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Bigger harvests, safer food

Ethiopia, October 10, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps  </span>
    In Tulli-Gullet, we were greeted by women ululating and waving branches over our heads — a sign of welcome and peace. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps

I’m writing from under my mosquito net in Jijiga, Ethiopia. If you don’t know where that is, don’t feel bad. I didn’t either. I looked it up before I left home, of course, but Google maps only showed a big empty expanse that I suppose is meant to indicate sand. Anyway, Jijiga is in the eastern part of the country, very close to the border of Somalia. And there’s much more than sand here.

Today we visited Mercy Corps projects that are helping people who live around here get through the worst of the drought and build greater security, in the most basic sense of the word: food, water, shelter, hygiene. My traveling companions are my Mercy Corps teammates Ahmed Osman and Ali Ghaddi, and our driver, Hussein.

Our first stop is the small village of Tulli-Gullet, not far outside Jijiga – on a road built by a Mercy Corps cash-for-work project. Ahmed explained: “The communities here couldn’t get to market to buy or sell goods, because there was no road. So Mercy Corps provided wages for the local people to build this road.”

We were greeted by women ululating and waving branches over our heads — a sign of welcome and peace. We walked around with a group of village men, women and kids, who showed us their houses and the supplies Mercy Corps provided to 450 families here: heavy plastic tarps for their roofs, blankets, mosquito nets and jerry cans. These are the essential everyday goods that shelter people here from weather and malaria and allow them to bring water home from the well.

Next we drove to Laffa-Issa, where Mercy Corps is building a new meat market to replace the current one. It was easy to see why a new facility is needed. “It’s unhygienic,” said Ali, and I couldn’t argue with him. Flies swarmed over the raw meat, dust clouds swirled around, and dogs and cats have learned that a free dinner is only a quick snatch away. The women who butcher and sell meat here crouch over their wares, waving a knife or a branch to chase off the flies. But they deserve better, and the new facility is almost complete. We went to see it, and the sturdy concrete block building -- with a corrugated tin roof, individual stalls for the sellers, and a pump so they can wash their equipment – will clearly be a big step forward. It should be complete in a few weeks.

Back on the road, we bumped over rocks and ruts to visit a checkdam project. To my untrained eye, the small dams looked at first like piles of rocks. But luckily I was with Ahmed, who showed me how the system works. “The checkdams catch the silt on one side,” he said, pointing out how the upstream side of the dam was sandy while the downstream side was rocky. The dams prevent the formation of deep gullies that contribute to flooding. They control erosion and increase the productivity of the barley, sorghum and maize grown here by 80 percent. Pretty effective for what I thought was a pile of rocks!