The Returner of Things




by Joakim Larsen

March 2016



Should you ever forget, God forbid, how priviledged you are,

go visit some of the farmers in Tigray




The gradual changes of the small town of Hawzen in central Tigray has not yet reached the surrounding farm land.


Despite its former role as a strategic crossing point of the country’s trade routes, and despite previously holding the most important market of the entire region, this town appears insignificant.


The unpaved main street is bathing its inhabitants in layers and layers of dust. And down the numerous side streets old traditional stone houses follow rows upon rows. This is a humble town, now out of the way from the main road connecting the busy cities of Axum, Adigrat and Mekelle in modern Tigray.




Outside Hawzen, this beautiful hilly countryside streches all the way to the majestic red sand-stone mountains that surround the valley. The rainy season stretches from around May to September; the rest of the year the weather is dry and hot. Scattered creeks provide water well into the second month of the dry season. But from then on, all water is pumped from the ground below and is carried home by the young girls. Electricity too, is a modern commoditiy that is not yet enjoyed here. Apart from mobile phones, you find few modern commodities.


In this land, people are farmers. Life is simple, ressources are scarce and people live humble lives. Activities revolve around the rhythm of the seasons and the beat of the church.


As in most places in Ethiopia, farming is done the traditional way: ploughing with two oxes hitched to a wooden plough. Harvesting with seal. Threshing is also done with oxes. And the transportation of goods to and from town and the weekly market is done by donkey.




Depending on the quality of your land, this may not be an easy place to live. The welfare of the family depends on the size of their farm land and quality of the soil. And it depends on the one the thing, that is entirely outside the farmer’s span of control: the timely and ample rainfall, that can provide the optimal conditions for a plentiful harvest.


When asked about this year’s harvest, farmers have a tendensy to automatically respond with a big smile: “Turu new! It’s good!” But when you ask into how the harvest really is this year, the smiles fade, and with sincerity, they look into your eyes and say: “Fair. Not very good. But better than last year.” There is a trace of relief in their expressions. For anything is an improvement to last year, where the harvest in this area failed miserably.


The climate in Tigray is unpredictable. Years of ample rain with plentiful yields are without warning followed by years of drought, leaving the crippled crops to the mercy of the sun that burns relentlessly.


Life is tough. And the romance of casual hikes in the stunningly beautiful area, is quickly overshadowed, when learning about the reality of some families; struggling and hard working, yet empoverished families living in harsh conditions, trying to provide for even the most basic necessities, that we connect with a decent life…



Visiting a family


The dirt road to Adwa leads out of town, and randomly choosing between the tracks between the fields we went further into the beautiful hilly farm land.


Way off the track we met a woman who was chopping off pieces of wood from a half withered tree. We greeted her politely and stopped to help. At first she was a little reluctant to let us do the chopping, but soon she played along. And after finishing she invited us for coffee at her house for coffee. We accepted politely and happily and helped her carry the wood.


The old stone house where she and her family lived was surrounded by a two meter stone wall with a wooden door in the one corner. On one side of the house was a stable and on the other a storage room. The main house was for living. Here the family slept, here they did the cooking, here guests were received.


The family was poor. No doubt. The house was simple. The beds were old, the madrasses flat, the seats in the house were made by clay and covered by old corn sacks from US Aid.


We were sat down, and soon the entire house hold was engaged in producing the best of the best that the house hold could present: fresh injeera (the sour dough pancake bread) with scrambled eggs served with with a non-alcoholic tala (a home brewed type of beer) followed by coffee from freshly roasted beans served with sugar.


The family served us the best they could master, as is the tradition in Ethiopia. Guests are received and served with honour. And it is customary to sacrifice yourself for them. The host is serving the food and doesn’t eat with the guests. We understood this and insistedly waved both the shy sons over to eat with us. And we left a good large portion of injeera with eggs for the mother and her daughter to eat later.


After enjoying the food, we talked. It turned out the woman was a widow. She was alone with her two children and her grandson, son of her daughter, who was previously married but later divorced.


Her husband was killed in the war against Eritrea 16 years ago. He was one of the hundreds of thousands of soldiers… husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, who lost their lives in Africa’s longest lasting war – a war where brothers were turned against brothers. People who shared the same language, the same culture, the same religion, the same music, the same traditions were fighting against one another… and the scars of this human tragedy are still much visible in the many families who bear the loss.


When he left for the war, her husband sent her a letter, instructing her to call their son Melesse. Melesse in Tigrinia means the returner of things, indicating I will return. But as so many others, he never did…


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