The moon is rising over the thatched roof and mud-walled homes that sit idly
in a cluster along the dirt road heading north out of Gode. Some forty
miles or so from Gode, the cluster of homes is the town of Denan, a Muslim
community of culturally Somali Ethiopians living in one of the most
inhospitable tracts of land on the planet.
Mats have been placed on the ground in the yard behind the house where we
are staying. A tightly woven fence constructed from branches and twigs
encloses the yard, the only deterrent to prevent the wild animals, mostly
hyenas, from entering the family’s living space.
We take a seat on the mats and rummage through our bags looking for the baby
wipes we brought with us from Addis. We find them, soon wiping our faces,
necks, and armpits. This serves as our shower for the day, and will for the
next two days, as we are in a place where water is most limited, especially
at this current time when the October rains never arrived a few months back.
The onset of drought and its consequential famine can be seen in the
inches of dust and dirt that is the soil.
A group of men have gathered on the opposite side of the yard. They stand
shoulder to shoulder facing east. They recite prayers in unison. They bow
and prostrate to Allah. Off in the distance, beyond the Ogaden, through
anarchic Somalia, and over the Red Sea lies Mecca, the holiest of cities for
these men. I watch them closely, thinking that I could be one of them, if
only I had been born where they were born.
It takes a few baby wipes to feel clean. My wife is the only woman sitting
amongst men in a world where men rule and women are ruled over and have no
voice. She is so strong. The women of the house are hiding inside or over
in the outside kitchen, occasionally passing by on their way between the two
rooms, their colorful dresses blowing slightly in the night air.
Soon the local administrators arrive and we sit with them on the mats.
Greetings are exchanged, our legs folded under us or crossed over so as to
not have a foot pointing directly at the men, doing so is insulting, a sign
Dick gives them an update on his efforts to bring water to the village. He
speaks of the recent load of medical supplies he brought. The
administrators are pleased.
Our stove project has been well-received, they tell us. “But,” they say,
“We need more stoves.” The people love the stove. They don’t have to
gather wood anymore. We explain that after the study is completed we may be
able to bring more stoves. They seemed satisfied.
After they leave, we wait for the village elders to arrive, the true leaders
of the community.
Again, pleasantries are exchanged and we repeat what was said to the
administrators. The elders add that it is ok for us to walk through the
village the next day to assess the stoves in the homes. We are welcome to
Hungry, the night is coming to a close. The moon is high above us,
illuminating the yard enough to see everyone’s faces. We talk with the
local doctor about female genital mutilation, a serious concern in the
A large plate of plain spaghetti noodles is sat on the ground. We form a
circle around it. Small tins of tuna are handed to each of us.
I grab my fork and dig in, adding the oily tuna to the noodles. My wife
seems as “here-now” as she’s been in a while. I am amazed at her courage;
she was sure to share with the elders her concerns for the women of the
Tomorrow we will here from women of 14 households that are using our stoves.
They will tell us that they no longer go out to collect wood. The 10-12
hours of walking are over for them. They pray that we will bring more
stoves to other women, that more ethanol will be available in the future.
“Just a man,” was becoming too easy a notion for me. I began realizing that
as a man, I have the power to make change. My gender rules the world.
I was thinking that I didn’t want to be “just a man” anymore. I want people
to know who I am.
One who believes in true equality, an ideal that when the last
battle is won—when women stand side-by-side with men—then I can go off into
anonymity and become just a man.
(written 19 February 2006)