmers of Beshasha have become economically strong.
On the other hand, the Gomma woreda and Jimma zone administrations have over the last five years effectively constructed the roads connecting woreda capitals with kebeles making it easy for residents of kebeles to access transport services. As a result, people and products are transported much more easily. The road network has allowed residents in need of medical assistance to get to hospitals easily. Currently, efforts are underway to connect neighboring kebeles with each other through gravel roads.
Residents also explain that the local government has built health centers extensively making it easier for them to access health services. Schools have also been constructed nearby making it possible for parents to have their kids attend their education under parental guidance as opposed to earlier trends of sending students out to rented houses in city centers where schools are located. The local government has also laid electricity and pipe water lines.
All these improvements have not gone unnoticed by the residents of Gomma woreda and Beshasha kebele. The effort made by the local government to tackle social problems has created a sense of trust by the people of its actions. This bond has then helped increase popular participation in issues of governance.
After noticing the long bureaucratic procedures and huge demand for machines used in road maintenance, the people raised some money among themselves, bought some of the machines and handed them over to the local government so it can promptly deal with damaged roads. Considering there are 41 kebeles under Gomma woreda, the people of the woreda felt like the two ambulances bought by the administration were far too short to satisfy demands. Therefore, they raised money to buy three other ambulances and passed them on to the woreda administration. Currently, an ambulance serves eight kebeles under the coordination of the woreda administration. Parts of the woreda that do not have access to tap water yet have also raised and saved up money to assist the local government’s efforts towards that end.
Calls by the woreda administration to construct a stadium and a boarding school in Agaro city were also received warmly by the community as 20 million birr was raised during a single day of fund raising.
The tangible effort by the local government to improve the lives of the community has gained the proper appreciation it deserves by the people. Accordingly, people have started to participate actively in economic and social affairs. The bond between the people and the local government has grown strong along the way. Therefore, it is no wonder that Gomma woreda saw none of the recent unrest in various parts of Oromia. There might be something to learn from that experience.