Ethiopia: The out of reach growth
By Getachew Qannoo
My father lives in a small town located in Illubabor, Ethiopia where he works as an elementary school teacher. I check in routinely and this last time he responded in his usual manner, “Waaqayoo ha ulfaatu”(May God be glorified). At the time I called him, he was picking coffee berries in a small coffee land located behind our house. I overheard the ambient sounds of birds singing and baby monkeys screaming. These are the typical sounds of Illubabor’s forest.
My father has always had financial problems, but lately things have gotten worse. Ten years ago, he used to earn roughly 500 Birr as a primary school teacher. His salary was enough to cover the family’s basic needs. He was even able to sent money to his Mother in Dembi Dollo, Wollega. It was also a time she used to visit us so frequently because he could afford to buy her plane tickets. Today he earns 2000 Birr as a diploma teacher with years of experience and yet his life is worse off than it was ten years ago. It has been more than ten years since he last visited the capital Addis Ababa. He was socially active and had a good relationship with foreigners. He assisted a Dutch anthropologist in his research on the Oromo culture. He himself wanted to write a book since a long time. My father had a lot of materials that could be published into two volumes. But it seemed that he was now giving up his dream of publishing a book, because priority became now basic needs: food for the family, clothing and school uniform , books and exercise books for children, and so on. As his age and health are failing him continuously, he is finding life hard to manage.
My father is not the only person with this problem. He is one of millions of civil servants facing the same problem in Ethiopia. The euphoria of the country’s double digit economic growth is not a practical part of their life. Though my father does not have a financial capacity to travel to Addis Ababa to see the sky scrapers and witness the 11 percent economic growth- like some of our journalists and diplomats do, for sure he knows and feels something very well that life quality of his family has declined. Before 15 years, when my father used to earn 400 Birr, this amount was equivalent to 200 USD. Now he earns 2000 Birr, less than 90 Euro. As the value of Birr against US dollar began to depreciate, the life of my father and his likes also started to deteriorate. Isn’t it even a three digit decline, folks?
Feeling unease by my father’s sighs, and a background sound of the screaming monkeys, I asked him about the coffee market. That was a time when coffee berries had to be picked from their trees. He and all coffee growing farmers were warned that they have to make sure they pick only the red ripe coffee berries; lest the price sinks down if the quality falls. My father has not more than 300 coffee trees on his small coffee land. It takes him a long time and energy to collect the berry, to take them home and dry them, and make them ready for final consumption. Coffee farmers go through the same long process. The labour they invest and the price at which they sell their coffee to the market is unfair at any criteria. My father, of course, does not have a big gashaa of coffee to be proud of. However, Obbo Gannatii, a farmer living in a nearby village and is a good friend of my father, has more than two hectares of coffee. He brought them every year to the market, but his life had shown little change. When I was in Ethiopia to visit my parents a few months ago, Gannatii, a father of five, told me that he had a plan to build a small house in the town, but he had no money. Like Gannattii, there are thousands of farmers around this tiny town who hope that coffee price would rise one day and change their life, at least to build a two-wing-roofed house on one side of the dusty road passing through the town.
The coffee trade helped only some traders. Most of the time, the traders are not native people of the area. They even hardly talk in the language the farmers communicate. These farmers had to travel more than two ours to bring their products to the market. Illubabor is one of the top forest coffee producing regions in the country, and Ethiopia earns more than half of its foreign exchange income from coffee production. Yet in the region where tons of hundreds of forest coffee comes, farmers have to travel bare footed for more than two hours, mostly on muddy and rough roads, to bring their coffee to the market. My father’s coffee possession, of course, is mainly for family consumption. Yet he hopes that one day coffee, even the small quintals of coffee he gets, can make his life better, when the price rises. Once upon in the past, he even thought of becoming a coffee trader. But he couldn’t keep on pushing his ambition because the Ethiopian Commercial Bank in the town refused to lend him money. The reason given by the bank was that he did not have enough property that would enable him to borrow money. He has a four winged, qorqorroo house, and of course he could have borrowed more that 10,000 Ethiopian Birr with this property.
My father was born into a poor, humble family. He was a son of a gebbar and his parents suffered a lot under the yoke of extreme poverty. But he was able to go to school with help of catholic missionaries and he spent most of his youth with them. He is the only among eight of his siblings to go to school and complete secondary school. My father spoke his mind even in the face of political authorities. He exposed their wrong doings and told them directly what he thought was right. That was not seen favourably in the eyes of the authorities. They labelled him a member of the Oromo Liberation Front, a banned political opposition. They imprisoned him several times and threatened his life. But my father had nothing to do with this political group. My father finally submitted unwillingly to the forced membership of the OPDO, ruling party affiliated party.
Like my father, there are thousands of Oromo and non-Oromo political prisoners languishing in prison these days. Most of them were accused of assisting the ‘terrorist’ OLF. Like my father, thousands of students graduating from Ethiopian universities find it hard to get employed and work with freedom, unless they become member of the ruling party. Party socialization is going on everywhere in the country. Addis Ababa University, once centre of strong social movement, has now become totally insensitive to social and political problems of the country. Once students in this university said, “Land to the tiller,” and after a decade, a land reform took place. Today raising such socially important ideas can cause serious problems for the students. Dismissal from the university is the least among them. I remember a friend of mine, a bright young man with a lot of energy, who was imprisoned a few months before his graduation. He is still languishing in the notorious Kaliti prison.
The baby monkey was not screaming as loud as before, she might have found her mother again, but the birds continued singing. I asked my father about my little brother, who recently moved to Adama to study. Four years ago, when I was still a student in the University of Addis Ababa, my father used to send me 80 Birr every month. That was enough for me to get a cup of tee after dinner. Today, my father cannot send that amount of money to my brother. 1 quintal of Teff costs 1500 Birr. He spends more than 75 percent of his income only to buy Teff. Forget all other basic staffs such as salt, oil, sugar and so on. Only 100 kg Teff costs 1500 Birr. Food price has shot high in Ethiopia in the last two years. When I travelled to Addis for my research a few months ago, I paid 12 Birr for a Jambo glass of juice. That same juice at the same house price was 2.50 Birr three yours ago.
“I can’t send money to Abbusha,” said my father before he switched of his phone. He sounded so helpless. My father is one of the millions who do not have a touch with the trickle down of the much told economic growth of the country. “Our people are living on God’s grace,”- these are words of one spiritual father whom I know closely. I can’t disagree anymore, father!