Ethiopia: Birth!

I am a mother three times over. My offspring are away at college, and I try hard to release my hold on them and not hover like a mama bear. But it is an undeniable truth that they are a physical part of me, each one, with all of their idiosyncrasies and troubles and joys. I feel them, like they are appendage, even when they are miles away.

Before I had my first child, I never thought I would be changed because of the experience. I had grand plans to return to work after a respectable six weeks off, only to hold my firstborn son Ben in my arms and sob uncontrollably, knowing that my decision making was altered for life. Everything, everything, began to be centered around what is best for this child. My own desires seemed lofty and were suddenly not so important.

My first pregnancy progressed well, and I ballooned a 60+ pounds. I was proud of my spindly legs carrying such an enormous belly. People stopped to stare when I was only in my seventh month, thinking I was about to deliver any minute. I soaked up that attention and felt like a queen everywhere I went. Doors were opened, chairs were offered. The whole while, I felt glorious, never sick or weak, only blissfully content as a felt each kick.

Ben announced his entry into this world almost exactly on his due date, and all seemed fine at first. Then, after laboring for 17 hours and pushing for 3 hours, it was determined that he was in extreme stress and he simply could not fit through my birth canal. A whopping 9 lbs 11 oz of a baby he was! He also broke the hospital’s record for being their longest baby at 23 1/2 inches long. I was proud of my Big Ben.

I reflect on this now, as I watch a mother suffering her labor after walking miles to get to Mota Hospital. Had I lived here, I would surely have died during childbirth. I would never have come to know my three children. I would not have seen Ben write his first magazine article, or Aaron develop his love of the electric bass, or Brynn fly effortlessly on her feet while she danced. I would not have settled countless arguments or worried late at night when they did not come home or cry when they said they hated something I did.

I am now in the birthing room, and I watch Adele suffer. She repeatedly pulls on her ragged dress in pain, and I see that the baby is not easily coming. The midwives scurry to get the vacuum and swiftly adhere it to the baby’s head. With mighty force, they begin to pull, as she writhes in pain. They pull harder. They yell at Adele. Two people pull even harder together. They must cut her to widen the opening, determining she does not need a C-section. They pull with all of their might. Dr. Philippa steps in, and tells them to alter their angle: lift up, not down. Finally, after much screaming and fierce pulling, the baby is out. Adele stares at the ceiling, her eyes not searching for the baby at all. I can’t fathom what she is thinking. I watch her, and slowly she turns her head in search of her first born child.

The midwives ask her to get down from the table, and she walks over to the door where her mother and grandmother wait for her. They will assume post care, feeding her, keeping her warm.

I am in complete awe of the midwives here at Mota Hospital, and it is a true honor to even be in their presence. Tedele is quiet as I acknowledge his skill. He looks away, then down at his bloodied hands. I am sure that not all of these situations resolve so easily. He knows that I am only seeing one small aspect of his job.

Tedele turns to the buckets of water and silently washes his hands.

Ethiopia: For The Love Of Water

Water. Glorious, delicious, comforting water.

Much has been said in recent years about the importance of water, the impending worldwide scarcity, the droughts that countries suffer. Yet it can never quite hit home or feel like a reality until the loss of water is personally experienced, when each drop is precious.

We knew this hospital would not have running water. We stocked up on drinking water before we left BahirDar, and made sure that we had sufficient cleansing wipes for our hands while working in the hospital. But what happens when a bottle of ketchup drops on the floor, splatters everywhere and there is nothing to clean it up with? This leads to an invitation for cockroaches, an increase in mosquitos, and a myriad of other issues. Or when we need to clean a dish, or fry eggs for a dinner, or wash a utensil or wash our hands after handling something we know is contaminated? Do we use precious bottled drinking water for that?

We conserve the best we can, yet find ourselves battling with the wash lady over how much water she is using, literally fighting with the handle of a bucket in order to keep one in the house for other uses. We get water from the government a few days a week, but as soon as it it turned on, the hoarding begins, and it quickly runs out. We join the hoarding by purchasing more buckets to fill up with the scarce resource, and even collect the bad water from the leaking sink to use for flushing our toilet. Swiftly, we join the thousands of other Ethiopians who live in extremely unsanitary conditions.

Public health posters plead for people to wash their hands to prevent the spread of disease. This action is embedded into our Western culture, yet what do you do when you have no water?

Animals pass on the road, their bodies thin, bones protruding. Every day, there is a multitude of decisions over who gets how much water and when. Bathing goes to the wayside, and still, we have trouble choosing how we will use our supply. We decide to drastically reduce our cooking, which uses more water than we can spare. Boiling eggs requires little clean up, and we can use the water for something else, so that becomes our staple protein. And when we sparingly use water to occasionally wash our hands, we do so over the toilet so that water can flush waste.

We stop drinking water, from subconscious thinking, and I faint one morning from lack of fluids. We have no car to retrieve more water, so our minds turn to how we can pay someone with a donkey cart to help us. All the while, we see women and small children carrying, for miles, large plastic containers full of river water. And we realize how fortunate we are: we have the means to purchase water. Now I know why kids fight their way to the firenji when we stop in villages, scrambling to get the last bit of water in our water bottles.

Wash your hands to prevent the spread of disease? This sentiment seems a joke to me now. And it makes me incredibly sad that water is scarce here at this hospital, a place where sanitary conditions are expected. A well would serve this health care community in ways that are immeasurable. A simple system of collecting rain water and saving it for the dry season would drastically have an impact on the lives of the doctors, patients and students who long to be of health service in this isolated terrain.

Ethiopians have a right to water just the way we do in Western society. I think of this every time I face the sink at home. I say a silent “thank you” every time my hand turns a faucet. I long to be able to build a big pipe that travels across our continent, under the sea and over the mountains to be able to flow here in this little village in Ethiopia. Surely we can find a way to conserve, and share, this resource.

I accept this time of extreme difficulty without the luxury of flowing water. It teaches me many things. And knowing that it is a temporary situation gets me by. But oh how my heart aches for those who will remain here, struggling each day to find their drops of glorious, delicious, comforting water.


The Mota hospital scrub room.

Ethiopia: Home Sweet Home

Here are a few photos of our home here in Mota, Ethiopia.


Our living space.


Our kitchen. Sink leaks badly. But hey! We have a refrigerator!


Our bathroom: water comes a few times a week if we are lucky. Toilet does not flush, but we can pour water into it.


Our trusty Mr. Bleach. Food is soaked in it, kitchen is cleaned with it. I love Mr. Bleach.


The outside of our home.


Wash day!

Ethiopia: One Busy Woman

Felekech Indriss (30 years old) lives far out in the countryside in a village called Fuchucha, within the Konso region of Ethiopia, too far from any school where she can be educated. When she heard that Mercy Corps was going to start a business education center near her village, she quickly signed up. Through the PROSPER Savings and Credit Co-op (SACCO) program, Felekech learned how to run a small business. Her education consisted of five to six days of training, then an extra four days of leadership training. Through hard work and determination, her skills grew, and today she is the treasurer of the savings and loan co-op.

For years, Felekech and her village friends used to spend any money they got right away, but now they have learned how to save it for future use. Many women from her village save money so that they can buy salts, grains, small livestock, small sheep and goats, fruit and other goods from far away in Konso, so they can sell them for a small profit in villages and at other markets.

As their business grows and after some training, women have the option to join the savings and credit co-op. They can present business plans to a review group in their region and if their proposal passes that review, they can then apply for a loan. A local Mercy Corps team, comprised of Ethiopian loan officers, reviews the plan and determines whether the loan is approved. Loans range from $60-180. One side benefit from this training is a welcomed surprise: the women say they are much more patient with solving problems with respect to their business….and at home.

In addition to her other duties, Felekech is also a Mercy Corps Volunteer Community Health Worker. She teaches the women of Fuchucha village about health education: sanitation, vaccination benefits, and overall maternal health. The village women learn how to better organize their homes, balance their meals with various nutrients, and how to store their food to prevent contamination.

Since Felekech is spending more time with her small business and other responsibilities, Mercy Corps donated a fuel efficient stove to the Fuchucha village. These stoves have a 50% fuel efficiency improvement over burning wood. They also need less fuel, which means less time a woman needs to spend gathering wood.

Felekech, we are honored to meet you. You are a great influence to many.

Ethiopia: A Shoe Business

Within Mercy Corps’ PROSPER program, the Savings and Credit Cooperative (SACCO) project brings much confidence to women in the Konso district of Ethiopia. Once a woman has saved a small amount of money, she is able to join the savings co-op and become eligible to apply for small business loans.

Kanessa Ayano, 24, owns a shoe making business and through her Mercy Corps facilitated business classes, she has learned how to increase her profit margins by creating an enhanced product which has created a stronger demand for her shoes. The original shoe was made entirely from tire rubber. Now, she is using discarded skins from animals after harvest to make more decorative sandals.

She has also expanded her inventory to include belts and bag straps, which are also sold at the market. Kanessa is happy to report that her village cannot keep up with the demand, so they are looking at employing more people from neighboring villages. Kanessa works five hours each day making shoes, and she is very proud of her village’s ability to create something that many people love to wear.

Ethiopia: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic

In the Melega Dugaya village in the Konso district in Ethioipia, women take part in learning how to read and write by a Mercy Corps Livelihood Project learning facilitator. They begin by learning how to write their names, how to form numbers on a page, and how to perform simple arithmetic. This learning beginning only fuels their desire to learn more, and they repeatedly ask to learn higher levels of reading and writing. They especially want to learn how to create their own business name and know how to write it on papers, signs, etc.

Through the same Livelihood Program, many women are learning how to run a small business and how to save and re-invest earnings. They express joy that they can now read the numbers in their savings account, whereas before they had to rely upon others to relay this information.

They sit in the shade and practice writing for one hour each day, for five days a week. This is usually done in the morning, well before their daily chores begin. While they do this, their older children take care of the younger ones in order to support their mother’s education.

Mercy Corps facilitates fourteen of these learning groups in the Konso district in Ethiopia. The groups are still in a pilot phase, but each group we visited were clearly passionate about their learning, and their enthusiastic thirst for more advanced topics was apparent.

Some of the women’s children have been exposed to a bit of education. When asked about how the children feel about their mothers being educated on reading, writing and math, one woman, Korate Sagoya, was quick to answer: “My children asked me if I really was still in the first grade! They tell me: Be strong. You can do this.”

Ethiopia: The Best Guide!

Our interpreter, a lovely man named Fasil, is attentive, knowledgeable and kind. He is a student at Arba Minch University, studying hotel and tourist management. He is also the first born of his family, and this carries great responsibility for his family, and his entire village. A village will invest in one person to get educated, and then this person must “bring good things” like schools and sources of income to the village. Fasil lost his father to a territory battle several years ago, and he takes his responsibility very seriously.

He also knows that it is unlikely that he will find a job when he graduates. His desire is to work in a city so he can send money back to his village.

Ethiopia: Dorze Village

His name is Mekkonen, and he is the village leader of a small village named Dorze, near Arba Minch, Ethiopia. He lives at the entrance to the village, where his parents and grandparents and great-parents lived for many generations. He shows the interested occasional visitor how the village uses every part of the enset (false banana) tree: for making bread, furniture, weaving roofs for their houses. I find myself lost in thoughts about how wasteful we are in other parts of the world. Imagine taking one tree in our yard, and using every last piece of it for food, shelter, comfortable chairs, food containers, and planting another tree to take its place.

The Dorze people are renowned for their cotton weaving and their tall beehive-shaped dwellings that resemble an elephant’s face. They speak an Omotic tongue, similar to languages in the Lower Omo valley, and are believed to have occupied their present highland land for at least 500 years. Every Dorze compound contains at least one loom which is constantly by a family member. The shama cloth produced here is regarded as the most desired in Ethiopia.

The Dorze house is unique to the world: the domes measure up to the equivalent to a two-story building and are constructed completely by organic materials. The base and frame aren made from bamboo sticks, with a combination of enset leaves and grass woven around the bamboo scaffolding. The spacious interior has a center fireplace for cooking and generating heat in this high mountainous climate. Around the perimeter, separate areas are set aside for sleeping, housing animals (which also generate heat), and cooking.

One Dorze hut can last a few generations. However, as termites eat the bottom perimeter or it rots from the rain, the bottom must be cut off, which lowers the size the the dome. The older the dome, the smaller it is.

Mekkonen shows us his traditional tribal wear, which is mainly used for dances and performances these days. In earlier days, it was worn for fighting or to intimidate others. Animal skins, donkey hair, a spear and a shield made from hippo skin comprise the look. Indeed, it would scare me away.

I tell Mekkonen that I don’t want the typical tourist photo…that I want to represent what really goes on in his village. The true day, the true people. He seems to like this, and jumps in our vehicle and directs us to the church. There, we encounter a Timkat celebration, and we find ourselves swept up in the joyous celebration. My trust in Mekkonen soars as he guides us about, keeping people from mobbing us. Soon, he is carrying some of my gear, and dancing vigorously at the same time. When I get a better internet connection, I will upload a video of this!

Mekkonen then takes us to a bar, where we are quickly engulfed by spirited dancing and drinking of “dej” (often spelled “tej”), a very potent drink that is served in glasses that look like beakers. Cheers, indeed!


Meskerem shows us the false banana tree, enset

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