From Poverty to Famine in Ethiopia

​Rural live in Ethiopian history is largely absent in the historical record – historians are able to work with a wealth of material from the long written record in the country, but these tends to only reflect a small segment of society. James McCann's "From Poverty to Famine in Northeast Ethiopia: A Rural History 1900-1935" (1987) provide important insight into the everyday lives of rural people, as well as the conditions and changes that pushed people living in poverty into famine. A unique contribution made by the author is the role of the state – not its absence per se, but its presence in over taxing rural residents.

The book begins with a series of questions: "What accounts for Ethiopia's vulnerability to famine when it boasts one of Africa's most efficient agricultural systems who technology has sustained sophisticated state systems for millennia? To what extent did northern Ethiopian patterns of property, marriage, and ideology resist or contribute to the overall impoverishment of the rural economy? Did crises in the rural economy as a whole affect the distribution of labor and productive resources between classes or within households?" (p. 5-6) Through a series of short, readable chapters, McCann grapples with answering these questions amidst sparse available data.

On daily life: "Farmers in northern Wallo who daily shouldered their plows and drove their oxen to the field or collected fuel for cook fires regularly faced a labyrinth of decisions with determined the success of their farm expertise. The obstacles in the form of a shrinking resource base, a capricious environment, and obligations to feed a ubiquitous aristocracy have already been outlined. Yet the resilience of their way of life and the expansion of their agricultural system suggest that as workers and consumers highland men and women were effective managers of the resources at their disposal." (p. 68)

On gender: "Given the preference for virilocal residence and frequency of divorce, a pattern of vulnerability for women becomes clear. On divorce many women in peasant households retained few if any resources. Older women or those with young children had fewer prospects because they were liabilities unless they owned livestock. Whether they or their husbands initiated divorce, women almost always left the homestead because the land belonged to the husband. Women could retain rights to land their genealogical claims had brought to a marriage, but those rights were meaningless without oxen and mature male labor to cultivate the land" (p.54)

On taxation: "Over the course of the next two decades [from the 1920s], competition over rural revenues between the state and local elites intensified and caught peasant households in much of northern Ethiopia in a precarious squeeze that likely threatened the margin of surplus needed for social and physical reproduction or rural society and subtly shifted political and social relations between classes. I believe that these pressures, combined with difficult environmental conditions, spurred the frequent rebellions in the north and cemented a cycle of economic decline." (p. 134)

On resistance: "What was the root cause of such widespread resistance? Close examination of the patterns and timing of resistance suggests that environmental factors provided an important, and possible casual, backdrop to political events. The 1917-18 period was one of extreme environmental dislocation in Tigray and Lasta. Generalized conditions of drought, insect invasions, and influenza created severe economic strains locally well into 1920. These conditions threatened peasant subsistence and increased the willingness to resort to violence to provide the means for the survival of the household" (p. 120-121) Again: "Peasants were willing to take up arms and challenge state or local authority out of a sense of desperation" (p. 142).

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