Oduu Haaraya

SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL, WESTERN ETHIOPIA


by Dessalegn Rahmato (**)

Introduction
The material for this short study was collected in August 1985 during
the University Resettlement Campaign (or Zemetcha, for short) which
took place between June and September of that year. The writer, who
along with students and staff from the main campus was deployed in Met-
tekel for the duration of the Zemetcha, was able to gain access to official
sources of information regarding the resettlement and Mettekel atoarja in
general. Files and documents from various branches of government in the
awarja and woreda 0), as well as from agencies, located in the village of Pa-
wie, directly concerned with the resettlement, provided some valuable
information.
This was supplemented by extensive interviews the writer held with
broadly two sets of people: government agents and peasant resettlers, on
the one hand, and on the other, individuals from the indigenous ” Shan-
qella ” community. In the latter case, my interviewees included a number
of officials of ” Shanqella ” Peasant Associations, a traditional leader and
elder (a Balambaras), a “Shanqella” member of the ESP based tempora-
rily in the area, and several individuals from different walks of life. Most
of my interviews about and archival information on the ” Shanqella ” was
obtained in Mandura ivoreda which has the highest concentration of peo-
ple of this community.
( * ) This paper was presented at the 9th International Conference on Ethiopian Studies, held in
Moscow, 26-31 August 1986.
( * * ) Institute of Development Research Addis Ababa University .
( 1 ) The awraja is the second level in the country’s administrative hierarchy. Below it is the wo-
reda, and above it the province.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 1 5

The aim of the paper is to examine the resettlement programme in
Mettekel and its likely consequences on the indigenous ” Shanqella ” po-
pulation. Not too many conclusions can be drawn on the basis of the
sketchy information obtained, and of the events which at the time of our
stay were just beginning to unfold.
But first a word of explanation. The name shanqella (dark) has a de-
rogatory connotation, but unfortunately there is no commonly agreed-upon
alternative. The assumption on our part was that the people would prefer
the name Gumuz, but this turned out to be false in practice. Amharic
speaking individuals of the community in the areas where my interviews
were conducted, ie., Mandura ivoreda and Pawie, referred to themselves
(in Amharic) as Shanqella, and showed displeasure when they were
addressed as Gumuz. But these individuals stated that they refer to them-
selves in their own language as Begga, a term that also means black in that
language. My informants pointed out that the Gumuz speak the same
language but are different from the Begga. Actually, the Gumuz in Met-
tekel are Moslem Begga who live in Guba’a, ie., the western part of the re-
gion adjoining the Sudan where many of their kinsfolk, also called Gumuz,
live. They can be identified by their long and loose robe (the jellabia),
and are often engaged in active trading. No love is lost between them and
the Begga of eastern Mettekel.
In this paper the name Begga will be used instead of Shanqella or
Gumuz, except where it may lead to confusion or misunderstanding.
At the time of the Zemetcha, resettlement villages were built in what is
known as the Pawie catchment along both sides of the Beles River, but
plans had been made to build more villages along the road to the west of
the village of Pawie. This village was the headquarters of the resettlement
programme, which was directed by the Ethiopian Serategnoch Party
(ESP), with the active assistance of RRC, the Ministries of Agriculture and
of Construction, the provincial and awraja administrations, the regional
planning office, the Beles State Farms agency, and several other govern-
ment departments.
The awraja as a whole (capital: Chagny) is part of what is generally
known as the western lowlands of Ethiopia. Due to space limitations, we
shall not attempt to provide an inventory of the natural resources of the
awraja, nor discuss the area’s ecological characteristics (2).
In brief, Mettekel may be described as hot, humid, flat and desolate.
(2) Taye 1963; UNDP/FAO 1984, pp. 14-18; UNDP/RRC 1984 A, pp. 95-103, 122-130;
ESP/Mettekel 1985.

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1 6 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
A huge area making up nearly half the size of Gojjam province, sparsely
populated with less than a quarter of a million people, and surrounded on
its northern and eastern rim by spectacular mountains, and its southern by
the turbulent Abbay, the region forms a giant circular depression.
Neither in ecological terms nor in sociological is Mettekel part of Goj-
jam. The region, always a periphery of the Ethiopian highlands, was joi-
ned to the province mainly for administrative convenience. Despite that,
however, it continued to retain its own identity, and peripheral status,
chiefly because of the inhospitable nature of the environment, and the abs-
ence of basic infrastructure. This was true until 1984, when famine, war
and pestilence played havoc with the highlands themselves, and thousands
of destitute peasant – survivors of the worst rural tragedy in Ethiopian
history – had to be hastily relocated in the awraja. For good or for bad,
Mettekel will never be the same again.
Resettlement in Mettekel
A discussion of the history of resettlement in post-revolution
Ethiopia, of the government’s justification for it, and of developments
since 1984 is beyond the scope of this paper (3).
In 1984 the government’s planned resettlement, which had an eigth-
year history, and which was expected to expand during the Ten Year Plan
period at a modest pace, was overtaken by events. Due to the devastating
famine of that year, which at one point affected some 10 million
peasants (4), planned resettlement was quickly replaced with emergency
resettlement and a large number of famine-victims were relocated in Met-
tema in Gondar province, Mettekel, Assossa in Wollega, and Gambella in
Illubabor. All but Assossa were settlement areas hastily opened up during
the famine itself, and all three are located in the western lowlands of the
country. Emergency resettlement was not so much a fullfledged policy as
a quick response to a national crisis.
According to the new programme, some 300,000 peasant households
(ie., about 1.5 million persons) were to be moved to new resettlement si-
tes, and of these 1.25 million were destined for the four major centres no-
ted above plus several areas in Kaffa province. Of the total to be resettled

(3) Readers who are interested in the subject are referred to the works of MoA-FAO [June
1984, December 1984, 1985], RRC [1983, 1984], and Eshetu and Teshome [1984], although none of
them deal with developments since the latter part of 1984 when a new element enters and significantly
alters government resettlement policy.
(4) Dessalegn 1986.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 1 7

50% were to be from Wollo and 33% from Tigrai provinces (5). Mettekel
was set to receive 250,000 which was more than the entire population of
the awraja.
No one knows for sure how Mettekel came to be selected as a suit-
able site for resettlement of highland peasants. The available evidence
suggests that no serious scientific and agronomic investigation was carried
out before the choice was actually made. The decision to build settlement
centres in the area was reached at the local level towards mid-Tiqimt 1977
EC (end of October 1984), and endorsed by higher authorities in the latter
part of the Ethiopian month, that is, about a week after the government
formally acknowledged the gravity of the drought situation in the country
and proposed accelerated resettlement as a solution to the crisis {Addis Ze-
men 17 Tiqimt 1977 EC. 27 October 1984). It is quite likely that the
initiative for the choice of Mettekel came from local party and government
officials in the area(6).
A document prepared soon after the resettlement programme got
under way by the awraja party office gives a brief account of Mettekel’s
involvement in the programme (7). In Tiqimt 1977 (no exact date is gi-
ven) a team made up of the awraja and provincial party members and the
head of the regional planning office conducted a ” study ” of the awraja,
and having found the area suitable for resettlement, decided to transmit its
findings to higher authorities. What exactly this study consisted of is not
revealed, but it is quite likely (and the short duration of the study strongly
suggest it) that it was no more than a quick field trip to identify locations
for settler villages.
Another document prepared by the regional planning office based in
Bahr Dar notes that a task force consisting of government and party offi-
cials from Gondar and Gojjam provinces was formed to ” investigate ” the
feasibility of resettlement in Mettema and Mettekel awrajas around mid-
Tiqimt, but the “investigation” consisted of aerial tours of the two re-
gions to locate suitable sites (8). The Mettekel team selected the Pawie
catchment and several areas in four of the six woredas of the awraja –
containing some 174,000 hectares of land – as suitable for resettlement
and traditional farming. The second team’s estimate of suitable land was
slightly less, but it too selected the Pawie area.

(5) NCCP, pp. 5-6.
(6) ESP-Mettekel 1985; NWEPR 1984.
(7) ESP-Mettekel 1985, pp. 15-20.
(8) NWEPR, pp. 1-7.

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1 8 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
Both documents report that when Chairman Mengistu made his first-
ever visit to Mettekel in the last week of Tiqimt the local investigation aut-
horities briefed him on their findings. Shortly after, the Chairman
proposed that for resettlement as well as development purposes Mettekel
was quite suitable. The area, he pointed out, was endowed with large
tracts of unused land, virgin soil, adequate rainfall, numerous rivers, suffi-
cient forest and mineral resources and a good climate. He instructed the
various officials accompanying him on the visit to begin immediate resettle-
ment of famine victims from the north of the country (Addis Zemen 24
Tiqimt 1977 EC – 3 November 1984 GO.
The task of clearing the Pawie area and surveying locations for vil-
lages started in Hidar 1977 (mid-November 1984) but the actual work of
building huts for the new arrivals did not get under way until late Tir (ie.
latter half of January 1985) (9). Two months later, ie., at the end of Me-
gabit or the second week of April, the first group of resettlers arrived in
Pawie. To the surprise of officials involved in the programme, however,
they turned out to be from Kambatta and Hadiya awraja in southern Shoa
province rather than from Wollo or Tigrai. The new arrivals were
provided temporary accomodations in Pawie until they were assigned to
their own villages.
At the time of our stay in Mettekel, the awraja had already received
nearly one-third of the settler population planned for it. There were two
kinds of resettlers at the time: those who were victims of the famine –
from Menz and Gishe in northern Shoa mostly, with a few hundred
households from Wollo; and those who were said to suffer from chronic
land-hunger (but not seriously affected by famine) – mostly from Kam-
batta and Hadiya, and from areas in Gojjam and Gondar provinces. By
the end of August 1985, more than 60% of the settler population was from
southern Shoa. Settler villages, of which 30 were already occupied, were
built along both sides of the upper Beles River. Each village was identi-
fied by a zonal location and serial number; villages on the western side of
the River were in Zone 1, and those on the eastern side on Zone 2. In ea-
rly August, however, the authorities recommended that Zone 1, containing
six occuppied villages and a few others under construction, be abandoned,
and the villagers (about 19, 000 people in all) moved to Zone 2. The area
was found to be perennially water-logged, which made it unhealthy, and
also unsuitable either for habitation or for farming (10). Communication
(9) NWER 1985, pp.9; ESP-Mettekel 1984, pp. 20-38.
(10) NWEPR-Files, pp. 1-3.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 1 9

between the villages and headquarters at Pawie was often quite poor, and
indeed, some villages could only be reached by helicopter. For this and
other reasons, the data in the Table below should be used with caution.

TABLE 1. Population in Pawie Resettlement Villages
Period Covering March to August 1985
Total Total Population by Sex and Age
Household 0 5 6 14 15 17 18 and over
MFMFMFMF
15784 5727 5613 6393 5878 2335 2189 11966 11668
Sources: RRC files, Pawie.

It will take us too far to deal with the general social conditions in
these villages, and the efforts made to develop the area. Those who are
interested in the subject are referred to G. Sivini’s paper as well as the
report prepared in Italian for the Tana-Beles Project by Ada Cavazzani
and G. Sivini [December 1985]. There are, however, two aspects of the
programme which are important for our purposes.
First, on the basis of the plans adopted by RRC and others at the
time, the programme would need more than 60 new villages to accomodate
all the 50,000 settler households destined for the area. This will involve
alienating more land for residence and agriculture. Villages in the Pawie
programme varied in size – from the largest which had 806 households to
the smallest which had 340. However, the plan envisaged a median size
of 500 households per village.
Second, the alienation of land will not come to an end once all reset-
tiers have been accomodated, as a brief look at the population structure in
Table 1 will show. Assuming a similar pattern, the age group between 12
to 17 of the total planned resettler population may come to about 20%, or
10,000 potential households. In a short while, this group will come of age
and form independent households. This will mean more new villages will
have to be built, meaning more land will have to be ” enclosed ” for that
purpose. The process is a dynamic one involving continual expansion and
encroachment on the resources of the indigenous population.

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20 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
The Indigenous Population: The Begga
The Begga are not the only ethnic community in Mettekel. The indi-
genous population also includes the Agau, the Shinasha, the Qimant and
the Oromo. The concentration of these ethnic minorities in the various
ivoredas of Mettekel is shown in Table 2 (only major concentrations are
shown). The Table includes our own estimates of population of the
Begga and its breakdown by woreda.

Table 2 . Woreda Concentration of Nationalities in Mettekel

Nationalities Woreda

Guba’a Mandura Dibate Dangure Wenberra Guangua
Begga 6400 15000 22000 12000 12000 5000
(6667) (16772) (44243) (19595) (45779) (95462)
Agau x
Shinasha x x
Qimant x
Oromo x
Source: 1984 census; ESP-Mettekel 1984: 15ff; and interviews with local officials.
Notes: Figures outside brackets are estimates of Begga population; figures in brackets are total popula-
tion of ivoredas (based on census).

There are as many population estimates of the Begga as are writers
about them, and the present writer does not stand out as an exception.
My estimate puts the total population of the community in Mettekel at

the rest in AgauMidr and Qola Dega Damot awrajas(n). Another source
about 72,000. One source has estimated that there are about 71,000
“Shanqella” in Gojjam province, of which 65,000 live in Mettekel and
has put the Begga population of Gondar and Gojjam provinces at
20,000 (12); still others have suggested that the whole of the Gumuz popu-
lation in Western Ethiopia numbers 53,000 (13), or about 95,000 (14).

(11) ESP-Gojjam, pp. 8-9.
(12) Wallmark, p. 113.
(13) Bender 1975, pp. 61-2.
(14) UNDP-RRC B, p. 6.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 2 1

Wherever the truth lies, the Begga do not constitute a majority in any re-
gion, including Mettekel.
Now the question may be asked: why should we focus on the Begga
alone? why not deal with the effect of the resettlement programme on all
the people who live in the region? The answer briefly is as follows: it will
be shown in the discussion that follows that the programme will have a far
greater impact on the Begga community than on the others because the
Begga have a unique social system which will increasingly be jeopardized
by resettlement. Furthermore, the programme has been established
mostly on Begga land, and resources vital to Begga society will increasingly
be inaccessible to that society.
The literature on the Begga is not very extensive nor is it very satis-
factory. There are on the one hand works based mostly on hearsay (15),
of which the latter is somewhat contemptous, and the former ill-informed.
Taye, for example, describes the ” Shankilla ” of Gojjam, as a people who
“eat anything, wear nothing and maintain a large family because they
practice poligamy”. Cerulli’s monograph (16) also falls into this category,
although the work is based on relatively more respectable sources, ie.,
travellers’ and missionary accounts. It is now largely dated, and serves
only to remind us how young anthropology is. On the other hand,
research done by specialists falls into two groups: linguistics (17), and
ethnography. Of the latter kind, Wallmark’s short discussion of the
“Bega” of Wollega (he refers to them by that name), and Simoons’ desc-
ription of the ” Gumis ” of Gondar province are by far the most informa-
tive. Wendy James’ essay in Donham and James (eds.) is an attempt at
reconstructing the history of the ” Gumuz “, or ” Shangella ” as she fre-
quently calls them, by oral tradition methods, and may be described as
ethno-history. The major weakness of the literature on the Begga is that it
is either dated, or does not deal with developments affecting the Begga
since the revolution of 1975.
Of late, and mainly because of the resettlement programme, several
documents prepared by local officials in Gojjam and Mettekel have carried
reports about the Begga and their way of life. These reports are often
crude attempts at ethnography and ethno-history, and on occasions reveal
ill-informed or biased opinion and attitudes (18). One report in particu-

(15) Hailu 1963; Taye 1963.
(16) Cerulli 1956, pp. 11-37 on the “Gumuz”.
(17) Bender 1975, pp. 62-3; 1976, ch. 18.
(18) ESP-Gojjam 1984; ESP-Mettekel 1983, 1984.

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22 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
lar(19) views Begga communal feuds, which are quite common, as provid-
ing an opening to social forces bent on counter-revolutionary activities. It
stops just short of branding Begga folkways as a danger to the revolution.
It considers the shifting system of agriculture as responsible for the bac-
kwardness of the community and proposes settlement as a solution.
A far more serious research, conducted before the resettlement, is the
series of monographs prepared for RRC on nomadic pastoralism. The
authors of the study, however, are not quite sure how to define communi-
ties which practice shifting cultivation. The ” Gumuz “, for instance are
described as hunter-cultivators who ” depend greatly on hunting and
extremely limited ownership of livestock, and also a limited degree of mo-
bility as a result of shifting cultivation”. This, it is argued should place
them among the nomads (20). However, a few pages later, the authors
argue that the “Gumuz” are in fact pastoralists (21).
The Begga social system, we believe, is best characterised as periph-
eral communalism which relies greatly on shifting cultivation for its mate-
rial sustenance rather than on nomadism or pastoralism. Hunting and
gathering, and at times, fishing are important aspects of Begga productive
activity, but they are supplementary endeavours designed to support the
major source of livelyhood, namely shifting agriculture. Wherever it is
practiced – and, according to some accounts, it is practiced worldwide by
some 200-300 million people, of which about half are Africans (22) –
shifting agriculture reveals one common characteristic: it is a form of
production adapted to and determined by a seasonally- arid savanna
environment (like Mettekel) and dependent on rudimentary agro-
technology.
What is meant by peripheral communalism? Communities like the
Begga – and such communities, located in western Ethiopia along the full
stretch of the Ethio-Sudan border, should not be seen as insignificant –
are peripheral not because they exist on the periphery of the country, but
because they exist in a subordinate relationship to the central or highland
authorities. Peripheral communities in Ethiopia were placed and kept in
that condition by the aggressive policies of successive highland political
powers. Peripheralism therefore does not merely express a geographical

(19) ESP-Gojjam, pp. 33-35.
(20) UNDP-RRC 1984 B, pp. 1-2.
12 lj Ibidem p. 4.
(22) FAO 1984, p. 55 ff.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 23

relation but an economic and political one (1976) (23). Peripheral com-
munalism is further distinguished by the communal nature of property and
labour. Land, the major means of production, is communal and not priv-
ate property, and labour is carried on not individually but in association.
The Specificities of Shifting Agriculture. The discussion of the shifting
systtem provided here is based mostly on information gathered through my
interviews with Bega peasants in Mettekel. But a few words about the li-
terature on the subject is in order. The purely agricultural aspect of the
shifting system, including the process of land preparation, the types of
crops grown, and the labouring season, is covered in Westphal and Wall-
mark (24). While the former is short the latter contains a fairly lengthy
commentary on the agricultural system of the Begga of Wollega. A brief
description of what the shifting system involves is also provided in
UNDP/RRC(25) as well as some discussion of the crops cultivated (26).
Some of the ethno-cultural literature noted earlier also carries brief com-
ments about the system. (Those who are interested in the general debate
on shifting agriculture are referred to FAO 1984). However, in all these
works the system is viewed as merely an agricultural one and the social
dimension is frequently obscured. Begga society is a segment ary one, but
the communal nature of its production system has precluded the emerg-
ence of social classes within it. A Begga individual belongs to what may
be termed a territorial group. The Begga of Mandura, of Mambouk
(north-west of Pawie), the Moslem Gumuz of Guba’a and Wenberra
(western Mettekel) are some of the main territorial groups in the region.
Although in the past the territorial groups, whose cleavages were based
either on religion or natural barriers (the Begga of Mambouk were separa-
ted from the Begga of Mandura by the Beles River), were the basis of po-
litical identity and leadership, the significance of territoriality has waned
considerably since the Begga were incorporated into the Ethiopian state.
Each territorial group is divided into several distinct clans each of
which possesses its own land and area of authority. Clan members know
fairly accurately the boundary of their clan property, and expect other clans
to recognize it. Confiscation of, or encroachment on, clan property by
outsiders is often fiercely resisted. My informants in Mandura woreda

(23) See Pankhurst (1976) for a history of the aggressive policies of the centre vis-à-vis periph-
eral peoples including the Shanqella.
(24) Westphal and Wallmark 1975, pp. 164-68.
(25) 1984 C, pp. 3-4.
(26) Ibidem D, pp. 4-12.

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24 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
were unable to confirm it but I estimated that there were some half a do-
zen clans in the woreda as a whole. It was also difficult to gauge the size
of each clan, but one of my informants, a Begga from Mandura who was
also a cadre in the Party, put the average size at 250 to 300 households.
The Begga are exogamous, that is, marriage is contracted only outside the
clan. But marriage involves the exchange of women between the contract-
ing parties: a bridegroom must hand over his sister (if he does not have
one, another female relative) to his in-laws to get their daughter as his
bride. This is to assure that families do not deplete their labour force.
Each clan is further divided into what may be called communes. A
commune is a group of families – ranging in size perhaps from 20 to 50

  • who reside in the same vicinity and who exchange labour in the process
    of production. Labour exchange is what communal or associated labour,
    the chief form of labour among the Begga, involves. The commune is
    thus the main production unit. However, since communal labour involves
    the provision of food and other refreshments to the labourers, and since by
    tradition the fruits of certain kinds of group endeavour – such as hunting
  • are shared among all members of the community, the commune may
    also be considered a consumption unit. As a production and partially a
    consumption unit, the commune is an important social organization in
    Begga society. We differ with the authors of the UNDP/RRC studies (27)
    who identify the domestic group (the family) as the ” most significant type
    of social organization” among the “Gumuz”. We believe the commune
    is just as significant specially in so far as productive activity is concerned.
    Unlike the clan, the commune is constantly in flux: it emerges, grows
    and disappears depending on the needs of individual members and the
    demands of the shifting agricultural system. Some members may, for
    instance, decide to move their homesteads and locate elsewhere because
    the land they have been farming has become exhausted and has to be
    abandoned. In their new location, they may either form a new commune
    or join one already established. If, however, the new location is not too
    far from the old one, they may choose to stay in the old commune. On
    the other hand, if all members of a commune abandon their settlement and
    their plots and settle in a new location together – as happens on occasions
  • the commune will stay intact for a while.
    The decision to abandon a settlement may be an individual or commu-
    nal one. It may be influenced or determined by either agronomic factors

(27) UNDP-RRC 1984 D, p. 4.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 25

  • for instance, the land may deteriorate – or by social, “political” or
    magico-religious factors. If the latter, it is likely (though not certain) that
    the commune will move to new settlements together.
    There are several kinds of natural resources, all belonging to the col-
    lective, within the boundary of each clan. To begin with, there are two
    categories of land which each clan member has a right to use for cultiva-
    tion or for settlement. First there is land which is under cultivation,
    second, land which is temporarily left fallow or unutilized. As the land in
    the first category becomes exhausted, new land from the second category is
    brought under cultivation. Thus, the property of a clan is at least three or
    four times greater than what its members are actually cultivating at any gi-
    ven moment. The common misconception of local officials in Mettekel
    has been to consider unused land in Begga communities as excess land
    which can be utilized for the benefit of new settlers (28). The land in the
    second category noted above is land which is set aside so that it can rege-
    nerate itself and be brought into production at a later date. The process
    of regeneration, and the re-utilization of land left fallow in the Begga shift-
    ing system takes between ten to fifteen years, and sometimes more.
    Second, the clan usually owns forest or woodland which provide sup-
    plementary resources to the collectivity. Third, a clan or territorial group
    has access to large forest areas and water resources which are used for
    hunting, gathering, fishing and for apiculture. Such large resources are
    often shared with other clans or territorial groups. The Pawie resettle-
    ment was just such an area commonly utilized by the Begga of Mandura
    and of Mambouk. In brief, there is very little unused land, in the proper
    sense of the term, in or around Begga communities.
    The system of property ownership among the Begga reveals, as noted
    above, a dual characteristic: it combines individual possession with commu-
    nal (ie. clan) ownership. Each family cultivates the land that it has mana-
    ged to clear at any given time, and enjoys possessory right over it until it
    abandons it for new land and a new settlement. The principle followed
    here is that of the right of the first occupant. As soon as a family aban-
    dons the plot it has been cultivating, it loses its right over it and the land
    may be used by someone else later. The clan is the real owner of the land,
    and the right of possession or usufruct is accorded to the individual as a
    member of the clan. If, as happens on rare occasions, an individual leaves
    his clan and joins another, he forfeits his right over the property of his
    former clan.
    (28) For example ESP-Mettekel July 1985.

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26 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
As with property ownership, so also with production, the private and
the communal are inter-liked. The actual process of production, ie. the
clearing of the land, the preparation of the soil, harvesting, etc., is carried
on collectively through communal labour. However, the fruit of such
endeavour is appropriated individually, although communal labour will
involve communal consumption.
How much a family may farm depends primarily on how ” popular “
and how “generous” that family is reputed to be in the commune.
Theoretically therefore, there is no limit to the size and number of indivi-
dual plots. In practice, however, plots are small in size – perhaps from 1
to 1.5 hectares – and few in number – often not more than two or three
scattered in different parts of the settlement. This is because of two
important limitations, the one absolute, the other relative. In the first
instance, the family faces limitations imposed by the crude nature of the
available technology. The basic agricultural tools of the Begga are the dig-
gingstick (which may or may not be fitted with a metal point at one end),
the small hoe (known as the tebba), the geivd, or matchete for clearing
underbrush, the short-looped sickle, and the single-bladed axe. The
plough and animal traction are unknown. The Begga have no distinct or
separate artisan caste or group, and tools are either purchased from else-
where or made by those in the community who have learnt the skills.
The second, or relative limitation, has to do with how much commu-
nal labour a family will attract during the working season. A family must
provide food and drinks (particularly borde, the local brew) to those who
come to work with it, and the quantity and quality of the refreshments will
have a bearing on the size of the work-force that will turn up. Those with
limited resources will attract less communal labour than those in better po-
sitions – one cannot be generous if one has nothing to give. Additio-
nally, a large family has advantages over a smaller one because the former
can engage, through its individual members, in a number of communal la-
bour activities, which means that when its turn comes a greater number of
labourers will reciprocate. This is important especially during peak sea-
sons when labour is needed by every one. In this system, to be poor
means to be “unpopular”.
How is labour regulated, and how do people assure that the labour
exchanged is on the whole of the same intensity and quality? The answer
is: through social sanctions and moral approval or disapproval. The lazy
or incompetent labourer is not only the butt of communal jokes but he will
attract the least amount of labour; in extreme cases, he may even be pun-
ished by the communal leadership.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 27
It is the responsibility of the individual to choose the plot he is to
farm. Once a plot is identified the next task is to clear it which is done
with communal labour. After land clearance, the collected brushwood is
burned; this is often done individually or only with family labour. Burn-
ing of course has ecologically damaging consequences but it remains the
most efficient method of land preparation using the least input of labour
and the most rudimentary tools. My Begga informants insisted that burn-
ing is good for the land because it was a form of soil fertilization. Wall-
mark reports that the Wollega Begga practice burning not to enrich the soil
but to make it easier to work. Finally, the other forms of work which are
communally done are digging, planting, weeding, and harvesting.
A Begga family often has one main plot and one or two minor ones.
It also maintains a garden around the homestead which is usually used to
grow chili pepper, vegetables, spices and frequently maize. The main plot
is as a general rule used to grow finger- millet and sorghum, while on the
minor ones are planted ginger, sesame seed, maize and spices. Both fin-
ger-millet and sorghum (the Begga have two kinds of sorghum) are the
staple food of the people.
The Begga shifting system may briefly be described as follows (we
shall look at only the major plot). In general, the Begga follow a three cy-
cle shifting agriculture, although those who possess exceptionally good land
follow a five cycle system. After the land has been prepared for planting,
finger-millet is first sown – this is done between March and May – and
the crop harvested in November. The next crop to be planted, after the
necessary land preparation has been completed, is sorghum. Most of my
informants insisted that in the major plot the order of planting is first mil-
let followed always by sorghum. When the crop is ready for harvesting
the people merely cut off the head (the part bearing the grain), lay the
stalk on the ground without uprooting it and, after a short interval burn it.
Next season, the plot will grow sorghum again. In the meantime, fresh
land adjacent to the plot is picked out and made ready in anticipation of
the depletion of the plot under cultivation. If the yield after the third har-
vest becomes appreciably less than the previous year, and if the plot is
invaded with weeds, then the land is said to be exhausted, and the farm
shifted to the plot next door that was selected earlier. The cycle is repea-
ted on the new plot – ie., finger-millet, sorghum and sorghum again –
and the older plot is left fallow for anywhere up to 15 years to allow it to
recover. The process continues until the distance between the fields and
the homestead is so great that it becomes necessary to move the homestead
as well.

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28 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
The relocation of farm and settlement by the commune as a whole or
by some of its members may be induced by factors other than agricultural
ones. Population pressure and land scarcity may prompt some members
of the commune to move elsewhere, so too drought and shortage of water
or pasture. Other factors involved are the physical or spiritual pollution of
the settlement, interclan conflict or the decision of the gafia or witch-
doctor.
The Begga are not an acephalous society. Authority in the commune
or clan is excercised by respected elders and by a recognized leader, who is
often popularly elected in an elaborate ritual. Balambaras Goq Mangua,
whom I interviewed in Mandura, was a respected leader of his clan,
and also had considerable influence among other clans in the area.
Community leaders have the authority to arbitrate in conflicts, and to
sanction or punish those who violate traditional law and custom. At the
same time the gafia (who at times is a female) plays an influential role in
community life. The gafia is the magico-religious authority, the medicine-
man, and the “protector” of the community’s well-being. He is often
consulted, and his word is strictly adhered to. On the other hand, he is
also the cause of inter-clan conflict, and some of my informants were bitte-
rly resentful of him for that.
If someone dies in a community, the witch-doctor may attribute it to
the physical pollution of the settlement and may advise relocation else-
where. The most serious form of pollution, however, is ” spiritual ” poll-
ution. If the gafia announces that the settlement is infested with evil
spirits and this has been the cause of death or ill-health in the community,
the settlement will be quickly abandoned and a new one built a good dis-
tance from it.
Inter-clan feuding is such a common occurrence that no Begga indivi-
dual travels around unarmed. A majority of the Begga men we saw in
Mettekel carried firearms (which were often of turn-of-century vintage),
the rest bows and arrows. Many of my informants, both Begga and non-
Begga, viewed inter-communal blood-letting as a cancer afflicting Begga
society. The causes of the conflict are many and varied, but cross-clan
adultery, kidnapping of women for marriage, and the “evil eye” are
among the most serious. Interestingly enough, all my informants were of
the opinion that land was not a cause of conflict. The absence of private
property in land may account for this.
When someone dies in a community the gafia is consulted, and if he
rules that someone in another clan had given the deceased the evil eye or
cast a spell on him, the family concerned will plan revenge, which usually

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 29

means killing the offending person. In return, the family of the latter will
have to kill a relative of the perpetrators to avenge itself. And so the
bloody tit for tat continues. What makes Begga communal violence a terri-
bly malignant practice is that it is not necessarily the alleged offender who
is always the target of vengence but anyone of his male relatives – father,
brother, cousin, in-laws, etc. When a violent act is carried out against
someone, all the perpetrator’s relatives, who may be innocent, and who
may not even be aware of the offense, are put at risk, which gives rise to
fear and insecurity among the people in the communes involved. At any
rate, Begga settlements may be shifted to avoid intensifying clan hostilities.
Supplementary Productive Activity. If there is equality in Begga society,
it is equality in destitution. The shifting system of agriculture allows its
practitioner very little surplus, and the form of labour which succeeds in
producing a surplus will quickly be deprived of it because the commune, as
noted earlier, is also a consumption unit. Crop cultivation alone is thus
insufficient to cover the subsistence needs of the people.
Hunting, gathering, fishing and apiculture are the most important
forms of supplementary economic activity. The Begga of Guba’a and
Mandura do not own large livestock herds. A few sheep and goats, per-
haps a few cattle is all a family may own. The Balambaras pointed out that
the Begga were great herders in the past, but some thirty or so years ago a
mysterious cattle disease killed all their cattle, and since then cattle breed-
ing and dairy production have lost their significance among the people.
All but one of the supplementary activities noted are connected with
the forest, and often, particularly in the lean seasons, the difference bet-
ween hunger and a full stomach may depend on forest resources. Hunt-
ing has diminished in importance over the years partly because of the
government’s ban on hunting endangered species, and partly because of
the depletion of wild animals. However, the Begga still hunt small game
and some crop-damaging animals. Various kinds of wild fruit, roots and
plants are part of the people’s diet. The Begga are well known for their
honey which they also collect in the forest and sell, mostly to the Agau.
Large forests like the Pawie settlement are thus important sources of sup-
plementary food and income.
The Shifting System and Agrarian Reform. Soon after the land reform
of 1975, attempts were made by the authorities to implement the reform in
the Begga areas of Mettekel. But this proved to be difficult because of the
system of agriculture in practice there and the absence of private land
ownership. No land re-distribution was carried out in Begga areas since
there were neither landlord nor landless elements among the people.

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30 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
Peasant Associations (PAs) were however established, but these turned out
to be fissile and weak due to the following two reasons.
According to the records of the Mandura ivoreda office of the MoA,
there were 26 PAs in the woreda with a total membership of 2640; most of
the PAs had a membership of less than 100 each. The commune, or quite
often two or more communes joined together, is the basis of PA organiza-
tion. But the commune, as noted earlier, is not a permanently fixed body:
it shrinks, breaks up and is reborn in a different location. When the com-
mune as a whole moves to a different settlement, the PA may remain
intact, but when, as is often the case, it breaks up and reforms, the organi-
zation simply withers away. In addition, Begga families or communes will
move into the inaccessible regions or their territory when they wish to
avoid government interference. Local extension agents are thus not cer-
tain how many PAs remain intact, or where a PA has moved to at any gi-
ven time. The Mandura woreda PA leader – himself not a Begga –
complained bitterly that the shifting system and the “innate” conserva-
tism of the Begga was responsible for the weakness and poor showing of
peasant organization in the woreda. A report prepared by this same indi-
vidual notes that what few PA activities there were in Mandura was due to
small number of Agau peasants who live within the woreda and whose PAs,
(total membership 4000) have remained stable.
The second cause for weakness has to do with the question of leader-
ship. As noted earlier, the Begga have their own form of leadership and
their own system for conflict resolution. The PA leadership is thus either
absorbed within the indigenous system, or, if formally different, becomes
subordinate to the latter. In some PAs one finds a formal PA executive
and a Judicial Tribunal but in practice both it and the people, and on
many occasions woreda government authorities, look to the indigenous
leadership when important decision have to be made.
The Impact of Resettlement on the Begga Way of Life
The shifting system has survived so far because it has been able to
maintain a delicate balance between man and the environment. What the
Begga destroy by their slash and burn technique they attempt to recover by
allowing the land to lie fallow for a period of time. Although their tech-
nology is rudimentary, it is at the same time adapted to the existing soil
conditions. The fine-textured vertisoil found in most Begga areas will
quickly be damaged if farmed with the plough or the tractor.
Unless appropriate and long-term remedial measures are taken, the

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 3 1

Begga will be threatened by the resettlement programme now under way in
Mettekel. The main danger to the Begga posed by the programme is two-
fold. First, by appropriating what is believed to be unused land, but
much of what in practice is vital to the Begga, the programme will damage
and eventually may even completely destroy the delicate land-use system
employed by the Begga. The cyclical form of production of peripheral
communalism depends on far more land than is under cultivation at a gi-
ven moment. If, as appears likely, the Begga agrarian system is damaged,
it will force the people to over-use, and as a result seriously impoverish the
remaining land available to them. As a consequence, the standard of con-
sumption and income of the Begga – such as it is – will deteriorate.
Secondly, the appropriation of land by the resettlement will deny the peo-
ple access to forest and other resources traditionally available to them.
Forest products and fishing, which are now being closed off to the Begga,
are important supplements to their consumption and income. We found
no evidence of plans or long term policies to support the Begga in case
they were adversely affected by the resettlement. Local officials talked
vaguely about resettlement schemes for them but there were no active pre-
parations along these lines, suggesting that the officials had not seriously
considered the problems that may arise in the future. Indeed, it was
apparent that no serious attempt had been made to understand the Begga
way of life itself. Local official attitude about the Begga ranged from the
contemptuous to the paternalistic. Both the Balambaras and the Begga
party cadre working for the resettlement stressed that it was through an
intimate knowledge of the Begga and their culture that they can be indu-
ced to undergo social transformation, but both noted local officialdom had
not made serious attempts to understand the people and their system.
There were indications that the Begga themselves were beginning to
be aware of the long-term consequences of the resettlement on their liveli-
hood. The Begga peasants that I talked to however were almost
unanimously non-committal about the subject. The evidence comes from
the hostile attitudes that some Begga were showing to some of the immig-
rants.
For a generation or more the Begga have maintained amicable, or at
least tolerant relations with the Agau who live on the higher altitudes and
with whom they trade, and with the Shinasha. Several months before the
emergency resettlement programme was launched some peasants from
Wollo – numbering according to one source about 600 (29) – had vo-
(29) ESP-Mettekel July 1985, pp. 24-5.

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32 DESSALEGN RAHMATO
luntarily migrated to Mettekel and had been settled within Peasant Asso-
ciations in Mandura and Guangua ivoredas. Local officials believed that
the chosen PAs, specially in Mandura, had plenty of unused land to acco-
modate the immigrants. However, the Begga resented the decision
because they claim the land given to the new comers to be theirs. Having
failed to get a sympathetic hearing from the authorities, some Begga deci-
ded to take direct action: in the months that followed several Wollo
peasants were attacked, and some were killed. The report of the Mandura
Woreda PA leader noted above states that the security situation in the
areas where the Wollo settlers live has deteriorated, with the ” Shanqella “
firing on non-Shanqella residents and travellers.
Since the emergency resettlement some Begga have also used ” direct
action ” against some resettlers in the Pawie area, mostly against the Kam-
batta. In the catchment itself Begga settlements extend up to village 5 on
both sides of the Beles River and the Begga here find themselves surroun-
ded by an alien population.
The point worth noting is this: the relation between the settler popu-
lation and the Begga will increasingly deteriorate as more and more resour-
ces claimed by the latter to be theirs by long tradition fall to the resettle-
ment programme.
We shall end this paper with two final comments. In view of the
government’s firm commitment to resettlement as a solution to famine and
land-hunger, the prospects and problems of Mettekel require careful inves-
tigation. A similar investigation is also necessary to understand the Begga
and the various minority nationalities in the region – their cultures, econ-
omic system, and the possible effects the resettlment will have on their way
of life. Such studies must be coupled with well-thought out alternative
strategies to compensate the people concerned for any loss they may suffer,
and to enable them to participate in the development process.
Dessalegn Rahmato

References
Abbreviations CSO: Central Statistical Office. EC: Ethiopian Calendar. ESP: Ethiopian Serategnoch
Party. FAO: Food and Agricultural Organization (of the UN). GC: Gregorian Calendar. MoA:
Ministry of Agriculture. NCCP: National Committee for Central Planning. NWEPR: North
West Ethiopian Planning Region. NWER: North West Ethiopian Region. RRC: Relief and Re-
habilitation Commission. UNDP: United Nations Development Programme.
A. Official Sources (inc. UN).
Note, Unless otherwise noted the place of publication is Addis Ababa.
Addis Zemen. Various issues.

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SETTLEMENT AND RESETTLEMENT IN METTEKEL 33

CSO: Population of Woredas and Towns by Sex and Average Household Size Based on the Preliminary Cen-
sus results. Census Supplement 1, December 1985.
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RESUME

Cette étude se réfère à la réinstallation -colonisation (resettlement) orgsanisée par les autorités
compétentes dans le district de Mettekel dans la province du Godjam (Ethiopie occidentale); cette opé-
ration consiste à installer dans cette zone des populations provenant d’autres provinces. Le but princi-
pal de l’auteur de cette étude est d’analyser les conséquences éventuelles de cette opération sur la popu-
lation autocthone composée de « Shanqella » (Noirs) qui se donnent eux mêmes le nom Begga. Quant
à ces Shanqella, l’auteur prévoit deux conséquences principales: d’abord l’appropriation de terrains que
l’on considère « non utilisés », mais qu’en réalité font partie du cycle d’exploitation de la terre suivi par
les Begga; en second lieu, cette appropriation empêchera les Begga d’accéder à la forêt et donc à d’au-
tres resources dont ils ont joui jusqu’à ce moment. L’auteur prévoit donc une dégradation des rapports
entre les populations installées récemment et les Begga. Il estime encore nécessaire une enquête appro-
fondie dans le but d’établir des strategies alternatives pouvant recompenser ceux qui subiront des per-
tes afin de les mettre en mesure de prendre part au processus de développement.

RIASSUNTO

Questo studio si riferisce all’insediamento colonizzativo (resettlement) in atto nel distretto di
Mettekel, nella província del Gojjiam (Etiópia occidentale); tale operazione consiste nelTinsediare cola
popolazioni originarie di altre province. L’autore si propone soprattutto di analizzare le probabili con-
seguenze di questa operazione sulla popolazione autoctona composta da Shanqella (cioè «Neri») ehe,
nella loro stessa lingua, si danno sovente il nome Begga. Per gli Shanqella l’autore prevede due conse-
guenze principali: anzitutto l’appropriazione di terreni ritenuti « inutilizzati » ma ehe in realtà appar-
tengono al delicato ciclo di sfruttamento délia terra seguito dai Begga; in secondo luogo, taie appropria-
zione impedira ai Begga di accedere alla foresta e quindi ad altre risorse délie quali finora hanno godu-
to. In definitiva le relazioni fra le popolazioni di recente insediamento e i Begga subiranuo un progres-
sivo deterioramento. Si impone, quindi, un’accurata indagine con lo scopo di individuare stratégie al-
ternative miranti a ricompensare coloro ehe subiranno perdite e a metterli in grado di partecipare al
processo di sviluppo.

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Yaa rabbii ilmaan Oromoo haqa garsiisi warra haqa isaa ka dhabe karaa haqaatii fii gootummaan ifirratti falmatee deeffatu godhi!! Baha, Dhiha, Kaabaa fii kibbatti sagalee keenya tokko nuuf taasisi yaa waaqa!!

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