Kate Watson, Projects Manager at PhotoVoice writes about her experiences in Ethiopia as part of the BRACED project, and the progression of photography in Africa as local communities take ownership of their images.
Perhaps even more than other sub-Saharan countries, our perception of Ethiopia has largely been defined by negative imagery. The Western media’s coverage of the 1980’s famine caused by drought and exacerbated by civil war featured fly-ridden babies with distended bellies and drought-ruined landscapes. Images which, whilst perhaps successful in promoting a rapid relief effort, have undoubtedly perpetuated the long-held notion of another failed African state, afflicted by issues too enduring to be amenable to solution or change.
This trip and project was an opportunity to interrogate this one-dimensional perception and gain a better understanding of the issues and successes of Ethiopia in 2015. For me, as one of PhotoVoice’s newly appointed Project Managers, it was my first international project trip for the organisation to the Oromia region of southern Ethiopia, where I would be managing and facilitating a project in partnership with Christian Aid that aims to build resilience to climate-related threats in the country.
Oromia is a region that is particularly vulnerable to extreme weather conditions and in its pastoralist communities, like many Ethiopian communities in a country where agriculture accounts for over 80% of both exports and employment, livelihoods are almost entirely dependent on their ability to raise and trade livestock season to season.
During my time there, I worked with members from the Adegalchat community, building their skills as Local Monitors to use photography as a tool to identify and communicate priority areas for community development and climate change adaption, which would form the basis of an evaluation process of the BRACED program based on their personal experiences, expectations, fears and aspirations.
The impacts of severe weather on the landscape that surrounded the small village of Adegalchat and its scanty cattle were clearly visible, and the sense of unease with the uncertainty of the challenges the next season would bring, was palpable. However, the work that emerged from the workshops was not, as might be expected, a simple documentation of the problems caused by climate change, but sought to propose solutions and consider how increased resilience might be achieved.
The images produced imagined what positive change might look like in their community and the steps that would be required to realise it. Whilst clean water was prioritised as a key risk to the Adegalchat community’s health and wellbeing, participants used their photography to demonstrate how better management of water resources and a greater commitment to water harvesting during rainy season might mitigate this risk. One participant documented the age differences between her three sons, stating how crucial she felt family planning was in increasing the ability of families to absorb the impacts of extreme weather – a nuanced understanding of gender capacity echoed in the work of many participants, both male and female.
Many documented how existing strategies – such as grain and feed harvest banks – have enabled communities to prepare for hard times, identifying the necessity to invest more resources into these and for their better management. Images depicting practices of livestock intestine reading, and observations of animal behavior patterns and cloud movements provided valuable local insight into traditional forecasting methods and the roles that indigenous knowledge might play alongside modern technologies and scientific approaches to building climate change resilience. Beyond this, the work conveyed a staunch determination to achieve this change and a clear recognition of proactive role that they must continue to adopt in the process.
The term ‘status quo’ does not apply to the Oromia region. Only in the last few weeks, the UN has announced its allocation of $17 million in emergency funding to support the Ethiopian Government to tackle the effects of El Nino, as deepening food insecurity and “severe emaciation and unusual livestock deaths” are reported in the country. As climate change brings increasingly erratic weather patterns to the region, the Adegalchat community is learning to adapt, to modify its behavior and respond to the challenges this brings. In another shift that sees international development move beyond reactive climate management towards an anticipatory risk management model, communities like Adegalchat are working alongside projects like BRACED and PhotoVoice to build the capacity and skills required to prepare and respond to climate change.
Such initiatives highlight the need for a participatory model strengthened by local insight and a collaborative approach to change, and reflect a growing recognition that the transformation of individuals themselves in inclusive policies holds the key to the larger development that the region’s environmental changes necessitate.
In a region that is experiencing an ongoing period of transition, members of the Adegalchat community are not idle bystanders to the changes taking place. Through questioning, adapting, challenging, and utilising their individual capacity to mediate the direction of these shifts, they are challenging the too long perpetuated image of passive recipients of aid services. By transcending the traditional power play of photographer and subject, Local Monitors are playing a central role in this redefinition. The negative images of the 1980’s do not have a place in this redefinition, and their contribution is not valuable in this narrative of change.
To find out more about BRACED, visit the project page.
Featured Image: © Tume Jarso Dida 2015 / Christian Aid / HUNDEE / PhotoVoice
“This is my restaurant in my home. It is called after my husband’s name but I started it myself by making bread to sell to the community. Now I’m also selling Injera and Chiro. Most women rely on their husbands to provide them with money but this isn’t good and so I was motivated to start this business and strive to make my own money. Even if the restaurant does not do fantastically, I am proud that I can work for myself in order to provide enough money to support my children.”