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Self-woven future

Focal area: Income
Project area: Wore Illu
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In the community of Hochecho in the central Ethiopian highlands there is a shortage of many things: more and more people must share the limited fertile soil. There is a lack of food, job opportunities and money to live. Many young men and women move to Addis Ababa or flee to another country to escape their hopeless situation. Menschen für Menschen, however, is striving to provide a new perspective in their home country – as demonstrated by a visit to the carpet weavers in the project region Wore Illu.

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When her son was three years old, Aysha Mohammed took the most difficult decision of her life. She left her child, her parents, the four siblings and her home. Her destination was Saudi Arabia. In pursuit of a better future for herself and her small son, she wanted to earn money as a housekeeper. At home in the town of Hochecho, about 300 kilometres north-east of Addis Ababa, that is difficult even today.

The little fertile soil that is available in the remote rural region is hardly sufficient to feed the growing population. Many families are suffering from hunger. There is usually only work in the fields and in the house of one’s own family – beyond that, young people have little opportunity to earn their own income.

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Because of the hopelessness the marriage of Aysha Mohammed failed. To offer her child something in spite of this, she made a difficult decision: She left her child behind to work as a housekeeper in Saudi Arabia.

After completing her school education Aysha, today aged 22, used to help her mother in the household. Soon afterwards she got to know her future husband, and became pregnant at the age of 17. But the pair separated soon after the birth of her son. She found herself in a desperate situation. “We were completely penniless and unable to build a life together,” says Aysha.

But her dream of escaping from her plight to Saudi Arabia was not fulfilled. Week after week in a foreign country, Aysha was con­sumed by the longing for her son. “I was depressed,” she remembers.

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When she talks about the time her voice becomes brittle and soft. She gave up after a year and went back to Ethiopia – empty handed. The family for which she worked in Saudi Arabia kept all her earnings. They only paid her return air ticket.

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Creating a perspective in the home country

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According to the Ethiopian Ministry of Employment and Social Affairs, about 460,000 Ethiopians emigrated to the Near East between 2008 and 2013. About 85% of them were women from rural regions – few of which had a school education – who sought employment in foreign households. According to estimates, the number of unreported cases is significantly higher, as only those who left the country legally were officially recorded in the statistics.

In the autumn of 2013 the Ethiopian government prohibited the emigration of low-skilled workers to the Near East. There had been a growing number of reports of mistreatment of women. Saudi Arabia, one of the favoured destinations, had also deported several thousand illegal Ethiopian workers. Nevertheless, still today many Ethiopians are leaving their home country. They see no other way of escape from their poverty.

Together with eleven other women and three men, in early 2018 Aysha participated in a job training course organised by Menschen für Menschen in Hochecho. In somewhat more than a month she learned how to weave artistic carpets from sheep’s wool and make plastic bowls. After the course, the participants formed a cooperative. They meet three times a week, alternating between spinning and weaving, as well as making the bowls from thin strips of plastic.

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Social worker Zumra Eberia (center) explains to the participants of the job training how the self-spun yarn is turned into artistic carpets.

“Not only do the participants themselves benefit from the training and work,” explains Zumra Eberia. “Many people who would otherwise have turned their back on the region can at last recognise a degree of progress.” The 29-year-old social worker from Menschen für Menschen is familiar with the community and its problems.

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Every day since 2017 she has walked from hut to hut, showing the farming families how they can improve hygiene in the kitchen, household and smallholding, at the same time teaching about contraception and the advantages of having fewer children. She also advised Aysha and the other members of the carpet group from the beginning and calls in regularly at the cooperative workshop.

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The road of independence

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Aysha Mohammed operates the spindle with verve. She earns money by making carpets and bowls and can thus support herself and her son.

Aysha is sitting on a thin tree trunk in the large mud hut. The sun’s rays are shining in while she concentrates on the hand-operated spindle in front of her. It swings on two thick woollen threads that Aysha holds high in the air with her left hand. She gives the spindle a push. Gradually, she winds the two threads together. “I was so glad to hold my son in my arms again. It makes me very happy that at the same time I received the opportunity to work here!” says Aysha, and a smile spreads over her face.

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Kedir Ali is physically disabled and has also found work in the workshop.

The room bustles with activity. While Aysha and some of the other women spin the woollen yarns, 20-year-old Kedir Ali sits at the large weaving frame that takes up more than half of the workshop. Watch­ing him as he skilfully weaves yarn by yarn, there is nothing to suggest that his life is full of hardship.

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At the age of four his legs suddenly became swollen and painful – he had infected himself with a bacte­rium. Since then his left leg has remained deformed. At that time Kedir’s parents did not receive a proper diagnosis from the doctors in the village. Kedir himself conjectures that it was polio.

He was a good student, but in Hochecho a school education finished with the eighth class. It was inconceivable for him to set off on the long trek to the next secondary school. For the next five years Kedir stayed at home, helped his parents as much as he could in the fields and taking care of the animals. He was unable to secure a job, because he would have had to lift things or walk long distances.

His handicap is no hindrance to weaving and spinning, or making plastic plates. He can work just as well as the others. “I feel free here,” says Kedir. He still lives with his parents. But that will change soon. “I want to finally lead an independent life and rely on nobody.”

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Weaving carpets instead of cutting down forests

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“We’ll take a break now,” a loud voice penetrates the gloom of the workshop. It belongs to Yeshi Muheye. The 33-year-old is the speaker of the group and likewise an unmarried mother. She used to get up before sunrise to collect firewood on a nearby hillside for selling on the market. For a pitiful amount of money she could hardly feed herself and the children and made herself liable to prosecution and risked being arrested. Due to the threat of erosion on the slopes it is forbidden to cut wood on the hillside.

The job training of Menschen für Menschen gave Yeshi an alter­native. During the one-month weaving course she and the other par­ticipants were paid the equivalent of 90 euros, because she was unable to earn a wage during this time. The money was even enough to buy a sheep and a few chickens. Through the sale of eggs, Yeshi was able to care for her children, and her 15-year-old daughter Kemila can at long last go to school on a regular basis.

Like Yeshi, all the members of the carpet group live from this kind of side-line job that she started with the help of Menschen für Menschen. Depending on their size, their carpets sell for between four and 15 euros. Most of the profits are invested in new wool, plastic or other materials from the market and they are able to save around 26,000 birr, about 800 euros. That money has already been paid into a bank account. “When we have enough money, we want to buy a delivery van,” says Yeshi. “It will enable us to take our products to the bigger markets, where we will also earn more.”

It’s an ambitious plan, but the carpet weavers are confident that they will succeed. The job training has given them confidence. “Ear­lier they would not even have dared to express an opinion. Today they feel confident and strong,” says social worker Zumra. She is partic­ularly proud of Yeshi, who has assumed responsibility not only as speaker of the group. “I used to be plagued by concerns for the future,” says Yeshi. “Today I am no longer afraid, and I would like others who are in the same position as I was to have such an opportunity.”

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The next generation

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This will soon be possible: further job training in Hochecho is planned. Yeshi’s cooperative wants to expand, offering new products and de­signs in larger quantities. To bridge over the time until then and recruit further interested men and women, for the time being the carpet group is employing them as saleswomen.

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Nejat Endris sells the carpets and bowls on the market and is looking forward to soon entering the workshop himself.

Among them is 20-year-old Nejat Endris, who tried her luck as a nanny in Addis Ababa but was exploited. Now she proffers her carpets and bowls at the market twice a week. Although Nejat earns only a few cents on each object sold, she demonstrates her interest and the will to work hard.

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“Whenever I have time, I watch the weavers and spinners, or try it for myself,” she says. The carpet manufacturers are Nejat’s great inspiration: “Many of the women used to sit at home, had no chores and were reliant on their husbands. Today they earn their own income. That’s what I want to achieve.”

The Menschen für Menschen Foundation - Karlheinz Böhms Ethiopia Aid is a public foundation under civil law. It is registered with the Munich tax office under the tax number 143/235/72144 and was last exempted from corporation and trade tax by decision of 11th June 2018 for the promotion of tax-privileged purposes and thus recognised as a non-profit organisation.