An Experience in Ethiopia
photos and article by Beth Powers
We have just driven three hours south of Addis Ababa into the Ethiopian Rift Valley and are turning down a dirt road, which leads to a rural school named Melka Oba. I am nearly shaking with excitement and pride. Aft er months of anticipating my trip to help the Ethiopian Food Appeal, the time has finally come. Jo Butler, the charity’s founder, sits calmly in our small van taking everything in with confident and reflecting eyes.
I wonder what she is thinking. What is she feeling? I imagine it’s a sense of pride and accomplishment; at least that’s what I would feel if I were the person responsible for helping so many children and families. As we bump up and down on the rocky road, dust flies and I spy adults and children waving to us along the side of the road. My heart pounds with anticipation when the school buildings, surrounded by a circle of trees and bushes, are seen in the distance. As we get closer, I see a group of 350 children, and I smile and hold back tears.
The Ethiopian Food Appeal was started in 2001. Since then Jo, who is married to an Ethiopian, has spent her Christmas breaks delivering supplies, assessing completed work and planning new projects for two schools: Melka Oba, which has 350 students, and Sodorre, which has 450. She also helps other organizations, including the Artists for Charity home, which houses seventeen children who had been living on the streets as a result of their parents having died of AIDS.
The children have HIV/ AIDS, but with support of the home are able to receive an education and live in a supportive environment. Jo works for the United Nations and lived and worked in Addis Ababa in the early 2000s. She has passion and, along with this passion, comes pure and focused energy. I was fortunate enough to spend two memorable weeks with her and a small group of volunteers on a trip that opened my eyes to the wonders of Ethiopia: stunning landscape, ancient churches, fascinating history and beautiful people.
We spent time in the capital city, Addis Ababa, saw the churches of Lalibela, explored villages in the Semien Mountains, visited lakes in the Rift Valley and experienced traditional coffee ceremonies. However, the school visits were the reason I left part of my heart there. Our first visit was to the Melka Oba School where we were greeted by a group of energetic children who were clapping their hands and singing. One small girl held a bouquet of flowers and another small group kicked up dust as they danced. The schools superintendent walked us through the new classrooms that were constructed by the EFA in 2009. When Jo first started visiting the school, the buildings had dirt floors and the windows were so small barely any light came in.
The EFA built two new classrooms and refurbished all the existing classrooms with new cement floors, larger windows, new roofs and fresh paint. Now the children have more sunlight by which to see. And since there isn’t electricity, the sunlight is very important. We volunteers had put together 1,000 bags of notebooks (with photos of flowers, football players, horses, etc.), pens, pencils and cookies to distribute to the children.
It was fun to watch the children open their bags of supplies. Some children held them up for all to see and some traded notebooks so that they had a photo they liked, but all of them had a look of appreciation and held on to their belongings with great care. The EFA had enough funds to buy shirts for every student as well. It was an amazing experience to watch the children when they received their shirts. Some of them immediately put their new shirts on and gleamed with pride. The bright colors of the new shirts stood out against their dusty skin as if a sepia photo had been painted with color. While walking to and from school and playing and working outside, the children become covered in dust. Keeping dust-free is not so easy for them as neither they, nor the schools, have running water. We were also able to provide a special treat of orange and grape soda pop.
No one complained that the drinks were not cold; they all joyously drank and smiled, some with orange-colored lips, others with purple. The EFA had bought ten tons of flour from local farmers to distribute to the children and the villagers. Excitement filled the air as families gathered outside the school entrance waiting for the flour to be handed out. Each student received a 25-kilo bag (65 pounds). Parents (mainly mothers) came to help carry the flour, however, I helped some of the children carry their heavy bags of flour to the entrance of the school where, hopefully, a parent was waiting for them.
I watched in amazement as the flour was loaded onto the backs of donkeys for the transport home, and I watched in awe as the men and women walked down the road with the flour on their backs. People from the community, including a group of elderly men and women, waited patiently for a share of the fl our, which was given to them once each student had received theirs. The remainder of the flour went with us to our next stop, which was the Sodorre School. Upon arrival at the Sodorre School, we were again greeted with spirited song and dance, and some of the children were dressed in their traditional clothing.
The superintendent showed us the teachers’ quarters, which were destroyed as a result of heavy rains. Jo inaugurated the new teachers’ quarters this past January. It is a two-hour journey to and from the school, so the new buildings are a blessing for the teachers. Because the Sodorre School has 650 students, we were unable to supply soda pop and shirts, however, every student received a bag of supplies, and the remainder of the fl our was left at the school to be distributed amongst the children.
I enjoyed speaking with an enthusiastic group of teenagers who wanted to practice their English. One girl told me that she wanted to be an English teacher and proudly showed me her English book, which was an outdated and very basic book, but to her, it was a real treasure.
As the sun was setting we said our goodbyes and got into our small van. We bumped up and down on the rocky road, dust flew and we passed children walking with bags of notebooks, pens and pencils swinging in their dusty hands. I thought of the children who might not make it home before dark.
I thought of how fortunate I was to be in a moving vehicle on my way to a hotel where I would have a hot shower and a cold drink. Why was I so fortunate? I remembered the woman I saw back at the Melka Oba School, who was walking through the plateau, bent over and alone, with a 25-kilo bag of flour on her back.
And then I smiled as I thought of the difference that flour will make.