Alemu Endeshaw is a chairman of one of the cooperatives formed by Menja minority group in Sheka zone of SNNPR, Southwestern Ethiopia.
Menjas are minority group in Sheka, who are socially excluded and marginalized by other communities in the area. They are considered sub human and polluted due to historical social and cultural reasons and partly also because of their eating habits and personal hygiene.
Shekachos, who are the dominant ethnic group in Sheka, do not greet Menjas, they do not shake hands with them, do not visit them in their houses or allow them to inter their houses. They do not eat with them. The Menjas are not allowed to enter even public places like bars, restaurants and hotels in towns.
For these reasons, the Menjas live in deep forest areas. They mostly depend on forest products, including hunting and selling fuel wood, for living. They have no motivation to be engaged in crop production, as people do not buy their products.
MELCA-Ethiopia has been working to change the situation of Menjas since 2007, when it has started to operate in Sheka through its conservation focused approaches. But since November 2013, MELCA has been working on reduction of the social discrimination against the Menjas through the fund it has obtained from the European Union (EU).
The approaches toward reduction of the social exclusion include: economic empowerment of the Menjas through provision of livelihood supports, awareness raising and capacity building activities that involved the local community and government administration as well as school supports for Menja children.
Alemu and his fellow Menjas are beneficiaries of this project. Speaking of the project and the change that has started to evolve in relation to the Menjas, Alemu says “We are members of Menja community in Yepo kebele of Masha woreda. We are selected by MELCA and the kebele administration to be beneficiaries of the livelihood improvement support for Menjas. We are 34 in number. We got training on how we can start and improve our livelihood through income generating activities.
The group in my area wanted to be engaged in production of vegetables. So we were trained on how we can produce quality vegetables and get connected to the market. Then we got organized in to a cooperative to produce and supply vegetables to the local market.
Then we got garden tools and the seeds of vegetables. We came back and started to work right away. Now our vegetables are ready to be planted in the fields we prepared.
The training was an eye opener. We were trained on how to do the home gardening, on cooperative management, saving and financial management. We were also told that we are equal to others and we have the right to demand equality. We were made to realize we do not deserve to live such social exclusion. We never heard of such things before. It is as if we are taken to another world. We were living in such poverty-ravaged life suffering also from social exclusion mainly because we lacked those kinds of knowledge and awareness. We used to believe that the life we were living has been our destiny. We did not even think of getting out of that life because we believe it is impossible. The trainings were like wake up calls. They made us to see things differently.
I think we are in a period of transformation. Now we realized that transformation begins from with in; from ourselves. We have to be transformed and make people see us not in the usual way. When we build our confidence and show that practically, others will automatically change their approach toward us. We have proved this through our experiences so far and we will continue to build on this. The past shall only remain the history of Menjas.
Our vegetables are in good condition. We hope to get bumper harvest. We are planning to sell this and buy oxen to fatten and resell. We are dreaming for a different life. A different life for us. A different life for our children. The change has began and we are moving forward.
When MELCA started to support us, the local government also started to give us attention. Now we are being called to participate on different meetings at kebele and woreda levels. They are hearing our ideas. It was not like this before. No one considered us as humans and invited us for participation in discussions relating to the social, economic and political life of the community.
Following these, other community members have also started to treat us differently. They are giving us respect. Unlike before, others are now greeting us, listening to what we say and willing to work with us. These are changes as a result of the intervention.
Now we have a vision; a vision to work hard by expanding our activities and lift our association to a higher level; to the level of a cooperative engaged in animal fattening, coffee and honey marketing including the vegetable production. We have already started saving and bought two oxen from the saving so far. So we are on the way to the changes we are dreaming for.”