Eleema; a Borena woman’s journey

Pastoralism is one of the oldest socio-economic systems in Ethiopia, in which livestock husbandry in open grazing areas represents the major means of subsistence for the pastoralists. Pastoralists belonging to about 29 different ethnic groups occupy 60% of the territory and constitute about 12% of the total population. Despite the contribution of the pastoral system to the national economy of the country, the history of development policies and programmes in Ethiopia shows that they have neglected pastoralism. There have never been appropriate pastoral development policies and programmes in

Pastoralists live in the least developed regions of the country, characterized by poverty, high level of illiteracy, inadequate infrastructure particularly roads, the worst served by health services and receiving the least external support. Women in these regions are considered to be in an even poorer state than men, especially in terms of health conditions. This is because the illiteracy rate is higher among women, poverty is worse, access to health services is lower and the prevalence of harmful traditional practices that negatively impact on women’s health is serious and widespread.

The Borena in Southern Ethiopia are one of the largest pastoralist groups. Pastoralism is the dominant livelihood system of the Borena people, though some community members are gradually tending to agro-pastoralism (livestock and crop production) as coping mechanism than confidently diversifying their livelihood. Livestock remains to be the vital source of food and income. Pastoralist livelihoods are almost completely reliant on water and yet water sources and supply are extremely limited. Health service coverage is very low, less than 40 %, compared to the national and regional figure. The case is similar in the education sector. Illiteracy rate is rampant at 80%, and the enrolment at school age is very low, below 50%. Enrolment of girls in rural schools is extremely low, at approx 20%. Women are the most disadvantaged group and are the victims of these scarce services.


Eleema lives in Elwaye in Yabello Woreda in Borena Zone. The village is a very small one with approx 30 people – 16 male and 14 female; of the males, 3 are old men and the rest are children; of the females, 5 are old women and the rest are children.

Eleema is 30 years old and is a Borena Pastoralist. She got married when she was 15 years. Her husband, Huqaa is 72 years old. According to the Gada System of the Borena, men cannot get married until they are 32 years of age. Up to this age they have social obligations to the community, and must fulfil these before starting a family. As women are not perceived to have an important social role they can get married from the age of 15. Eleema and her husband are from the same village. Huqaa asked Eleema’s family for permission to marry her and it was agreed. Polygamy is very common in Borena; however Eleema is an only wife. The Borena and therefore the women accept polygamy and extra marital relationships as normal. One of Eleema’s neighbours has two wives; another man in the village has a relationship with a girl in the village. Eleema does not worry about her husband and other women as she feels that he is now too old and tired to be interested!

Eleema has 3 daughters and 2 sons. The eldest child is a 9 year old daughter. She said she had her first child when she was 17 years old. The Borena prohibit sexual intercourse between a husband and a wife until they have been married for 2 years. Eleema gave birth to her first child approx 2 years after marriage. The youngest child is approx 1 and a half years old and is at home with his mother all the time.

Eleema’s daily life is very demanding. It is generally acknowledged that rural women in Ethiopia work up to 17 hours a day. Eleema is busy all the time and has no free time for herself in her daily routine. She gets up at approx 5.30 am and starts her work by going out to care for the animals. For pastoralists, their animals are the most important component of the household and will always get first attention. She will milk the cows and tend to the goats. Some of the milk (approx 1 litre) is kept for household consumption and the rest is sold in the local market.

When finshed with the animals, Eleema prepares breakfast for her family, which consists of boiled milk, and sometimes Buluqa ( need to get explanation from Girma)

Water is hugely important for the household and there is no local water source. In the dry season Eleema spends approx 1 and a half hours walking to the water source. She can spend up to a couple of hours collecting water, which involves digging into the dry river bed, deep enough until she finds water. Locally other people may dig the holes, and those who have found the water have the first right to it, however, s/he then has to allow others access to the hole and water and cannot sell the water.

On this particular day, there were a number of holes where water could be collected. Water collecting is a very social occasion, were news and information is shared while filling containers. Some women have brought clothes to wash and others have brought their donkeys for water.

When Eleema has filled a 25 litre jerry can (which weighs 25 kg) and washed her clothes, she sets off back to her tukul carrying the water on her back, and carrying the washing in a large basin. Her 9 year old daughter carries a 12 litre jerry can full of water, strapped to her back. On the way home, they collect firewood for use at home. The return walk will probably take her more than one and a half hours as they are not only carrying the water, but also collecting firewood. If they cannot scavenge enough firewood for the day, they will go out later in the day to collect what is required.

When they arrive at the tukul, the water they have collected is then given to their animals.

Eleema then starts to prepare lunch. The family have stored some maize from their own harvest in the roof of the tukul. Eleema and her daughter then sit together on the ground and take the grain off the cobs. Eleema then grinds the maize manually in a large mortar and pestle. This maize meal is then winnowed to take out the course skin from the flour; the skin is fed to the animals and the flour is used for the families’ lunch. Eleema mixes water and some milk with the maize flour, kneads it into a large flat pancake and cooks it over the fire on a griddle. The fire is in the house.

After lunch, Eleema and her daughter go back a second time to the water point to get water for the family. Water collection alone this day took approx 10 hours.

When Eleema is at home she always has some kind of housework to do; minor repairs to the walls and roof of the tukul; making pots out of clay which she puts cowry shells as ornamentation; and other routine tasks.

Eleema’s husband, Huqaa spends his time looking after the families cattle. In the dry season, there is little grass or forage around the village and he goes off with the animals to find grazing. He may return to his family in the evening or, if he is very far away, he may stay out with the animals. In the wet season when there is forage close to the village he stays at home.

Typically in Borena the husband controls the money in the household; however, he cannot sell an animal without consulting with his wife. If he breaks this rule, the wife reports him to the Gada and he has to compensate her. If the wife needs money, she asks him for it and with her consent he will then sell an animal. When he is going to the market to sell the animal, she will go with him and use the cash to buy what they need.

Selling milk in the market is the woman’s job. The market place is 15 kms away from the village and Eleema walks there carrying litres of milk for sale. With the money she makes from the sale of the milk, she may buy some basic household items or foodstuff and then she will walk the 15 kms back home to her house.

The Borena are not particularly religious people. Eleema believes that there is a “God” in the heaven but does not really carry out any rituals in adoration. If and when prayers or invocations are said, the first prayer is for the animals and livestock in the household and then prayers for the family ensue. In the dry season, when water is very scare, the Borena will often pray for rain; primarily for the welfare of their livestock.

The Borena carry out celebrations in the community for a wedding and for the birth of a child. Eleema was very happy with the birth of her children and when they are well in every day life. Eleema is not particularly concerned about dying; it is a fact that will occur. When a person in the community dies, s/he is put in a sitting position and buried in the ground, above which a mound of stones will be placed as a marker. The Borena do not believe in life after death. The community has an oral tradition and would spend time telling stories.

Health of a person is very important, however the Borena, despite having little religious faith, believe that illness is the punishment of God. When ill, the Borena do try and go to the health facility and get medicine (the nearest health post to here) but God will decide the fate; whether the medicine will cure the patient or not. The community are familiar with local common illnesses, like malaria. They know that malaria is transmitted by the mosquito; however they do not have mosquito nets over the beds or any other preventative measures to protect them. It is common to suffer from malaria, and when sick they get treatment from the local facilities.

The Borena are familiar with HIV/AIDs. They consider it a killer disease and again like any other illness consider it to be a tool of God. Despite this Eleema knows that transmission occurs through sexual relations and with cutting instruments. Traditionally the Borena cultural practice with regard to a woman who had just given birth was that her husband could not have sexual relations with her for 2 years after the birth. During this 2 year period he was allowed to have relations with other women. However, as a result of their knowledge and awareness, the Gada have forbidden this practice, as a means to prevent HIV transmission.

Traditionally the Borena carry out circumcision on both males and females. For males it takes place between 8 and 10 years of age and is carried out in the community. Circumcision of females is considered an easy process. Normally it is an old woman in the community who carries it out when the girl is 11 – 12 years old and typically occurs around the time of her first menstruation. This is not carried out in a ritualistic or celebratory manner and is done individually rather than in groups. Eleema did associate cutting tools with the spread of HIV/AIDs and when asked about tools used in circumcision maintained that the cutter would know if the tool was infected and would change it for a clean one. When asked about female circumcision, Eleema accepts the fact that she was subjected to the practice because it is part of her culture. She has a very strong memory of the pain; however also remembers the fact that she was fed the best food in here household for one week (normally young girls would receive left over food after the men and boys have eaten). At the end of the week she was allowed to play with other children again. She accepts it because it is her culture. Eleema will have her daughter circumcised; if she does not, Eleema believes that no one will want to marry her as she has not been circumcised.

Eleema is ambitious and wants all her male children to go to school; she doesn’t know if this will be possible, but hope so. It is also very important for her and her husband to have an adequate number of livestock and to make the required profit for them to live and realise her hopes.

Eleema was born early in the morning and her name means “time to go and milk the cow”

The Gada is the form of government of the Borena

As many Borena, particularly women, are illiterate and innumerate, knowing ones age and calculating time is often problematic – if this really was the case, her daughter should be 13 years old. To tell the date, the community refer to the Gada cycle of 7 years; the eldest person in the area was 104 years old, calculated by the Gada cycle.

Javier Acebal

About the author: Javier Acebal

I'm a photographer based in Dakar (West Africa). I love to document cultures and people! (but also working for tourism industry).

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