26-year old Addise is making coffee for everyone. It’s a process; the fire must be lit, beans roasted and ground, frankincense burned and water boiled. She lives with her husband and son in a provincial town, close to Bahir Dar city in the north of Ethiopia.
Most people in this area rely on subsistence farming, which has become more challenging as the growing population faces increasingly frequent droughts. Addise’s home is made of mud and grass; inside the walls are lined with colourful sheets and animal skins. Life here couldn’t be closer or more dependent on the land.
Like many young women in rural Ethiopia, Addise left school when she was 15 because her parents wanted her to get married. “When the teachers asked what we wanted to be in the future, I used to say I wanted to be a doctor,” Addise says, pouring coffee into a row of small white cups. “I have seen many women dying while giving birth. I was very eager to contribute something and help the mothers.” “It wasn’t just a dream,” she adds. “If I didn’t drop out of school, I would definitely be a doctor.”
Addise is now pregnant with her second child. Her six-year-old laughs as he stamps the ground shooing an agitated chicken away from the fire. In the darkness on the far side of the room, a cow exhales heavily.
A photo of Addise hangs on the wall; she’s wearing a black graduation gown and hat. “This was taken when my brother-in-law graduated from university.” she explains, hesitating as she looks again at herself in the photo. “I asked him if I could have a picture taken with me wearing his graduation gown to show my parents. I would have been just like him if I had the chance to stay in school,” she adds, “I put the photograph in my in-law’s house because seeing it made me upset and reminded me of the opportunity I have lost, but my husband and his brother loved the picture and insisted I put the photograph on the wall here.”
For Addise, it was so difficult to leave education for married life, she even considered running away from home. “I used to fight with my parents,” she says. “I used to do well in school and I loved it. I felt depressed when I saw my friends going to class. Some people used to criticize me saying, ‘you dropped out of school for a marriage’, ‘you’re just a housewife and you can’t do anything’. Now I challenge my neighbours who try to prevent their daughters from going to school. I always encourage my son to focus on his education because I don’t want him to repeat my life.”
When Addise learned of an Oxfam beekeeping project for women, she was intrigued. “Beekeeping is considered a man’s role because most women just don’t know they can do it themselves. At first, the women in the group were confused. There’s a huge cultural influence, which creates a gender divide. I went to the first meeting feeling very excited. It took place under a tree in the neighbourhood and the staff explained how the project worked. Being part of that training and talking in public was the most exciting and unforgettable day of my life. It felt like I was in school again and starting a new chapter.”
“Before the project, I didn’t have any income or savings of my own, I was dependent on my husband. I started saving the profits from the honey sales. I now have a savings book from the honey cooperative and my own bank account.”
“Now, six years on, I feel like I am in a better place, because I learn, work, earn my own income. I feel equal to my friends. I even grew my hair because I wanted to look good. I feel I am equal to men and my life has changed. I couldn’t read and write that much before the project but after the adult education I can now read and write well.”
The honey Addise and the women of the cooperative harvest might taste like any other good quality honey; but it’s entirely richer and sweeter when you know the beekeepers behind it are getting an education, gaining skills and earning an income which will continue to reward generations to come.