Feeling like a failure
When we first met Mestewat Sorsa on a rainy Ethiopian day in October 2017, her situation was not good. Widowed 5 years previously, she was raising 4 children and 2 grandchildren on her own and worry was a constant in her life.
“It’s very challenging,” she told us at the time. “I don’t have much land and I don’t grow enough to feed my children. I buy what I can in the market… but sometimes I have to go to moneylenders, with very high interest to pay back.”
Mestewat’s economic situation had been spiraling downward over the previous few years, a classic case of the cycle of poverty that affects so many families. She had few assets, low production, a lack of food, and mounting debt. Small “safety net” payments from the government — paid in return for manual labor — did not plug the gap.
“My kids used to cry when there was no food”
As a mother, Mestawat felt like she was failing. “We normally eat twice in a day, but the amount is very small. At first (after their dad died) my kids used to cry when there was no food, but now… they withstand the hunger, because they know how difficult the situation is.”
“Difficult” hardly did justice to the Sorsa family situation at the time… but things were about change. A few weeks previously she’d had a visit from a Concern case officer, who asked if she might be interested in taking part in a livelihood-building program.
Mestawat did not need to be asked twice. “Now I am hopeful,” she said.
Two months ago, we returned to see Mestawat in her village in the south of Ethiopia. Emerging onto the hillside clearing where she and her children live, the transformation of their homestead is immediately apparent.
The small parcel of family land is neatly tilled and planted with maize, banana, and garden vegetables. Livestock and poultry graze and peck their way around the grassy front yard, and the family home — once leaky and ramshackle — is neatly plastered and roofed, with proper doors and shutters to keep out the elements.
But best of all is the transformation in Mestawat herself.
There is an easiness and a confidence there that has replaced the despondency and worry of before. On our last visit, she had bravely raised a smile for the camera — today she’s positively beaming. “There have been a lot of changes,” she says cheerfully. “There is no comparison.”
So what happened?
That Concern program was based on the “graduation” model — a tried and trusted combination of skills training and financial inputs that extends for just under a year and is designed to sustainably lift families out of extreme poverty.
And in this case, it seems to have done its job here very nicely.
Having used her startup grant to open a flour milling business, Mestawat began saving with a local cooperative. Soon came a donkey for collecting maize and delivering flour, and she now also rents him out to neighbors for 50-60 Birr (about $1.75) a day. “I bought a heifer and she is now pregnant, so soon there will be a milking cow with a calf,” she adds. There’s also a fluffy new sheep and a selection of poultry.
Taking back control
With her new income stream Mestawat has also been empowered to take back control of the family land, previously rented out for a small amount. There are two growing seasons and she alternates between maize and barley or teff in the main plot, while cultivating cabbage, kale, chillis, and onions out the back. Some she keeps for family consumption and some she sells in the market.
“Now we eat 3 times a day and there is enough,” she tells us. Just as importantly for her young brood, there’s a good variety of food too. Her three youngest kids now go to school and Mestewat says it is her dream to see them all complete their education.
“We raised up from the dust.”
Next on her wish list is an ox for ploughing the family’s land — currently she has a sharecropping arrangement with a neighbor — and she also wants to extend the house to accommodate the kids as they grow.
The bond between this amazing mother and her children is plain to see. This family is tight and they pull together. The two older boys hope that soon they can get behind their new ox and plough, to make their contribution to the family income.
Life for Mestewat is by no means perfect, but she has regained her self-confidence and her hope. “We have raised up from the dust. I am a better person now, a better mother to my children than I was before.”
We beg to differ. We think she was always great — now there’s just more to work with.