“You’re our guests, so we’re going to feed you whether you’re hungry or not. That’s our way.” Lekea Borena places a bowl of steaming butter porridge on the table. It’s our first taste of local Oromian hospitality, and it’s delicious. It’s also deceptively spicy, especially for a 7am breakfast. My face turns red. “You like the peppers?” she grins.
The peppers used to be grown on Lekea’s small plot of farmland – along with peas, lentils and more. But now she has to buy them in the market, trucked in from hundreds of miles away. “Nobody here grows them anymore,” she says. Her children eagerly gulp down another bowl, but these days it is a rare and expensive treat, saved for visitors and special occasions.
Out in the fields later that morning, Lekea explains why: “There is not enough rain.”
“I remember misty mornings, with the sky full of clouds. Even ten years ago there would be regular rainfall six months of the year. This year we had only two and a half. We’ve had to reduce what we grow. No more peppers or vegetables – now it’s just the basics like corn and sorghum.”
Even for these staple crops there is much less to harvest. “We used to harvest enough corn to fill 22 sacks,” says Lekea, each sack weighing about 70kgs. “We were self sufficient – we ate what we needed and sold the rest. But in recent years, we average less than six sacks. It’s nowhere near enough.”
Around three quarters of adults in Oromia rely on farming to make a living. Across the region, farmers tell of similar struggles as the climate gradually changes and the rainy seasons become infrequent and unpredictable.
“I was desperately poor the year my cattle died. But the year after that there were good rains again and we managed. In those days there were lots of good years mixed with an occasional bad year. We had time to recover between the droughts. Nowadays the bad years have become normal.”
Lekea’s family have tried to adapt to the lack of rain. Instead of normal peas they plant Grass Peas, which need much less water and can withstand extreme drought. The problem is that if you eat too much of them they can sometimes cause paralysis and damage bones, especially in young children. “It’s a big worry for me,” says Lekea, a 50-year-old mother of nine children. “But the alternative is for us to go hungry.”
The traditional white sorghum has also been replaced by red sorghum, which grows faster so is more suited to the short rain periods. But the children complain that the red variety is lower quality and can cause constipation.
Lekea’s husband, 60-year-old Dechassa Boset, has been a farmer since he was 16. Now he often goes away to search for alternative work. “Farming is all I know, but when the seasons get drier, all my hopes dry up. I’m a father and it destroys me when I fail to feed my children.”
There are not many other options for him. He tried labouring on a construction site, but the employers preferred younger men. He’s got a job as a school security guard but it pays a pittance, around $8 a month. Lekea herself started brewing homemade beer, but the rising costs of ingredients and transport left hardly any profit.
The next morning, as the sun rises high in the sky, we walk with Lekea to a nearby hilltop for the area’s first climate hearing, where local farmers have the chance to share their stories with politicians and the media.
A huge crowd has gathered – several thousand people of all ages have come by foot or truck from all over the district. Children climb trees, hanging precariously from branches to get a better view. Banners proclaim the right to water and blame pollution for bringing global warming to Oromia. Traditional singers and dancers tell stories of glorious past harvests.
Lekea is due to address the crowd and she’s nervous and excited. It’s the first time she’s spoken to such a big audience.
“I want to tell them that farmers here can thrive if we have support. We don’t want to rely on aid, but we need governments to help us have access to water, to make up for the lack of rain.”
She places much of the blame for the changing climate on deforestation and disregard for the environment: “There used to be big forests here but people cut them down to get charcoal to sell in the markets. People are poor and really desperate – there are no trees anymore so now they even dig into the ground and take the roots.”
It’s a tragic circle, she says: Poor harvests and no jobs mean people cut down trees. Fewer trees mean less rain.
Others say that Oromia’s farmers are paying the price of the industrialised world’s carbon emissions. 18-year-old student Zakaryas Tefera took a day off school to attend the hearing with his friends.
“It is important that we came today. What you see happening here is because of global climate change and the actions of the big countries like USA, China and Europe. Today is our chance to ask them to change their ways – it’s the people here who are facing the consequences.”
All photos by Aubrey Wade. Listen to the audio slideshow below: