The blood-stained years of the Mengistu regime from 1974 to 1991, combined with Ethiopia’s drought-stricken 1980s has been a painful mix for the East African nation’s diverse, multicultural people.

Food security and poverty are daily problems overlaid on a land of vast natural beauty. One town of such demonstrable disparity, Africa’’s Camelot as it is often described, lies in the green, temperate belt of the north-east framed by the Simien mountain range.
Gondar, with its royal castles, nestles more than 2,000 metres high above sea level and was Ethiopia’s capital until 1855.

But coping mechanisms abound amongst this diverse population. On the outskirts of Gondar is a military base in the satellite Azezzo Town.

This town, with its 35,000-strong population, has long had its own co-operative solutions for the natural and political challenges to have been thrown at its people. Unrest in the area has been exacerbated by the military base which is demarcated from Azezzo town by the Demaza river.

Informal co-operative structures are a part of everyday survival. Farmers form what are known as “Wobbera” or “Debo” or “Wonfel” in order to manage the weeding and harvesting periods during the farming year. The farmers move collectively from one farm to another to complete these tasks.

When capital is needed an “Ekub” is formed. Community members gather and contribute an agreed amount of money to a pool which is then rotated amongst the members throughout the year on a monthly basis.

Times of religious and ceremonial occasions are also organised through an informal co-operative known as a “Mehaber”. When a member marries, the co-operative contributes food, labour and money. When there is a death in the community the funeral is organised co-operatively. On Sundays for religious ceremonies a “Senbete” (Sunday) is co-operatively formed in which members gather on the last Sunday of every month to socialise.

Another kind of more advanced informal co-operative is the “Idir” as it’’s locally known. The Association for Mutual and Emergency Help of the Higher 4 Area provides humanitarian support to its very poor membership. It was founded in 1994 and has its own by-laws, a nine-person elected board and regular meetings.

Co-operatives may be informal but they are an ingrained part of life in this corner of the Horn of Africa.