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Organic rage

Omo Change
Forfatter: Fausto Padovini
Forlag: FotoEvidence Press (USA)
ETHIOPIA / Could modernity have sprinkled some small blessings on people groups in Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed's homeland?


The wooded Omo Valley, flanked by semi-desert, winds through southern Ethiopia on its way to the river's outlet in Lake Turkana, the largest lake in the area. In the Omo Valley live a handful of small groups of people – karo, mursi, hammer, daasanach – and they feed on animal husbandry, agriculture and fishing. They would not have been there without the river, which leaves a nutritious sludge when it is rainy season in the highlands and it floods.

Those who make a living by the River Omo, the protagonists of Fausto Padovini's book Omo Change, basically has nothing to do with Ethiopia, and Ethiopia is of little interest to them. They were incorporated into the state under Emperor Menelik II in the late 1800s, when the territory of the state grew enormously due to the conquest of Ogaden and Oromia. Overnight, millions of Somalis and oromos became Ethiopian subjects. The classic Ethiopia, known from the legend of King Solomon's mines and the queen of Sheba, was in the north. This is where the Coptic Church was established in the 300s, and here the Amharic alphabet was developed. The ancient city of Aksum was also located here. First it was the tiger rulers who led, and later the Amharas took over. Emperor Haile Selassie, cultivated by Rastafarians as an African Messiah, was the last representative of a dynasty dating back to the European Middle Ages.

The people in Padovini's book have little to gain from the so-called development.

No one had asked the hammer people if they thought they would be Ethiopians, but for a long time it mattered which state they happened to be in. The small, stateless peoples along the river are not only related to each other, but also to groups the Kenyan side of the border and has little standing with the state.


However, the state is a greedy master. Ethiopia has long planned to aim for economic growth. Plans are being put in Addis Ababa while they are being implemented in other parts of the country. It is no coincidence that Ethiopia has a central place in James Scotts Seeing Like a State, a book on how central planning produces a series of unintended consequences that primarily go beyond the ones they are planning on behalf of. In Ethiopia, millions of people were moved from arid areas to the lush highlands. In a country that had its last major famine disaster, with over a million dead, as late as the mid-1980s, this may sound like a sensible plan. But it immediately became apparent that someone had been sloppy with the homework. Neither the livestock, the cereals nor the techniques the lowland peoples brought with them thrived in the cooler, humid climate. Such details the socialist planners had forgotten to think about. In recent times, tens of thousands have been relocated to make room for plantations.

Chinese loans

Ethiopia has entered a new era now: Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed (with an Oromo background) just received the Nobel Peace Prize – especially for having clashed with Eritrea. Economic growth has been between six and ten percent for some years. But when the starting point is a little over zero, it does not take much. The growth also appears to be a direct consequence of Chinese loans and investments. Ethiopia is among the countries that have borrowed most from China in recent years, and in hotels in Addis, even the instructions on the fire extinguishers are written in Chinese. There is little indication that the growth will benefit ordinary Ethiopians, at least not outside the cities.

The development is a journey with more shipwrecks than survivors, according to Eduardo Galeano (1940–2015). It may be an exaggeration, but there is nothing to suggest that the people of Padovini's Omo Change has something to gain from the so-called development. Jordran (land grabbing) is routinely done by both state and private companies. After all, the people in the Omo Valley have not realized that they own anything. Thus, conditions also facilitate the use of water (water grabbing), which also affects the life of the valley in unpredictable and largely negative ways.

Lake Turkana is about to suffer the same fate as Lake Aral – which in my childhood was one of the world's largest lakes and is now practically gone. It goes the same way with Lake Chad. As elsewhere, cotton plantations drink up the water before it emerges in southern Ethiopia, but there is also hope that the giant sugar plantations will enrich the owners and lubricate the market.

Cotton plantations drink up the water before it emerges
southern Ethiopia.

People who have lived by fishing say that they hardly get any more. The river is narrower and shallower than before. Fish species disappear, the water level drops, and the beach has moved several kilometers on the shores of the Turkana lake.

People have been stolen water and soil, and they have nothing they should have said. Such is the situation for small, stateless people in many places in the world.


scale Collisions

It is conceivable that the power plants and plantations will be good for Ethiopia in the sense that the country will be able to pay off some debt, electrify a few more streets and houses and create jobs for a few thousand people. However, it is not necessarily the case that what is good for Ethiopia is good for the small groups of people living along the river (and what is good for Ethiopia's GDP, ie "economy", is definitely not good for the country's ecology). And what might be good for those who get a job at the power plant, or in a bar or brothel serving the new wage-labor class, is definitely not very good for a sheep farmer, fisherman or sorghum grower.

At its most abstract, this problem is about scale collisions. The numbers look promising. Money is pouring in, lenders' interest income is ticking up, and some urban middle-class people can finally get a freezer and reliably charge their stuff. At the same time, a few already meaningless rich people become even richer. Some make decisions, some reap the rewards; others are decided and must take the bill. Today's global capitalism has one of its peculiarities that distance is growing. The scale gap is so large that you will soon need stargazers to spot those who enrich themselves and to find the ones you can go to with your complaints.

In this regard, the Karoes, the Mursis and the other small and stateless peoples of southern Ethiopia are poorly placed. They will probably do well, thanks to their flexibility. But for every passing year, they have a little less left. Less hunting and less fishing due to the degradation of the ecology. Less land to cultivate because of the plantations. Less water due to the power plants. In short: Welcome to global neoliberalism, welcome to the capital oak!

Difficult, marginal life

PHOTO: Ethiopia is one of Africa's least urbanized countries. This beautiful and poignant book Omo Change, consists mainly of photographs depicting people at work and rest, large construction machinery and new large-scale infrastructure. In total there are around 150 pictures, and the book is equipped with explanatory captions at the back. The story told is about the theft of these fictitious goods of land and water, to which people in most non-modern societies have no right of ownership. People groups that were already marginal at the outset and lived on the verge of the minimum of existence are pushed even further into the outer edges. Because of the plantation operation, it becomes difficult to live on own products such as sorghum, the most common grain variety in the entire Sahel belt. Some are proletarianized, others become prostitutes, while others are only slightly poorer. Nevertheless, it is necessary to sort. For the photographs not only shows how the hydropower plants and the large plantations are raging with the landscape. They also show people living tough, marginal lives with few alternatives and limited life expectancy. It might well be that they would be better off if they were offered better diets and a functioning health service, better housing and maybe even a little schooling. Thus, modernity could have sprinkled some small blessings on the people along the Omo Valley. The only problem is that development is something that happens in the cities, even when it takes place in the countryside. Ethiopia is one of Africa's least urbanized countries, and the vast majority of the population lives in the village. Nevertheless, only a single digit percentage of the rural population has access to electricity. There is nothing to suggest that some of those who live in the shadow of the power plants will receive a few kilowatt hours as a thank you for the inconvenience. At the same time, the authorities boast that people are now better protected against flood disasters than before, as the dams make it possible to close the tap when the volume of water becomes overwhelming. This sounds sensible, all the while a flood killed almost 500 people in the Omodalen as late as 2006. The objection is that the regulation of water supply will also hit the life-giving annual flood that makes agriculture possible in the low-rainfall area.

Also read: The culture of the future of the future and Abiy Ahmed by Valentin Sevéus

Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Thomas Hylland Eriksen
Professor of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo.

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