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Written by Amel Belay   

HUT_1Although Betengna has only been broadcasting in 5 regions, it has a combined national coverage for almost all of Ethiopia. Still there are some regions where we have not yet established a presence. A few weeks ago I travelled to Afar, one of these regions where Betengna is not very well known. The idea was to observe and investigate the similarities and differences between life in Afar and the stories we always capture on Betengna. My findings led to this article I share with you today.

The first thing people asked me when I returned from Semera, the capital city of Afar, was about female circumcision. Afar is notorious for its practice of the most brutal type of female circumcision, or as most in the health and rights field prefer to call, female genital mutilation. But when I returned to Addis, I wasn’t thinking about circumcision at all. As gruesome as a practice it is when you hear about (and sometimes watch) it, when you are there in the midst of the community with the women, circumcision is but a mere entry point into their world of toil for which they earn no respite or gratitude. And if I was to maintain a (strictly!) objective point of view, female circumcision can be viewed as a rite of passage (albeit cruel and permanently scarring one) into womanhood. But how is the rest of their life be justified as they spend every waking minute of it laboring to serve their family with no help from their male partners? This is what I was asking myself and still trying to answer.

Mariam, our host for the day, took us to Aframbo, a tiny but boisterous village that seems forgotten by time, 45 minutes or so past Semera.  She introduced me to a group of women in a few minutes we were speaking openly to each other.  Communicating with these women was easy; we were bound by what makes life difficult for women all over the world. But our similarities ended when they explained to me that they were the ones who built the dome-like shaped huts that spotted the courtyard. These domes are built in the spare times they find between herding their camels and goats, finding water, cooking food and storing the uncooked for the next meal. And in case I had any doubts about their dedication to their routine and life style, they also brought me snacks using plates that made with their own hands. Even the beautiful colorful straw mats we were sitting on were made with their own hands. When I asked what the men did, Mariam indifferently answered for all of them, “they eat and they sleep”.

In my world, women only had to prove that they could do things as well as any man, any motivation to do things better were personal not imposed. But here in Aframbo, Mariam and her friends weren’t trying to prove anything. This is their reality. I felt a confusing mixture of admiration and pity for them, admiration that without them their families would perish but pity for their thankless job reflected on the faces of some curious men that had wandered closer out of curiosity and were grinning broadly.

Miryam_1One of the women seated with us was an aged grandmother, Afrah (name changed) Afrah’s daughter and son-in-law had died (of what no one could tell me directly) but their children were as good as her own. Through Miriam’s translations, I understood that all four of them were in high school or college, which meant they lived in town, away from their grandmother and all their responsibilities towards her. This was another growing trend in Afar; the brutality of battling with the desert everyday for their day to day existence being too much, Afaris, both men and women, are now leaning towards education and the lifestyle that comes with it. The pursuit of this lifestyle leaves little space for elders like Afrah and their now ancient existence.  Looking at all the women around me, from the youngest one holding her year old child to Miriam, to Afrah, the view struck me as a sad and noble cycle, where these women will always do their best for others but in the end have no one to depend on but themselves. Their culture and religion does protect them from abuse in times of marital disputes and divorce, but not from this harsh reality which they are born into and taught to accept.

Back in Addis, as I sat down to think of how much people in Afar can relate to Betengna, I realized the question should be the other way around, because that was where the real beauty of the issue was. How many of Betengna’s listeners can relate to women in Afar? As listeners sit down every week to talk about society, HIV, culture and women, how much do they realize that the men Aframbo have very little interest in their own women and all that concerns them?  How much can Betengna listeners understand that true ability and resilience comes not just from knowledge (that they have relatively easy access to) but also from the effort to lead an ‘exemplary’ life in the face of very little knowledge and support, like the women of Aframbo do every day. I can predict a future in which Afrah’s grandchildren reach a point where they and their daughters have easy access to the basic rights and privileges that we enjoy, such as education and supportive male partners. But until that time comes, instead of dwelling on their misfortune, what can we adapt from them to add meaning to and make use of our own rights and privileges?