Never underestimate the importance of a cow – meet the Hamar people

Kodja's life is much better now

It’s hard to imagine a more unforgiving landscape than that of the vast flat plains of South Omo, in the south western corner of Ethiopia. This is where the majestic African Ridge Mountains flatten into an inhospitable, dry and dusty scrubland that stretches for hundreds of miles to the borders of Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan.

It is here that the Hamar people live, in a society that is complex, vibrant and entirely unique. They live and work on land where temperatures in the high twenties are considered cool and drought has in recent years gained an uncompromising foothold. The only river that flows all year round, the Omo, lies fifty miles to the west of the area’s capital, Turmi - a dusty little hamlet with a few shops and a weekly market. Life for the Hamar can be harsh and merciless with no guarantee of survival. Conflict, lack of healthcare and a long, gruelling working day all contribute to an average life expectancy of just 48 years.

The Hamer are mainly pastoralists, with cattle and goat breeding being the most common occupation. Keeping their animals fed and well-watered is a huge challenge, and Vita is working with the EU to help the Hamer combat the effects of climate change and improve their nutrition and livelihoods.

Kodja is one of the 2,400 Hamar women who have been selected to join the goat breeding programme, which is designed to create more independence for women by improving their ability to generate incomes. Owning livestock is so ingrained into the psyche of the Hamer people and so critical to their survival that not owning a cow is considered quite shameful. The cow represents their status within their community, but from a practical point of view, the cow’s milk is important, as indeed is blood drained from the cow during lean times.

Kodja lives near Turmi, in the village of Areag Isa. She is shy, and hides her face behind the baby she holds in her arms. As a young woman, Kodja was so poor that she was not allowed participate in any community events and had little chance of attracting a husband. Her future was precarious at best, and she was very isolated from Hamar society.  The elders of her village, recognising her dilemma, selected Kodja for the goat scheme two years ago. She started off with three goats, which she soon increased to six. These then produced five kids in the first year alone.  

“It was very hard before, because I had no cow’s milk or blood to drink when there was no food before the rainy season,” Kodja says. ”I was ashamed that I had no cow to bring to a marriage.” By the end of the second year of goat breeding, Kodja was able to buy a cow, and this rehabilitated her in the eyes of her community. She is in a working group with 100 other women, and together they are able to secure micro financing to start small enterprises. Kodja sells goat milk in the local market for extra income, and is learning to make butter with a small churn that Vita has helped her buy.

“Now I am married and I have my baby. His name is Mimi and when he is older he will be able to go to our festivals and celebrations. He will never be poor.”

Poor milk yield from cows is another problem in the area, a result of constant inbreeding, over grazing and deficient nutrition. The Areag Isa Bull Centre is a new project developed by Vita to improve the breed quality of the local herd. It has been set up and is managed by the local youth group, who have purchased a bull for breeding. It operates as a co-operative, with local farmers paying a small fee to allow their cows’ access to the bull. The local bull is bred with a Holstein, and early indicators are that production will rise from a low of 1.5 litres on average per day to upwards of 15 litres. The centre creates employment for the local young men, and the money earned pays them as well as allowing them to reinvest in another bull in due course. This programme is piloting in twelve villages in South Omo, with plans to significantly scale it up in due course. It will link to the new women’s milk processing co-op, which is being developed on the same site. 

The bull has been bought for breeding
Orgu and his friends at the Bull Breeding Centre

A very necessary and complimentary programme to the bull breeding is the rangeland programme. In a landscape where good grazing is sparse and vulnerable, the rangeland programme involves fencing off areas of scrubland and replanting with quality grassland seed and reducing uninterrupted free grazing.  The grass is allowed to mature before a set number of animals are introduced and another area is then fenced off. Thus, rotational grazing is introduced and animal quality improves quickly and cheaply.

Orgu is one of the young Hamar men who has joined the bull centre co-op. “My father has a few cows and we have goats, but I have older brothers and its their job to look after the cows. The bull centre has given me a job, and I can learn here. Also, it is near my village which is good, too.”

Vita and the EU have established a training centre in the bull centre to teach local farmers about water and soil conservation, crop rotation and vegetable production.

The EU SHARE programme is designed to reach 12,000 pastoralists in this region, with Vita as the lead NGO, working with two other development agencies, IDE and AMREF to deliver programmes which will build resilience to drought within the Hamar people. It has been a very successful programme, which has transformed the lives of the participants. So successful has this project been that the EC and Vita have just signed a new agreement to build on scale this up over the next three years which will reach over 50,000 people.

Grain Store in Areag Isu
Fenced in rangeland