A Weekend of Women, Friday

First, we had to get there. You drive North-East of Addis and leave the highway at Sendafa, then take a gravel road for hours and hours.

At least, it took us hours and hours because of the flats. Two. Flats. Both rear tires. Not at the same time. Wondwesen earned the nickname Ambasa (Lion) because of how quickly he changed the tires.

The community we were staying in is Shinet Afaf, the site of one of MCC’s Spring Water Restoration projects. The spring, now protected by a concrete cover, gushes out near the roots of a fig tree of Biblical proportions.

“Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the LORD Almighty has spoken.” So said the prophet Micah, and I bet he was talking about this tree. 

The spring fills a concrete reservoir with three taps, and overflows into a watering trough for animals.

The village of Shinet Afaf sits on the border of the Amhara and Oromo regions of Ethiopia, and the spring serves members of both ethnic groups.

The house where we were guests is a steep half mile uphill from the spring.  It belongs to Heile Tagane, 27, and his wife Bereket (“blessing”) Shimeles, 20. They have a two year old son, Abel, and have taken in a 13 year old adopted boy from the valley, Denko.


The advantage of using cow dung for fuel is that it reduces the need for wood and charcoal. The disadvantage is that the dung is not available as fertilizer for fields.

The first time we visited this village, we arrived as the women were making the year’s fuel–cow dung collected in a pit during rainy season and mixed with straw. The men dig it out of the pit, and the women mix it and form it into patties to dry in the sun. Here is this year’s fuel, stacked and almost ready to store. The house we stayed in is in the background.

Heile and Bereket live next door to Heile’s parents, Tagana Metaferia, 65, and Samana Bekor, 49. Samana means “Saint Mary’s best and most miraculous work.” She and I are the same age. An Ethiopian’s second name is their father’s name–thus Heile Tagana is the son of Tegana Metaferia. There are not family names that carry down the generations. A husband and wife do not share the same last name, but all the children in a family have their father’s name as their second name. Their third name is the name of their grandfather.


Here is Semana in her kitchen, a separate building behind her house. She would have made her stove and cupboard herself. She recently re-plastered her floor with wet cow dung, which is why it appears textured. Floors are plastered weekly. The floor of Semana’s house is hand-chipped stone. The Guarage people make pestals, paving stones, and stone mangers like the one pictured below. Bereket hopes to buy a stone floor so she doesn’t have to plaster weekly.

We were served lunch shortly after arriving–Shimeta, Wondwesen, Yerus and I were still considered guests, and ate with the men of the household. It was Friday, one of the two fasting days during the Orthodox week–the other is Wednesday–so it was a vegetarian meal of njera and kia wat, a spicy red stew made of onion and bere bere. After the meal we were served sweet coffee, and only then did the Bereket and her mother, and the younger men in the household eat their lunch. The chickens came in too, looking for scraps, and drinking from the hand-washing basin. Then Wonde and Shimeta left, and Yerus and I were on our own with the two women we wanted to shadow.

After lunch, we chopped and peeled onions for supper. Bereket had a hand-powered chopper, so it went went easily–but even so, they were fierce red onions and I was weeping as I peeled. Bereket told me to put onion peels behind my ears so my eyes wouldn’t sting. Either it worked, or my eyes were by then immune to the onion fumes!

Then we went to harvest teff.

We worked for less than an hour, so I think it was just to show us what to do. Both women and men harvest teff. The grass is cut by the handful by a sickle, and laid in piles to dry for three days. Than it is stacked in larger mounds.

IMG_2331.JPGOnce a whole field is harvested and stacked, the teff will be brought back to the homestead and stacked for threshing. The harvest had just begun, so it would be a few months before threshing.

We went back and began cooking beans and wheat over a cow dung fire. Bereket told us about her store. Their compound is right on the track that leads from the valley to the market in the nearby town. It was market day tomorrow, and she would sell items from her shop, as well as tala and aroge (local beer and liquor that she makes) to people making the trip to market.

Part of the reason I had chosen this location to visit was because of the travelers coming to the Saturday market. Shimeta had told me that on market day, hundreds of camels came from the valley and passed through this village on their way to market. We were planning to go to the market with Samena, who had a half quintel of last year’s grain to sell. Bereket would tend her store.

Then Bereket tied her baby on her back and said “go.” We were going somewhere!

We walked through the evening light to Samena’s daughter’s house, several kilometers away. They were celebrating Trinity Day. More njera ba wet, more tala, more offers of aroge tactfully declined.

We left while it was still light. Back at the homestead, the cow needed to be milked–and as it was still a fasting day, Yerus and I were the only ones who would be able to drink the milk, so we shared what the calf didn’t get that evening.

Then into the cook house to prepare njera batter for later in the week. A large bucket of bubbling batter is waiting next to the stove for tomorrow morning. A friend is having a wedding celebration, and Bereket will make njera tomorrow for her. Njera is a three day process, as the batter has to ferment. We would see the beginning of it this evening. Bereket sifted flour into a big metal basin–75% wheat, 25% red teff. She adds water to make a thick dough, then sets it in a bucket.

Heile comes in, and talks to Yerus. There might be a problem with going to the market. It’s not clear, even with translation, but apparently the week before three SUV’s of Italian ferengi had come to the area to do something, and without the necessary paperwork–scout for land to buy, the community suspected. There was an altercation, and the police were involved.

Possible site of a possible Italian war cache buried under a tree

There may actually have been more to the story than that, as we learned when we discussed it later. One of the bluffs overlooking the escarpment was the site of a famous Italian defeat. There are rumors that the Italians may have buried money, or guns, or corpses–the accounts vary–under a tree when they realized defeat was near. This may have been the reason the Italians came poking around–but whatever the reason, Heile was reluctant to risk either his guests or his village by taking strangers and a ferengi into the market. He said he would call Shimeta in the morning and ask his advice.

Yerus and I got our beds ready while Bereket made tea on a small charcoal brazier. We spread out a large cow hide and some goat skins on the mud floor, then reed mattresses, then our camping mats and sleeping bags.  The calf was brought in to the storage room, where she slept with Denko, the adopted boy. Abel tore around the place getting progressively more and more tired, while we sipped our tea. Finally Bereket, Abel and Heile retired to their bedroom, closing the curtained door. We turned off the solar light, and fell asleep in the absolute darkness.



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