The Anglo-Ethiopian Society

The Cave Children of Ethiopia

Author - Joyce Dunn


Ababa dressed in the sheepskin to keep her warm.
Photo © Joyce Dunn

Ababa is about seven years old. Since the age of five she has lived in a cave near the summit of Ethiopia's highest mountain Ras Daschen. At 4200m the air is thin and normally the cave is shrouded in cloud. Her parents live in a village about ten miles away and bring her food three times a month. She doesn't see her family very often.

About eighty children aged between five and eleven live in this way. Their job is to tend the goats and to keep them from the wolves and hyenas that prowl day and night. Land is now so overgrazed in Ethiopia that only the upper slopes can provide perennial grass during the drier months of February to June. The cloud that hangs around the mountains ensures a minimal amount of vegetation. So while the parents are busy ploughing the lower slopes before the rainy season, the children must look after the sheep and goats where the cloud meets the mountain. This may be normal work for children all over Africa. The difference here is that these mountain children rarely see their parents and they must sleep high up in the cold caves at night.

On holidays or festival days, Ababa's parents allow her back to the village of Maje about three hours walk away. On these occasions the adults take over the job of looking after the goats and they sleep in the caves. Ababa then spends two or three days in the village before returning to the cave. For four or five months of the year she must live in this way far from home.

Nights are very cold in the Simien mountains. Typically the temperature falls to -10° and only rises to +10° during daytime. At night, the goats are herded into the cave to protect them from predators. Without the warmth that the animals generate, the children would probably suffer hypothermia. Alone and without light, the cave children pass long periods without parental care and affection. When the parents do arrive, the diet is sparse. Sometimes they eat enjera, the traditional Ethiopian bread made from tef wheat. More often the diet is quita bread, a mixture of barley and spice. Ababa eats enjera on festival days but for cave life quita is the norm because it has a longer shelf life. It will last ten days but is hard as rock to eat.

Assefa playing his flute.
Photo © Joyce Dunn

The sound of a wooden flute is the first thing that greets the occasional traveller on route to scale Ras Daschen. Assefa is older than Ababa. Maybe he is nine years old but these mountain children do not have birthdays and age is irrelevant to him. He plays the flute remarkably well and the melody is tuneful. He does not ask for money since money is of no use to him in the mountains, but he pockets the tips nonchalantly since this is what his parents have told him to do. Like Ababa his hands are rough and sore and it is surprising that he can play the flute at all. His toes have chilblains resembling those of the Gelada monkeys who also inhabit the caves in search of warmth and refuge from the hyenas. The children are from different families. During the day they wear the sheepskins that they also use at night as bedding to keep them from the cold.

Aid agencies seem unaware of this situation. Ethiopia is not short of NGOs and the authorities do their best to address real hardship. However, the remoteness of the location means that it takes several days on foot to reach this mountain range. The nearest road access is Bwahit at the eastern end of the Simien Mountain National Park. From then on a two-day hike is required. Firstly the traveller has to descend two thousand metres to the Mesheba river valley and then climb through the breathless alpine meadows with their giant lobelia trees and rare walia ibex to the high Ras Daschen range. Some of the tracks are too steep for donkeys so only the fittest climbers can reach this hinterland.

Relocation to a better life seems the obvious solution for the cave children where they can have access to schooling and medical care. However it is doubtful whether these remote Amhara people would accept change unless they obtain the right messages from the clergy and currently this is not the case. These god-fearing people listen attentively and they respect their clergy so priests have been co-opted to deliver all sorts of messages from birth control to voting instructions. The mortality rate is unknown but it must be extremely high. The nearest health centre is at Chiroloba, some six hours walk away, but it is no longer manned since medical professionals refuse to live in these remote locations. The same applies to teachers who are unwilling to live in the mountains.

Relocation is an awkward word in Ethiopia. The previous communist regime, overthrown in 1991, attempted mass relocation for political reasons but the people merely walked back to their roots. Nonetheless it is regrettable that any hint of relocation is now rejected out of hand since a softer form of economic relocation offering jobs, land, healthcare, education and access to the major towns might be a better solution.

A new road hugging the mountain has been started in a desperate attempt to reach this hinterland. After two years of dynamiting the cliff face in one of the world's most spectacular national parks, a mere two kilometres has been constructed and it will take many more years to reach the cave children. In the meantime this ancient lifestyle and its hardship for children will continue. For Ababa and Assefa there is no future other than cold and neglect.

First Published in News File Winter 2010

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