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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2008
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Burned Out on Burning Man
Vice Presidential Matchmaking
Life in Abundance
I Was Here
Whatever Happened to "Save the Whales"?
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One Small Step
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Sierra Magazine
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Life in Abundance
Ethiopia, the cradle of humanity, faces up to family planning
By Paul Rauber | Photography by Ian Berry/Magnum
July/August 2008

BEFORE GETTING OFF THE PLANE in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, I'd dismissed as weird romanticism the notion that one's first visit to Africa can stir oddly powerful emotions. But here I am, tearing up on the tarmac at the thought of being back where our human experiment began. After all, it was nearby in the Awash valley that Lucy, the 3.2 million–year–old mother of us all, was unearthed. Scientists no longer call her our oldest ancestor, but most agree these dry African plains are where we became human.

Not that Ethiopia feels like home; it is more like an alternate universe. Signs along the road from the airport welcome the new millennium, which didn't arrive here until last summer. (The rest of the world had switched to the standard Gregorian calendar by the 18th century, but Ethiopia has stuck with the Julian system, which runs about eight years behind.) Even the clocks are different, with the numbers starting at the bottom rather than the top, so Ethiopian one o'clock is our seven.

The prickly euphorbia in the foreground surround and protect a young fruit tree. Along with contraceptives, education, and healthcare, selling fruit gives local women the opportunity to better provide for their children.

The dominant language is Amharic, with its own space-alien alphabet. Such iconoclasm is partly a result of the fact that, alone among African nations, Ethiopia was never colonized. The Italians tried and failed, but when Ethiopia finally kicked them out, it kept their spluttering, wheezing espresso machines. The birthplace of humanity, it turns out, is also the birthplace of coffee and appreciates a good macchiato.

Without even the benefits of caffeine, Lucy's children went forth from the Awash valley and multiplied, populating the earth and not neglecting their native land. (Ethiopians, a very handsome people, have better cause than many to procreate.) The country's population has quintupled in the past 70 years to 77 million, and demographers expect it to more than double again by 2050. Its fertility rate is one of the highest in the world, with an average of 5.4 children per woman. The consequences are predictably severe, both for the country's natural environment and the health of all those kids, half of whom are undernourished. (The starving children of Ethiopia our parents invoked to get us to clean our plates are still hungry.)

Kids bring sugarcane to market in Wondo Genet.

Even so, the previous Marxist dictatorship forbade even talk of family planning. The current regime readily acknowledges its necessity but lacks the means to pay for it. The enormous need, coupled with Ethiopia's relative lack of corruption, has made the country a laboratory for innovative family-planning efforts financed by foreign organizations including the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). That's why I'm here with a delegation of population activists from the Sierra Club and the National Audubon Society: to see how Mother Africa is providing for her many offspring.

MY FIRST MISSION IS TO OBTAIN an Ethiopian press credential--something "strongly urged" by U.S. officials, who pointed out that the country's still-authoritarian government has a lamentable record of press freedom. After much haggling, I secure a cab to the Ministry of Information and plunge into the vehicular chaos of Addis Ababa's rush hour. My shuddering Russian Lada taxi jostles along with heavily laden jitneys, trucks piled high with firewood to feed millions of home fires, and young men driving cattle and goats down the central thoroughfare. The air is thick with diesel exhaust. Even though the average American produces 20 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and the average Ethiopian only a tenth of a ton, I'm thinking that next to my taxi driver I'm looking pretty good.

Tisiot Woldeseneset, 18, happily avoided the female genital cutting that traditionally precedes marriage in the Oromia region. While now illegal, the practice remains widespread in Ethiopia.
When I emerge several hours later from the crumbling Soviet-style highrise of the Ministry of Information, my driver is still waiting. (Apparently I hadn't driven as hard a bargain with him as I'd imagined.) Figuring that since I was now credentialed I might as well do some journalism, I inquire about my driver's sex life. Yes, he is married and has one boy. His wife uses contraceptives from a local clinic. What does he think of Addis? "Too big." The government says 3 million people; this guy says at least 6 million. And it's too expensive: He pays $100 a month for a lousy one-room apartment. Any more kids on the way? "Maybe in two, three years. Maybe one more. But that's all." What with food, clothes, and school, he says, it just costs too much. Call it free-market family planning.

WHILE ADDIS ABABA IS A HUGE, sprawling slum with barely existent sanitation, a spotty water supply, and rampant unemployment, crime, and disease, it has a lot going for it compared with the countryside. In the city, the government provides family-planning services and education, which is a type of family planning itself: Here as elsewhere, uneducated women have three times as many children as women who get at least some secondary schooling. Morning and afternoon streets swirl with drifting and eddying streams of students in their bright school sweaters: yellow, maroon, baby blue.

In the Berga valley (above), families average seven children. Now hundreds of local women get contraceptives from health worker Gete Dida (below), allowing them to limit their family size--and giving the area's wildlife a chance at survival.

Unlike many developing countries, however, Ethiopia explicitly discourages migration into its capital, with the result that 85 percent of its people still live in the countryside, spread everywhere humans might possibly live. Fields are planted on the steep slopes of hills, in the turmoil of freshly cleared forests, or terraced in precipitous canyons. The universal use of wood for fuel has reduced the country's forest cover to less than 3 percent, and most of that is eucalyptus plantations. Native woods survive only in odd, protected corners--one of the oddest being the huge grounds of the British embassy in Addis, the largest embassy in the world outside the U.S. behemoth in Baghdad.

Through the arcane fellowship that links birders all over the world, one of our colleagues from Audubon--which, like the Sierra Club, has many members devoted to population issues--wangles us an invitation to tour the embassy grounds, guided by the wife of a U.K. diplomat. It is (for the nonbirder) a blur of speckled mousebirds, white-cheeked turacos, tacazze sunbirds, and blue-breasted bee-eaters as we wander among the comfortable stone residences, well supplied with lawn bowling and croquet pitches, not to mention lovely verandas and arbors for one's afternoon gin and tonic. Farther up the hill, however, the trimmed lawns give way to thick forest, and our host begins to look concerned. "We're encroaching on leopard territory now," she says, peering intently into the underbrush. Apparently a number of leopards have managed to slip past the double row of razor-wire-tipped fence surrounding the embassy and have thus far eaten all but two of the compound's domestic cats. At night, she says, they prowl around the perimeter watchtowers, while guards huddle above and hyenas gather on the far side of the fence. Even now the sky is full of white-backed vultures and other carrion eaters. If we really want to see scavenger birds, our host recommends a visit to the local abattoir, or slaughterhouse, provided we can stand the smell. A night visit might even yield a hyena sighting. Darn the luck, we have to leave early the next morning.

WE TRAVEL SOUTH ON A FINE NEW ROAD, courtesy of the People's Republic of China (which is currying favor through roadbuilding and infrastructure projects all over East Africa). Vibrant images swirl past: rainbow-hued fruit stands; mountains of charcoal; hundreds of white-veiled worshippers and mendicants crowding around an Ethiopian Orthodox church, listening to the prayers via loudspeaker; and lines of unrefrigerated meat markets with fresh carcasses on hooks and butchers with big knives at the ready. Despite its extreme poverty, Ethiopia is a very carnivorous country. In the countryside, livestock is wealth, and everywhere child shepherds brandishing sticks watch over goats, sheep, cattle, and donkeys. While the poor subsist on chickpeas and spongy injera bread, anyone who can afford to dines on meat. The result is that nearly all land not given to cultivation is pasture, and most of that is severely overgrazed. The elephants and rhinos that used to roam here are, for the most part, long gone, crowded out by domesticated biomass.

Once past the Sino-Ethiopian Friendship Society industrial parks that crowd the outskirts of Addis, we descend toward the Rift Valley, and the landscape turns to classic East Africa savanna: rolling grasslands dotted with trees and family compounds ringed with thornbushes (a safe corral for the livestock at night). The houses are circular mud huts roofed with thatch or occasionally corrugated tin--the only feature distinguishing this millennium from any other. The birders point out a flock of white storks--the archetypal northern European chimney nester and baby deliverer--settling in a field. (Europe's populations of both storks and humans are in decline, but baby deliveries are still going strong in Ethiopia.)

At a tired resort by a mud brown lake, we break for lunch. An African wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica) prowls the resort's perimeter, the mitochondrial mama of every domestic puss on the planet. Except for a slightly leonine cast of the head, the cat is indistinguishable from Scabby, the feral tabby who hangs out in my Berkeley, California, backyard. If Lucy had a cat, this would be it.

I walk back toward the main road along a dusty dirt track, children crowding around begging for a scripto (pen) or proffering crude soapstone carvings of the cars and trucks they see passing them by on the way to another century. Outside a dusty shack, a tiny boy with a distended belly wanders aimlessly, alone. Luckily for him, the predator population in this part of the world is much reduced.

As we descend from the high Abyssinian plain, the vegetation becomes more lush and the population denser. Outside the Rastafarian community of Shashemene (Emperor Haile Selassie gave a nearby valley to his Jamaican fans), we find a few remnant patches of native forests--and thus colobus and vervet monkeys and a wild profusion of birds. In a bustling village called Wondo Genet, a stream doubles as a laundry and car wash. Folks are beautified in open shops, peddlers sell mildly narcotic khat leaves, and lively Ping-Pong battles rage at three tables. (More tokens of Sino-Ethiopian friendship?)

Access to water, rural people throughout our trip tell us, is their single largest problem, with women and children often obliged to walk miles in search of a potable supply. Here it's not so bad: Kids queue up at a hose connected to a well in the forested area above the village. In its streets, horse-drawn buggies carry sugarcane, firewood, and passengers. One poor beast is trying to pull a cart overloaded with six people; in lieu of a ticket, a policeman lets the air out of one tire.

Most Ethiopians live like this or next door to it. Eight in ten get by on less than $2 a day. This means that, in practice, many live almost entirely outside the cash economy. An old man labors behind a single plow drawn by two oxen; a slim young woman hews wood in the doorway of her hut with a handmade ax; young men look up from reaping, sickles in hand; a child drives cattle in a circle, threshing grain; and old women run down the road, bent double under heavy fardels of firewood. Later, Adey Abebe, my translator, asks me if I am shocked by what I've seen. Not really, I say. It feels very familiar, like the fairy tales of my childhood or the many books I've read about ancient times.

"Really?" she says, raising an eyebrow. "Even Ethiopian people coming from Addis, which you can see is very poor itself, even they are shocked when they come here. You must have read very many books."


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