Ethiopia: Extension of Ourselves

I have often tried to explain why the Ethiopian culture has such an effect on me. And words never seem to quite fit how I feel.

Something happens in this country that the structure of dialog cannot tame. A human connection at its most intimate and deepest form breaks down, bit by bit, my poised self and I find my heart beating a bit more excitedly at various turns. Grace, even under extreme pressure of the difficulties of life here, continues to be the base of existence. And I am seen. Not by what I have or how I look or how old I am or what kind of body I have, but I am viewed within a richer lens: my character is sought by those I meet.

As I struggled with laptop internet connection issues this afternoon, I experienced an example of what I am trying to articulate here. A soft spoken man at one of the many technical shanty shops was able to fix my problems after spending time with my laptop and CDMA communication device. When I asked what I needed to pay him for his services, he refused payment, citing that the problem was not difficult for him, he had the knowledge to be able to fix it, so therefore the right thing to do is share his knowledge with someone in need. He did not say this with a hint of manipulation. He eyes expressed truth and sincerity.

Life is hard in Addis Ababa. Shop keepers need every cent they can obtain, and there is extreme competition from other shops, all vying for the infrequent paying customer. I was astonished at this man’s generosity, and insisted that I pay him something for all of the time he spent on resolving my problem. I gave him 50 birr (approximately $3.00) and he seemed just as baffled toward me. He then relayed in Amharic to my friend Danny that he wished he could show me that the Ethiopian culture is not about repayment: it is more about extending to one another. His question: “Why does she think money has to be involved?”

I left with an uplifted spirit, once again being taught how to engage on a deeper human level.

Our lives in the US have been reduced to such transactional exchanges. I will do this for you, because you do this for me. I will pay you to help. I will trade something for what you have. And all too often, I will take what you have.

I pondered this all the way back to my hotel room and I had to think: What if we all started to live less via transactions and more by extending our hand, with no expectation from the receiver? What if our driving force was less about need and greed, and more about seeking ways to extend to others we engage with? I am not saying we should forgo getting a fair wage in exchange for our skills. But what if that was not what drove us in our interactions?

This extension of ourselves, a sincere and clear extension, appears to be the doorway to the ever elusive unrequited love for one another. And how might that feel, if we loved and never expected anything in return?

Many people in Ethiopia have very little in terms of possessions and housing and food choices. But they are stunningly rich in character.


Galebo Gambro helps women learn to read and write as part of Mercy Corps’ PROSPER program.

Ethiopia: Maternal Mortality

I took my first trip to Africa and Madagascar when my three children were in preschool. I set off to bring back images so they could see how children live in developing countries.

Fast forward fifteen years, and this time next week I will be working with the Hamlin Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia to document the work they do to heal and also prevent a devastating maternal condition that occurs due to prolonged labor.

Had I been born an Ethiopian woman living in a rural area, chances are strong that I would have died during the birth of my first child. Ben was too large to fit through my pelvis, and I had an emergency C-section to halt his distress and enable me to give birth to him.

When I look at my three grown children, Ben, Aaron and Brynn, the love I feel overflows into an insatiable desire to help these suffering mothers in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia: Hamlin College of Midwives

Join me as I travel to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to meet some of the world’s bravest women as they support each other by reducing infant and maternal mortality and the occurrence of the physically and emotionally devastating condition of fistula.

It is a great honor to be asked to visit the Hamlin College of Midwives to capture the essence of their 2011 graduation ceremony. On October 15, 2011, the Hamlin Fistula College of Midwives will graduate a second class of trained midwives. After the ceremony, these newly trained women will return to their rural villages to care for new mothers and assist extremely difficult deliveries.

Every day, 1,000 women and 8,000 babies die due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth. And for each maternal death, at least 20 additional women suffer devastating injuries related to their simple desire to produce a family to help work the fields to sustain their food source.  These World Health Organization statistics are sobering, especially when contrasted with the kind of care that is received elsewhere in the world.

The Hamlin College of Midwives is responding to this crisis by training local rural women much needed midwifery skills and supporting them as they set up services in their rural home villages.

Come along as we celebrate these midwives and the mothers of Ethiopia!  I will be documenting this momentous occasion, as well as other aspects of the beautiful and innovative Ethiopian culture. I will also be writing guest blog entries on Phil Borges’ Stirring the Fire website.

We are hoping that a collective cheer from around the world will be heard as these Ethiopian women extend one of the most loving gestures to one another: helping a mother deliver the life that grew inside of her.

Each midwife has been able to be trained without having to pay fees, which they could never afford. Your help is critical in making this possible. Donations for the midwife college are being accepted now at the Hamlin Fistula USA website.

For Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s story, read about her book here.

ASMP Best Of 2011

My work documenting emergency obstetrics in rural Ethiopia was chosen to be in the American Society of Media Photographers “Best of 2011″ project list.  I am hoping that this will bring about increased understanding of the difficulties surrounding maternal health that are present in rural settings.  The Ethiopian government is actively developing solutions to address these problems as quickly as they can, with minimal resources.

Here is an interview that details this project and others that I am working on, plus some of my philosophies and business practices.

Ethiopia: Presentations and Discussions

Here is a list of upcoming lectures/slide show regarding our emergency obstetrics efforts in Ethiopia:

February 17, Portland, OR
Portland State University, 2:00pm classroom discussion. Call for details.

February 17, Lake Oswego, OR
Lake Oswego Reads, 7:00pm, Marylhurst College, 17600 Pacific Highway

April 19, Portland, OR
Medical Society of Metropolitan Portland, 7:30pm, Embassy Suites Hotel, 319 SW Pine St.

May 15, Portland, OR
The Development Salon meets in the Park View Room at the Mirabella in South Waterfront. 4:30pm Wine Reception, 5:30pm Discussion. Mirabella is located one block east of the OHSU aerial tram base at 3550 SW Bond Avenue. Call 503-688-6806 for further directions.

May 16, Bend, OR
Cascade Camera Club: Bend Senior Center, 1600 SE Reed Market Road. Doors open 6:30 pm; meeting begins at 7:00 pm.

Ethiopia: And The Beat Goes On

Many people ask me why I travel so much to developing nations, continuously witnessing such dire human circumstances. Do I come back depressed because I could not help the people as much as I want? Do I lie in bed at night sleepless because I am thinking about what I saw? Do I ever feel joy again after living for a period of time in the bush of Africa?

Yes, there are difficult situations and living conditions where I work. I do see things that haunt me for life, wishing I could somehow eradicate the problems. But in Africa, there is a fuel that exists that blasts into my soul and spills out into my body as I dance, sing, play…and share the feeling hope found in the most trying conditions. That fuel is called “Joy” and it is found in Africa in the most pure sense. Over and over again, during the many visits to Africa and Madagascar, I see a sense of joy that is never, and I do mean never, experienced in my own home country.

I often think about this, and wonder: is it because we are so removed from the Earth that we don’t sing and dance with each other every day? Are we so individualistic that we don’t feel a tribal village sense of community? Sure, we occasionally dance and sing. Some people drum, or play instruments. But when we are most depressed, when the world seems to be ending, do we often reach inside and experience joy at these times?

Often in Africa, when I least expect it, people will break out in shouts, dance, song. Drums appear, sticks are tapped together, voices surge. And little can be done to not get completely swept up in the festive feeling. Even the most staid of people are drawn into the happy frenzy that arises. You simply can’t help but join in, even get swept away to the next village. It is, simply put, our human nature to do so.

Ethiopia is a special country, indeed. Music and dance play a large part in elating the human spirit here. Priests chant, women sing, men dance. I find myself often letting caution go to the wayside, and along with that a sense of play emerges. Camera equipment? Be gone! Shoes? Get them off of me! Hey…I did not know my body could twist like that!

And when I look into the eyes of someone I am dancing and singing with, I did not know my soul could be loved like this.

When I return home, I try to replicate this same feeling. Hip Hop lessons, shower singing, dancing with my dog. But when I play this feeling out with another human friend, my gesture is usually met with a side look and a mumbled comment such as “you are so wacky”. And right there begins my plan to return to Africa as quickly as I can.

It does not take much to instill within an African village the desire to break out in song and dance. In these images, happiness was expressed for a range of reasons, from sharing an engaged smile with a person, to excitement at a wedding ceremony, to villagers appreciating a new water system put in place by Mercy Corps donors.

And as I sit here now in my warm and comfortable home, my heart is back in Africa because I know in various places (right now!) many people are expressing pure and unadulterated elation.

And so it is, in Africa, the beat goes on.

Ethiopia: Reaching Across The Divide To Find Home

How does one reach across the physical divide, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, over again, deep inside from one heart to another?

He appeared from inside his grandfather’s home, now his own, a grass thatched hut that looks like the face of an elephant, eyes piercing mine with his first question:

Are you here to see my home? My village? Wait here.

We wait. He is in complete control.

It was a last minute decision to come to Dorze. I had originally wanted to see “the real thing” tribes in the southern region of Ethiopia, only to reverse these plans upon hearing about the overflow of large groups of tourists invading that territory. I prefer more off track experiences, nuances, glances, the hesitant gesture of a hand reaching for something unfamiliar, the shy flicker of a smile that can’t be helped.

His charisma fills the air as he goes about his work, revealing to newcomers the specialness of this village high in the mountains. Here is the house my great-grandfather built, here is the much loved false banana tree that supplies so much to us, here is where the animals sleep, right with us so their heat helps us to feel warm in this high mountainous place. And perhaps most beautiful, here is the sensually soft kuta gabi our villagers are famous for creating. Feel it in your hands, wrap your body in it. It will surely change you, in the place where yearning meets comfort.

Large frame, muscular with dread lock hair, his eyes are intensely focused and won’t let go. Disturbing, in a most beautiful way, as I have felt often here in Ethiopia.

I ask him about the local Timkat celebration that is about to start, and as many experiences go in Africa, I soon find myself immersed in something I can’t turn away from, no matter that we only contracted our driver for one half day.

In a sea of white kuta gabi cloths, searching stares, and energetic dancing, I soon forget about anything I possess, camera equipment and my own mind, and I feel like I am floating in a galaxy of stars. I feel so alive!

I find him in this sea of faces, watching my every move. Protective, caring. He has my laptop and photo gear in one hand, a spear in the other. The first image of the expanse we anchor. Two lives brought together by Chance, East meets West, white fuses into black, ancestry pulls present, craving trips restraint. The music joins us all. I let my photo equipment and laptop scatter among the people.

More, I want. More of this floating feeling. More of this living thing. More of this instinctive trust.

He takes my hand and invites me further into his life, his people, his spirit. We make the long trek up the side of the mountain into the village center and he brings us to his joyous and screaming fun pub, bodies smashed against each other, gyrating and pulsing to the music. How do these Ethiopians dance like this?! I try to join in, which only increases the euphoria as they burst into laughter and more people get up to show me how it really is done.

Soon, the driver is impatiently pulling time into my mind and we set off to leave, aborting the rousing festivities far too early. I feel like we hurried our goodbye, and I leave with a sadness knowing I did not properly thank him for his time and opening his village to us.

Darkness falls, and not knowing this at the time, I later find out he came down from the mountain and called on us later that night, only to find us away from the hotel fulfilling a work necessity. Looking back, I was shaken that evening. Stunned by the ancientness of his land, the sacredness of it all. I continue to feel so small, yet so consistently loved by the people in this country. Often, someone will tell me in broken English: “You not American. You Habesha!” Still, I feel so insignificant.

Morning dawns, a week passes, then almost a month. My awkward little phone I purchased flashes a call, and thinking it was one of the doctors, I hurriedly relay the state of the requested task at hand. I go into full commentary mode, explaining our status. Confusion persists, and I keep thinking I just am not able to find the English words he knows. I keep repeating the words.

Wait. Who is this?

It is me, he says his name from many miles away, and he wants to know where I am. Despite poor cell and no internet reception in his village, he has found a way to communicate by securing my cell number from one of the guides in Dorze.

Mekonnen? Is this really you? He is now in Addis and relays that he has come there, a 10+ hour bus drive away, to say a more proper goodbye since ours was done in haste, and to thank me for trusting his village. Once again I am not there to receive his gesture, but this time he says he will wait for the day that I return to get on my plane to return home.

I fail miserably at an attempt to respond to this ardent and kind gesture. No words, no reaction surface…I am just utterly stunned. He knows nothing about me or whether I deserve this extended hand, nor do I know anything of him or why he feels it is necessary for closure on our goodbye, and it simply does not matter.

It is Saturday now, and I sit in the hotel lobby, waiting to see him. He arrives in a taxi, ambling out of it like a rock star headed for stage, his body simply can’t restrain the rhythm and soul within. I jump up when I see him, and forget the traditional Ethiopian handshake and grab and hug him hard, the American greedy way, as I try to consume him.

We spend the evening together, along with one of his weavers and Dr. P, and he gursha feeds me bites of injera and grilled tibs, a vast divide growing as each minutes passes. I can’t join this world, no matter how hard I try. I was not born within these ancient practices. Yet the seduction and romanticism of the Ethiopian culture passes over my heart and into my mind as I think: We came to this exquisite country to teach and give guidance, and here I am, in this very moment, on my knees of sorts, filled with wonderment and respect and awe of this gentle and powerful soul who has taught me so much about grace and human relations and engagement in such a diminutive period of time.

His eyes catch and hold mine, and his mouth curls without thought or hesitation, nor the overlay of structure and division of beliefs and pasts, and I realize something that has alluded me for most of my life:

Across the physical divides, the oceans, the continents, the cultural ways and manners and ancestry, through the ages and wants and struggles, with fever and perfect pitch, I have found in Ethiopia, my home.

Ethiopia: The Shoe Shine Boy

Yemataw, body lanky and now molded into our doorway, asks if I need anything.

Water to be fetched? Floor to be cleaned? Chicken slaughtered?

I am completely captivated by his most kind eyes – the kind of eyes that play with you, turn you upside down and inside out, fully aware of their capability and effect. How can I possibly resist engaging with this impossibly charming young man?

And indeed, I want to.

He assumes his service role with aplomb and grace, with a dash of mischievousness. I look at him, and I am witnessing heaven. And a bit of hell as well, as I realize I will too soon have to say goodbye to this riveting soul.

As days turn into weeks, Yemataw becomes part of the fabric of our lives. He shows us how to conserve water. He laughs as we run and hide while he slaughters what is soon to become our dinner. He eats with us, and shares our joys. His head at a constant curious tilt, his amusement rests just below his surface, relaying to me that he knows far more than he lets on.

His story begins to unfold as we walk to market. Fatherless at the age of six, he has assumed the role of family patriarch, wanting only to fulfill his promise to care for his mother, who lives an eight hour walk away.

On occasion, I offer to help him supply his home, a small former storage room the width of his floor mattress, with little light shining through the small window. No thank you, he responds. That purchase is too expensive. Just help with my education at some point, if you must.

One morning as we prepare to set off to see an outer clinic, he asks to join us. I tell him I will see if there is room in the lone hospital truck, which doubles as an ambulance. With ever twinkling eyes, he tells me he will pray for a seat. As we pile into the truck, I see him in the distant, fervently polishing the shoes of the doctors, his main income position, eyes darting from shoes to our car to the shoes and back again. I want to give up my seat to make room for him.

Yet, loss is an everyday occurrence here in this dusty and remote town of Mota. Hope, however, always prevails.

I see, instead of disappointment, a wide smile, eyes dancing. He shines faster as though to say without words Chigga Yellum! (No problem!). I won’t deliberate on loss. What is the use of that?

I return early, and walk to his room. He shows me the things he reveres: a lone poster tacked up crookedly, a warm blanket, two plastic buckets, a small pillow. I search for the well-used hotplate we had earlier given him and I don’t see it. Did he sell it at market? No, there it is.

Yemataw left his village a few years ago and went to work as a tanner for 12 birr (less then $1.00) a month. He picked up English, practiced it wherever he could and eventually found his way to Mota, where he assumed his current position of Principal Shoe Shine Boy and Gofer.

Many a doctor and ferenji (white foreigner) use his services. As I watch the interactions, it is clear that Yemataw is dearly loved. One by one, the doctors line up for lunchtime shoe shines, their western clothes peeking out from under their white medical coats. Handsome they all are, confident also. They have found their way to a secure and well respected position. Chigga Yellum.

Yet, here I stand, observing this scene, and I long to be in Yemataw’s presence most of all. He who knows the human spirit perhaps best of all of us who are formally educated at high levels. He who knows how to focus on solutions, always, rather than dwell on his problems.

I find my heart bursting open over this young man. Can I ever go back to my contained and restrained self after feeling so much love, over and over each day, for a human spirit such as Yemataw? I long, each morning, to see this young man, he who can start and end my day in the most brilliantly, sparkly way.

We find each other a few times every day, laugh hard at the myriad of problems that befall us (which there are, assuredly, many) and set off for his tasks at hand: floor mopping to the sounds of Michael Jackson music, market purchases with gentle patience, translation with gusto, soul soothing with vigilant sensitivity.

At market one day, I offer to purchase a gabi for him, as he does not have one of these Ethiopian traditional cloths. He refuses it. I purchase it anyway, and he shows me to the tailor who can sew it into one gigantic piece. As we wait for the gabi to be sewn, we walk to the local juice bar and sip on spritzes silently, keeping our communication to only smiles and heartfelt sustained eye contact. I love this wonderful human being.

Days begin to slip into the sad realization that soon we will be leaving, and here today I am now saying goodbye. I reach for the gabi he helped me purchase at the Mota market and say “Think of me when you wear it. Please?”, echoing his words he said to me when a day earlier I tried to give him an abandoned scarf I found.

This time, he accepts the gift.

And as I drive away, tears falling freely because they simply come easily here, I see him in a far distant field, looking zealously my way, hands held high in the air, holding the white gabi so that it sways like a flag in the warm morning breeze.

As I watch his form fade into the distant horizon, I am comforted by what I have learned from Ethiopians over and over again: the physical form is less important than the spirit of humanity, and I know he is coming home with me.

Ethiopia: A Place For Longing

In Western culture, I don’t think we find ourselves longing enough in our hearts. Perhaps in our haste and hurried manner, with the ability to connect immediately, we miss out on the effects of pining for someone.

For most of us, water flows, food is abundant, electricity is reliable. Everything is at hand, and we don’t often experience the loss or the threat of losing it. In Ethiopia, cell phone and internet communication is a luxury, if it exists at all. Daily life includes energy specifically reserved for the effects of breakdowns in communication.

And as a result, the human heart connects.

When phones work, I often get calls from Ethiopian friends just for the sake that communication can be had.

Hello? HELLO? It is me, Yemataw. Where are you? How are you? OK. I will call you later.


What did he want?

Just making a connection suffices, and once again, I have been spoken to without words. Tender, heart-tugging touch points.

Ah, we connect. Words can be unnecessary, an embellishment really, when the heart is affected.

Yet, with every call that comes in such as this, I hang up with a broken heart. What did they really want to say? I know what I wanted to say.

But instead, a series of “Hello? HELLO? Are you there?” consumes me, and then SLAM! A silence as I sadly realize the phone connection has gone dead.

To the depths of my inner soul, I long to hear their voice again.

Poverty assumes its position often here, and I suspect the caller might be conserving precious cell phone minutes. Or, they fear they won’t recall enough English words. Who really knows.

Eshi, I am here. I am so here.

And, I will wait for your call again. Please call me again, new friend. I promise to answer!

And I promise to let you go, quickly.

Are you still there now?

Copyright 2014 Joni Kabana. All rights reserved. Site by TD