Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Ethiopia: 'Following the clouds' Nomadic pastoralists receive education on the move

Thousands of charities and non-governmental agencies do development work in Africa, spending billions of dollars trying to make the continent a better place. There is a vigorous international debate over such assistance.

While some projects claim success that provides new opportunities, critics contend that development money often does little good and can make matters worse.

In Ethiopia's remote Afar region, a development group found success where others failed by "following the clouds."

Afar children are among the first in their society to receive a classroom education.

Previous efforts have failed because the Afar pastoralists are nomads and always on the move seeking water and food for their animals.

"We call it 'following the clouds,'" Gardo explained. "That means the pastoralist community is looking after rain. If the rain is somewhere, they go."

Ismael Ali Gardo is executive director of the Afar Pastoralist Development Association or APDA which established the program. This classroom is in a tent, and this one in the shade of a tree. The classes move when the students do.

"We have portable desks, furniture, blackboards. Everything portable," he said.

That same philosophy carries over to health care, sanitation and other APDA efforts in the vast area where the Afar people roam.

Humad Ibrahim is a nomadic herdsman trained by the association as a community health worker. He is no professional, but in his backpack he has the basic tools and medicines to treat people who sometimes are in places where no vehicle can reach. "If I see a patient with simple diarrhea, or in pain, I have medicines," Ibrahim said. "And if I hear someone is sick in a distant place, I can go there."

Ibrahim sees a day when even people who live under the open sky will reap the benefits of basic sanitation. "We are going to improve their lives by teaching them to use latrines," he said.

Ibrahim is also trained to recognize more serious outbreaks. When diseases such as malaria strike, APDA can move precious life-saving medicines, and keep them fresh until they can be delivered to camps, sometimes more than a day's walk from the nearest road.

Afar regional emergency preparedness chief Tamrat Mengistu says APDA is able to do things governments, with their central control and bureaucracies, can't do. "They are working at the bottom, at the community level," he said. "Their staff is the rural people, the original ones, the Afar peoples."

"We have to start to do the development that is suited to the Afar community with their religio[n], with their culture, with their lifestyle, too," Gardo said. "We are not imposing on the community."

APDA's concept has caught the attention, and the funding, of many big development agencies such as USAID and the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF). From their offices in world capitals, these often agencies cannot 'follow the clouds' the way Afar's pastoralists do.

Published with the permission of Voice of America
Published by Mike Hitchen, Mike Hitchen Consulting
Putting principles before profits