The Flavors of Resilience: A Visual Journey through Ethiopia’s Foodscape
Text and photos by Viveca Mellegård
Last year I traveled to Gambella, a province of southwestern Ethiopia, with my colleague, Dr. Million Belay. His research centers around the country’s food system, from seed to plate and all the steps in between. It was my first time there and understanding how food is produced gave me a taste of Ethiopia’s culture and history, religion and traditions, urban and rural landscapes; its people, plants, animals, biomes, biodiversity; the impact of climate change, politics, power — the past, present, and future.
I was there to make a documentary film primarily for an audience of international development professionals. I kept a photo–video journal to document some of the challenges facing a community experiencing demographic change, governmental pressure to produce food using chemical fertilizers, and changes in climate. The short entries and photos try to give a flavor to a broader audience of some of the complexities at play in a small community and how these can mirror realities at regional and national scales. My intention was to tell the community’s stories and include something of the values and personal qualities of Million as a researcher who cares deeply about how his country develops. Often, scientific research has little space to include such material that engages an audience more emotionally.
In addition, I tried to set my observations against the backdrop of a growing interest from agencies and policy-makers in a resilience-oriented and biocultural-focused approach to development practice. What does a biocultural approach to development mean? What might it look like? What methods does it use? Although the photo essay documents day-by-day activities during my trip, taken together the stories create a colorful, complex, and sometimes tangled web. My hope is that a more holistic approach that values bioculture can help to illuminate the patterns of and possibilities for sustainable development.
I set my observations against the backdrop of a growing interest in a resilience-oriented and biocultural-focused approach to development.
Soon after lunch we drop down off the edge of the tarmac road and onto a dirt track. The windows are pulled up against billows of dust that obscure the way every time a truck passes. After two days we reach the end of the track and come to the village of Mengeshi where we’ll stay for a week. Emerging from the thick forest, this place feels like a surprise waiting to be discovered. In fact, the Majang, which is both the name of the forest and the Indigenous people who live here, stand at the threshold of change. A vast area of forest that encapsulates many villages like this one has been registered as a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization. We’re in the reserve’s transition zone — an area designated for people and nature to coexist and develop together. It’s the right time to ask questions about what kind of development the community wants: development of what? and for whom?
We sit on stools around a low table and our landlady, Mirtenesh, places a large platter in front of us. The injera, a flatbread, is spongy and soaks up the juices from the tibs, small pieces of mutton or lamb placed on it. Each of us has our segment and we begin to eat. I sit on my left hand — it is of no use at the dinner table — and pull off a bit of injera. It’s stretchy, and I add a twist as I tear into it so that the piece is the right size for a mouthful. Copying Million, Workie, and Andualem (two young academics who accompanied us), I roll the injera up and dip it, ever so lightly, into some hot sauce — some very, very hot sauce. So begins the day and as I realize that during my two weeks in Ethiopia, injera will be our recurring source of sustenance and pleasure, morning, noon, and night. We’ll eat it with scrambled eggs, courtesy of the hens running around the yard; shiró, a spicy chickpea paste that’s as red as the earth around here; and a lot of meat. We join the majority of Ethiopia’s 103 million inhabitants for whom injera is the staple food. This single fact brings it home to me how important it is to know how injera is produced, from seed to table, in order to understand the sustainability and resilience of Ethiopia’s food system.
The flour injera is made with comes from teff, a cereal grass widely cultivated in Ethiopia. Once the plant is harvested, the seed must be separated from the chaff. First the oxen walk round and around in circles. The weight of their hooves dislodges the seeds before the men arrive to winnow. They fling the grain into the air with a long, regular sweeping motion and then the wind plays its role, carrying off the chaff. The seeds rain down and the women arrive to separate them. The heaviest seeds are best and saved for next year’s sowing. The medium-sized seeds are sold at market. The lightest seeds land a little further away and are saved for household consumption. Million holds a selection of seeds in his palm, and I look and look but my untrained eyes cannot tell the differences in size. What strikes me when I look at the film clip afterwards is the collaboration between livestock, men, women, wind, land, and grain — the hidden dance in which each part plays a crucial role. On the bumpy ride back to Addis (as the national capital, Addis Ababa, is familiarly known), Million tells me that this division of labor and the processing of seeds is changing. Increasingly, farmers are sowing seeds supplied and delivered to them by the government. They respond well to artificial fertilizers and give a high yield for a few seasons, but because they aren’t as hardy as the farmers’ varieties — seeds that have adapted over generations to cope with a range of climactic conditions, they can’t withstand sudden changes in climate.
Nei (a woman who lives in the village of Mengeshi and let me spend a morning with her as she went about her chores) is pounding maize to make porridge for her family. She also makes injera, which the settlers from the highlands of Ethiopia brought with them. It’s not a dish her people, the Majang, used to eat, but she says they like it. Over the past three decades, Ethiopians from the north have been moving west, to Gambella, attracted by the fertile land. There have been some violent clashes between newcomers and Indigenous peoples, but here, crouching in Nei’s kitchen hut, injera builds at least one cultural bridge.
We meet several people along the path through the forest. Most are carrying baskets of grain and potatoes. Someone in the village has died and the family is in mourning. Friends and family gather sweet potatoes and maize to feed the grieving family during a wake that lasts several days.
Our group forms a thin thread walking along dusty seams between cleared forest and stands of tall trees. One of the farmers in our group explains that some trees are left during clearing because they attract rain. Rotation farming is common: one plot is cleared for cultivation, and after a few growing seasons, it’s left fallow and another area is cleared, often through burning. The Indigenous Majang and settlers have differing perceptions of the landscape, Million tells me. Whereas the Majang see forest as a biome, the settlers from the highland regions of Ethiopia see it as land with the potential for agriculture.
Smoke comes wafting through the dense undergrowth and we follow it. It brings us to a small pile of fish being smoked in leaves. One of our companions, Bereda, buys a few from the fisherman and wraps them up in leaves and ties them with some twine. On our way back, we step over a puddle with a coil of twine in it; it’s been left there for a few days to become more supple so that it can be used like rope. We pass houses where baskets hang like hammocks between trees. It’s where the hens go to roost. Just as my eyes are gradually directing my gaze to notice the connections between natural materials, people, and function, I can feel my ears tuning into my surroundings, like a radio picking up a clear frequency.
I can feel my ears tuning into my surroundings, like a radio picking up a clear frequency.
As noted, the name Majang describes both the forest and the people and refers to a special area in the forest, jang, where honey is harvested. A kilo of honey sells for more than fifty birr (US$2.50). It’s a good source of livelihood, and there’s a strong external market for the high-quality honey. But its harvest raises an important issue: if too much forest is cleared for agriculture, the honey production will decrease.
The elderly woman sits back in her chair while the younger woman slowly and carefully draws in the trees on a map of the village. We smile at each other, and I stand close to them, taking photographs. They’re working and I’m working. I show them the photos and they can see what I’m curious about. We can’t speak to each other, but there’s a kind of communication between us, by way of the camera.
We can’t speak to each other but there’s a kind of communication between us, by way of the camera.
Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days, and I prepared to go a little hungry, but then Million told me that I could order vegan toppings on my injera. A huge platter arrives with lentils, cabbage, spinach, shiró. The dish is a nod to kosher traditions and the links between the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Jerusalem. Fasting traces a thread through historical ties to the Middle East in the Middle Ages and Egypt in the fourth century. History and tradition aside, the food is delicious, and I wish every day was fasting day!
The amount of forest that has been cleared to make way for farmland, the sharp increase in the population, and the expansion of the village raise concerns about the future. “We are the people of the jang, the forest. Without the forest, who are we?” Million asks them why, if they’re worried about the way things are going, they don’t take action. There’s silence. Imagining the future is one step; taking the initiative to create it comes next.
Viveca Mellegård started her career at the British Broadcasting Corporation as a documentary director. At the Stockholm Resilience Centre and SwedBio, she merged her craft as a filmmaker with scientific research about the value of biocultural sources of resilience and now uses visual methods and storytelling to inform development practice and policy.
Belay, M., Edwards, S., & Gebeyehu, F. (2005). Culture as an expression of ecological diversity: Integrating awareness of cultural heritage in Ethiopian schools. Mountain Research and Development, 25(1), 10–14.
Community of Haroberbabo, Ethiopia, AEN, & Swedbio. (2016). Participatory mapping as a tool for mobilisation of indigenous and local knowledge and enhanced ecosystem governance in Ginderberet, Oroma region, Ethiopia. Retrieved from https://swed.bio/reports/report/participatory-mapping-as-a-tool-for-mobilisation-of-indigenous-and-local-knowledge-and-enhanced-ecosystem-governance-in-ginderberet-oroma-region-ethiopia/
GRAID. (n.d.). A resilient food future for the people of the forest. Retrieved from https://graid.earth/a-resilient-food-future-for-the-people-of-the-forest/
MELCA-Ethiopia. (n.d.). MELCA-connecting the ends for sustainable development [Website]. Retrieved from http://melcaethiopia.org
Stauder, J. (2007). The Majangir: Ecology and Society of a Southwest Ethiopian People. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.
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