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Few residents of Boto, a farming village in the highlands of southwestern Ethiopia, have traveled farther than their feet can carry them. But their coffee circles the globe.

In Our Village Boto, Ethiopia Through the Eyes of Its Youth

For more than a thousand years, coffee has grown wild in this lush corner of Ethiopia, under a thick forest canopy of acacia and other indigenous trees. Coffee is Ethiopia’s biggest export and, for Boto, a lifeblood. In a village where kerosene lanterns still light the night and children walk dirt paths to fetch water each day, the annual coffee harvest spells ballast or bounty. In this inspiring book, the youth of Boto bring us inside their village, with photographs and stories they gathered themselves. They have much to say, about the importance of family, community, education, and faith. They have much to teach, about resilience and dreams in the face of breathtaking hardship.

Edited by Barbara Cervone n e xt g e n e r ation pre ss

stor ies and photos from a coffee-growing village

In Our Village Boto, Ethiopia Through the Eyes of Its Youth stories and photos from a coffee-growing village

Edited by Barbara Cervone

This book is dedicated to the youth of Boto, whose words and images fill these pages

abduselam abamecha alfia abadir hawi bedru jemila abajihad muhidin ahmed seid kemer seifu teib zelika abamecha

Contents Preface


The boto tree


Wild and settled


Counting hard assets


Family necessities


Hastening to prayer


Ballast or bounty


Printed in Hong Kong by Great Wall Printing, Ltd.

One with livestock


Distributed by Next Generation Press



ISBN: 978-0-9815595-6-8

Wattle and daub


CIP data available.

Injera and wat


Satisfaction, conversation, and blessing


Market day


Next Generation Press, a not-for-profit book publisher, brings forward the

Head to toe


voices and vision of adolescents on their own lives, learning, and work.

Child’s work, child’s play


With a particular focus on youth without economic privilege, Next Generation



Press raises awareness of young people as a powerful force for social justice.

In sickness and health


Next Generation Press, P.O. Box 603252, Providence, Rhode Island 02906 U.S.A.

Education, poverty, and wealth


Hope in the unseen




Fast facts


More about Ethiopia




Copyright © 2011 by What Kids Can Do, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, in any form, without written permission from the publisher.

Design assistance by Sandra Delany.

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The boto tree Before there was a village here – before there was even the idea of a village – there was a clearing in the forest, and in that clearing stood a single boto tree. The tree was tall and straight. Its branches lifted the sky and its roots anchored the soil. Two brothers, Aba Garo and Aba Labu, squatted one day to rest in the shade of the boto. It was Meyazya 1926 (April 1933, by the Ethiopian calendar) and the long rains were weeks away. Still, enough pasture remained for the brothers’ two black mares to graze, and a nearby river carried cool water down from the mountains. A week later, the two brothers returned to the tree. This time, they brought with them twenty sheep, six oxen, four cows, and eighteen sacks of grain. The children of Aba Garo and Aba Labu had already carried the message off in every direction: next Saturday, a market would take place where the boto stood. When that day came, farmers arrived early in the morning, their mules laden with gourds of honey, woven baskets, cotton garbs, and bags of barley, teff, maize, and coffee. Traders pushed their small carts from the town of Agaro, bringing cooking pans, lanterns, and other goods to sell. Women carried baskets of vegetables on their heads and infants on their backs as they walked to the market. Many wore three layers on the journey, to sell the extra clothes.


People spread their wares on the ground below the boto tree and hung their extra garments on its limbs to announce the start of the market. All morning, the buyers and sellers haggled with each other. By noontime, smoke and aromas filled the air. Those who had made a profitable sale celebrated over grilled meat. Women burned incense and roasted and boiled coffee. Their customers sat on wooden stools, sipping the hot black liquid from clay cups. When the sky turned orange above the boto tree, men, women, and children loaded their belongings onto their mules, their backs, and their heads for the journey home. Aba Garo and Aba Labu counted their coins and livestock. They had done well that day. From then on, every fortnight, the market under the boto drew followers seeking profit or trade or communion – or all three. A textile weaver and a hide trader joined Aba Garo and Aba Labu as the leaders of the market. Families started building houses and planting crops on the land stretching outward from the tree. In time, an officer visited from the district government and agreed to register the growing settlement as a kebele. The officer entered the new village’s name into the records: “B-o-t-o.” As you can see from how brightly it shines from space at night, Japan is one of the most urbanized countries in the world.



Wild and settled Green, fertile, alive. In southwestern Ethiopia, hills and valleys roll into each other. Wild forests compete with cultivated fields; the red ochre soil turns hard when arid, sticky when soaked. The land drops to the grasslands of Sudan in the west and to the deserts of Afar in the east. Lakes carve into the landscape in the south; in the north, the Simien Mountains rise more than 4,000 meters high. Here in Boto, however, the environment feels intimate. We grow up learning the names of trees, as if they were members of our family. Give us a minute and we can list two dozen trees (in Afan Oromo, our language): reji, cheledema, togo, wallago, ebicha, bekenisa, qobo, kerero, kiltu, wadesa, hambesa, harbu, botoro, badessa, abayi, sombo, birbisa, ejera, cheka, qorasuma, ulumayi, walenso, hadami, baya. We wash our clothes on smooth stones, in the tea-brown streams where we swim and bathe. We know the names of every stream, too: Gema, Naso, Yembero, Alaltu, Mesa, Dogaja, Dumo, Chami. With over 150 types of butterflies, our task of naming them gets harder. Still, we have memorized many, like the “flying handkerchief” with its lacy, sculpted wings of pale yellow, tan, and silver. The birds we know by their calls: “haa-haa-haa-haa,” “a di-dii,” “wreeeee-creeuw-wreeeee-creeliw.”



Mischievous baboons try to steal our food, and the stoic black and white Colobus monkeys perch in our trees above our coffee farms. Leopards grow fewer in number every year, but every now and then one will take a sheep. We have more success guarding our crops from wild pigs, but they are quick to anger and challenge us back. This wildness has formed us. Yet now we push against the wildness, as we expand our settlements and our planting fields. Decades ago, wild coffee trees shaded by tall tropical forests covered our region. Now, cultivated crops are taking their place, and it is up to humans, not nature, to replenish the soil. Streams have dropped that once ran high except in the driest months; our need for water has increased but the rains have not. The butterflies are falling, both in number and color. To name our land we use a new word now: “sustainable.�


Counting hard assets Suleman Abamilki, Boto’s agricultural development agent, checks the village register for the latest census figures. The annual head count includes humans, livestock, and hectares. In a village with homesteads spread over five kilometers, collecting these numbers takes days of walking. Here is what Suleman and the other census takers found in 2010. Humans: 10,109 men, women, and children in 1,657 households. Livestock: 2,179 cows, 1,945 sheep, 1,952 chickens, 468 horses, 337 goats, 116 mules, and 12 donkeys. Hectares: 772.5 for crops, 728 for coffee, 387 for housing and gardens, 210 for forest, 164.5 for cattle grazing, and 34 for growing the plant called chat. The dirt road leading in and out of Boto, forty-five minutes from the nearest paved road, carries mostly foot traffic (people and animals) and rarely motor vehicles. Enter Boto by four-wheel drive and you could miss the town center if you closed your eyes, counted to one hundred, and kept going. Stop and get out and you may find the village restaurant, which seats eight, packed with men sipping their second cup of buna (Ethiopian coffee) and wrapping injera (Ethiopian bread) around a spicy wat (stew) of lentils. The infirmary across from the restaurant will likely be closed; with little equipment or medicine, it draws few patients. If you are a ferengi (foreigner) and look back from the infirmary’s locked door, you may find it difficult to sort



the shops from the houses, all with tin roofs and strung together in facing rows. Up the road, several merchants look out from their stalls. Kedija specializes in bottled orange drink and matches, scissors and razors, socks and flashlights. Abdurahiman stocks the necessities – exercise books for taking notes at school, soap and razor blades, cooking ingredients, water jugs – along with the extras, like radios. Tahir sells kerosene for our lanterns, since Boto has no electricity. For much of his life the tailor, Taha, has been making clothes on a 1952 foot-powered sewing machine in a shop two meters wide. Many mornings, his three-year-old great grandson traces patterns with a stick on the shop’s dirt floor.


Always the busiest spot in town, the chat market draws buyers, sellers, and on-thespot users who chew the fresh leaves of this shrub – stimulating but addictive – and pass the afternoon. Goats, sheep, and dogs join in. The chat leaves give them a kick, too, and no one seems to mind if they snatch a share. As the sun descends, a dozen women, ages fifteen to sixtythree, occupy a patch of ground just as the road leaves Boto. Each displays and sells the excess from her family’s garden: perhaps a dozen tomatoes, mangoes piled in a basket, coffee beans spread on a small cloth.


Satisfaction, conversation, and blessing The mother pours her coffee, dips a finger in the warm liquid, and puts it in her toddler’s mouth to suck. We grow up sipping coffee, several times a day, for company as much as pleasure. You may have heard about the Ethiopian coffee ceremony, a tradition hundreds of years old. Buna zigijit joins families and neighbors in stories, gossip, debates, and friendship. This is how it looks. Liya, the oldest daughter of Fatuma and Mohammed, spreads fresh long grasses across the floor and lights the nearby incense burner. She fills a jebena (a round-bottomed, black clay coffeepot) with water and places it over hot coals. Today it is her turn to prepare the hour-long coffee ceremony for her family and neighbors. She tosses a handful of green coffee beans into a heated, long-handled pan, then shakes the beans over a fire until they are clean. With the same pan, she roasts the beans, stirring them constantly. Unlike her mother, who removes the beans from the heat when they turn medium brown, Liya roasts them until they are blackened and shimmering with oils. She walks the pan around the room, sending wafts of roasted coffee in every direction and letting each guest breathe in its sweet aroma.



Liya then reaches for a small, heavy wooden bowl, called a mukecha, and a wooden pestle, a zenezena. She transfers the beans to the mukecha and grinds them until they are a fine powder. Soon, the water in the jebena is ready. She removes the jebena’s straw lid and adds the fresh coffee. She brings the mixture to a boil again, then removes it from the heat. On the floor next to a kerosene lamp lies a tray with ten small, porcelain handle-less cups, arranged so that each cup touches the next. Liya bends over the tray and pours the coffee in a single stream from about twelve centimeters above, one cup to the next. Liya is good at this and she rarely breaks the stream. She also knows when to stop pouring, so that the grounds at the bottom of the jebena do not end up in the cup. She picks up the tray and carries it from one person to the next, handing each a cup of hot buna. Fatuma praises Liya’s coffee and skill, as do the others. Tradition requires this exchange, but in Liya’s case, the compliments go beyond the customary. Mohammed adds salt to his coffee. Aysha adds niter kebbeh, our spicy butter. When Jemal had stomach pains a week ago, he added the herb talatam, known to ease indigestion. Liya’s younger brothers and sister ask for sugar. Stories and gossip flow freely between sips. After the first round of coffee, Liya prepares two more—three in all. The first is abol, for satisfaction, the second is, tona, for good conversation, and the third is baraka, a blessing. Each serving is weaker than the one before, but each cup is said to transform the spirit.



Education, poverty, and wealth Until 2006, education in Boto ended at grade four. That year, the primary school added another grade, and one more each year since. We now have eight full grades, a complete primary school in the Ethiopian education system. Across the country, the number of students enrolled in school has risen like a bumper harvest, five hundred percent in twenty years, they say. More children attending more school – we should be glad. We are. But it’s a mixed blessing, to tell the truth. Having grades four through eight creates an opportunity for us to go on to secondary education: two years of level one and perhaps two years of level two. But to do so, we must leave our village and pay fees that few of our families can afford. After grade ten, we could teach primary school. After grade twelve, we have the chance – small, to be sure – to go on to university. More education means more possibilities, this we know. But poverty still gets in the way. The conditions in our village school, never good, have grown worse. Bulcha Albamilki, whose parents never attended school, teaches grades one through six. He has this to say: With 1,000 students and thirteen teachers, the classrooms are too full. It is better now that the younger students come in the morning and the older in the afternoon, but that reduces the education by half for each group. There are not enough tables, not enough chairs, and no desks. Students who live near the school sometimes bring their own



chairs. In the dry season, we spread outdoors, with the teacher and students grouped around a blackboard that leans against a tree or classroom wall.

Seid picks up where Bulcha leaves off: We lack books, we lack laboratory materials, we lack community support. The roof leaks and, without proper fencing, the animals come in. We speak Oromiffa, the language of our region, but the few books we have are in Amharic or English. We get discouraged. The 150 students who enter the first grade drop to 48 in the eighth.

Despite these challenges, many of us study as hard as we can, borrowing time from daily chores to do “maths” and answer our teachers’ questions, copied down from worn blackboards. “What countries border Ethiopia?” “What planets revolve around the sun?” “How many meters are there in twenty kilometers?” “What gases cause global warming?” A sign in our school, handwritten on a piece of fabric, reads, “Education is wealth.” May we be wealthier than our parents, we say as one, and may our children be wealthier still.



Fast Facts on Ethiopia Location: The Horn of Africa, bordered on the north and northeast by Eritrea, on the east by Djibouti and Somalia, on the south by Kenya, and on the west and southwest by Sudan Area: 1.12 million square kilometers (437,794 square miles) Population: 82,000,000 (2010 estimate); 13th in the world* Population growth rate: 3.19 percent (2011 estimate); 8th in the world* Capital: Addis Ababa Climate: Tropical monsoon; wide variations induced by topographic factors Terrain: High plateau with a central mountain range divided by the Great Rift Valley. Lowest point: Danakil Depression at minus 125 meters (minus 400 feet). Highest point: Ras Dashen at 4,533 meters (14,872 feet) Major languages: Amharic (official), 33 percent; Afan Oromo (official regional), 32 percent; English (official language taught in secondary and higher education), 15 percent courtesy of



Major religions: Orthodox, 43 percent; Muslim, 34 percent; Protestant, 19 percent


Government: Federal republic Monetary unit: Birr (approximately 17 birr = 1 USD) Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth: 8 percent (2010 estimate); 19th in the world* GDP per capita: 1,009 USD (2010); 160th out of 172 countries Main exports: Coffee, hides, oilseeds, beeswax, chat, and sugarcane; the largest domestic livestock population in Africa; poised to become one of the top flower exporters in the world Natural resources: Small reserves of gold, platinum, copper, potash, natural gas (unexploited), hydropower

Literacy: 62 percent of males age 15 and over can read and write; 39 percent of females (2008) Education expenditures: 5.5 percent of GDP (2007); 42nd in the world* Drinking water source: Improved, 38 percent of population; unimproved, 62 percent Sanitation facility access: Improved, 12 percent of population; unimproved, 88 percent Roads: 36,469 km (22,600 mi); 24 percent paved, 76 percent unpaved Mobile phone users: 5 per 100 persons (2010) Internet users: 0.4 per 100 people (2008)

Work force: Agriculture 80 percent; industry and commerce 20 percent Urbanization: 17 percent of population (2010)

Sources: CIA World Factbook, United Nations Human Development Report, World Bank

Arable land: 10 percent

* These (approximate) rankings are from the CIA World Factbook.

Median age: 16.8 years Total fertility rate: 6.02 children born per woman (2011 estimate); 7th in the world* Life expectancy at birth: 56.1 years (2010)

Note: According to the United Nation’s Human Development Index (HDI), Ethiopia ranks 157th out of the 169 countries that were part of the 2010 HDI. The index measures a country’s average achievements in three basic aspects of human development: health, knowledge, and income. Introduced in 1990, the HDI is an alternative to conventional measures of national development, such as level of income and the rate of economic growth. It emphasizes that people and their capabilities should be the ultimate criteria for assessing the development of a country, not economic growth alone. In the case of Ethiopia, the HDI underscores how much more needs to occur in Ethiopia with respect to reducing poverty, improving health, and increasing literacy.

Infant mortality rate: 109 deaths per 1,000 live births (2008)



In Our Village: Boto, Ethiopia Through the Eyes of Its Youth  

Stories from a coffee-growing village. Edited by Barbara Cervone, EdD. Next Generation Press (February 2012).

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