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Saved from grip of despair of picking wood in forests

By | August 1st 2011


Two things strike a visitor on the way to Fiche, some 112km north of the Ethiopia capital Addis Ababa — the narrow winding roads and women carrying dry eucalyptus branches and leaves.

The winding road gives a fantastic view of the city from numerous points. The women on the other hand, haphazardly carry their load across their backs and move with speed, at times competing with vehicles, forcing motorists to give way.

They walk in haste towards the city centre where they sell their pricey cargo at throwaway prices. The money is hardly enough to put food on the table; but it is better than nothing in Ethiopia, a country infamous for poverty and ravaging famines.

Many Ethiopians are always looking for exits from this gnawing poverty and are inevitably smuggled through Kenya en route South Africa, the land they believe will offer them better life.

Just like the picturesque Addis from the road (Ethiopia is a mountainous country), the women carriers were a spectacle to behold and so we, journalists from Africa and Asia on training in Addis recently, took photos.

The subjects were intriguing until we met former women firewood carriers now engaged in different economic activities.

As each narrated their experiences in the forest, none of us 12 journalists or our hosts from the Population Reference Bureau was left with a dry eyelid.

"A forest guard raped me. But he was good, he let me take the wood I had collected," said one.

Emotional trauma

She did not seek treatment or tell anyone what had happened. Life went on, with her carrying her firewood as usual, but this time with an added emotional trauma as a result of rape.

And that is the common thread that sews the story of the firewood carriers. Forest guards and gangs of homeless people know the women are all alone in the forest and follow them, sure of "having a field day" without worrying anyone would come to the women’s rescue, explains Bioeconomy Africa executive director Selamawit Aseffa.

"In the process, many women have contracted STDs including HIV and Aids," Aseffa says.

Aseffa, through her organisation, is trying to get these women out of the forest and have them lead a safer life that is economically rewarding.

Statistics show that there are about 150,000 firewood collectors in Addis Ababa alone. Other towns also have their share of these collectors.

Bioeconomy has rehabilitated 400 women, who are now leading a better lifestyle.

One such woman is Emawayish Meharin, 42. Having been married at 12, Meharin found wood collection the only way to supplement her husband’s income. So she started collecting firewood after her wedding.

Woke up early

She woke up early every day to go to the forest where, if she was lucky, the forest guards allowed her to pick as much wood as she wanted but sometimes she wasn’t lucky and returned home empty-handed.

That meant, her young family slept hungry that day. But if she picked the wood and carried it for nearly 20km to the city centre to sell, for the equivalent of Sh60 or less per week, she was assured of not–so-decent meals for her growing family of eight children and husband.

Addis being an expensive city, the money was a pittance.

Her husband, a council employee, earned little and Meharin had to help by scavenging and selling firewood.

She was lucky as she went through this part of her life unscathed.

Other women firewood carriers emerge with wounds, wounds that will never heal.

"Apart from being sexually abused, the women work in hazardous conditions. They get up at dawn for the forests to collect wood which they tie into huge bundles and lug on their backs. Besides straining their spines with the heavy weight, they risk being knocked down by vehicles as they jostle for space along the narrow roads," explains Aseffa.

In addition, and tragically, women wood carriers pass the baton to their daughters and the cycle goes on.

Meharin’s fortunes have changed, she says, because of God’s grace. Eight years ago, she joined a group of other firewood collectors and formed a group engaged in organic farming as well as keeping dairy cows and chicken under the support of Bioeconomy Africa.

After selling their produce, the women earn an average of Sh200 a week, besides getting fresh vegetables for their use at subsidised cost.

"The good thing is, I tend to the vegetables or poultry for just half the day. I have the rest of the day to do my other chores including tending to my small garden at home," says Meharin.

Glow with pride

Meharin’s children are also grown up now. The oldest is 29 while the youngest just turned 13. Her seven grandchildren make her glow with pride.

But when she remembers the women she collected firewood with eight years ago, a sad cloud engulfs her.

"Most of them are sick or have died. It is a tough life. I wish they all got a chance like I did."

Aseffa has a desire to see all firewood collectors change their lifestyles and find alternative ways of making a living like the 400. Through these women, Bioeconomy Africa, is slowly but gradually improving livelihoods through agricultural practices; one woman at a time.

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