By Dominique Soguel
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Nomadic girls in the Danakil Desert of Ethiopia often skip school to fetch and carry water. But in one settled pocket, girls are going to school and mothers in the past two years have begun heeding radio warnings on female genital mutilation.
"We witnessed circumcised mothers dying during childbirth," said Mohamed. "The ones who are not circumcised delivered very easily. So we understood."
A vocal local opponent of female genital mutilation is Aisha Omar, who waved a Women's eNews reporter into her hut when she heard a journalist was near by.
"During our time it was our culture to circumcise, we didn't have a choice," Omar told Women's eNews. "But circumcision is no longer practiced here. Radio and TV told us not to. Now we know the dangers."
The thin mother of four tackles the taboo topic head-on in her hut. Female neighbors trickle in and listen wordlessly to her warnings against female genital mutilation as crossed-armed husbands hover at the doorway.
The excruciating experience of going through labor and ongoing health ramifications played a key role in Omar's decision to oppose a long-standing tradition and not let her two daughters undergo the cutting.
"I experienced the greatest pain when about to give birth," Omar said. "Now I have kidney problems and pains similar to yellow fever."
The Eritrean People's Liberation Front--locally known as Shabiyya--took Omar's husband 10 years ago. She says she survived from livestock, camels and goats, all sold or eaten over the years with the exception of a single black and white goat still standing in her garden.
She pins hopes of a brighter future on her daughters' education.
"If girls grow up educated they will help their parents and the government," she said. "They will live a better life than in the past."
Even with the recent improvements here for girls, however, opportunities still appear limited in a region that the Afar have fought to keep autonomous from Ethiopia's government.
President Meles Zenawi, who recently won what the United States has called sham elections, is the first leader to have a good relationship with this community since the country's independence.
Trucks rigged up for mineral extraction come and go here, along with camel caravans traveling to collect salt from Lake Assal, 510 meters below sea level. These are the main forms of mobility in a harsh landscape of spitting volcanoes and regular earthquakes.
Afari women, with their dark skin, golden nose rings and dramatic color wraps, are a sight rivaling the sun-scorched salt flats and bubbling sulfur deposits of Dallol, Africa's lowest point.
Banned from boarding vehicles, some travel all day by foot to fetch water from government-built pumps. The profits of tourism sidestep them almost entirely.
"All the cash goes to the men," Christos Michalilidis, who founded Pangeans Safari alongside his wife Liza Andreous, told Women's eNews.
Adventure tourism mainly puts cash in the hands of AK-47-armed young men who act as safari escorts. Male village elders also get paid for scouting out paths through brush, sand dunes, volcanic pebbles and mud banks created by unseasonal flash floods.
"Tourists give us pens and books, watches and clothes," said Mohamed, the headmistress. "We are in such a hard place that we need medication and water too. But nobody speaks to us to know our needs."
Dominique Soguel is Women's eNews Arabic editor and a contributing correspondent. She traveled on vacation to the Danakil Desert with Pangeans Safari in May 2010.
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