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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2008
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Burned Out on Burning Man
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Life in Abundance
I Was Here
Whatever Happened to "Save the Whales"?
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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

(page 2 of 2)

Growing Need, Declining Resources
In the past decade, U.S. funding for international family-planning programs like those in Ethiopia has declined by almost 40 percent. During those years, 275 million more women in the developing world came of childbearing age.

The Sierra Club's Global Population and the Environment program is working to get the United States to invest $1 billion in 2009 in international family planning. You can help by contacting your members of Congress and asking them to respond to the unmet need.

To read more about the Club's population efforts, visit, where you can find details of the Club's legislative proposals and other stories from the Ethiopia study tour in the program's 2008 population report. —Paul Rauber

HAND IN HAND with a preindustrial lifestyle goes a preindustrial death style. Life expectancy in Ethiopia is 48 years. One in 13 babies dies in infancy, and one in 8 never sees age five.

In much of the country, there is only one doctor for every 55,000 people. Soils utterly exhausted by 5,000 years of cultivation are giving out, and drought plays havoc with agriculture in a country with almost no irrigation. When the rains fail, famine follows, and suddenly a fifth of the population depends on food aid from abroad.

The present size of Ethiopia's population--and the likelihood of its doubling by mid-century--exacerbates all problems and frustrates easy solutions. Two out of three women who would like to use family planning can't get it, and in the countryside only one woman in ten uses contraception at all.

Into this gap rush scores of nongovernmental organizations, the largest of which is my translator's employer, Pathfinder International, whose Ethiopian operations are largely supported by USAID and the Packard Foundation. One of its many Ethiopian programs seeks to boost family planning, healthcare access, and environmental-restoration efforts through improving the lot of women and girls. When we step out of our van to visit a Pathfinder project in the hills west of the large provincial city of Awasa, we hear women singing.

Waiting for us in a clearing at the top of the hill are a hundred women, ululating, clapping, and dancing in a traditional welcome ceremony. They have good reason to celebrate: Many are being taught to read and write for the first time, have access to contraceptives and basic healthcare, and have been given two fruit trees per family, along with seeds and support in growing marketable vegetables.

Family planning in Addis Ababa and other Ethiopian cities is easier to come by than in the countryside--jobs, not so much. Women who get as far as secondary school have a third as many children as those who don't.

"Because we didn't have education before, we lived in extreme poverty," says Martha Petros, a 37-year-old mother of nine who sports, in the local fashion, three delicate scars on each cheek. "I had so many children because I didn't know any better. Now my children will go to school, and learn even more, and definitely have fewer children of their own."

Elsabeth Zergaw, the stately president of the Southern Women's Association (the local group working with Pathfinder to administer the program), recites the statistics: 881 women in literacy classes, 72 going on to formal education; 456 women tested for HIV; 450 mango and avocado trees planted; 30 kilograms of vegetable seeds distributed; and zero female genital mutilations.

When your goal is to improve the lot of women, pretty near the top of the list comes ending the practice of cutting off all of a woman's external genitalia three days before her wedding. To prove that the practice had indeed ended in this village, Zergaw introduces four grim, cold-eyed ex-genital mutilators in white robes who have agreed to "put down the knife." (These women now have no means of livelihood, they say, and reasonably wonder who will support them in their late career change.) Next up are six very, very happy uncircumcised brides in their mid-teens, who stand basking in the applause of the gathering. Bucking centuries of tradition clearly took bravery, since it was apparently not clear in advance whether the husbands would accept uncircumcised brides. "This information empowered not only us but our husbands," says one young woman who interrupted her honeymoon to speak to us. "Even though we're married, we have not lost anything. We have been saved, and we want to save others."

This is the women's show. Around the edges of the crowd loiter the men, some observing the spectacle from the branches of trees. I corner one, Solom Jaro, 30, father of three boys and a girl, and ask what he thinks of family planning. "I now have a better understanding of reproductive health," he says diplomatically. Meaning what? "Now I know I have too many children."

TRAVELING WITH BIRDERS can be its own diplomatic endeavor, as nonbirders strain to remain sociable despite their ornithological ignorance. On one birding jaunt between site visits, an Audubon guy ID's a "speckled pigeon," whereupon the birders put down their binoculars, jot in their notebooks, and move on.

"A special pigeon?" exclaims an innocent Sierra Club staffer. "Why is it so special?" The birders ignore her, and she falls in behind them, crestfallen. (In the future, I advise her, it's safest to stick to neutral queries like "Who's that little guy over there?")

My own avian stamina is put to the test some days later when three of the Auduboners hire a guide and head north of Addis to the Suluta Plain, kindly consenting to let me tag along. As they rack up scores of new species, I am content with spotting an ortolan bunting, the small songbird that, when it makes the mistake of migrating to France, risks being roasted and eaten whole. In the canyon country around the monastery of Debre Libanos, we see a lammergeier soaring above us--an enormous vulture famous for dropping bones from a great height onto rocks, then swooping down to eat the marrow. According to Pliny, Aeschylus was killed by a lammergeier that dropped a turtle on his bald pate, mistaking it for a rock. (Happily, I'm wearing a hat.) But my newfound birdwatching zeal fails when, by the grounds of the old baboon-patrolled monastery, our Ethiopian guide cheerfully points out a Rüppell's robin-chat in a bush just above the head of a decrepit old woman begging for help.

Some birds, in their rarity, can be salvation to humans in their profusion. The pastoral community of Berga, in a broad, grassy valley west of Addis, has been raised above its neighbors solely by virtue of being located adjacent to the core breeding ground of the endangered white-winged flufftail. Traditionally, local people picked up a little money by harvesting the tall grass that sheltered the birds' nests, a practice that was leading to their rapid extinction. Then the tiny Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society persuaded birding organizations in South Africa and Europe to pay local people to protect the nests, improve their community, and reduce the average number of children per woman from the current seven.

Guided by battalions of kids and flanked by young men racing through the fenceless communal fields on horses, we troop down to the small Berga wetland to view the miraculous eucalypt beneath which nest the blessed birds. (The birds are on vacation in South Africa, so there's no danger of inadvertent flufftail omelets.) Next comes a tour of the new facilities: two mud-and-wattle schoolrooms serving 400 students up to fourth grade; a small dairy where local women make cheese; and a tiny health post where Gete Dida, 26, and Shitaye Tura, 22, dispense first aid, sanitation education, and contraceptives. (Most of the 840 women who come here, they say, prefer injectable Depo-Provera, which they only need to think about every three months.) For planned births, there is a tiny room next door furnished with nothing but a dusty delivery table. The sight would put most U.S. women I know off childbirth altogether.

Ato Bekele, a Berga community leader, boasts of the success of its public-health campaign, which has, among other things, raised the average marriage age for girls from 12 to 15.

"Life has improved," he says, "but we still have a long way to go."

Most marriages in the area are arranged, Bekele says, which gives the group leverage with the arrangers. "But sometimes," he adds smiling, "they are lovebirds."

AFTER TEN DAYS IN THIS heartbreaking country, all of us miss our families. Those who don't have children miss their pets, which, as a whole, are better provided for than most Ethiopians. (Yearly income in Ethiopia: $104. Amount spent annually on a U.S. dog: $1,571.) One member of our party tells of a friend who keeps her elderly cat's large-cell carcinoma in check via blood work performed after weekly consultations with a team of experts in Australia. The amount of money mentioned could give 25 young Ethiopian women a college education.

Love is crazy that way, though. What wouldn't we do for those closest to us? I finally stop asking the participants in the programs we visit what they hope to get out of family planning, because everyone says the same thing: "We want a better life for our children."

In Ethiopia, names are full of meaning. A child born after another has died might be named Mitke, "substitute," or Kassa, "compensation." More poetically, Abebe means "blooming like a flower." If allowed to blossom, the family-planning programs we visited here just may deliver that better life everyone wishes for their kids, including, perhaps, a generation of Fitisams, a traditional name for the last child planned, literally "the end."

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra whose family has a total fertility rate of two.

ON THE WEB To watch a slide show of more photos from Ian Berry's trip to Ethiopia, visit

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