A condensed version of this story was originally published in Breaking Bread Fall 2023.
I met Asnakech Zema for the first time on a bright May afternoon in southern Ethiopia. I have wanted to meet her for years, ever since I was introduced to her in the fall of 2020 when she became the central figure in Growing Her Future, a video I was producing for the Foodgrains Bank. We didn’t actually meet back then, of course, but I felt emotionally close to her over the weeks of watching and editing video footage.
At a time when we couldn’t travel, we chose Asnakech to invite Canadian MPs, and then Canadians more broadly, to visit her farm virtually. We wanted to demonstrate how impactful Canadian aid dollars can be in supporting farmers in building long term resilience to climate change and other severe shocks.
Asnakech and her community had flourished over the five years of the Scaling Up Conservation Agriculture Program (SUCA) in East Africa (2015-2020). When we filmed Growing Her Future, their soils were fertile, they were diversifying their crops and finding new markets, gender equality had improved, and the Ethiopian government was throwing support behind conservation agriculture (CA). Asnakech and others exemplified a more resilient food system in their small corner of the world.
Then came a big test. For some three years East Africa, including southern Ethiopia, experienced the worst droughts in decades and a period of great despair. Even the best farming practices couldn’t produce good harvests when the rains completely failed. Asnakech’s cattle died. But she did not give up.
The deep knowledge she had of her land, the innovation she had embraced, and the strength of her community sustained her.
Now she welcomed us to her farm in real life—TDA staff (the implementing partner), Anja Aoussoren from Tearfund Canada, and me.
In 2022, the Self-Help Group (SHG) (which she had joined as part of SUCA) agreed to add cassava (as a drought-resistant food and cash crop) to their fields, which would fare better under moisture stress than maize, their staple crop. She further sensed the marketing opportunity of growing peppers, and she was right. Those carefully mulched peppers earned Asnakech more than USD$600. Having lost her livestock to severe drought, she is also slowly rebuilding her livestock, with 15 goats purchased.
Asnakech doesn’t need a translator to communicate her love of field and family. She speaks of her harmonious marriage, the well-being of her children, and the hope she has found in her faith. No one went hungry, even in the darkest months. No one needed to leave home in search of help or work elsewhere. “This is how God has shown a miracle,” she said.
When we visited at the end of May this year, she told us sufficient rains had fallen in her community, and we saw how her farm was lush and abundant again in its biodiversity. She is practicing intercropping, mixing maize with haricot beans, and cassava with groundnuts this growing season. Large pumpkin plants are thriving in the shade of taller crops. Thick cobs are ripening on the maize plants awaiting harvest.
I see fierce pride in her, as she grips a maize stock firmly in her hand, while sweeping her other arm over her verdant fields.
“This is hope,” she said.
At the end of our visit, we gather in the cool duskiness of Asnakech’s home. We stand in a circle, hands linked together, and Anja prays a prayer of thanksgiving and further blessing on Asnakech and her family.
Asnakech’s message of hope, and belief in what her children’s children will do on this rich land, is particularly poignant on this day. Her daughter has just given birth to her “first baby boy”—and so her purpose in her farming well for today and for the future is grounded in the reality of new life. “Blessings are coming to my home” she says. “My stomach is becoming full, praise be to God.”
Written by Carol Thiessen.