It is impossible to understand Ethiopia without visiting the countryside. In a country of 90 million people, the rural land of Ethiopia is where over 90% of Ethiopians live and catching a glimpse of their way of life is absolutely fascinating.
During my two weeks in Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project, my favorite times were when we were outside of the cities and venturing along the bumpy, cattle-filled roads of rural Ethiopia. For me, the countryside is where the true heart and soul of Ethiopia and much of Africa lies. While some of the other fellows used our lengthy drives as time to catch up on much needed sleep, I sat at the edge of my seat with camera in hand, mesmerized by the world around me. A world I had never experienced yet a world I had imagined in my dreams.
My first glimpse of rural life was during our visit to Mosebo Village about a 42 kilometer drive on dirt roads outside of Bahir Dar. We were visiting Mosebo Village to learn about Ethiopia’s Health Extension Centers that have opened up around the countryside in recent years to combat high maternal and child mortality rates. Reaching Mosebo village is not for the faint at heart. It requires a land cruiser, patience, and a bit of adventure to cover the hour and a half drive on bumpy, muddy roads to arrive in Mosebo and see how most Ethiopians live.
The instant we left Bahir Dar and made a righthand turn onto one of Ethiopia’s numerous gravel roads, everything changed. The first thing I noticed is that rural life in Ethiopia centers around these roads. People are everywhere alongside the road walking, resting and passing their day. Herders tend to their cattle in the fields during the days and bring them back to their tukels in the evening. Women perform the daily ritual of collecting water either by donkey cart or with their jerricans on their backs. Children rest alongside the road with friends or siblings. There are very few cars as most rural Ethiopians cannot afford them thus they travel en masse by foot with or without shoes.
Driving in rural Ethiopia is a daunting task. Roads are an obstacle course requiring the driver’s uttermost attention to avoid hitting something or someone. Cattle walk up, down and into the roads as do herders, children and mothers carrying water. Big ruts lie precariously throughout the washed up, muddy gravel roads that if not avoided can do quite a bit of damage to a vehicle and its passengers. If it starts to rain as it frequently does during Ethiopia’s three month rainy season, roads becomes dangerous and impassable.
Rural life is hard yet somehow whenever we passed by in our land cruisers, we always were greeted with waves and smiles. Our caravan of six white land cruisers were practically the only vehicles on the road so it attracted quite a bit of attention.
I was stunned by the pure beauty of the countryside and the immense greenery. Memories as a child of Ethiopia’s horrific drought in 1984 where over a million people died and emaciated Ethiopians filled the pages of National Geographic, I inaccurately believed Ethiopia to be a dried up desert land. These powerful images of my youth gave me an inaccurate, long-lasting perception of Ethiopia. It was only when I drove out through the countryside and saw it for myself, that I realized how incredibly wrong I had been.
We passed through small villages along the way. These villages were built alongside the road.
As soon as we left the roadside villages, we passed more traditional villages without shops, markets or cars.
A couple of hours later, we reached our destination: Mosebo Village. I have shared my visit at Mosebo Village in this post, “Hope in the Struggle for Ethiopian Maternal and Newborn Care“. Mosebo is a model village which is supported by Save the Children. It has its own Health Post that serves the broader community of approximately 3,700 residents.
After meeting with the Health Extension Workers and interviewing a few new mothers, it was time to enter our first tukel, or traditional house which is made out of mud and grass, and is very basic. There is typically no electricity, no running water and no toilets. A village latrine is located right behind the Health Post. This is how most rural Ethiopians live except many are not as fortunate to have a Health Post that near. Many women walk hours on foot to receive care sometimes even sometimes when they are in labor.
Around three o’clock the skies turned dark and thunder boomed in the distance. It was time to hurry and end our visit to the village if we wanted to make it back before the rains made the roads impassable.
Lack of infrastructure and good roads has been a big contributor to Ethiopia’s high maternal and newborn mortality rate. Although the Ethiopian government is committed to improving roads and launched a $4 billion budget to build, upgrade and repair roads under the Road Sector Development Program (RSDP) *, it is still not enough. Mothers continue to die during labor and childbirth. Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate is estimated at 420 per 100,000 live births (2013 WHO/UNFPA) which lumps Ethiopia along with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, as the top five highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Without proper roads and increased access to midwives and health centers, women will continue to die. Hopefully new, improved roads and the government’s commitment to improving maternal and newborn care will improve things for Ethiopians.
This post is based on my reporting trip to Ethiopia with the International Reporting Project.