Emily sent the following info about her experiences living near the Sheka Forest:
A Home Made of Forest
Two weeks ago, 238,750 hectares of the Sheka Forest were approved by UNESCO to become the third biosphere reserve in Ethiopia. Strangely, this will be the third site I have lived in here in Ethiopia that has been approved as a UNESCO site, either as a biosphere reserve or for cultural significance (Konso terracing system).
The process that led to The Sheka Forest Biosphere Reserve to becoming a reality was mainly due to the work of my host organization, MELCA. The biosphere reserve is vast in plant, animal and bird species bio-diversity, varied ecosystems and life sustaining bodies of water. The traditional knowledge of the people of Sheka is as vast as the bio-diversity. For example, the majority of farmers in the Sheka Zone are honey farmers. The traditional method of hanging hives from high tree limbs is practiced here, playing a big part in forest conservation. The honey, I must say, is the best I have ever tasted. It is amazing to think of nature creating such sweetness without much human intervention. The trees, shrubs and weeds bloom, the bees collect and bring it back to their hives and, after some time, honey ranging from white to gold to dark brown, forms.
This is not the only use the people of Sheka have from the forest. They collect wood for construction, for household items like the mortar and pestle and for fuel. Cooking with charcoal or over an open fire is the norm. Vines and grasses for rope and basketry. Even in the town, the women (including myself) carry their woven basket to market twice a week. Semi-forest coffee groves are planted in the areas between settlement and dense growth, their berries bright red when ready for plucking. Wild cardamom is harvested in key areas by women twice or three times a year. It’s trilogy of bright, fuchsia pods sprouting from the earth lend the eyes to their location. The medicine plants also help them when they are in need. Long pepper is another useful spice found in the forest. It is traditionally pounded into a powder and mixed with milk to help with issues of the blood. There are few people who understand the value, uses and application of the medicine plants found in the forest.
Another tradition is the kobo system, a form of land tenure managed by community elders and clan leaders. One main belief that is upheld through this system is called gudo. It pertains to the sacred sites demarcated throughout the forest. It is believed that people who harm these sacred places will have harm come to them. In this way, the sites are protected from damaged and rightfully respected. At this time, the youth are becoming more westernized and many people as a whole are turning to Western religions that are newer to Ethiopia. This lends a hand in the shift of the community’s lessened support in the kobo system and, more specifically, gudo. Now that the biosphere reserve has been approved, this cultural shift must be addressed if the core and transitional areas of the forest are to be left intact and the buffer zones are to be harvested from sustainably.
I have never looked at a forest in quite the same way – recognizing the necessity to keep it open to human impact due to the vast amount of needs that are being satisfied through forest products. In the States, most of the population has separated themselves from having a dependence on their environment. We have designated parks, reserves and sanctuaries to travel to and enjoy nature. Enjoyment, perhaps, plays a part in the time that the people spend in the forest of Sheka, but survival is more of a concern. I like to think that a spiritual connection with the land exists in both the natural areas in the States and here in the Sheka Forest, but it is more of an independent experience than the sacred sites found here. Pollution of the environment is pollution of one’s spirit, especially when destruction is not directly linked with need.
As I approach close to four months remaining in Ethiopia, I find myself hoping that people here in Sheka have the opportunity to move toward having access to necessary man-made structures like schools and health clinics, while still keeping their strong identity with the land not only intact, but flourishing. Because the forest is a classroom and honey is medicine, too.
Small Clay Pots Hidden Beneath Skirts
Honey forms with the touch of man
because women don’t climb trees
Cloth forms with the thrust of man
because women cannot weave
They travel by foot as men with
their horses can leisurely speed
The home is their shadow hiding
stories of spices, flowers and herbs
They find themselves in savored dishes
and tucked behind tempting ears
Within the well worn mortar, waiting
for a cup of warmth
The young girls and old women are
left carrying the grasses for calves,
goats and sheep
Balancing wood for breaking daily fires
across backs forcibly made for this
The women, they have their strength
It is sometimes left hidden
In the ashes of the evenings’ fires,
like their small clay pots
meant for washing each morning
It is sometimes left hidden
in places no man would go
The pictures below are mostly from Sheka but a few are Supe, a town known for its potters (I believe the black & white pic is called Potter’s Children). The photo with Emily is called “Teaching Beeswax Products”: