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Life changes through four generations of Ethiopian women

On the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, four generations of a rural Ethiopian family show how life has changed in their village.

Four generations of women under one roof.
Four generations of women under one roof. Left-right: Lekea (age 50), Emaldu (76), Tejie (26) and Lelisie (9). Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam

Every morning, nine-year-old Lelisie Kassam walks to the school on the edge of her village, where she studies with her classmates and dreams of becoming a doctor. Such an experience was unthinkable for the previous generations of Lelisie’s family, who all grew up in the same small village of Tedeccha – but never saw a school and never met a doctor, let alone thought of being one.

Lelisie, age 9. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Lelisie, age 9

Life was very different for her great-grandmother. Emaldu Negewa was left an orphan during the Italian invasion of 1936. She spent her childhood looking after the cattle on her adopted family’s farm, before at the age of 12 she was married to a local farmer twice her age.

Emaldu was 15 years old when she had her first child. “I had 19 children in total – but only seven of them are still alive. Most died of diseases because there were no health facilities for people like us.”

“I didn’t go to school. It is something I am still sad about, but when I was young education was only for families with lots of money. The school was far away. Without school, my generation lived in the dark.”

For generations, most girls in the village have spent their days working in the fields. Lelisie’s grandmother, 50-year-old Lekea Borena, used to dig weeds and feed her parents’ cows. “Learning was only for the rich,” she says.

Emaldu Negewa, 76 Photo: Aubrey Wade/Oxfam
Emaldu Negewa, 76

Even for Lelisie’s mother, 26-year-old Tejie Dechassa, attending school as a child was an impossible dream. For years she helped out on her parents’ farm, before being married to an older man shortly after her 15th birthday.

Tejie’s husband happened to be the principal of a new school, which had just been built in Tedeccha. He enrolled her in classes for the first time, where she sat eagerly alongside girls half her age, absorbing everything the teachers said. “Now I’m in Grade 10 and a full time student and mother. I attend every day – education is everything.”

Tejie made sure her children started school as soon as they could. “I want to raise them properly and educate them.”

Education is not the only thing that has improved in the village over time.

“My mother (Lekea) had 12 children,” says Tejie, “and three of my brothers and sisters died of illness when they were very young. Today if children get sick we have a health post in the village.” The health post offers basic care free of charge – for more serious illnesses there is a clinic a few kilometres away.

Tejie. Photo: Alun McDonald/Oxfam
Tejie (left), 26

“A lot of things have changed since I was a girl,” says Emaldu with a note of pride and happiness at the opportunities for young relatives like Lelisie. “We used to drink dirty water from ponds, because there was nothing else. Today we have clean water from the village pump. It doesn’t provide all that we need for the people, the animals and the land – but it never runs dry.”

Not all the changes over time have been for the better though. Emaldu and Lekea recall abundant rainfall and bountiful harvests, but say the rains are now often poor and infrequent as the climate has changed. “In the old days we had cattle as well as farms,” says Lekea. “My parents had 15 or more cows at any one time. We lived off the milk and grains, and there were plenty of both. Today my parents have just two oxen and one cow – most of the rest died in drought.”

Lekea, 50. Photo: Aubrey Wade, Oxfam
Lekea, 50

“The area was covered with forest and grasses, but today most of this has gone. I dream of seeing our forests back again, like when I was a young girl.”

The progress in services means the village should be prospering, but the difficulties facing farmers, and the lack of alternative jobs, means that Lekea still struggles to make ends meet and feed her children.

But after all the changes she has witnessed, Lekea is optimistic about her grandchildren’s future.

“Unlike me they all go to school. I dream of living in a developed, prosperous country, and I want them to be the leaders of this nation. Maybe even the next Prime Minister! Why not? – everything is possible!”

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