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Having coffee with Ethiopian farmers

Who? Mariëlle Karssenberg, Master’s student of International DevelopmentWhat? Thesis research at Cascape and the Centre for Development and Innovation (CDI)Where? Guguma, Ethiopia

‘Ethiopians won’t often tell you something’s going wrong because political correctness is very important. So it was something very special when I suddenly found myself having a frank conversation with a farmer. I was doing qualitative research on what prompts farmers to adopt new technologies. Because my plans had already changed a thousand times by then, I was flexible when the farmer asked me to look at his field of carrots as well as his field of malt barley. What he really wanted was to give me sensitive information about his frustrations with the malt barley organization when no one else was around to hear. It was thanks to that information that I reached the main conclusions of my research.

Hotel room

The farmer told me he was so open because I wasn’t like other researchers. I spent 26 days walking around there and sitting for hours looking at how farmers organized their lives in and around the fields. He had also seen that I was involved and that I spent a lot of time having coffee and eating with the farmers. On the days that I wasn’t in the village I was often alone in my hotel room, which I didn’t enjoy. I didn’t usually want to go out alone, because everyone touched me, called out at me and sometimes even spat at me. Sometimes there were foreigners in the hotel and I hung out with them.

I found it very difficult to see problems local people had, especially when they were sick. Once I was having coffee with a farmer when a maid was carried out by her arms and legs. She was unconscious; she had had a miscarriage. You know she won’t get proper treatment, or at least not in time. I felt so powerless.


I saw the New Year celebrations of the Sidama tribe too. They all get dressed up in traditional dress. The different groups each sang their own songs while the men brandished spears and stamped on the ground. Decorated horses galloped past too. But when they started shooting into the air with Kalashnikovs, I thought: what am I doing here? I was the only white person and I was in amongst them. It was great and scary at the same time, because the different groups quarrel at times. My interpreter suggested we leave at some point.

It was incredibly tough in Ethiopia, both physically and mentally, but it was one of the best experiences in my life. You learn so much from it. I learned to stand up for myself, for example, and to step out of my comfort zone, and feel alright about that.’

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