The Returned




by Joakim Larsen

February 2017



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

go visit some of the small farmers in rural Africa...



The modern changes in the small town of Hawzen in central Tigray in Northern Ethiopia have not yet reached the surrounding farm land.


And despite its former position as a strategic crossing point of the country’s trade routes, despite it's central role in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church with its many rock hewn churches, and despite previously holding the most important market of the entire region, at the first glance this town appears quite insignificant.


The countryside around Hawzen offers beautiful views.



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


During the midday sun everyone seeks the shadow...

Here one of the many picturesque side streets of Hawzen.



Outside Hawzen, the beautiful hilly countryside streches all the way to the majestic red sand-stone mountains that surround the valley. The rainy season runs from around May to September; the rest of the year the weather is hot and dry. 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 in the house too, is a commoditiy which many do not yet enjoy here. Apart from mobile phones, which have to be charged at the nearest socket, most likely found in town, you find few modern commodities.


The red sand stone mountains light up in the setting sun.



This is farmer country. Life is simple and people live humble lives. Activities revolve around the rhythm of the seasons and the beat of the church.


This lady was tending the cows. I asked her if the men had been lining up for her when she was young. She frowned and refused. But when I asked her again, she laughed and said, "Yes, you're right."



As in most places in Ethiopia, farming is done the traditional way; harvesting is done with seal, ploughing with oxes and a wooden plough. And threshing too is done with oxes. Produce is transported to and from town by donkey.


Depending on the quality of your land, this is not an easy place to live. The welfare of the family depends to a large expend on the size of their land and the quality of the soil. And this varies; some pieces of land are located lowly next to a well and the soil may be fat. Other plots nearby may be located on a windy hill top, with stony and poor soil.


Ultimately however, the harvest depends of course on the one the thing, that is entirely outside the farmer’s span of control: the timely and ample rainfall, that can provide the favourable conditions for a plentiful harvest.


A piece of fertile land near the well. Looks like the cabbage harvest will be good.



I always ask farmers about the harvest. This is the primary concern for any farmer and a good entry point for a conversation.


But when asked a question, in some areas Ethiopians have a tendensy – well it is more than a tendency - to give you the answer they believe you would like to hear. Consequently the farmers often respond with a big smile: “Turu new! It’s good!” But when you ask into how the harvest really is, the smiles fade, and with sincerity, they look into your eyes and say: “It’s 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 (Winter 2015/16), when the harvest in this area failed miserably.


A family harvesting the crop outside their house. They were wonderfully embracing and hospitable. And we were quickly invited for local food and drink - as is customary for visitors - although the sons and daughters who had been harvesting all day were probably much more hungry than us.

But it is difficult to reject Tigrinian hospitality.



The rainfall in Tigray is unpredictable. The rainy season can be long and plentiful and the amount of rain can be scarce. But no matter how it is, it is always followed by a long and hot dry season. Years of ample rain with plentiful yields are without warning followed by years of drought, leaving the crippled crops to the mercy of the relentlessly burning sun. Life here can be tough for there is no social security system.


The tiff harvest (an indegeneous grass and the base of the Ethiopian diet) looks good.

But it is also much less water demanding than both barley, sorghum and maize.

So even in years with less rain, when other crops fail, the harvest of tiff can be satisfactory.


"Harvesting this field takes two days. So it is hard on the knees," the lady told us.



Here the harvest is finished. And it is time for threshing.

These stacks of hay will serve as supplementary food for the cattle during the dry season.



Visiting a family


The pista road to Adwa leads out of Hawzen. Randomly choosing between the tracks between the fields we left the road and 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. We accepted politely and helped her carry the wood.


The mother with her grandson, Simon in the middle, the daughter, mother of the grandson,

and her younger brother. Simon is from Mekelle, and was with me.



The old stone house where she and her family live is surrounded by a beautiful two meter high stone wall with a wooden door in the one corner. On one side of the house is a stable and on the other a storage room. The main house is for living. It has one room. Here the family sleeps, here they cook and eat, and here guests are received.


No doubt this family is poor. The house is simple. The beds are old, the madrasses flat, the seats in the house are made of clay and covered with old corn sacks from USAid.


We were sat down, and soon the entire household was engaged in preparing the best of the best that the house hold could produce: fresh injeera (pancake bread made of a sour dough) with scrambled eggs served 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.


In Ethiopia guests are received with honour and they are served well. And it is customary for hosts to sacrifice themselves; the host is serving the food and doesn’t eat with the guests. Despite this we insistingly 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.


The mother humbly apologized for the injeera made of wheat flower. Normally you use tiff, or maybe a mix of tiff and sorghum. Only the poorest families eat injeera made purely of wheat. But it was fresh, and really tasty and she was obviously happy that we enjoyed the food.


A local who joined us.

In this country you don't always need an invitation.



After eating, we talked. We talked about life and we asked about the family. The mother is alone with her two children and her grandson, the son of her daughter, who had previously married but later divorced.


My husband fought in the war against Eritrea,” the mother told us. “I was pregnant with our second child, our son. After my husband left for the war, he sent me a letter, instructing me to call our son Melesse.” In Tigrinia Melesse means “it has been returned.” But like so many other soldiers fighting that war, her husband never returned… He was killed in the war against Eritrea 16 years ago.


He was one out of thousands of soldiers… husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons, who lost their lives in Africa’s longest lasting war – a terrible fight between people who speak the same language, who share culture, and religion, who listen to the same music, and observe the same traditions. And the scars of this human tragedy are still felt in the numerous families who bear the loss. Her story left us speechless and it was difficult to re-establish the joyful conversation after that story. So we stayed in the pain for some time and sympathised with her loss.


As we left we gave the mother a sum of money, as is customary, when you are invited to a house. And next time we go to Hawzen, we will find the house and we will visit the mother and her children again.



Below: The farmer landscape north of Hawzen

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