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Where a Woman's Work Is Never Done

At the pools of Aksum, women draw the water - while the men watch.

The water bearers come at nightfall, a procession of young women shrouded in thick white cloth. They sink to their knees by the water's edge and dip their dirty jerrycans underneath the murky surface of the pool.

Here, they will tell you, is where the Queen of Sheba bathed in solitary splendor in the early dawn of the Axumite Empire. And here is where they converge, every day at dusk, to draw water.

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They weave their way to the pool in groups of three or four, casting oblique glances at the men slouched on the side of the road.

Beyond the town and its geography of symbols - the ancient monolithic stela of Aksum, the coronation ground where emperors were made - is where the desert begins, an endless sequence of receding hills.

By the water's edge, a little girl picks a fight. She stands there, a tiny figure quivering with rage, hurling insults at a small boy pulling a goat. Before long, she is silenced by a parental cuff on the head, handed a jerrycan full of water, and told to get going.

Clutching the container to her chest, she wavers up a set of steps crudely carved out of the rock and disappears in the distance, still muttering to herself.

The older girls go about their business quietly. When they are done, they strap the jerrycans to one another's backs and move slowly up the steps, bent underneath the water's weight.

Askala, a girl of 15, wants to know if in other, distant places women do all the work. She has fought against her shyness for a good 20 minutes, watching the foreign woman sitting on a rock taking notes. Unlike the other girls, she is not wearing a robe but a plain blue skirt and a white shirt. Her hair is messy, and her ears and neck are free of ornaments.

After a breathless introduction, she waves her friends over. They come running, two, three, ten of them, all wanting "a keepsake" - a pen, a hair clip, some money.

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In a moment of silence, I turn to Askala. Why do the women carry the water, I ask. It is the culture, she replies. And the men? What do the men do?

She translates the questions, drawing shrieks of laughter from her friends. They play, she says. They are with music, they drink.

Here, Askala says gesturing broadly, it is women who do the work: water, wood, cooking, more water, all the time. She shakes her head, then points to the other girls. We talk about that, she says, we know it is the culture.

In addition to the traditional chores - defined by tribal custom - in rural areas, women generally work in the fields and travel to marketplaces to sell surplus produce. Men are traditionally expected to provide for their family's well-being, but a large share of all manual labor falls on the women. In Ethiopia, which has the second-lowest annual GDP per capita in the world, $101, women's input in the agricultural sector exceeds 50 percent.

When asked if the culture can change, she narrows her eyes as she ponders the question. Then she asks, How?

Ethiopia has the lowest primary-school enrollment in the world at 22 percent. The female literacy rate is 21 percent. You must stay in school, I whisper, lamely.

Askala looks away, her lips curling slowly in a little sneer. Her gaze travels fiercely over the ancient monoliths leaning drunkenly into each other. It is a look that suggests she would rather go to war.

Beyond the pool of water, the desert wind fills the air with dust and sound. Askala springs to her feet. It's dark now, and she has yet to fill her jerrycan with water.

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