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

Ethiopia: Utopia!

The plane touches down in a chaotic fashion, jarring us forcefully in our seats, and waking me from a jet lag stupor. Arba Minch’s airport is small and seemingly vacant. We watch as a few men come toward the plane; doors are opened and we disembark into steaming hot air. We stream into the airport silently – no one wants to talk much in this heat – and we wait for our luggage.

Once the baggage cart is filled with all of the luggage, we are amazed to see that there is no vehicle to carry the cart to the airport. Instead, the two men we saw earlier take off in a running start and push the cart over toward the terminal, picking up considerable speed when they hit the small hill that is in front of the door. Wow.

We arrive at our hotel only to find out that our reservations were not in place, so we set about finding another place. We follow a young man who says he knows of a place, and we quickly find ourselves walking on the main street, carrying our gear, dodging trucks, tuk tuks, goats and motorcycles. Several feet turn into yards which turn into…..”How far away is this hotel?” We finally reach it, and instantly feel uncomfortable. It very well could be that our expectations have not yet leveled from our comfortable lives in the states, but this “small compound” with its indifferent proprietor and couches filled with staring men did not seem like a good option. And it was oh so hot in the barren and stale smelling rooms.

Being Timkat holiday, we know our options are slim. We reluctantly throw down 200 birr ($12) for our first night’s stay. To find a cooler place to relax, we ask our tuk tuk driver to take us up to a lookout point near Paradise Lodge and we soon find ourselves in truly a paradise haven. Standing on the edge of a mountainous cliff, overlooking treetops on the edge of the Rift Valley with views of lakes Chamo and Abaya in the distance, I get an urge to fly. I want wings! Birds whip past, taunting us with their abilities, beckoning us to join them. I wish I could.

We are told that there are sleeping rooms available on the cliff down the road, and we excitedly ask to see if any are available. Indeed, for a mere 300 birr ($18) per night, this paradise can (and will) be called home for the next four days.

Ethiopia: Off To Mota

We said goodbye to Dr. P and Darlene, and off to Mota they went. We were excited to know there was cell reception in Mota when we got our first call from them. The news was equally as exciting. In less than 24 hours, they had been harassed significantly in BahirDar, found themselves in the middle of a religious celebratory mob scene in Mota, learned that there is no internet in Mota, found out that we would have water only three days per week, and that no cook existed for us.

The good news: sheets are pretty clean, the hospital staff is warm and inviting, and the air is cool without too much threat of malaria carrying mosquitoes. And the rooms are in the hospital compound so we can be locked in at night.

From all accounts, they are navigating the obstacles the best they can. This does not come without a bit of sleeplessness and anxiety….and lots of “what ifs”.

What if a women dies while we are there? How will Dr. P and Darlene feel about removing a dead fetus? What if a woman is hurt? What if a referral needs to be made, knowing there is no place to refer in the vicinity? What if the village gets angry? Will they accept a female doctor?

Most of these questions seem less of a concern during the daytime. But when the head hits the pillow, we all lie awake churning the scenarios over and over.

This is the hard part. And we signed up for it.

Dr. P and Darlene get ready to take off on their plane to Mota, while Jay and I turn toward Arba Minch

Ethiopia: Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Holy cow! An interview with Dr. Hamlin!

We thought we would be lucky just to be able to meet her and shake her hand. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would be granted an interview and the ability to photograph and film her. We make our way back to the hotel to pick up the equipment and Jay and I cannot help but express our giddiness…and concerns. We had not had time to test out all of the equipment and work flow, thinking that our first interview would not occur until days later. Some of the equipment was purchased hours before we got on the plane, so one can only imagine how we felt going into this interview.

Sound levels ok? Camera functioning? Will everything talk to each other?

We then turn to preparing some questions for her. She is 87 years old and still performs surgery. She came to Ethiopia in the 70’s, thinking she and her husband would stay here for only a few years. The fistula patients made a great impression on their hearts, enough so that they decided to dedicate their lives to this work. A very interesting subject indeed!

On the bumpy taxi drive back, Jay is still testing sound levels to make sure the H4N works properly. I am lost in my head, thinking about how to set up the camera with the least amount of fuss and intrusion.

Dr. Hamlin enters the room, her tall and graceful stature filling the space. Her kind eyes fix on us, and we are instantly at ease. The door opens again, and in walks Mamitu, the famous illiterate surgeon who was once a poor fistula patient and learned how to repair fistulas by working alongside surgeons rather than complete formal training.

My eyes fill with tears as I look at these two women who have had such a profound effect on fistula patients’ lives. It is such an honor to be in their presence.

Jay and I quickly set up the equipment, and we get started on the interview. Our questions were not really a necessity, as Dr. Hamlin has many things to say to us from her own agenda and determination.

Ethiopia: The Hamlin Fistula Hospital

During this past year, I have kept in contact with the communications director of the Hamlin Fistula Hospitals. I promised to bring her several bags of KEEN shoes that were graciously donated so that patients could walk home more comfortably, even though the weight of these shoes would add a bit of complexity to our travel. Getting the shoes through customs can be difficult, which often means having to be held back for questioning.

Sure enough, we were stopped by the customs officer, with his incredulous question: “These shoes! Are they all yours?” (Really now, do Americans give the impression they would travel with 40 pairs of shoes?) I put on my most confident stance, and picked up the heavy bags, explained that they were donations, and turning on my heel to take off, did not give him time to ask me anything else.

We arrived at the Hamlin Fistula Hospital the next morning, and were instantly astonished at the site of this hospital. Lush gardens were the dominant feature, overshadowing the buildings. It felt as though we were in a fairy tale. We talked with Feven about many things, but one topic was of utmost importance: which direction we should take with our documentation and film.

Feven explained that young girls are often married off young to avoid abduction and rape. When the girl becomes pregnant at an early age, her pelvis is too small to give birth to her baby and she labors for many days and sometimes weeks. The constant pressure of the baby creates many problems.

When the young girl who lives in the rural countryside realizes that her baby is not able to be delivered, she usually has little choice but to wait for the baby to die in her womb. Even after the dead baby shrinks and is able to be delivered or extracted by a family member, she is often left with a fistula condition, where a hole is formed between the bladder and/or rectum and the vagina, and waste continuously flows, resulting in ostracizing from her village and abandonment by her husband.

A girl with a fistula usually will live on the outskirts of the village, afraid to walk for fear of contaminating her surroundings. She sits in a makeshift nest, and waits out her days, sometimes having to fight off hyenas due to her constant smell.

Sadly, this can all be prevented if there was better access to health care in the rural countryside. The Ethiopian government is building hospitals and clinics all over the country to address this. However, most of the clinics stand idle, in desperate need of doctors.

Our time here will be spent in a tiny hospital, which has no running water, in Mota. Dr. Philippa Ribbink will be training Ethiopian Health Officers how to perform emergency obstetrics. We know that this work will have a profound impact on all of us, but sitting here and listening to Feven, we are energized to do this work.

Feven asks us to focus on the inaccessibility that a young pregnant girl faces. Sometimes this means lack of access to hospitals, sometimes it means that while a hospital may exist, no doctors are present. Often it means that the young girl cannot get to the hospital. Foot bridges are washed away, the terrain is too rugged to walk during the 4th or 5th day of laboring, or family men cannot leave their farming work to be able to carry her on a makeshift stretcher. We also hear that more donkey carts are desperately needed to help facilitate her ability to get to a hospital during prolonged labor.

A few weeks earlier, I had made a request to meet Dr. Hamlin. Nothing was promised, as many people ask to meet her and her time is extremely limited. I watch as Feven picks up the phone and dials a number. It is a apparent that she has called Dr. Hamlin, and she asks if she has time to meet us. After a bit of dialoging, we make a plan to come back at 3pm, with our cameras. We have been granted an interview and approval to film her.


A young patient sits on the grounds of the Hamlin Fistula Hospital, in Addis Ababa.


Dr. Hamlin and Feven Haddis are delighted by by the donation of KEEN shoes

Ethiopia: Injera!

We could not wait to be able to taste authentic injera again, and we were not disappointed. The colorful array of spicy sauces, anchored by salad with an orange/lemon dressing was just the ticket after a hot day on the streets. We usually don’t eat raw foods here, but at this hotel, we are assured that raw foods are cleaned with bleach.

Eat up!

Ethiopia: Addis Ababa!

We arrived in Addis Ababa at our favorite hotel, The Mimosa, only to have the proprietor great us from his memory of when we were here last year. We felt like we were coming home. First night jet lag is always a favorite time for me: I love getting up before the first rooster crows and listening to the hustle and bustle of life on the streets starting up.

No matter how many times I come to Africa, I always seem to forget about just how amazing the sound of birds is at dawn. I really feel our world when I am here: those singing birds; the heavy smells of eucalyptus, coffee roasting and grass; the wake-up whiplash of being bounced around in a vehicle on rocky roads; the unrelenting eye contact. Addis is a sensory playground and we don’t have a choice but to participate. And, we want to.

Herds of goats strive to keep out of a chaotic stream of cars and trucks, men carry 5-6 squawking chickens by their feet, children run barefoot and amok trying to hustle you into buying a few sticks of gum, girls walk seductively along the sidewalks seemingly quite aware of their effects on the masses of young men, Muslims socialize with Christians, music blasts and songs compete for your attention everywhere, business people stroll in their finest attire. Even an occasional street sex worker beckons in a whispered and hopeful breath. It’s all here, fast and furious.

And it seems that every time we walk outside, it does not take long to get exhausted from so much visual and audio richness. Addis is alive!

We have been busy setting up cell phone communication, making last minute travel arrangements and running errands to prepare for our month here. Dr. P and Darlene will take off for Mota, and Jay and I will fly to Arba Minch to fulfill an assignment for Mercy Corps.

We are happy, and fortunate, to be here. Ethiopia, we love you.


Jay, Dr. P and Darlene get jostled by the taxi

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