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Lives transformed by ancient footpaths

[Eritrea] Villager on way to market.
villager on the way to market (IRIN)

The lives of thousands of villagers in the remote, mountainous region of Qohaito, in southern Eritrea, have been transformed by a unique project to rebuild the footpaths they depend upon.

The six footpaths – which cover 64 km in total – are often the only means of travelling through the stunning, but inaccessible countryside. Children use the footpaths to travel to school, farmers to reach their grazing areas. For many they are the only way to health centres and local markets.

The idea to rebuild the footpaths came from the villagers themselves. “We went through a lengthy consultation process,” said Willa Addis, programme manager of Concern Worldwide, which funded the project along with UNDP's Post-War Emergency Rehabilitation (PoWER) programme.

“We expected them to ask us to help them with water, education or health, but they said that their footpaths were their main priority. They live in such a remote area, some farmers are actually cut off from their own lands,” she said.

The area was chosen for assistance as it had suffered badly during the recent border war with Ethiopia. Only a few miles from the front lines, many of those living on the Qohaito plateau fled their homes to escape from the constant shelling. As a result the footpaths were damaged and not maintained, agricultural lands neglected and many trees in the area were cut down to build trenches, or provide firewood.

“When people returned to their homes after the war, they wanted to get back to normal as quickly as possible," Addis said. "They needed to get to schools, plant their crops, have access to their fields and health centres.”

More than 2,000 local people, from 40 villages were involved in rebuilding and repairing the footpaths. “All we did was bring in an engineer, the local people did the rest,” Addis said.

Construction committees were established, made up of local administrators, farmers, and villagers as well as staff from Concern. They worked in rotating teams - connecting paths, making shortcuts and steps, and widening and flattening the paths wherever possible, to enable loaded donkeys and camels to use them.

Women and men worked together and received a small equal daily wage. The Eritrean Defence Force (EDF) also helped with the project, donating explosives to remove huge boulders which blocked the paths in many places.

Many of those living on the plateau – which is 2,700m above sea level – are pastoralists, who farm land both on the plateau and in the valleys far below. Before the footpaths were repaired, farmers would regularly spend three days walking between their grazing lands. Now they can cover the same distance in less than one day.

“Our lives have improved,” said Ibrahim Mohamood, a local farmer and a member of one of the construction committees. “Now we can carry patients up to the health centre on a stretcher, and loaded animals can carry grain from our fields in the lowlands up to our homes on the plateau.”

The network of footpaths, which cover hundreds of square kilometres from the Red Sea Coast to Qohaito, is unlikely to have changed significantly for centuries. Two thousand years ago the route is believed to have been used by traders as they travelled from the ancient port of Adulis, to the city of Axum, further south. The cool Qohaito plateau is believed to have been a key staging post on that arduous journey.

These days the plateau is an area of immense archaeological interest, but for those who still live and farm in the area, the ancient paths through the mountains continue to be an essential form of communication.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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