Red roads, wide skies, and new beginnings!

Hello, world-outside-Ethiopia!

image

I’m back in Addis Ababa after a really special time out in the countryside of Western Wologa. My time in Begi was the best yet, and I feel great about my time and efforts there. Thanks to the generosity of donors I was able to make some very tangible improvements in the lives of all of the fistula patients whom I met.

I’m thrilled to report that I purchased 12 sheep (3 each for 4 different women) at two different local markets. We bought all female sheep since they’re able to increase the size of the flock fairly quickly, and there are always male sheep about. Each woman has at least one sheep that’s pregnant, and one lucky gal has all three that are expecting!

In addition to those income-generation projects, I purchased 60 iron sheets and boxes of large and small nails for 2 huts for Ajayibe and Melesen. Each (uncured) fistula patient is being set up with a hut of her own with a metal roof so that she can have a secure place to live for herself and her animals. This involves the cooperation of various fathers, husbands, uncles, and neighbors in order to coordinate the construction, but with ongoing conversations and clarity around expectations (i.e. I’ll provide metal sheets if they provide labor) progress is happening.

image

There are plans and a budget for other huts to be constructed once the necessary connections are made.

Extra money will be put into a revolving account where the fistula patients can get a loan for an additional income project. Young Hawa was the first to take advantage of this, and she came for a 500 birr loan (around $27) so that she can set up a stall at the Begi market and sell cooking oil and salt. She’s excited by this and is already dreaming about paying back this loan so that she can get a larger one. She told me that she will save her money so that she can come visit me in America!

image

I designated money to purchase a mill scale for the Upper Chandi mill so that we don’t have to keep paying rental fees on another scale. I went out to the mill twice and was pleased to see it busily at work with plenty of women coming with their bags of grain. I took some time and went over the process of recording entries in the new logbook with the mill workers. This includes recording the date, name of the woman, type of grain she’s bringing, the weight of the grain, and the price of the transaction. Women receive a receipt, and daily and weekly tallies are recorded.

I also brought with me an odometer that Tsega will install on the turbine itself to record the number of revolutions. This should provide a clearer picture of the mill’s capacity. Additionally, I lobbied hard for an increase in wages for the workers (which I had thought they were being paid for the past 3 years.) It’s not surprising that funds were disappearing when these men are trying to eke out an existence and support wives and children on a very low salary.

I’m hopeful that the 3 adjustments being made will really help with the transparency, accuracy, and integrity of mill funds going forward.

In a separate and completely unprecedented blessing, the $100 cash from my Ethiopian Airlines seatmate is going towards the opening of a coffee and injera shop along the main road out in front of the Upper Chandi mill. Tadessa, one of the local men from Begi mentioned to me that he had been dreaming of opening such a shop since the location along the road is a busy one and is centrally located between the Upper and Lower Chandi mills.

He has already built a simple wooden structure but said it would take 3,000 birr to purchase all of the supplies (glasses for tea and coffee, plates, oil, sugar, etc.) He’s saved 1,200 birr but hasn’t been able to raise the rest. Serendipitously, I had 1,800 birr burning a hole in my pocket which was the EXACT amount needed. So, there is a conversation in process where these funds can be melded with his in exchange for a 50/50 split of proceeds, with ½ going to Tadessa personally and the other half going to the fistula project. Amazing!

The full day in Circle with the fistula patients had a different tone and flavor than the one in June but was still effective, healing, and unifying. It took the same extraordinary amount of coordination and driving around to various villages to tell the fistula patients (or send word to them) about the meeting I had planned. Seven out of the eight came, which felt like a great triumph, so we had 11 Circle participants (7 fistula patients, Sonja from the Norwegian Mission Society, Kes Senait, the new fistula project manager at BGS, and a woman named Kes Workinesh who works with the Women’s Empowerment project in Begi who translated everything back and forth between Oromo and English.

I created a simple but beautiful center with a lovely basket that Ajayibe had made for me, a candle, a headscarf, and fresh flowers (hibiscus and poinsettias). I’d brought my Indian tingsa bells and we used the same red construction paper heart for a talking piece. The day consisted of a check in, heartfelt sharing of ongoing challenges, a coffee/tea break, bead work with bracelets and necklaces (always a huge hit!) creative problem solving and next steps, and a wrap-up of gratitude and learnings. There were also some small gifts of hand lotion, small chocolates, and the photos I had taken of each woman last time. We had both lunch and dinner together which was lovely and not typical. Usually, leaking women aren’t allowed to eat with anyone else since they’re “unclean,” but we had really great community and bonding during meals as well.

The women have become so dear to me, and they really light up when they see me too. So many hugs and kisses! On the last day in Begi I was incredibly tearful leaving. It’s not clear to me if this will be my last trip as I had anticipated, (the current configuration isn’t sustainable for me without some type of permanent organization support going forward) but these women and their stories are seared in my mind and I truly love them. 

Another opportunity, which is weighing heavily on my mind, is the BGS clinic which still has no water. Despite being a health clinic which performs surgeries and is trying to provide medical services for the local community, it still lacks very basic infrastructure. Previously, I’d learned that the price of a hand-pump was around $2,500 and the price to dig a bore hole would be between $12,000-17,000 since the heavy equipment would have to be brought the 2 day drive from Addis Ababa.

However, the machines are coming to Begi THIS MONTH to dig bore holes at the Begi hospital and another government clinic, as well as 10 small villages. BGS said that if it is creative it can arrange to have the machines come to the BGS at an off-time and dig a hole there for only 20,000 birr ($1,111) which is a lower price even than a simple hand-pump! It seems crazy not to take advantage of this opportunity while it’s right here, but BGS doesn’t have the money, and the Norwegian Mission Society budget is already tied up in other areas. Would anyone be willing to sponsor this?

The clinic approached me as well with some additional needs. They have just built 4 more rooms at their small clinic but don’t have any beds or tables or mattresses or linens. Ideally, they’d like to have 4 actual metal hospital beds that have wheels and would be able to be easily moved so that the floors could be cleaned. So, for a total around $2,500 the clinic could have clean, running water AND beds and accompanying supplies. Really, this is such a little amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but it would make a world of difference to so many people. Could anyone cover this amount? The wire would need to be sent within the next week or two tops, but I could provide all necessary details and can certainly vouch for the need and the hard work of the clinic staff.

I traveled to a different area of Western Wologa with Sonja from NMS and was able to witness a fistula and prolapse educational and prevention training in Boji that was conducted by the 2 midwives from that area to a group of villagers. Powerful stuff!

The 10 hour drive from Boji back to Addis was a beautiful patchwork of green and golden crops, rolling hills, red earth, blue sky, and a dizzying array of people, donkey carts, chickens, goats, sheep, horses, and other creatures along the roads. I have to say that travel is much more comfortable in a LandRover, but even so it was a rather harrowing experience! I’m glad to be back safely, but the crush and pollution and the noise of the city is jarring after the quiet and elemental rural living of the past couple of weeks. (Still, it’s nice to be back to electricity and running water!)

Two nights ago was the football (soccer) match between Ethiopia and Nigeria. If Ethiopia had won, it would have gone on to be a team participating at the World Cup in Brazil. The 2-0 loss was a poignant one here, but the streets were still filled with green, yellow, and red jerseys and people with their faces and heads painted as well as lots of horns and celebrating. Hooray Ethiopia for making it as far as it did!

All’s well here in Addis Ababa, but I’m still looking forward to my flight home tomorrow night and crawling into my own bed on Thursday. Thanks again for the ongoing good wishes and support. Please let me know if you’re willing to sponsor a health clinic having access to clean, fresh water!

Much love,

Kristie

Sunlight over Eucalyptus…

Today was my first full day back in Ethiopia. It’s amazing to realize that this is my 5th trip to the country! When I first signed up for a digital storytelling trip with SalaamGarage in 2010 to profile the childbirth injury of Obstetric Fistula I thought I was coming for one particular story: women who have suffered from fistula serving as advocates for others. Instead, as I’m often reminded, the subsequent years have been filled with dozens of different stories and by far a richer, deeper, more colorful and complicated tapestry.

I left Seattle on Friday morning and arrived here in Addis Ababa on Sunday morning. It’s a long trip, no matter how you slice it, but I managed the 10-hour layover at Dulles by spending the night at my sister Jennifer and her husband William’s home in Virginia. It was great being with family and sure beats 14 hours on the floor at Frankfurt airport like last time! Having only one connection this round was a blessing too.

The Ethiopian Airlines flight from DC to Addis was terribly turbulent. I love flying, but half of a 13 hour flight with drinks and food trays bouncing and tipping over and ongoing chop was really wearing. There were lots of (Ethiopian) children on the plane, presumably going back to visit family. A young mom in the row in front of me had two small girls, ages 3 and 1.5,  bedecked in bright pink polka-dot fleece and impressive braids.

Our flight landed at last, shortly before 6 AM, to a calm day with a slight wash of pink. All of the passengers wobbled down an outside staircase and onto a big shuttle bus to take us the 100 yards to the terminal. As the bus was emptying, I saw that the 3-year old girl was still sitting alone on one of the high seats. Her mom had taken the luggage and the younger girl ahead onto the sidewalk and clearly had her hands full already. I asked the girl if she wanted to come with me, and she nodded shyly. So I picked her up in one arm, with my camera bag in the other, and off we went to join the others.

The four of us continued the long, slow parade through the long corridors and several escalators to baggage claim, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to have one little girl either carried against my hip or by the hand. At one point, I carried the little one and held hands with her older sister while the mom wheeled my camera bag, which made me smile. Eventually we got to the line for Visas on Entry where they needed to stop. I already had mine, so we parted ways and I continued on to change money and then go through a different immigration checkpoint. I kept hoping that we’d see each other again for a final wave, but we never saw each other again.

It’s hard to explain culture differences sometimes. In Africa (and many other places), when there’s a need one just steps forth to fill it. In the U.S. perhaps I would have hesitated to pick up another person’s child so quickly, but here it made perfect sense. Would you like to come with me? Yes. Would you like me to carry you up the (scary) escalator? Nod.

And of course everything comes around full circle.

Despite the fact that our flight came in nearly 2 hours early, it took all of that time to change money and then wait in an interminable line for immigration. It was amazing people watching though; I was behind an Ethiopian man and his wife, and next to a young French guy who had come to go trekking in the Simian Mountains. But it was the diversity of Ethiopians themselves that always surprises me. The women in particular are a huge contrast: everything from modern girls with plenty of glitz and bling with sparkly belts and shoes and purses to traditional Muslim hijab with black veils with only their eyes showing. This is a diverse land!

Things took so long that I began to worry my big blue suitcase might disappear. The reader board didn’t even show my flight any longer since so many other flights had arrived in the meantime. Still, once I finally passed immigration and discovered which carousel was mine, there was Big Blue tootling along on the conveyor belt, just at the instant that I walked up. Synchronistic timing!

Once bags were claimed, they all had to go through another security screening which meant ANOTHER long line. But eventually I made it out the sliding doors and into the waiting area with its sea of expectant African faces. There were lots of names on signs, but I moved past the crowd and outside down the sidewalk since that was what the guesthouse had told me to do. (On the last trip, I’d waited and waited inside until finally learning that they were waiting for me down by the taxi stand.)

This time, I waited and waited by the taxi stand to no avail. Feeling confident, I pulled out the local Ethiopian cell phone I’d bought on my last trip. To my dismay, I got a message saying that my account (SIM card) had been suspended. Apparently that happens after 6 months of inactivity; who knew?

But in the karmic chain of kindness, a wonderful young Ethiopian woman used her cell phone to call the guesthouse greeter on my behalf. (She’d been waiting inside the airport, of course?!) So everything got straightened out. Eventually.

Yesterday was a gentle day with my main triumphs being the purchase of a new SIM card for my phone, additional minutes for that phone, and a charging cord for my Steripen, which seems to have inadvertently been left at home. I was thrilled to find a new one since it means I can now purify my own water in my Nalgene rather than leaving a trail of plastic water bottles behind me over the next 3 weeks. I won’t make that mistake again!

This morning I had a meeting with Sonja from the Norwegian Mission Society (NMS) who came to the outside café at my guesthouse. She and I will be spending time together in Begi next week, sitting in Circle with the fistula patients, and driving the 2 days back to Addis Ababa via another community development project in Bogi.

NMS has been working in Begi, in Western Ethiopia, for nearly 40 years and has a wide variety of programs (economic/physical/spiritual development.) They are the ones who also have the existing fistula transport program which brings women suffering from obstetric fistula to Hamlin Fistula Hospital for the repair surgeries. It is their program which I have built upon with my income-generation project.

This afternoon I went up to Entoto Hill, which is the highest point in Addis Ababa (3,200 meters above sea level) with a beautiful, sweeping view of the city and surrounding landscape. It’s shrouded in Eucalyptus forests which are gently swaying, smooth-skinned trees that thrive in this warm climate. I put on my headscarf and walked around the Entoto Church and listened to people praying and chanting. Faith is a very real thing here.

Entoto is also a historical place where Menelik II resided and built his palace when he came from Ankober and founded Addis Ababa. It is considered a sacred mountain and has many monasteries and several churches.

On the trip back down I stopped and took a few more photos of the view. There were local women carrying backbreaking loads of firewood, and school had just let out so the lower streets were filled with blue-uniformed children. It’s daily life, and I feel myself settling slowly into the landscape.

Tomorrow I fly to Assosa and then will drive the 3+ hours out to Begi. It will be a relief to finally be there and to be able to distribute the gifts I’m carrying so that my bag won’t be so freakishly heavy. I’m hoping for a peaceful, productive time and can’t wait to see Ajayibe and the other women again.

So all’s well, and I trust that I’ll continue to be protected throughout this journey. I’ll be in Begi for 10 days before starting the long drive back this way. I’m not sure about electricity or Internet connectivity for the next chapter, so that’s why this is a longer message. Thanks for hanging in and reading!

Thank you, too, for the support and good wishes. They’re hugely appreciated!

Much love from the Horn of Africa,

Kristie

In 2010 I first traveled to Ethiopia as a photographer to highlight the childbirth injury of Obstetric Fistula. Heartbroken by the stories I heard, I’ve returned 4 more times to research, collaborate, and ultimately spearhead a hydro-powered grinding mill project to provide sustainable funds for income-generation activities and new hope for fistula patients.