AN EARTH DAM

Handmade in Ethiopia

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Yohannes Gabre knew what he was doing. He was a well-trained and experienced civil engineer. He’d had the good fortune to study in Arizona, which is similar to the ecology of Ethiopia. Often that wasn't the case. Some of his colleagues received fellowships to study in northern climates, like Stockholm, or Edinburgh, or Moscow. There wasn't much that Ethiopians could learn about arid or semi-arid soil and water conservation in those places.

What I felt right away was his motivation as well as his experience. He wanted to build earth dams, knew how urgently needed they were in Ethiopia.

He took me to see the Chencha earth dam, one of the few in the entire country.


As we approached it, I realized what a rare sight it was. I was accustomed to seeing nothing but wasteland on our long drive from Addis Ababa. Wasted land, is more the word: the earth trampled to cement by thousands of livestock hooves, acacias hacked to stumps for the millions of cooking fires. Here was a sparkling blue eye set in a valley of grasses and trees. Herds of cattle and goats were drinking. Women came and went with water jugs attached to their backs.

Yohannes said that the people from the peasants' association of this area built the dam and planted the trees. They were determined to protect the trees from axing for fuelwood. You could see that they weren't stripped; a miraculous sight.

"We need hundreds....thousands... of these dams," he said. "And there's just a handful."

I photographed the dam from several angles, also concentrated on the spillway and the apron as Yohannes pointed them out and explained. We would need these photos of the finished product.

We agreed that the step-by-step construction of such a dam could be photographed and that such a series of color slides would be an effective teaching tool. I said that I only hoped I could be there long enough to complete the photos. How long would it take? A few days. A few days? I gasped. A nine-meter-high dam? Well, about six days, he said. I didn't believe it. Maybe he was a dreamer, how did I know? Or maybe he really knew the dreadful truth of it and kept very quiet. Sometimes his shoulders drooped and he hung his head, forehead knotted in a deep furrow.

To me the enterprise was daunting. Already I was too familiar with the disorganization of the Soil and Water Conservation department. The tremendous workload of each person. Yohannes was chief of Surface-water Conservation for the entire country, but he had no sub-chiefs anywhere. As far as I’d seen, he was practically alone. He did have a few underpaid but hard-working young field technicians stationed in various towns, like Lemma in Mojjo.

Images of the droughts in Ethiopia were so familiar: famine, withered crops, starving livestock; starving families converging on the famine-relief camps. How few of us knew that one of the causes of these devastating droughts was the wild-axe destruction of Ethiopia's forests--mostly for fuelwood, to keep the cooking pot boiling. But also for land-clearing, and--a dark-kept secret-- for valuable hardwoods for export to pay the Russians and the Bulgarians and who-knew who-else for war equipment and arms: MiGs--fighter jets for the war with Eritrea; helicopter-gunships; armored tanks, missiles. All that this poor country possessed to pay for these arms purchases was timber, coffee, cowhides.
Another cause of drought was the huge populations of free-ranging cattle that were chewing up the vegetation.

Not that it didn't rain in Ethiopia. It certainly did, in violent deluges. When it rained, there was nothing but barren, hard surface for the rain to bounce against. Stone-hard soil wouldn't absorb the rainwater.

Grasses, bushes, trees were needed to catch the rain and filter it into the soil. But they were too few, too stunted or hacked, or dead, or just thorns. The deluges sought gashes in the land, and gouged them out into greater ones, creating vast gullies, while precious, life-giving water vanished into them. There was no water to irrigate crops, no drinking water.


There could have been. I got quite high on the subject of trapping water from these deluges. It seemed possible that the farmers could have been taught how to build earth dams properly, by showing them how it was done. The field technicians could show slides in peasants' association meetings.
Yohannes emphasized that an earth dam required precise construction techniques, elaborate mathematical and geological calculations, a detailed topological survey. Don't think –he said--that it's just a lot of earth piled up to form a barrier in any natural hollow. Peasants couldn't build them alone, without the help and supervision of trained people. I suggested: these slides could first be of use in training courses for the field technicians, and he agreed. That's why he wanted them.
We had to pick a site for the construction of this dam that I was to photograph. Just that--site selection-- would be the first subject in our slide-series. Yohannes maneuvered the Land Cruiser through the potholes of Mojjo where we picked up Lemma, who would lead us to a valley in his territory where he’d selected an ideal spot for a dam.

The universal dilapidation of Mojjo. Each visit there pulled me downward. The dingy shanties of this town were close to collapsing, bulging or leaning forward or sideways. Smoke from the cooking fires hung low over the dirt yards littered with trash. Women and children were lining up at the water taps surrounded by barbed wire. Others had formed a line around a milk-seller. The motley cans they held to collect their milk --Shell oil cans, insecticide cans, Star Brand margarine cans. Two sheep had just been killed. They hung by their tails against a rusted tin fence. A butcher was skinning them with a curved knife. Children and dogs crowded around him to watch, the dogs to lick the blood.
We had to stop for a convoy of Russian armored tanks on the road. They came from the military base outside Mojjo. The earth shook under us as they lumbered past in front of our car. Ten.....thirteen....fifteen I counted; reached for my camera. Lemma cried above the thundering, "No photos! We'll all be arrested!" My intention was to photograph this line of military hardware raising dust on the grazing donkeys on the roadside, and looming against the lopsided shacks of Mojjo, so incongruous.

I folded hands and watched these perfect creations of our poisoned genius roll past us. An armored tank was a masterpiece, there was no doubt about it. Whereas the shacks of Mojjo were a scourge.

"Where are they going?" I asked.

"Probably to Eritrea," Yohannes muttered.

"To crush your brothers," I couldn't help remarking.

"To crush our brothers," he said in a monotone.

I could speak my mind with these two Ethiopians. They trusted me, and had openly expressed disgust with their government. They had to be cautious, however; spies were everywhere. I never talked about the government if I was with a group of Ethiopians. "Keep a stone in your mouth, and you will learn not to speak," Yohannes said.

We reached the proposed site for the earth dam after many kilometers of up and down hills, fields of tef, gullies. We passed a stagnant pond, the only water supply for the village. A dam would make a huge difference to the area.


Yohannes approved of Lemma's choice: a sloping valley funneling into a dry stream-bed with an abrupt fall like a ski-jump.

"First thing is to take soil samples," he said to me. "The floor has to be hard clay or rock to hold the water. If it's not, there'll be no dam here." I photographed the two men as they took these samples with pickaxe and auger in various parts of the valley. They were pleased: the soil was hard clay.

All the vegetation at the dam site would have to be cleared. Every shrub, tree, plant had to be uprooted. Layers of earth would be built up, each layer packed down before a new layer for the dam is added. "A bulldozer could do that in no time," Yohannes said. "But we won't be able to get one. The Soil Conservation department owns just one for the entire Shoa region. At this moment, it's at the other end of the region. That’s at least two hundred and fifty kilometers from here. It couldn't be brought down to Mojjo."

"Only one bulldozer! For a region as big as Arizona!" I exclaimed. I pictured some of the earthworks that soil and water conservation required, and I was overwhelmed. "What are you going to do?"

"Get the village peasants' association to volunteer to do the work by hand."

"....And feet," Lemma added. He did a little dance to demonstrate how the earth would be compacted with rhythmic stamping of the feet. "One hundred pairs of feet......."

"Construction will take weeks and weeks!" I exclaimed.

When the two men didn't respond I realized I could say no more. It was the kind of frustration they were up against every day of their professional lives in their Ministry. Not enough vehicles for transportation, many broken-down, no spare parts, no gas; few supplies and no money to purchase more; lack of trained personnel; low salaries; delayed paying of these low salaries. Makeshift, makeshift. We would have to go ahead, and improvise.

* * *

In a few days the earth-dam Super Colossal began. At the dam site were one hundred and thirty-three men and women volunteers that Lemma had brought in by truck.


They carried shovels, hoes and pickaxes on their shoulders like soldiers, listened to Lemma who was telling them what to do, and also discussed animatedly with him.


They branched out over the area staked for the dam, started the clearing, hacking at shrubs, uprooting stumps.


Yohannes and a surveyor were at work pegging the center line of the dam wall.

I had the shooting script to follow that we’d worked out together, steps in the construction process to photograph. Yohannes had been up all night working on calculations of peak run-off, spillway width, cubic meters of earthwork. He concluded that this dam required 6,500 cubic meters of earthwork.
Women worked along with the men, forming a line together with pickaxes opening up the cleared earth. They moved rhythmically, lifting and striking in unison.


Behind them followed another line of women bent over, picking out roots, stems, twigs, stones by hand from the upturned soil. I followed them with my camera, concentrated on close-ups of the action and details.


Written in the script: There must be no organic matter or stones in the dam wall.
I photographed both lines working across the valley, inching-- centimetering--ahead in that wide scoop. I was told that one person averaged one-half cubic meter of earthwork per day. "Thirteen thousand worker days will be needed to build the dam wall," Yohannes calculated. I'm poor in mathematics, but it sounded daunting.

And how long had he said it would have taken for one bulldozer? But I didn't ask.
Yohannes shuffled his notes. He knew what I was thinking. I didn't remind him that he'd said six days were all we needed when he was convincing me to take on this subject.

I put my cameras back in the bag, rested under a tree to wait for the next sequence to photograph, watched the workers fanning out below in the valley.


They wanted this dam. It saddened me to think that they would probably never have one if we hadn't decided to produce this teaching kit. It would be the only dam in a radius of......... how many kilometers? Built only because we needed detailed photographs of the building process.


From my resting-place on the crest I saw hills and valleys on all sides. I pictured the hills forested instead of cement-grey and bare. The valleys emerald-green with crops instead of grey with wrinkled gullies. The way they once were.

A cloud of dust spurting from the hill nearest ours startled me, then a grinding roar. A group of armored tanks suddenly covered the hill, beetling back and forth, down and back up, in circles. One group roared down and disappeared in the valley, another burst into view, whirling, turning, crushing. They were carrying out training maneuvers from the Mojjo base. I watched how they pirouetted at the top of the hill, then slalomed with fiendish precision till they were out of sight. These monsters could turn on a dime.

* * *

In a week the digging of the core trench was completed, the heart and center of the dam. The core trench was a deep cut from one side of the valley to the other. When we arrived at midday it was being hosed, a tank of water had been brought in. I rushed down the slope to catch the scene with camera.

Then I worked on a colorful scene nearby: a circle of fifteen seated women beating a load of clay clods with sticks, breaking them up, singing while they beat in rhythm. They wore brilliant-colored headscarves tied in the back. Their sticks flailed in unison, banged on the clods, rose up again all together. Two women carried more clods into the circle on a tin stretcher, dumping them, then the clods were beaten down into fine soil, picked over-- roots, twigs, stones -- by hand after the beating. Back on a stretcher, the gleaned soil was taken out by its bearers, then dumped into the core trench while another stretcher of rough clods arrived in the midst of the circle. Men shoveled the core soil inside the trench as it was dumped, spreading a thin layer all the way across, wetting it down.

Another colorful scene began: the men and women dropped their shovels and sticks, stepped inside the trench, paired up as for a cotillion. They danced in a long line up to the end, turned around and danced down the trench and up all the way to the other end, clapping hands as they chanted, stamping bare feet in rhythm, compacting the soil. Up the slope, stamp stamp, back down and across stamp stamp, turned around and back down again. Again and again.


They all went back to another round of clod-breaking, soil layering and spreading, wetting down, and another Soil Stomper chorus line. I joined in. All day and into the dusk. My knees were sagging and rebounding. I lost track of the rounds. Each layer wasn't even a quarter of a meter thick. It had to be perfect, packed hard to make certain that the dam would hold. The core trench was one-fourth filled at the end of the day. Another whole day the next day and the next.

And that was just the heart of the dam. The dam wall had to go up after that, by the same process. Gleaned picked-over soil carried in on stretchers. Dumped. Spread. Wetted, packed down stomp stomp. Probably a month's work, two months, who could tell. I'd be gone by then, already on another assignment in another country. I had to find a local photographer to photograph each new phase of the work until it was completed.

And just over there, over the next hill, every day that we were painstakingly crafting this blessed bowl with fingers, sticks, arms, feet, those armored tanks were trampling and slaying the earth, guided up and down and across the valley and hills by mindless destroyers.

If we could have borrowed one of those tanks, with its murderous tonnage and maneuverability we’d have had the clods broken up. We’d have had the soil packed down in the core trench in minutes instead of days of bare feet, sandaled feet, tennis-shoed feet tired feet stomping and stomping. And the dam wall would have gone up in a couple of days.

Why couldn't we just walk over to that hill, wave and stop those tanks, call out to the squadron commander, "Hey, brother! Please give us a hand. Lend us one of your tanks for a couple of days. We can make one of those war machines of yours produce, not destroy. Help us transform our land with this wealth you're squandering in war."

Why couldn't we?

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* * *

A year later, back in my office in Rome, I received a card from Lemma. "I want to let you know that during the drought our dam was a little miracle. It was full, and was the only source of water for a tremendous area. Hundreds of people brought their cattle from far away and managed to survive because of that dam."

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