Saturday, December 29, 2012

A trip down to Azedebo

The following entry is offered up by Jim Mitchum, an avid Ethiopia Reads supporter that was kind enough to pay the Azedebo community a visit a couple weeks back.  He's more then a tad flattering when it comes to descriptions .. shucks, thanks Jim.

Wede bollager eheadallo (Down country I am going) by Jim Mitchum 

We are driving down a bumpy asphalt road about 150 miles south of Addis and come to a complete stop for a herd of sheep walking in the opposite direction. Nothing unusual in that. It's taken about 4 hours to get this far, and we still have a ways to go in our hired Toyota van driven by a nice guy named Tesfai. We swerve around women bent over with enormous burdens on their back (usually firewood) and sometimes there are donkeys carrying the same. Not much difference here between a woman and a donkey other than the donkey can carry a bit more. You don't see many men carrying burdens...probably too busy doing manly things.

It's getting warm now and not a cloud in the sky. The ancient volcanic landscape of the Rift Valley is sparse...a few eucalyptus and acacia trees, lots of reddish rocks and some small fields of grain being harvested. Men are cutting teff (similar to wheat) on small plots of land using hand sickles...nothing mechanized. We keep rolling through small towns where down-country buses stop to let off and pick up passengers traveling cheap.

The two lane road is fairly wide so there are often 3 or 4 vehicles abreast. No lane stripes or "do not pass" signs here to confuse you! We go around overflowing carts pulled by donkeys, slower cars, buses and fuming diesel trucks when we can. Tesfai pushes the van as hard as the road allows, sometimes playing "chicken" with vehicles coming at us. Seat belts you ask? Ha!'ve got to be kidding.

A couple of more hours and we turn off the paved road onto a "gravel" road that lost most of its gravel to the rainy season just ended. Now there is just a washboard of ruts. For the next 25 km (about 15 mi.), Tesfai negotiates the rough road, moving from side to side to find the way least likely to break an axle.

Dust swirls in the windows and we are soon coated from head to toe. It’s too warm to leave them closed; too dusty to leave them open. A large crowd appears in the road ahead, and we slow to a crawl as Tesfai respectfully nudges aside people in what turns out to be a funeral procession with the nose of the van.
The land around us is mountainous and has a primeval beauty that is hard to describe. Finally we see the village of Azedebo where ER is building new buildings (for a pre-school, kindergarten and library) next to an existing government school (grades 1-8) and today's destination. After a cool morning start, it is now 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) outside.

We attend a ceremony to mark the building progress...already one of the buildings is framed, an outhouse dug and chicka pit ready to go. The walls will be covered in a fermented mixture of mud, straw and manure, called chicka in Amharic, and the pit is where 14 guys will stomp the mixture until it is ready to apply to the frame...something like stomping grapes but you wouldn't want to drink this stuff! After the chicka is applied, a cement coating is added to protect it from the elements. If it is maintained, cement covered chicka over eucalyptus, the indigenous building materials of Ethiopia, will last for decades.

The construction manager is Cien Keilty-Lucas, a 28 year old from South Minneapolis who could easily be mistaken for Brad Pitt with a crew-cut. Amazingly he has been in Ethiopia leading school construction efforts for ER for the past three years, living in conditions where most of us wouldn't last a night. The current project has been underway for less than two months and will conclude around the end of February 2013. After that, he and his small team of 3 Ethiopians managers will move to a nearby town and build a similar school and library there.

As I listen to one of the village elders (who is also a teacher in the adjacent government school) make a speech about the project, I realize that Cien has won their trust and hearts by hiring local labor, showing up each day before anyone else, working harder than anyone else and leading
what they see as the most helpful project in their village.

He mentions that other groups, like UNICEF and World Vision, have come in with people who didn't involve them, stayed in hotels and drove big vehicles...but the projects were sometimes of low quality. He spoke about how Cien is living simply (he rents a room from a local family) and has organized the entire village to build something that will benefit their children for many years. Later he takes the opportunity to tell us that they could use a water well and a clinic never know what these ferengies will come up with if you just ask!

Later the same man asks me to tell him again the name of the organization, and he writes Ethiopia Reads down on a piece of paper. He still can't believe that ER (an organization he has never heard of) is accomplishing so much and that its people are so dedicated. I take a picture of him with his brother and another man and show it to them on my camera. I tell him he looks like Haile Selassie (the former emperor of Ethiopia). He is delighted with that and tells me that from now on he will call himself Haile Selassie. We all get a big laugh from that but somehow I think he is serious!

Later we head back the same gravel road, needing to get back to pavement before the sun sets. I open the side window of the van and the acrid smell of burning eucalyptus hits me in the face. I look over to see wraith-like ribbons of smoke leaking from the conical-shaped thatched roof of a nearby gojo. Boy, does that brings back memories from my youth.

In the van we get into a discussion with Cien about the creative construction techniques he came up with for the massive outhouse hole they hand dug. They had to be careful to avoid contaminating the unusually high water table and also figure out how to keep the soft mud walls from collapsing (with wire mesh and eucalyptus supports). Using a little basic math, we calculate how many years the pit should last with about 200 little daily contributors.

Just as soon as we reach the pavement the sun sets, and Tesfai starts playing "donkey dodge" on the dark road, occasionally coming to a complete stop when obstinate animals try to cross in front of us. My butt is killing me sitting on van seats that seem to have no padding left in them. An hour later we are in the town of Hosanna and pull into the hotel parking lot. I just pray my $10 a night room will have hot water and not fleas.

A few of Jims shots from his trip out:

Me and the boss man Dana

I was given the honor of cutting the bread

ER group shot.  Left to right.  Temesgin, Tesfahoune, Dana, Menna, Me and Ejigu

Bringing in the felt

A few students hanging out on our scrap pile

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