Wednesday, September 25, 2013
So that is how the dream began and over the past 2 years we have held two fundraising diners, have joined an umbrella organization called DevXchange that is issuing charitable receipts on our behalf and have begun a collection of books which has just this week reached the 3,000 mark! Some of the books are being kept in a storage locker and many are stacked in the apartment of Roy Wallace – our industrious book cataloger. When visiting Awassa Ethiopia this summer I discovered that you can’t borrow a book from a local library, you have to sit in the library and read it. One of the main reasons for this is that books don’t seem to get returned and is some cases are damaged. Mesfin firmly believes that with a pay system which would involve putting a small amount up front which would be returned once you gave the book back and with a major reorganizing and cataloging of books, borrowing could become a reality. The books that we are now collecting are being catalogued with a very inexpensive but comprehensive computer program. The books will travel to Awassa in the container with our school library. Yesterday we learned that Rotary of Grand Bend have been sending supplies from local schools that are closing and some quarter of a million books to South Africa.
On my visit this year I discovered a huge deficit of reading materials and a hunger for reading. Mesfin and I made purchases from street vendors and brought a small stash of used books back to his children. Vendors sit at various locations on spots just back from the sidewalk in down town Awassa selling everything from used copies of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Successful Living to children’s books that are half English and half Amharic.
But back to our dream of building a primary school in Awassa. Initially – like a year ago when Roy Wallace and Mesfin visited Awassa they picked out an ideal piece of property just on the outskirts of Awassa, large enough for our building project and close enough that it wouldn’t be too hard for local primary kids to travel to. In order to secure the land, the Ethiopian government required a deposit of one third of our capital costs to a local Awassa bank. Unfortunately, because our fundraising is not yet where we need it to be, we couldn’t hold onto the land. Since that time, land prices have skyrocketed and deals are secured by land auction and now the chances have become very slim for us to own and build.
That being said, we have just last month come across a very attractive possiblity of a land lease. Mesfin has been approached by a woman whose family owns a large property right in Awassa that includes a well equipped school facility with classroom blocks with desks and blackboards, a large front compound with offices and huge backyard playground. All that is needed is some basic cleanup and a few minor repairs to doors and windows. Sitting in between two of the classroom blocks is an abandoned bus – Hmmm – can just imagine Panafric International Academy painted on the side! Here are a couple of shots showing the classroom blocks and compound. We think this is somewhat of a gold mine and has amazing potential for expansion.
Here are a couple of shots showing compound and classrooms.
Sunday, September 22/13
Well I have been home for just a week now and how easy it is to get involved with all the things of a Canadian life – not to mention the mundane stuff including having to fix so many things – these past few days that has included keeping an electric lawn mower going and trying to figure out why my garage door remotes aren’t working properly. When I was on the road, I didn’t have these distractions and as they keep me from my follow-up to my trip – the whole deal is a bit frustrating – ok enough with complaining so here we are with some exciting updates to tell you about regarding Panafric International Academy and where we are with starting an elementary school in Awassa, Ethiopia.
Firstly, lets back up two years ago, when Mesfin Atlaye, who born and raised in Ethiopia, living then in London Ontario and began putting together Panafric International Academy – essentially a plan to build a private school in Ethiopia. Mesfin’s dream of building this private school had been in his mind for several years previous and was then beginning to take shape. Mesfin gathered a few people in London including myself, former elementary school teacher Roy Wallace who has a long history of teaching in Ethiopia and Ken Klassen, the son of Canadian missionaries to Ethiopia. We were joined by Mesfin’s wife Abenet and her sister Tigist.
Probably the best way to describe what Mesfin had in mind is to use some of his own words so here is how he has described the project:
“In 2010, the Global Campaign for Education (comprising Education International, Plan International, Oxfam, Save the Children and VSO) produced a report entitled “Back to School?” According to that report, Ethiopia is one of the 5 worst countries in the world to be a school child, and is “teetering on the brink of an education crisis.” And that’s a huge problem, because Ethiopia will not thrive until it prioritizes education. No country has ever achieved continuous and rapid economic growth without first having at least 40% of adults able to read and write.”
During a number of return visits to Ethiopia, Mesfin began to get further dissolutioned by the educational crisis in Ethiopia and further wrote:
“While the liberating factor of education is a matter of fact, it is unfortunate to witness that millions of potentially fertile minds of Ethiopian children are wasted, year after year, because of a failed public school system. According to a study done by Global Campaign for Education (2010), Ethiopia is one of the five worst countries in the world in which to be a student. The problem is not lack of public education – there are numerous primary and secondary schools throughout the country. It is the quality of education that is the issue. First of all, students are at school for half days only, classrooms are extremely crowded- the average is about sixty five students in a classroom per teacher. There is a lack of resources in all schools at all levels. The majority of public school educators in Ethiopia are unmotivated and they lack self-discipline. As a result, the younger generation is without role models. This was my observation as I travelled through different parts of Ethiopia in 2006, 2007, and 2010.”
Mesfin’s dream of improving the lot of school children in Ethiopia gained momentum when, on one of his visits home to Ethiopia, he had the opportunity of visiting a first class private school in Bahar dar Ethiopia, truly an amazing success story which has become the model for Panafric International Academy.
Sunday, September 8/13
Ok – On the road to Awassa – sounds like it could be a song
Fast forward – let me pick up the story on my journey to Awassa – I travelled via what is called the Skybus – it is like Greyhound but not quite – it is seen as the safest way to travel by public transit and its not all that expensive – approximately, $7.00 Cdn. for a five hour ride from Addis to Awassa. The ride was truly scenic with many mountains of the rift valley rising to the left of me and the sight of vast lakes from time to time. For the most part this countryside is lush and so different from over twenty years ago when I lived and worked here. When I have asked people who live here what the drought and famine situation overall is, they tell me that it is nothing like the Horn of Africa experienced in the mid to late 1980’s and in ten year cycles before that. Ethiopia has what is called an early warning and disaster prevention system in the government whose task it is to predict poor conditions many months ahead and to begin food security immediately if needed. Its not that this system wasn’t in place many years ago, it was, but today it is much more sophisticated and the transportation infrastructure so much more improved. In many ways, it seems Ethiopia has moved so far ahead and in many ways still has such a long way to go in terms of health, education and poverty reduction.
But let me get back to my bus ride. Its not that I haven’t seen this spectacular countryside before – of course I have, many times, but it never ceases to wow me and this time I seemed to be able to look closer at some of its detail. I looked very closely for example at the difference in the two-wheeled donkey carts that are a step up from the ones I saw in the small town of Dilla and up north when Sean and I travelled to Lalibella and Bahir dar. These are truly amazing modes of transportation and hauling – some carts were pulled by two and even three donkeys lashed together in the most creative way. The wheels are sometimes a simple steel rod axle and other times are built from a discarded car axle often with the axel cover missing and gears exposed to the dust and dirt. In all cases there is no apparent wheel alignment, each wheel rotating with an independent wobble that you swear will cause the cart to collapse at any moment – I think some do – but I didn’t see that happen as the carts just ambled on and on. The cart platform consists of small sticks, some made into poles that support the driver and sometimes an immense amount of cargo be it straw or some other local building materials.
There are two other things to note about the bus ride, the first being the bathroom break and the other being the bus noise that I could really pinpoint. The bus noise came from right below me so it was very pronounced and the worst part was ear splitting loud. Obviously this flaw as I would call it, was of no concern to the bus owner, the driver nor the female attendant on board. So it just remained as a very annoying anomaly which I could best describe as a high pitched squeal not unlike when you rub something wet on a piece of glass but amplify that a hundred times. The other notable was the bathroom break or put better the lack of it for me. Feeling my bladder nearing tis capacity somewhere around the 3=2 and one half hour mark, I politely enquired if there would be a stop anywhere along the way. The female attendant assured me there would be but didn’t say exactly when. Well it did occur about one half hour later when the bus stopped just outside of town at what I would describe as a clearing with a few sparse trees and shrubs and a ravine/ditch stretching a long way some 20 metres inland. This was the bathroom break I had tried to ask about but didn’t anticipate. Men walked several metres away form the bus, unzipped and began peeing. Women walked a little further away and squatted. Some a little more discreet walked down into the ravine assuming the same posture. I tried to find a convenient tree/shrub that might afford me just a little more privacy but when I did – discovered a couple of local female teenagers just on the far side of the bush whose loud giggling drove any thought of a public urination out of the question for me. I zipped up and decided to wait until arriving in Awassa. When I did arrive, it was immediately over to the nearby bar right away – my bags could wait under the bus until my pain was over.
So from Thursday Aug 22 until now – Sept. 8th I have been in Awassa with Mesfin Atlaye and his family. Together, under the name of the Panafric International Academy, we have been trying to the make the dream of starting a private elementary school in Awassa a reality. More on the school later but first, let me tell you of some of the fun I have been having with the Atlaye family. Mesfin and his wife Abenet made a huge decision just a year ago to take all five of their children – three sons – twins Misikir and Wegene aged 11, and Sinu aged 9 and two daughters Shibre aged 8 and Saki aged 6 back to Mesfin and Abenet’s country of origin, Ethiopia after all five children had been born and raised Canadian. I can imagine what my readers are thinking – so let me tell you what I have discovered. Earlier today in an e-mail my partner Katee asked how I thought Mesfin and Abenet’s children were adapting. Here is how I replied:
Just noticed you asked some other questions that I didn’t reply to. I had
taken a couple of gift packages from the Uganda group and taken some kids
books – pens pencils etc. they really didn’t need much of that stuff and
some was below them – If I had known, I would have brought some good
chapter books for grade 2 and 5 and 6.
So what I did the other day was buy some books from street vendors and
brought them over as gifts – they were thrilled and dug into the books
right away – these kids are hungry for good resources and books are precious to
them. Mesfin and his wifeinsist on daily reading time and I join them when I am there – Saki (6)
usually cuddles up beside me and reads out loud – I really enjoy this
time with the Atlayes.
Are they adjusting? Hmmm – I think it has been really tough on the whole
family and when Mesfin’s wife Abenet went back to Canada – Mesfin had all
five kids on his own and one of the daughters, Shibre, got sick.
They have a pretty nice home with agated compound, bathroom, kitchen and various rooms in the house and guest quarters at the back. In comparison, this home is a far cry from their
previous place in London, Canada, with street kids and some of the poorest
families in Awasssa right outside their compound. The kids had no
hesitation in telling me they hated Ethiopia and said they thought it was
the worst place in the world.
In spite of this they have so much care for each other and have a mother
and father who love them so dearly.
These five children play together inside their locked compound all day
sometimes in simple marble games, use skate boards on the tiled part of
the compound floor or make up frisbee games. I am amazed at the ability of
these kids who were born and raised in Canada to adapt to an environment
so starkly different – foreign to them in fact, and in some ways,
oppressive. In spite of these huge challenges, they adapt sometimes not
willingly and not so cheerfully but they do adapt.
Yesterday the family went all day without running water. Before each meal,
they washed hands by one sibling pouring water from a pitcher over the
hands of the other, and later, they all took evening showers in cool water
using a pail. Just minutes before they were set to take these showers –
the power went out in their home and they used solar flashlights and hand
cranked lanterns in the bathroom as they washed themselves.
I hung around for a while after showers were done. Just as I as about to
leave, the lights came back on to the squeal of all five siblings – I
couldn’t help getting caught up in this simple joy of what we in Canada
take for granted each and every day.
Are they adjusting? Far better than I could imagine – and are they
teaching me how to appreciate life in a different way? Yes they are.
Monday, September 2/13
We finally reached the town of Walgiya on Tuesday evening August 20th – close to Lalibella, a place to stay that Tadesse recommended as opposed to staying right in Lalibella where we would be paying high tourist prices. The hotel there, The Tilik, was comfortable and food very tasty. In the morning and bought a new pair of socks at a local clothing store, (didn’t have any clean ones left), for 20 birr – just over a dollar, then we hit the road to Lalibella.
The pictures really can’t capture this place. The pictures of other team members and those you see in books can’t convey what must have been unbelievable dedication of the many, some say over 40,000 people involved over 20 years of work. The precision and accuracy in the work of carving some 11 stone churches out of solid rock and some of them the size of a small cathedral is truly mind boggling. It is so remarkable to see with one’s own eye and feel with one’s fingers the chisel marks you find in a stone column that was created one hit at a time, over 900 years ago and sits in perfect precision to the rest of the cathedral. It’s beyond comprehension and like the pyramids remains such a wonder. I have placed a number of pictures here – evidence that we were really there and is spite of the long and bumpy drive to get there, was so worthwhile.
We visited the Lalibella museum before going into the churches and there we saw artifacts that were saved from the time during the construction of he churches some 900 years ago and included priests vestments, wooden moulds from which windows were designed and an ancient books, looking like original bibles, with pages made of animal skin containing words from the lost language of geeze. This is how the story of Lalibella has been captured – It was amazing to the hear Tadesse read out in syllables this language – one that bears very little resemblance to Amharic.
Finally I stood still, completely overwhelmed trying to realize what it took to create such monuments to the story of Christ and for some was a whole life’s commitment. It was so obvious that Christianity was a part of the very soul of those who lived during that time, and has been captured so permanently. No words and pictures can convey what Lalibella offers. You have to be there.
Wednesday, August 27/13 – evening
Tonight I am truly sad, sad at the human squalor and suffering that I see every day, here in Africa. Today I passed two metal dumpsters that sit on the side of the road, half on the pavement and half in the gutter. They are on the hill that I walk up each night when I come home to the guesthouse where I stay in Addis Ababa. The first time I walked by them, I turned away and tried to ignore the human condition I witnessed, thinking to myself this can’t be happening. Today I looked closer and what I saw was an ancient man dressed in rags – old ripped clothing that barely hung on to a shriveled body, a body that obviously knows pain. He was sorting through layers of garbage that he had placed on the street including various bits of cardboard, small pieces of metal, probably discarded by the auto repair shop next to the dumpster, and items that were unrecognizable. Again I walked quickly by, but sitting here in the guesthouse the memory of the image remains clear and tonight indelible.
Earlier today I sat at lunch in the guesthouse and was joined by women who had worked for years in Ethiopia and just trying to make conversation she asked me innocently “What are you doing here?” I replied, “You know funny you should ask, I sometimes wake up in the morning and ask myself the same question.” Hmm. lately I have been feeling sorry for myself – regretting that I had booked the extra week in Addis Ababa, because I am tired, I miss my own bed, I’m not always comfortable sharing a common bathroom area which doesn’t always have hot water and sometimes has no water. And then I remember the image from earlier and another one again just this week when I looked down at a man’s shoes as he passed by. They were barely shoes – I brought four pairs with me on this trip and they are all better than his. How come I have so much? Why am I here? Well maybe I am here to bare witness to these conditions and maybe when I return I will appreciate more all of the comforts that my home provides and that I can afford. And maybe I will try and tell people back home of what I have seen and felt, without sounding righteous or preachy. I hope I can.
Wednesday, August 27/13
So let me pick up the story now after the visit to Bette. Over all my years working in Ethiopia and the many visits I just never seemed to make much time for tourist things and missed places like the famous Lallibela and the stone carved churches – so guess what? The next bit is a chronicle of my trip with Sean and Ato Tadesse – the hard way, but the most scenic, by minivan that includes a spectacular visit to Lallibela, stops along the way to document breathtaking views in the Ethiopian highlands and several small town stops that added character and colour to our rugged journey.
Firstly, a big congratulations to my son Sean the road warrior that he is, in surviving the rigours of the long and bumpy rides, one of the most disgusting hotel experiences in a town called Effeson, and just being such a great travelling companion to his dear dad…
Let’s take up the journey in the early morning leaving Efeson. Our first stop was there after Bette and we left in early morning – 6 AM just in time to catch this beautiful double rainbow just after sunrise and marvel at the sight of the bottom end of the rainbow settling gently onto a nearby mountain side. As you can see from this picture the view was spectacular.
So off we went hoping that the early departure would put us in good time to get north to Lallibela and journey onwards with lots of time – Not….We got a few kilometres outside Efeson and were forced to stop at the end of a long line up caused by a massive mudslide across the main highway. There in the water, mud and fallen rock sat several Toyota Land cruisers, Toyota Hiluxes and a couple of minivans. What a mess! Confusion ensued, and minutes after we got to the start of the lineup to get a better look at the spectacle, we looked up hearing the rush of a diesel engine just in time to see one last attempt by one confident Hilux driver to make the drive across the slide and he too, only metres away from the pavement sadly sunk up to his right front fender to the cumulative groooan of the onlookers. This is Africa!
This spectacle afforded Tadesse the opportunity of lecturing us on the increase of
Erosion and the decline of good agricultural practices. Tadesse maintains that with the proliferation of modern technology, higher education in Ethiopia is swinging disproportionately in the direction of communication technology, building engineering to accommodate the market drive to expand housing and office buildings, resulting in a large deficit in basic agricultural education.
So I may have to skip over some countryside and get to Lallibela soon so I will just mention that the views like the one below were spectacular, the trip was long and pushed both Sean and I almost to the limit (physically for me and tourist info for Sean). The trip took four and one half days in total and was really long, ok too long by truck. If I did it again I would fly and would recommend that to anyone especially first travellers to Ethiopia – just too gruelling by land. Anyways, that being said, it was a great trip and Lallibela a real experience not just a tourist attraction.
Another “spectacle” so to speak is the shot of Sean, Tadesse and the camel – this one had “one hump”. Sean said something about wanting to ride it – I said something like “lets keep driving.”
Tuesday, August 26/13
Back to blogging – been a week since I posted anything – just been on the road so much and finding access to internet very tough:
As many of you readers will know the area called Bette (betay), Ethiopia, was where the Gilmores – Chris and I with our son Kevin when he was 3 yrs old lived for a full year. The project was funded by the Kinsmen African Medical Relief initiative that originated out of Kingston Ontario. As you could imagine, this was a big commitment on our part both in terms of bringing a young son to Africa and leaving behind family and friends for a full year, but began what became a long term commitment known as Future Forests of London. We, along with London nurse Carol Wallace, and two other nurses, one from Australia and the other from New Zealand ran a rural medical clinic and did the ground work for a health centre and village initiatives that began first with the redevelopment of the village water system.
At the same time we were on the ground, so to speak and doing the hands on work in Ethiopia, a small and enthusiastic group of Londoners began organizing themselves informally and then formally with charitable status and all which became Future Forests. With CIDA funding and generous support from Londoners, this initiative lasted a total of ten years and saw development in the form of a fully electrified water pump, an oxen loan program (known to some of us as the revolving fund, where money and not oxen revolved), a women’s garden and grinding mill project and various collaborations involving the Bette farmer’s association and the Ethiopian ministry of agriculture.
With my travel to Uganda this summer I thought it would be a great opportunity to fly north with my son Sean and return to Ethiopia, for two reasons, firstly to add support to the school project in Awassa that a London group is supporting and secondly to visit Bette after some 13 years since my last visit. The opportunity was attractive especially since travelling with Sean in Uganda this would give him the opportunity to see the area his Mom and Dad have been talking about for so many years.
So the next few blogs will be about our trip to Bette, Lallibela and Bahir dar and the last leg south back to Addis Abeba where we began. So on Monday morning August 19th Sean and I met up with Tadesse Mesfin at the SIM guest house where we had been for Saturday and Sunday – a great surprise and relief to meet up with Tadesse. We had been communicating by e-mail before the trip but with logistics being what they are in Ethiopia and Tadesse’s working full time in Bahir dar – about 5 hours north of Addis it wasn’t a sure thing that he could join us. Tadesse as some of you know, worked as our development specialist in Bette for almost ten years and is a man we have come to know trust and love very much over many years. It was fantastic to meet up with him and to firstly have him meet my son Sean who he has heard of but never met.
The picture above is of Tadesse in a typical pose on phone – as is now the major way of communicating in Ethiopia, be it in the cities, in the taxis, by the truck drivers and even at the small town and village level – this technology permeates every corner as I have noticed here in Ethiopia and while in Uganda.
It was typical of Tadesse to call ahead to buddies of his in the approaching towns while we were on the road and bless the man – he had people he knew in every little town and village along the way in one instance a friend he hadn’t seen in 30 years and in one of his home towns and older man who he had know as a small child. Tadesse regailed us of one episode as a child he snuck up to this man’s sewing machine and took a spin using the foot peddle. The sad part of the story is that he broke the needle and caused this poor man much grief as back then the nearest needle was many miles and many hours away! It was very entertaining for Sean and I to watch this shmeglie (old man) recount his stories with such gleam in his eyes and a huge smile on his face. I found myself interrupting Tadesse and this guy from time to time because as a story teller, I was anxious to get the every detail of the conversation.
So I need to back track a bit here and get the trip started. Leaving Addis on Monday took a bit of work on the part of our driver Techale, to get out of this vehicle and people packed busy capital city that has close to doubled in size in terms of population and exploded in terms of construction.
The trip to Bette was very reminicent of the many, maybe one hundred times I have travelled this road from Addis to Bette, with the exception that now the roads are wider, much smoother and every town now is exploding with construction projects like the one below.
We stopped twice on our four hour trip form Addis. The first stop was to catch the spectacular view of the valleys below from one of the highest points of our journey. Unfortunately, the fog blocked the view and we had to press onward without Sean having had the pleasure of this famous lookout area. We drove through the updated tunnel at Debre Sina now a newly constructed tunnel complete with new sidewalks on either side, new walls and lighting, and the inscription of Musolini’s name has been removed from the entrance way. No longer is the drive through this 900 kilometre tunnel the scary venture when you didn’t know when you might meet a pedestrian, or a donkey that didn’t make it through as your truck got drenched by the continuous ceiling water flow.
The second stop was at Ato Arguy’s – a former town mayor of Jewoha and an innovator well ahead of his time. Mr. Arguy was the first in his area to construct a methane catchment basin that provided then and still does today all the fire power for his small town restaurant. In the picture below, Sean poses with Tadesse beside the dung bin!
The next stop was Bette.
I guess to be true to my emotions the first one that entered was surprise – surprise at the sheer number of new buildings small and large, mud walled and cinder block that now comprise was what was once a barren piece of Ethiopian countryside populated by a refugee camp of some 5,000 tents donated by the Israelis some 28 years ago.
The second emotion was sadness as it was almost impossible to detect what was years ago a vibrant Canadian Medical relief centre – a Canadian version of a Mash unit complete with makeshift operating table, kerosene lit kitchen compound and young Canadian nurses and doctors there to play a heroic role in saving countless Ethiopian lives. Gone is the stockpile of donate drugs, each new medical team trying desperately to keep up the count of inventory and most memorable the shiny young faces of eager and naaive Canadian medical and support people fired with zeal of humanitarianism (is there such a word?)
As we walked away from the area that once was our place to live for a full year and the first place I stayed when a volunteer with the Kinsmen African Medical Relief, I tried hard to leave the memories aside and concentrate fully on finding out out what is actually here now and find some trace of the hard work and dedication of everyone, Canadians, Americans and Ethiopians involved with development efforts in Bette and the surrounding villages some 13 years ago.
The first notable and dramatic change was the cluster of cinder block buildings forming a large compound in the area formerly used by the Bette Women’s Association for their 16 garden plots. This is now a government run health station. It is a fully licensed centre that provides classes on AIDS prevention, and includes an out patients clinic and a pharmacy. The compound is very professional in appearance, is fenced off with post and metal linkages and staffed entirely by Ethiopians.
I can’t help but reflect on some 20 years ago when there were cautions to our building anything permanent in Bette. Today am very proud of making the decision to press onward. With the encouragement of the local administration including the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Agriculture citing Bette as a geographic centre, and the support of our Canadian Government, the decision was made to take on the task of developing Bette.
Beginning with small industry, providing the funding to electrify the village proper of Bette, developing an oxen loan program, improving the water system and promoting improved agriculture, today Bette is a busy and thriving town with at least four times the original population, a large weekly market and personal success stories like that of Zahara. Zahara began as an eager 16 year old girl, working the mornings in the Woman’s Association garden and walking 5 kms one way to her school in the afternoons. She is now the mother of three children, owns a fine cinder block home in Bette and operates a small shop close to the main highway in Bette.
The picture below shows some of the trees that were part of the original reforestation of Bette. You can see their maturity by their size now some twenty years later. They began as seedlings. What also is encouraging is the proliferation of trees along the roadside and at almost every private home we saw in Bette and the amount of natural vegetation as hillside coverage.
Well that’s it for now goodbye until the next blog.
Monday August 19, 2013
Breakfast at the SIM guest house kind of sparse – the cut up oranges a little of the small and tasteless side, pieces of what I thought were watermelon had no resemblance to that fruit – Hmmm not what I expected from a guest house for international visitors – saved by some French toast and syrup. My fellow guests and I debated the fact that Canadian maple syrup may be somewhat overpriced considering that we agreed that there just wasn’t enough of a difference between the real Canadian syrup and the other stuff but the bottom line was – we didn’t have any of either and the unspoken part of the conversation was – we dearly missed any resemblance. Oh well – let the day begin.
Not too long after this breakfast conversation a very familiar voice greeted me in a dimly lit dining room : “Ato Bernie How are you?” coming from my good friend Tadesse Mesfin and how good it was to see a familiar figure – a great comrade from the relief and rehabilitation days over 20 years now in Ethiopia and someone to whom I could immediately relate – just like an old friend with so much in common despite the many miles between us for so many years and the huge gap in cultures. Tadesse looked great and only minutes went by before we began regailing one another of some of the familiar stories and accompanying humour from days gone by. Tadesse met Sean and like so many folks meeting him for the first time, remarked on Sean’s stature and warm smile.
Hitting the Road:
Addis Ababa is really a different city now – there are newly constructed roads since 10 years ago – completely new subdivisions with North American looking stores, city expansion into industrial areas with construction materials of every imaginable type – corrugated iron, cement supplies and stockpiles of round eucalyptus tree poles – this is a city that just a few years ago, I could drive around in a land cruiser and seldom get lost – now that task of driving on my own would be completely impossible.
Driving further now I see enormous sized apartment complexes and stores galour – gas stations on every block – this is a new Addis Ababa and such a far cry from a city confined by ten PM curfews, the resulting empty downtown streets and the odd military policeman seen on guard with a long trench coat and ancient rifle. Change in so many ways has now catapulted what was known as one of the poorest areas in the world into a new and world class international complete with passengers making connection on their cell phones and my friend Tadesse calling ahead to have his second eldest son meet us for a quick rendezview. Henok now 18 years old is busy for the day so a trip with his dad is not is the cards. Our driver pushes onward, soon we are out of the city and driving into some of the most spectacular countryside in the world. Happy for me to be making a journey into this beautiful countryside but most enjoyable as I am now travelling with my son Sean who is in Ethiopia with me for the first time.
Here is a shot of me and the boys playing at a Street girls Home – one of the most enjoyable visits of the trip so far – there were some 21 young girls from the age of 6 or 7 to 13 who were recused from horrible street life by a wonderful young Ugandan man and his wife from Alabama. The girls were absolute darlings – so well behaved and respectful – Katee and I really took to this one below Carol – who was a warm and affectionate sweetie (girl on the right side of Katee)
So much more to write about but I am in transit – making a quick blog from the lobby of the Central Inn, Entebbe and en route to Addis Ababa with Sean
Wow! tough to find time to get some blogs written and posted – seems we are super busy on this trip visiting a variety of interesting projects that Michelle and Sara are involved in and between being too exhausted to put fingers to keyboard and the internet not being available at the hotel – it has only been until now that I can do do writing. I actually declined the invitation to visit a craft cooperative where a number of local activities take place. It was great just to take a leisurely walk on a downtown street of Jinja, enjoy the huge array of street vendors, motorcycle (boda bodas as they are called) and just be in the midst of some African street culture. I am sitting in a European style coffee shop called Flavours where one can get a pretty Euro/Canadian type dessert – just finished a large chocolate brownie with vanilla ice cream, while listening to the Beatles on the overhead sound system – “Here Comes the Sun” – oh no – not suffering too much on this trip.
Katee is fairing amazingly well, staying away from any of the usual gastro-intestinal ailments and surprisingly clear of any allergic reactions inspite of a constant assault of dust and animal excrement at the village level.
Speaking of that level, the last two days have been both amazing and wonderful for both Katee and me to get (off road by motorcycle) and visit two of the Christian school on the boarder of the St. Kizito sub parish and just get a real sense of African life at the village level. For Katee this was the first time for this and for me a wonderful trip again to be with people living so close to the basics in life. After a while you don’t notice so much of the starkness of the surroundings and the lack of material things because it is replaced by so much lush tropical growth of many pineapple, banana and papaye trees but mostly the warmth of the African smile.
Katee and I enjoyed particularly the shenanigans that became part of a class visit in one of the rural school. During our visit to a grade 4 class, as it was our turn to sing to the class, we picked “You are my sunshine” When we came to “I’ll always love you” in the chorus – embraced each other at which time the two teachers, young male and female did the same, became self conscious of what they had just done probably never seen by students at that level and in that setting and witnessed the whole class exploding in laughter. It seems to be this simple but deep human drama that brings it together for me and makes the visit so worth while – just so much simple joy at the very human level
Yes some things are way over the top on this trip. Today we attended the final day celebration of a high school – huge soccer field and tents for the parents and other family members. – must have been a couple of thousand people if not more – they had traditional dancing, lots of local drumming – giant size jembe drums and lots of good music – big sound system and all – When the formal program had finished, the MC invited anyone to come forward, to as she said “show your stuff” at which point a young male high school student came forward and did some wild dancing – people came up and stuffed money in his pocket the more he danced – you know probably something like the Chippendales…he was great but – you know what I’m going to say happened next – yes our man Sean – got up from his chair and entertained a couple of thousand Ugandan high school kids and families – with some beat box improve that echoed throughout the field – I had seen him do some pieces of it before but never the whole show that he did as an improve right then – the crowd exploded when he finished and Sean was last seen signing autographs for scores of admiring Ugandan female high school students…Oh my God – what have we unleashed on Ugandans?
I captured the whole thing on video so when I figure out how to download, you will see the live action.
Reflecting back to the beginning of our journey August 2, I had many reservations and concerns about this trip to Africa. I knew travelling to a third world country would be very different experience but would most likely be a journey in “personal growth” I had never encountered in the past.
As well, travelling with a group of volunteers that I didn’t know very well, for me was unnerving. So far, we have been very busy travelling to schools, a clinic, going by boat to the Nanso school, leaving donations and interacting with so many school children. We have also spent almost two full days helping with the interior wall plastering at the St. Kizito sub parish.
My experience in the past few days had “many roses” – that is, many very wonderful and heart warming experiences. I have been so impressed at how gentle, respectful and attentive our Ugandan hosts have been towards us.
I am finding that our group is learning more about each other and seems to be developing a real sense of community and as we discover all this newness together. Personally, I am feeling so much more comfortable, not only with the strangeness of a new country but with the camaraderie that is developing among group members.
The team has engaged in good conversations over the past few days regarding our efforts to be sensitive to our hosts in things that we do and things that we say. One of our volunteers made an effort to explain that when we have conversations in the bus that in any way seem negative it was important that and our Ugandan host, guide and go to guy Alex, understand we are in every way trying to be respectful to our Ugandan hosts and friends. Alex replied by explaining in his own words what is it like to be around Sara and Michelle and the volunteers that keep showing up. He says that we are like family. His mother died at an early age and Alex has had to fend for himself for many years. With this team and with previous volunteers, Alex says he feels a sense of closeness and a deep sense of love that obviously comes both ways with this wonderful young man. As he expressed sadness and even loss at the thought of us leaving, he added he wished we could all be like Sara and Michelle and keep coming back. For me this is so remindful of my days with the medical relief teams in Ethiopia who developed close friendships with our Ethiopian hosts. On so many occasions the medical team departures were an emotional event not only for our Ethiopian friends but for the Canadians. This conversation with Alex was very moving for all of us. I was so touched by the beauty of this young man and the simplicity of his expression.
I have been so thankful that Alex is part of this mission team because my son Sean has had someone to hang with and what a choice of guys to do that. When Sean goes out into the city of Jinga I have no fears of him being alone – I have the sense he is with a comrade, a good dude, and, a personal body guard – I couldn’t have wished a better comrade for Sean and as most of the team is much older, it is great that he has a buddyhis own age.
Next steps on our journey will hopefully involve getting to know the immediate area and people of St. Kizito sub parish. The hope is that with a process like ground mapping or something similar, we will be able to discover further what assistance St. George parish might be as our partnership with this community continues. Stay tuned!
August 8, 2013
Today a huge amount of work (manual labour) by all at St. Kizito sub parish where our London St. George parish is building this new church – first a rocky ride in our mini bus not meant for rugged off road travel but at the skilled hands of our driver we make it all the way, at the village level if you could imagine to St. Kizito’s – a beautiful new brick and wood building, a lovely inviting entrance and surrounding banana and coffee trees and newly manicured lawns (well let’s be honest the grass was goat fodder).
Mission team members hauled sand by wheel barrow, mixed it up with shovel and hoe – helped throw some of the newly made cement onto the walls and in Sean’s case, smoothed the walls with trowell (actually work he has been doing in Canada all summer), and then collapsed in a heap for a peanut butter and jam sandwhich – for lunch.
August 7, 2013
Still trying to get the technology to work for me here folks – bear with me – will try and capture Tuesday’s visit to a remote area called Nanso, accessible only by boat. Michelle and Sara and their group Just Cause are building a bran new elementary school which for this area is a major innovation because of the remoteness of the area and the desperate need of a community in some ways “left behind” in any of the government’s support. For this reason Michelle and Sara are keenly focussing on Nanso and to date have made unbelievable progress not only in the construction of the school itself but in some surprising donations from Canada – one of our team mats Tree Galbraith has collected over $2,000 from London schools, my son Sean donated all the proceeds from his pub night fundraiser at the Duke of Earl in Strathroy and neighbouring and local Nanso villagers are employed by Just Cause and as well are volunteering to move the building towards completion.
Visiting Nanso for me was reminicent of my first work Bete, Ethiopia where I experienced first hand some of the horrible scenes from TV at that time and remembering being overwhelmed by finding children without clothes, women in our clinics who died in childbirth because we had no way of stopping hemmoraging, and starvation. Some of these conditions are here in Nanso, no starvation but definitely a severe lack of medical care and basic education.
What else is here is an amazing spirit for carrying on and a vibrant cultural life. the children seemed to have that extra spark here that although is present in the small town schools – is here in abundance – I see it in the joy and laughter and even in the more traditional dance the children do which is livelier and closer to the African spirit that I feel when I hear and see Ladysmith Black Mombaso or watch Johnny Clegg.
This visit to Nanso and the adjacent village of Bassano was particularly enjoyble as things seemed to happen so spontaneously for us – I was able to move around the courtyard and play music with small groups of children, Katee was engaged in hand painting crafts with other groups of children and we both enjoyed so much of the love and joy experienced in these two villages – things seem to be just more lively and joyful at this level. School kids usually go home at 4:30 – kids were still hanging around skipping, singing, playing volleyball past 5:30 – such fun!
Bernie and Katee