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Kenya - June 2012 Day 2

Today George and I met with representatives of three NGO’s that work in the water sector in Kenya.

One of the most interesting was Herman Waiche from Forum for Development Programs in Africa (FODEPA).  Located in Bungamo, 450 KM from Nairobi, they operate strictly in the western part of Kenya that has a considerably greater amount of rainfall than the east. They do spring protection systems as well as HDW’s and are able to complete more than 50 projects per year.  Because of the amount of rainfall, water catchment systems are used in areas that are not appropriate for wells.  They also do a few boreholes in areas that have substantial bedrock, but these tend to be more expensive.

We also met Josephine Ekhuya of Kumea.  Her NGO operates predominately in the drier eastern region of Kenya, working mostly with boreholes. In addition, they do some HDW’s near river banks, allowing aquifers to recharge during the rainy seasons, as well as water catchment systems, specifically at schools. 

Both NGO’s have the capacity for a full range of community engagement, WASH training and operational sustainability.  Also at the meeting was Peter Okaka, a consultant who provides in-depth capacity building in WASH and direct programming support for NGO’s. He is very knowledgeable about WASH best practices and specific issues related to Kenya. All of the NGO’s shared with us examples of the kinds of proposals they have done in the past to seek funding for water projects.

 

Until later,

Dick Moeller

President of Water to Thrive

Kenya - June 2012 Day 1

We arrived on time in Nairobi at about 9:40 where we met the East Africa Director for LWR, George Odhiambo. Our driver, Daniel, took us directly to Makindu which is about 2 ½ hours to the east.  Makindu is part of the East Africa Drought Project for LWR.  We visited the village of Ndukangeuke, where the LWR has helped the community organize a Self Help Group. Jack Mulwa, the chairperson of the Group, greeted us and explained its operation.  They started up about 3 years ago with only 44 members. That number has now grown to over 350, representing about 2/3 of the community.  Each member contributes a small amount (20 Kenyan schillings, about $.25) per month and the group as a whole determines how it is used, from agricultural needs to education to specific family support.  Education and accountability are key elements of their operation.  We spoke with six people of the governing committee, including two women, one of whom serves as the treasurer.

This area is plagued by low annual rainfall, about 8-12 inches annually. When it does rain, it rains heavily for a short time period, so river flooding often occurs.  A river (normally dry except during the rainy period) runs nearby.  Often, community members go to the dry river bed and dig sand holes to try to locate water for their families.  LWR is working with the community to construct 6 new check dams along the river.  Large pools of water created during the rainy season can be used for crop irrigation, recharging the sub-surface water table and maintaining livestock during the dry season.

The community already has experience with a check dam, as one was constructed by the government last year.  It is being used for cattle and irrigation by nearby farmers.  The LWR project would add 6 more just like this one at different points along the river:

After viewing the first check dam constructed by the government, we also visit an aborted hand-dug well started by the community.  It is close to the river, so they hit a water source at about 25 feet.  However, because the community did not have the technical expertise to finish the well with the water running into it, the effort was abandoned.  This is still encouraging to us, though, because of the amount of water flow found close to the surface.  LWR has conducted an assessment of the area and six locations have been deemed suitable for hand-dug wells. 

After visiting the abandoned well site, we walked farther up the river and got to see several sites where the new check dams will be located and where additional HDW sites could be placed for easy access by the community.

We had a chance to discuss the need to set up the water committees for projects, conduct WASH training and build a community maintenance fund for sustainability.  Because this community already collects a monthly amount, they were confident they could do so.

Without any viable source of clean water today, 6 HDW wells in this community could provide much needed relief during the long dry season. In addition, the check dams are an excellent way to ensure the aquifers in the area are recharged each rainy season.

 

More to come,

Dick Moeller

President of Water to Thrive

Tanzania May 2012 - Day 3

Today was a travel day. We spent all day in the car driving back to Dar es Salaam. Part of our trip took us through a national park where I got to see zebras, baboons, antelope and wildebeests, but sadly no elephants. 
I have a few more meetings tomorrow and then it will be off to Kenya. It's been a short, but incredibly productive trip to Tanzania. We are going to have some exciting work here in the coming months and we are looking forward to sharing more with you all. 
 
More later,
Dick Moeller
President of Water to Thrive

Tanzania May 2012 - Day 2

Today, we met our hosts from the St. Paul Partners (SPP) water program. Bo Skillman (chair of SPP, who lives in St. Paul MN), Mathew (water project manager) and Khute (water, sanitation and hygiene training and community engagement). W2T has just approved funding for our first 5 water projects working with SPP, in Iringa’s Lundamatwe community. We checked in on their progress, visited some completed projects and saw a community in need of clean water.

We headed to the field and our first stop was the Kilolo Star Drilling (KSD) facility, near Iringa.  KSD is the partner that SPP uses to drill the borehole wells in this area.  KSD is a Tanzanian non-government organization (NGO) that not only does water well projects, but also operates a vocational training school (farming, sewing, and computers) for secondary students.  KSD operates 4 drilling crews (with names like Elephant, Leopard, and the Lion Mamas).  The Lion Mamas, (an all-female team) were at the facility picking up some equipment, so they gave us a quick demonstration of their drilling rig. 

Our next stops were in sub-communities in the village of Lukani. The drilling and construction of the wells had been recently completed by SPP and KSD.  At one site, the community had already built the fence for the project and we got to meet most of the water committee. Neither this well site nor the second that we visited had been released for community use because the water was still a bit murky from the drilling. SPP team members discussed with the community the steps needed for pumping the well in order to clear the murky water so that clean water could be accessed. We also shared the need for improved water runoff drainage from the water point to avoid standing water that could be a breeding area for mosquitoes. 

Our next stop was the community of Wangoma – an area that we are considering for future water work. When we arrived, we were greeted by many from the village, including the newly formed water committee.  This community of 2,500 people has never had a clean water supply.  They gather water from a nearby river or from open, unprotected shallow wells. The head of the water committee and the village president both spoke passionately about their need and convincingly about their commitment to take all necessary steps to make sure the new water points are maintained and operated properly.  The need for water in this community is great. While we could not yet promise that we will provide a well, we are hoping to be able to help this village in the future.

From Wangoma, we headed to our newest project area, Lundamatwe. We were briefly held up by a flat tire – our second of the day – but luckily we had a second vehicle with us that we could all pile into. When we arrived in Lundamatwe, we briefly visited a new, completed well that is near the school. It was so great to see these school children finally have access to clean water. Our second stop was at a water project under construction at the dispensary.  This well is about 40 feet deep and is about halfway through construction. While on site, we met with three female members of the water committee who have received training on the operation and maintenance of the well.  They are very excited about the prospects of having clean, sustainable water for their community.

Our final stop of the day was at a project near a Lutheran church where we got to see the drilling team in action – so exciting! They had drilled about 30 feet and were expecting to go an additional 10-15 feet to reach a good water supply. It was fantastic to see the drilling in progress and I am excited for the well to begin serving the people here.

It was great to see the substantial progress on our first water projects in Tanzania!  St. Paul Partners and Kilolo Star Drilling should have all 5 of our projects complete in the next 90 days or so. I am looking forward to sharing news of their completion with everyone back home.

 

More later,

Dick Moeller

President of Water to Thrive

Tanzania May 2012 - Day 1

(Water to Thrive President, Dick Moeller, is currently traveling in Tanzania to explore new partnerships there. These blogs are his reports back on the trip...)
 
I arrived on time in Dar es Salaam about 9:30 am. The driver that was supposed to meet me at the airport was delayed significantly by traffic so I connected with Ezekiel Kiagho (the Country Director for Lutheran World Relief). Ezekiel picked me up at the airport and we headed to the LWR office in Dar es Salaam where I met the other in-country staff member, Castor Kalemera, who is the organization's Livelihood Program Manager for Tanzania. 
 
The three of us spent some time reviewing the LWR activites in Tanzania, which focus on two programs and geographical areas. The livelihood programs operate mostly around the Dodoma area. In this part of the country, LWR works with 9 partners to assist the area's famers with their value chain improvement for the oil seed, rice and grape crops. LWR's other programmatic focus - health programs (primarily the Lutheran Malaria Initiative) - are managed out of Arusha. These are implemented in partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Tanzania (ELCT) in the 13 dioceses most affected by malaria. These programs focus on both the distribution of bed nets as well as community engagement and education for the prevention and treatment of malaria. 
 
In the afternoon, we began our drive to Iringa, which is west and slightly south of Dar es Salaam. Exiting Dar is a challenge most anytime, but afternoons are especially difficult. The roads are clogged with people, buses, trucks, motos, bicycles, and basically anything that moves. The road from Dar es Salaam to Iringa is good, but with the traffic it took us over 8 hours to compelte the journey and we arrived in Iringa around 11:00 pm.
 
We spent the night at the Iringa Lutheran Center, a facility that has been used by the local ELCT diocese in its partnership with the St. Paul Synod (Minnesota) of the ELCA in the US. The Center has 13 rooms and can sleep about 25 people. A very active partnership has been developed between these two sister synods over the last 10 years. This partnership not only involves water projects, but also ministry, healthcare, establishment of a university, agricultural improvements, and much more. During the past decade, this partnership has brought over 4,000 volunteers to Iringa from the United States St. Paul Synod to volunteer in many differrent programs and capacities.
 
It's great to see such strong connections being made. I'm looking forward to my time in Iringa to learn more about this area of the country, its water situation, and how Water to Thrive can get involved to begin bringing clean water to these people who so desperately need it here in Tanzania.
 
More to come later,
Dick Moeller
President of Water to Thrive 

Voluntourism Trip 2012 - 5/30-6/1 and Reflections

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voluntourism

Our mission work completed, Wednesday was scheduled to be simply a "tourist day."  Segay insisted on seeing us to the airport for our flight to Lalibella.  Because he had only one of the "Glimmer" vehicles at his disposal, we were somewhat concerned that it might cut things too closely since our group would have to be taken in two trips (the hotel had a shuttle, but Segay's hospitality was not to be denied.) 
 
As it turned out, there was not problem; our flight was delayed almost three hours.  Once on board, the short hop took only about a half hour, but when we landed we found ourselves in much different countryside, surrounded by high mountains.  We left the tiny airport with its gravel runway, and piled into a hotel shuttle for the half-hour ride to the town, which took us to the top of one of the tallest of those mountains.  Considering the driver's steering was as casual as any we have seen in Ethiopia, the view of the valley far below, with the dropoff starting only inches past the edge of the road, was... riveting.
 
Lalibella is a small town, a cluster of tiny rock houses and modest hotels clustered on any semi-level ground that can be found.  It seems to be devoted almost solely to its tourist industry, but the effect of all the foreign money is obvious, as the houses were definitely a step or two above what we had come to expect (it is a curious thing to see a house made of mud with a satellite dish.)  However, in some areas, we saw very traditional homes, neat round huts made of stone, often with an outside staircase curving around to lead to an upper floor.  I mentioned to Mike that they reminded me of the Hobbit homes in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he told me that Tolkien had once visited Ethiopia, which explained not only the huts, but many of the familiar place names: Gondar, Roha, Goha.
 
The attraction in the town is the cluster of ancient Orthodox churches that King (now Saint) Lalibella had had constructed in the 12th century.  The whole top of the mountain is made of rose basalt, very similar to the pink granite of Enchanted Rock, north of Fredericksburg.  On his orders, 40,000 workers labored 23 years to carve churches directly out of the native stone, ALL IN ONE PIECE. (Some are no longer of a single piece; following an earthquake in the early 1950s, UNESCO arranged to have a few of the churches' tumbled columns rebuilt with blocks of the same stone.)  To build them, the workers carved straighht down 30, 40, 50 feet into the solid stone, leaving a block in the center, which was then hollowed out into a church complete with columns, arches, and engravings.
 
The most impressive of the churches is the Church of Saint George.  Unlike the other churches, this one was built in the shape of a cross as seen from above, and has no internal columns.  It also has many reminders of the story of the Great Flood: a large stone at one corner of the hole represents Mt. Ararat, where Noah's ark came to rest, and the opposite corner has a semi-circle representing the rainbow.  And of course, the windows on the lowest floor are not carved all the way through, to keep out the waters of the flood.
 
All of the churches are still actively used, nearly a thousand years after their construction.  We saw many priests and monks, and had to remove our shoes and hats to enter each of them (a somber and silent man followed us from place to place, silently tending our shoes, and assisting on the narrow and uneven steps, paths and tunnels that lead from church to church.)
 
Exhausted from touring the churches, we retired to the hotel, a few of us sampling the goods at the souvenir shops across the street.  The locals clearly look for any opportunity to forge a link with the spendthrift Americans, as both Obama and Oprah have namesake shops there.  After a dinner that was, if not good, at least accurately described (none of us could complete the "Dry Cake" listed as the nmight's dessert) we went to our rooms.  About 3:00 in the morning, I was awakened by the sound of dogs (hyenas?) barking, and went to the window to enjoy one of Lalibella's other great sights.
 
Gondar and Addis Abeba, while not modern by American standards, do have extensive lighting at night over the streets and on many of the building fronts, and so the sky is largely washed out with light pollution, as in the United States.  But with the moon having already set, the sky in Lalibella was as dark as any I have ever seen.  I remember seeing dark skies while camping as a boy, and sometimes even being able to make out the vague smudge of the Milky Way across the sky.  But here it was so bright and distinct that I thought at first it must be a cloud, until I realized I was seeing stars in it.  In fact, there were so many stars in the sky over Lalibella that I could not make out even the most familiar of the constellations, because of the thousands of "new" stars scattered among the old ones.  This too will be one of the many memories I will carry home from Africa.
 
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Sometimes an in-country flight will simply be cancelled if there are not enough passengers.  We had planned to fly back to Addis Abeba on Thursday, so that even were that flight cancelled, we would still be able to make it to the capital in plenty of time for our Friday night flight home.  Fortunately, there were no problems, and so we have spent the last day relaxing, doing final shopping, and (for me) catching up on this blog.  We fly out tonight for Washington DC, a sixteen-hour flight plus an hour in Rome for refueling, and then will have an eleven-hour layover at Dulles Airport before continuing to Austin late Saturday night (we're going to be on the wrong end of an eight-hour time change too, so you can probably count on our NOT making it to church this Sunday.)
 
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I have found Ethiopia to be a land with a surprisingly strong religious presence.  The touch of the Ethiopian Orthodox church permeates everything.  The people here are warm and welcoming, generous even in the midst of terrible poverty, and despite the troubles that plague this nation, confident and industrious.  These are people who will touch your heart, and sometimes break it: we were advised not to give to the many beggars that line the street, as doing so only invites many others to gather (although none were ever persistent or threatening.)  But when a dirty four-year-old child looks up at you with big brown eyes, holds out her hand, and says simply "Hungry," it would take a stronger person than I am not to give something.
 
When you consider how much difference even a small amount can make when given by us from the nonchalant wealth of our American lives, it becomes  imperative that we do something to help these gentle people.  I have sometimes guiltily reflected that for me this trip was something of a "boondoggle."  The money that was spent to send me here would have easily covered the cost of another hand-dug well in another village; the cost of four tickets nearly equals the price of a deep-borehole well.  I decided that my best purpose, the only way to justify my presence here, is to be enthusiastic about this good work, and to try to spread that enthusiasm to those I left behind in America.  If you have enjoyed what I have written, and if it moves you to give something to the missions of "Water to Thrive," I have repaid a small part of the debt I owe.
 
Once again, allow me to express my gratitude to the people of Abiding Presence for funding this trip.  Thank you to our hosts and guides (and new friends) Mike and Meredith Koch of "Water to Thrive," for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and to Dick Moeller for his patience with my long-windedness on his website.  And thanks also to Jim Sorensen, who introduced us to this ancient and beautiful culture, and whose inspiring daily devotions helped us to see these new experiences in the light of scripture.  We return to you as changed people.
 
Dohna'hun, Larry Cline

Voluntourism Trip 2012 - 5/28 & 5/29

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voluntourism

Monday was an amazing day for all of us.
 
We left our hotel about 8:00 in the morning to repeat our bumpy trip.  Whereas the day before the streets had been full of people swathed in white scarves on their way to church, today was a market day, and commercial activity was in evidence everywhere (much of it spilling into the streets, of course.)  The gravel road section of our trip was especially full of people casually walking the miles from town to town, many or most of the women balancing amazing burdens on the tops of their heads.  (Especially fun to see are the baskets with a trussed chicken sitting on top, looking around from his high perch on some lady's head.)  We never did figure out how they do this, particularly the ones who would have items stacked two high.  Nor could we understand how the "walking haystacks" got their six-to-eight foot loads up there.  The weight of a haystack may be manageable on one's head, but how did they pick it up in the first place?
 
There had been no farming on Sunday, as that had been a day of rest (quite a relative term in Ethiopia) but today we saw many men plowing their fields, some with women following close behind spreading seed.  When the rainy season is right around the corner, there is no time to waste.  The plows are simple affairs of a long pole yoked to the two largest cows available; a second pole with a small iron plowshare is attached.  As the oxen pull it everything forward, the farmer presses this second pole into the rocky soil with one hand, while using the other hand to loudly pop a rope whip over the cows' heads.
 
Our plan this morning would be to meet with the village elders, and get their opinions regarding the needs of Robit.  We would gather in one of the classrooms at the school since there would be no classes that day, not for the Memorial Day holiday America was celebrating, but for the 21st anniversary of the Ethiopian peoples' overthrow of the puppet dictatorship the Soviets had set up after Hailie Salassie died in the mid-'70s.
 
As the elders began filing in, we noticed one thing right away: owning a gun is a sign of prestige.  While we had seen the occasional rifle carried along the road, by the time the 32 elders had seated themselves, there were no fewer than ten AK-47 assault rifles in the room with us.  Many appeared old, but all seemed well cared-for, and we had little doubt they were loaded.  The chief elder was a man named Fante, who struck a very impressive figure, dressed traditionally with a large white cloth draped over his shoulders and a matching head wrap, his AK-47 sitting casually between his knees.  (I spent the first half of the meeting wondering why he seemed so familiar, until I realized he looks remarkably like a young Danny Glover.)  He is also a great leader; last year he set an example for the others by donating 600 birr (about $36, a huge sum there) to the fund to build the well, even though he himself lives too far out of town to use it.
 
The elders had brought a young woman with them as a translator (a teacher from the school, I think) and were eager to talk with us.  In general, Fante spoke for their group, and Mike for ours.  When we asked what the top three concerns were in the village, there was quite an animated discussion as the elders debated among themselves, trying to limit it to three.
 
There seemed to be general agreement that the biggest need is for a bridge over the river that runs through the village.  When we had seen the river the day before, it was just a stinking fetid stream about five feet wide, and only a few inches deep.  However, during the rainy season it swells to nearly a hundred feet across.  We had seen the remains of a bridge that had been built, washed away, and rebuilt year after year until the people of the village had finally given up.  Right now, the people could wade across, or step carefully across using a couple of logs that had been placed as a foot bridge, but soon the village would be completely divided.  Sometimes, we learned, this separated families for months at a time.  And of course, diseases, many that might be quickly and simply treated on this side of the river, could on the wrong side easily prove fatal with no way to get to the care and medicines only a few hundred yards away.
 
The next concern was for more and better latrines.  Typically a single outdoor pit latrine serves several families.  This works fairly well in dry weather (although it cannot be pleasant.)  But again, the rainy season makes problems, as the river will often overflow its banks and even the berms the government out along the banks at some point, flooding the town and filling the pits to overflowing.  Obviously, it is not a sanitary condition.
 
Finally, there is of course malaria.  All of us have been taking anti-malarial drugs since we got here, but fortunately the mosquitoes have been few in number (in fact, I have not been bitten once during the entire trip, partly because I'm rooming with Lane the Human Bug Light, who attracts any insects in the area.)  However, after the rainy season, they swarm by the billions, coming into the town from the marshy area only a few miles away.  Mike and Meredith had heard of this marsh on previous trips, but had never seen it, so after the meeting broke up, we arranged to be driven out, hoping optimistically that we would see some simple way to drain a swamp. 
 
We were surprised to find that Robit is much closer to Lake Tana than any of us realized.  Already the largest lake in Ethiopia at about 90 km across, during the rainy season Tana swells out of its shallow banks to flood what was now serving as pasture land for hundreds of cattle.  It was this pasture land that would remain wet and swampy in the months after the rainy season, a perfect breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes as the water slowly recedes.  It was a stark but picturesque scene, with many children alternately driving their cows (how they distinguished their own from the others, we had no idea) or swimming naked among the water birds.
 
As we were walking back to the trucks, I was able to get a close-up view of a team of oxen pulling a plow in an adjoining field.  The farmer was amused that I would be interested in such a mundane activity, but offered to let me try my hand at it.  I was winded after plowing a single crooked furrow, but he good-naturedly (if insincerely) complimented me on my work as I put gave the team back in his experienced hands.
 
We had planned to look around the village a bit more after we returned, but instead it turned out that we had an unexpected treat in store.  Fante owns a "bar" in the village, and invited us to join him for some recreation.  We sipped sodas as a local man sawed away at a "masinko" (a traditional bowed instrument that could be described as a cross between a banjo and a one-string violin) and a woman sang what were (evidently) hilarious songs.  The men (many of them the elders from the meeting, along with Mengiste, the doctor we had met the day before) would call out verses a line at a time, and she would sing them back, as both she and the player danced about in the small room, occasionally joined by one of the spectators.  Once the two had worked up a sweat, people would sometimes come forward and plaster a small bill to their foreheads.  We only caught a word now and then, but we did recognize "ferenji" (foreigner) several times in the ad lib song.  We later found out that she had been singing "I hope the ferenji come back often, so I can make more money with my songs."
 
We enjoyed Fante's hospitality for about an hour before we had to leave because of gathering clouds.  Fante hitched a ride in the back of the first SUV to the village where the gravel road ends.  Bruhanu, our driver, said that the walk of some 18 kilometers --twelve miles-- would have otherwise have taken him about two hours, but that a city person might have needed as much as three.  I'd hate to think how long it would have taken any of us.)  Meredith later said she had tried not to think about the AK-47 sitting behind her every time the truck hit a bump.
 
After lunch at the hotel, Lane and I got a ride back to the marketplace outside Fasilidas' palace; he was suffering from soccer withdrawal, and desperately wanted to take a ball with him when we made our final visit on Tuesday.  We rode back in one of the tiny "Bajaj" tricycle taxis, which slowed to a crawl trying to get up the mountain to the hotel, but made it all the way.  Dinner that night was with our "Glimmer" hosts at a small local restaurant, where we all ate local food, drank Dashen beer brewed right there in Gondar, listened to masinko music, and enjoyed watching two women and a man doing the popular "G'zsta" dance, in which the participants snap their shoulders back and forth as fast as possible.  At the height of the dance, the young man's shoulders were no more than a barely visible blur.  (It was this dance that some of us had tried after a few Dashens on one of our first nights in Addis Abeba, only to wake up the next day with sore muscles.)
 
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It would have been hard for Tuesday not to have been an anticlimax after such a memorable day, but we enjoyed our last trip anyway.  Since we knew we would be leaving Gondar on Wednesday, several of us we took the opportunity to "lighten our luggage" by leaving those horrid CLIF bars for the hotel staff, and giving Segay, our "Glimmer of Hope" host, a large bag of shirts to distribute as he saw fit.  As we were driving on the gravel road, I saw an old woman with no shoes, and we stopped so I could give her my flip-flops.  She seemed very grateful, especially since the bag of grain she was carrying must have weighed a good fourty pounds.  That road is hard enough to ride on; I can't imagine walking miles of it with bare feet.
 
I also gave Bruhanu the last box of my Slim Jims, which I had been sharing with him for the past few days, and which he seemed to enjoy greatly (once he figured out how to open the plastic wrappers, and got over his suspicion that the long thin snacks were actually "snake meat.")
 
Every visit to Robit taught us something new, and this trip was no different.  Visiting the medical extension office, we learned that traditional medicine, while discouraged,  is still sometimes practiced in the village.  For example, diarrhea in small children is sometimes treated by pulling one or two of their baby teeth, which of course can lead to later complications as their adult teeth come in.  And while a single dose of an inexpensive antibiotic would be more effective, the traditional "cure" for an eye infection is to make cuts near the eye and allow blood to flow in; many of the children in the village bore the telltale scars of this questionable treatment.
 
Before we left, Lane got his wish.  Behind the school is a nicely laid-out soccer field, and as soon as he took out the new ball he had bought the night before, boys from the age of eight on up miraculously appeared.  By the time the game was over, there must have been thirty players on each side.  Those of us too old and slow to participate stood on the berm of the river to get a good view, surrounded as always by the small children, who love to hold our hands, examine our wristwatches, see their photos on the digital cameras (they've only rarely seen even mirrors, much less photos of themselves) or to furtively reach out and stroke our mysterious white skin.  (One little boy was also fascinated by my very un-Ethiopian pot belly, and would bravely reach out for a poke whenever he thought I wasn't looking.)
 
Finally the game ended, and Lane awarded the game ball to some of the older players (the schools each have a ball, but the graduates had not had one until now.)   We sadly made our ways back to the SUVs for the last trip back to Gondar, taking last pictures, shaking hands with the adults, and hugging the children.  As always, we were hailed with shouts of "You! You! You!" all the way out of the village. 
 
We may never see Robit again, but it will remain in our memories forever.
 

Voluntourism Trip 2012 - 5/27

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voluntourism

On Sunday morning, we loaded into two 4WD vehicles for the trip out to Robit.  To get there, you first cross Gondar back out to the airport, a trip of only about fifteen minutes.  That's where the pavement ends.  From there to the village of Robit is only 32 kilometers (about 20 miles.)   The first fourteen are a bone-jarring washboard gravel road that will practically shake your fillings loose.  But then it gets rough.

On a good day the trip will take about two hours, but unfortunately it had rained hard the night before, and shortly after leaving the gravel road, the lead vehicle became mired in the muck.  Dozens of the local people came out to push, pull, or just watch and offer advice.  After about twenty minutes of fruitless effort, someone noticed that, although the hubs of the front wheels had been switched to 4WD, the front drive had not been engaged (our driver, Bruhanu, blamed it on the fact that the other man was "just a  city driver.")  That done, the truck pulled free and we were on our way again.

To get to Robit, you don't really drive on a road per se, but mostly just follow the footpaths that cut between the fields and the tire tracks of the last vehicle to have gone that way.  You make the best speed you safely can, but often you have to slow to a crawl as you bounce through deep ruts or over bumps, or dodge dogs snapping at the tires, people walking to and from the markets and fields, donkeys laden with various burdens, and the occasional cow or goat that refuses to yield.  Without fail, every time we passed a group of houses, laughing children would pour out, shouting and waving.  It seemed strange to think that this would be the most exciting thing that would happen to them all day, but then I recalled my own son waving at every train that he saw when he was young, and how it made his day if an engineer happened to wave back.  We could do no less.

Finally we arrived at Robit, a dusty stretch of mud houses set back in the trees.  As we had seen all along the way, the children ran out, shouting "You! You! You!" at us (strangely, in the areas out of "town," they always yell "Ciao! Ciao!")  Unfortunately, we arrived too late to join the villagers at their church service as we had hoped, but we were still excited to finally be there.  We drove all the way to the river that divides the village, and then turned into the school yard. 

Robit has seen a lot of changes in the past few years.  Just as "Water to Thrive" worked with the non-governmental organization ODA (Oromia Development Association) to build the wells in Sendafa last week, "Glimmer of Hope," a large Austin-based charity, has been working with a local NGO, the Organization for the Rehabilitation and Development of Amhara (ORDA) to in Robit.  In addition to partnering with "Water to Thrive" to dig a deep-borehole well, "Glimmer" has broken ground on new school buildings and a Medical Extension Office in the past year.  Our mission was to check on the status of those projects.

As soon as we got out of the trucks we saw part of one project underway.  About a hundred men, women, and children were standing in a line near the edge of the schoolyard, passing buckets of cement from hand to hand.  As we approached, we saw nine huge holes in the ground.  In the bottom of each, a wooden form had been built, and the cement was being poured into these form.  we were told that these would be footings for a twelve foot water tower that would provide pressure to eight new water stations once the well was complete.  Because the area floods every year, it was necessary to construct these massive footings to prevent the tower from sinking into the rain-softened ground.

In the United States, such large excavations would be done "quick and dirty" using heavy equipment; in fact rather than nine holes, one large one would likely be dug.  But these holes were perfectly square, their sides perfectly vertical.  It was really a beautiful piece of work.  We were amazed to learn that not only had the holes been dug entirely by volunteers, but they had been dug BY HAND.  Furthermore, all this precise work had been done in only the past seven days.
 
Next we toured some of the school buildings.  They are rather spare by American standards, but much better than their stick-and-mud predecessors of 1969.  On many of the outside walls, large maps, English lessons, times tables, science diagrams, and historical information have been painted; this is an ingenious way of dealing with a shortage of charts and maps that might not hold up as well.  Inside the classrooms, children sit three to a bench in front of narrow desks (in some rooms, the desks were jumbled and in disarray; we later found out that the reason for this was that because of shortages, they are shared with another nearby school, carried there and back daily.) 
 
There are approximately sixty students to a class.  On the desks in one room, cards had been taped down at each place, with Amharic lettering.  Our translator, Adona, explained that each showed the student's name and "vision" of his future.  We were pleased and impressed that, rather than seeing themselves as future sports stars or entertainers, these students wanted to be called "doctor," "teacher," "engineer."
 
While the new buildings are quite nice, they are largely empty.  There is little or no laboratory equipment at the high school, and the library has not yet received its books.  Students share tattered texts, consumables like workbooks are almost nonexistent, and basic items like paper and pens are in short supply.

In one room, we found a young man spending his Sunday afternoon studying.  Although he was clearly in his mid-twenties, everyone has "agreed" that he is twenty, the maximum age to attend the school.  In a place like this, you don't allow ambition to be denied.  Speaking through Adona, the man revealed that he had been a lackluster student a few years before, when his class was visited by Meredith's father, Dick Moeller, on an early Water to Thrive trip.  Mr. Moeller had challenged the students to become teachers, to help their nation by helping to build the next generation.  It was that visit that had inspired the young man to study harder, and he now had plans to become a teacher in that very village.
 
From the school, we went out to the site of the new deep borehole well.  Although Robit has several hand-dug wells of the type constructed in Sendafa last week, they are not adequate for the needs of the 6000 men, women, and children who live there (with more in the surrounding area.)  To supply sufficient water, it was determined that the new 2500-feet-deep well would have to provide 3.7 liters per minute.  In fact, it produces over 10 liters per minute, so it should be able to keep up with growth of the village for some time to come.  They're still waiting for the submersible pump, and the government is somewhat behind on bringing electricity to the site (their part of the agreement) but once in place, the well will be a great boon to Robit.

After we left the well, we visited the new medical facilities just outside the village.  Unfortunately, although the buildings were completed a couple of months ago, they are still not operating at full capacity, mostly because of chronic shortages of basic supplies.  Records are kept of every visit and the treatment given, but because no individual patient files are kept, it can be difficult and time-consuming to search back through the records for a medical history.  Even more frustrating, much of the equipment that the center has been given remains unusable, again because of inadequate electrical service.

However, back in the village we met an inspiring young man.  Mengiste Habtu runs his own private clinic from a two-room building of sticks and mud, with a sheet for a door and a dirt floor, just like the homes beside it.  Although he too is always short of supplies, the twenty-six year-old man dispenses whatever health care he can with what he has.  Asked why he does not try to work at the clinic, Habtu explained that he cannot support his family on what the government pays doctors there.  Although he now has a four-year degree, he is studying at night to become a full-fledged medical doctor. In the meantime, he desperately needs a microscope; much of the disease in Robit is caused by parasites, and without being able to examine blood and stool samples to determine the exact organism, he must treat every case crudely, with broad spectrum medicines.  We promised to try to secure one for him, and on our way out, most of us managed to slip him a few hundred birr to purchase medicines.

The skies were now beginning to threaten rain.  Rather than risk getting caught in it and stuck somewhere, we bid goodbye to our new friends, promising them we would return the next day.  We piled back into the trucks and began the bumpy two-hour trip back to Gondar, the children giving us an escort to the edge of the village.

Dohna'hun, Larry

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Voluntourism Trip 2012 - 5/25 & 5/26

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Sorry for the lateness of this post.  Gondar is a wonderful city with many great features, but reliable internet service is not among them.
 
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Friday started early, as we left the Beer Garden Inn before dawn to catch our flight to Gondar, a few hundred miles to the northwest.  We were pleasantly surprised to see that the turboprop plane for our Ethiopian Airlines plane was quite modern, in fact better than a lot of commuter planes I’ve been on in the states.  The flight lasted less than an hour, and we landed at a much smaller and less advanced airport than we had left in Addis Abeba.
 
The first thing one notices about Gondar is there are a lot more trees there than in the capital city.  Addis Abeba (in fact much of Oromia) has been largely deforested over the years, as the growing population has used up many of the trees for building materials and firewood.  But the drive to Gondar from the airport was on a road lined with tall shady trees.  The result was that it seemed a bit cooler, although the temperature was probably mid-70s as it has been for the whole trip (eat your heart out, you sweltering Texans.)
 
The city also seems a little less hectic than Addis Abeba, probably due to the much calmer traffic.  But with fewer automobiles comes a great increase in the number on pedestrians, and since there are few sidewalks, everyone walks in the middle of the street.  In addition to people, there are a great number of the familiar horsecarts and donkeys carrying various cargo to and from the markets.  Donkeys take their own time getting out of the way of vehicles; we also stopped a few times for flocks of sheep coming down the road.  I noticed that our driver used these delays to test the gears in our SUV; we seemed to have only first, second, and fifth.
 
After crossing the city in second gear, we finally reached our destination, the Goha Hotel, on the east side.  To get to it you take a series up sharp switchbacks up a steep hill until you come to the very top, where a guard in a blue uniform snaps off a salute to anyone entering the hotel grounds.  The view of the city from this spot is breathtaking, so we all piled out of the vehicles to enjoy the sight and stretch our legs. 
 
Our plan after checking in was to head straight out to Robit.  It’s about a ninety minute drive, but without a fully functioning vehicle we might not make it there (or back) so we decided that while it was being repaired, we’d have to just tough it out by having a wonderful brunch in gorgeous surroundings. 
 
Although we had not seen any rain so far in the trip, Ethiopia’s rainy season begins around the end of May, so we’ve been watching the skies for a few days; it’s just a matter of time, and once it hits, heavy  daily rains will be the norm beginning between 2:00 and 3:00 every in the afternoon.  Mike had explained that because the “road” to Robit is so poor, we cannot risk travelling it in bad weather, so if we didn’t have two good vehicles by 1:00, we’d have to cancel today’s visit.  Unfortunately, by that time we had heard the vehicle could not be repaired anytime soon, and a new one would have to be found for the next day.
Gondar is an old city that has seen a lot of history.  In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it rivaled many of the cities of Europe as a crossroads of art, culture, and commerce.  With such a rich history, there is of course much to explore, so we decided to do some of our “touristing” a bit early.  Our first stop was a castle we had seen from our mountaintop view, the palace of King Fasilidas.
 
Fasilidas was the first of six kings to make Gondar their capitol city, and he and his five successors’ large stone castles are all located within the same walls.  Our excellent guide “Hugo” had an encyclopedic knowledge (all self-taught, we were very impressed to learn) of the history of each one, and regaled us with interesting stories for over two hours.
 
We learned that one of the kings had suffered from a skin condition, and that King Louis XIV of France dispatched his personal physician to assist.   The doctor stayed for many years learning and writing of the Ethiopian culture and history.  In his writings, he said that the palace in Gondar was the most elaborate and beautiful in the world.  Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration for the benefit of his hosts, that’s quite a statement considering this was a man who had walked the halls of Versailles.  However, it was sobering to think that only two-and-a-half centuries later, the fortunes of Ethiopia had fallen so that the royal palace of Menelik (which we had seen in Addis) was little more than a larger and more elaborate version of the mud huts of his subjects.
 
The best-preserved of the castles was that of Johann, Fasilidas’ son, who was particularly well-loved by his subjects because he eliminated the collection of tributes and taxes, and instead wove baskets to sell to fund the operation of his castle.  Many of the other palaces had been in good shape until early in World War II, but were now in various states of ruin.  The Sudanese and their Italian supporters had occupied Ethiopia in the late ‘30s, and with the coming of the war, the British had bombed the site of the castles, which were being used as military headquarters.  Even though the beautiful castles had been largely destroyed, the guide seemed to bear the British no ill will about this, considering it an acceptable cost for driving out the hated Italians.
 
From the palace we crossed town to the Baths of Fasilidas.  Fasilidas’ father had, to great controversy,  converted from Orthodox Christianity to Catholicism.  Criticized by his ministers, he finally abdicated, and Fasilidas had himself very publicly baptized into the Orthodox faith, in conjunction with his coronation.  The baths still stand today, a small palace suspended over a large pool somewhat larger than an Olympic pool.  To this day, the pool is flooded from the nearby river once a year in late January (Othodix Epiphany) in celebration of the baptism of Christ.  Tens of thousands leap into the cold waters in one of the four great religious festivals of the Ethiopian year.
 
Our car was still not repaired in time on Saturday for us to try to get to Robit, so we spent the morning touring the Ploughshare Womens’ Training Center outside Gondar.  This is a wonderful operation where widows, HIV/AIDS sufferers and other disposed women can live and produce goods to support themselves.  We watched as they made the craft items, farmed their fields and orchards, and went about the process of daily life.  After we had done some shopping at the center, they made us feel especially welcome by performing an Ethiopian coffee ceremony for us, burning incense and preparing their very stout coffee in the traditional manner over a charcoal brazier.  
 
After lunch, we again gathered Hugo for another day of tourist destinations.  From the beautiful view at the hotel, we had spotted a castle on the opposite side of town from Fasilidas, and that turned out to be one of our stops.  This was the castle to which one of the empresses, who had from some twenty years acted as her young son’s regent when the king had died, had been banished after he took power.  We were surprised when, in the tiny museum section, the empress herself made an appearance: Hugo pulled back a cloth from what we had thought was a table, but which turned out to be a glass-topped coffin containing the bones of not only the empress, but two later kings as well!
 
Our other stop on Saturday was the Church of Debre Birham Salassie.  The stone walls have twelve towers (one for each of the apostles) in which monks and nuns now reside; the chief priest lives in a small apartment over the main gate.  The church itself is only a plain rectangular structure, but inside the mud walls and even the ceiling have all been elaborately painted in colorful pictures illustrating stories from the Bible.  Three centuries ago, a single monk worked for years to create the beautiful works.  In this way, the lives of Christ, Mary, and the saints and Crusaders were brought to a largely illiterate congregation.  Many of the stories were quite familiar (if somewhat alien; the Orthodox tendency is to show the Triune God as three identical old men) but their church also has a rich theology of the life of Mary, the “Queen of Heaven,” not only the tales we know from the Gospels, but also stories from her early and later life, and one wall showed these.
 
Gondar was once called the “City of 44 Churches” but the Dervishers from Sudan raided the city and destroyed all but four; this church and its beautiful and inspiring paintings is one of those that survived.  The legend has it that bees in the large trees around this church attacked and repelled the Muslim invaders, who decided that it must be a sign that Allah wanted them to spare the church.   
 
As we were leaving, I stopped to pick up a rock from the yard in front of the church.  Our guide asked why, and I explained that my daughter had asked that I bring her back a rock from Africa.  We agreed that if any stone can be blessed, it would be one from this inspiring place.
 
Gondar is a wonderful place to be a tourist, but we were impatient to finally see Robit.  Sunday we would finally get our chance.
 
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Correction to my earlier post:  When I asked Jihar about all the small corrugated metal boxes outside many of the business, I thought he answered “goat,” but he actually was saying “cot.”  These boxes, about as long and wide as a coffin, and perhaps twice as deep, are rented out by some of the poor as a place to sleep, quite literally one step above sleeping on the street.

Voluntourism Trip 2012 - Quick Update

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voluntourism

 Sorry that it has been a couple of days since the last entry. We are safe and well after landing in Gonder. We have been having quite a few issues with internet so bear with us. We flew out very early Friday morning and spent time resting and sight-seeing in Gonder. Unfortunately the S.U.V. broke down friday night and we were not able to get out to Robit, but we were able to see the Womens Training Center and the Falasha Village. The Womens Training Center is a fabulous place run by a lady outside of Gonder. She basically takes women with HIV and other social/debilitative problems and gives them a place to live, eat and earn money. She trains them in a skill and teaches them sanitation, family planning and many other things. It is a really great program and We were all very blessed to meet all of these women and families. 
    We are hoping that we will be able to get out to Robit so that we will be able to do the things we came for. We all appreciate your prayers and support. We will fill you in as internet and time allows.

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