By SUSAN STEVENOT SULLIVAN, Special To The Bulletin | Published September 25, 2008
Groggy from 24 hours of travel, I step outside into cool twilight in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. My nostrils fill with the pungent scent of what I learn are hundreds of small eucalyptus-fed cooking fires; my eyes fill with a crowd of people jamming the pedestrian entrance to the airport parking lot, praying, greeting, disputing, waiting or picking a path through visitors and vehicles.
Much of the language is unfamiliar to me. There are dozens of cultural groups and 12 official languages in this ancient country, which counts the Bible’s Queen of Sheba among its rulers and the oldest evidence of human life among its treasures.
Once in the hotel van, I peer over the driver’s shoulder to glimpse dissolving silhouettes of tall buildings and a ring of distant purple mountains, but it is what the headlights reveal in our stop-and-go progress that rivets my attention.
With few streetlights, the headlights become spotlights on an urban stage, illuminating people standing, crouching and reclining along the dusty streets as darkness falls. For a moment the beams pick out two women, covered head to toe in pale fabric, sitting side by side, their arms locked around each other, their faces buried in each other’s necks in a way that speaks of desperation and grief.
The morning light, and days of travel within Ethiopia, further illuminate the rich diversity and stark contrasts of this historic African country, where skinny sheep and goats crop bits of grass along the streets of the capital while, nearby, machine-gun carrying federal police stand guard on the verdantly overgrown perimeter of the presidential palace.
A week in Ethiopia with a Catholic Relief Services (CRS) advocacy delegation becomes a baptism in the complex framework of resources and challenges which can mean life or death for families and communities. Beyond the sacramental sign is the stark reality that, for many Ethiopians, life or death is about water.
In the highland areas outside Dire Dawa, the country’s second largest city, the villagers of Kufansik gather to share dance, song, food and individual testimony about new life made possible by participation in a multifaceted development project sponsored by CRS, the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). A village elder holds high a bottle of murky, algae-garnished water in one hand and a bottle of safe, clear water in the other—evidence of the transformation.
The dramatic highland vistas are steep, so torrents from two annual rainy seasons cascade down the slopes, eroding the soil and causing deadly floods in more densely populated lowland areas miles away. Terracing the slopes with local stones slows the runoff, allowing the moisture to sink in and benefit crops and shrubs, which further slows the erosion and retains more moisture.
A well, drilled years ago for Kersa Woreda, was designed so that water could be pumped to a site above Kufansik and then flow by gravity to common spigots. According to Bekele Abaire, CRS program manager for water and sanitation in Ethiopia, over the years the “recharging” of ground water due to terracing and land management has tripled the volume of water coming through the wellhead. The increased capacity has meant other villages could be added to the project, which includes education in sanitation practices, such as family latrine pits destined to become planting sites for fast-growing trees. Today, more than 27,000 people depend on this system for life-giving water.
The villagers of Kufansik testify to the benefits of these development initiatives in terms of healthy children, thriving livestock, and more food security through their ability to adequately feed their families and increase their resilience to rainfall variations which previously meant disaster.
This is critical in a country where most people live in rural areas on what they can grow from inadequate plots of ground. Ethiopia has one of the shortest life expectancies in the world at 46 years. More than half of Ethiopia’s children are stunted by inadequate nutrition; 600 die each day of hunger and preventable disease. In rural areas, 80 percent of residents have no access to safe water. Famine is an historic and contemporary reality and illiteracy limits livelihood for more than 80 percent of women and 60 percent of men.
So the bright baskets of Kufansik, piled with the national flatbread “injera” and heaps of juicy fruit, washed down with cups of rich milk by visitors, are not only a form of generous hospitality, but further evidence of new life and hope. Such transformation is possible when short-term emergency assistance is paired with long-term development projects and partnerships that reach from villages in Africa, through networks such as CRS, to neighbors in the United States.
During 50 years of work by CRS in Ethiopia, the same development principles have been used in the sandy, arid regions south of Dire Dawa, home to pastoralists seeking graze for their goats and sheep. Camels, and sometimes people, loaded with firewood and other goods for market are a common sight in this rugged, rocky terrain. Overgrazing accelerates the erosion and desiccation of the soil. Terracing and fencing off watershed and crop areas with thorny acacia branches allows the soil moisture to rebuild.
As visitors approach the village of Legedini and its development projects, taller trees, thicker scrub and patches of grass clothe the hills with life-giving green. A deep pond comes into view, its banks alive with sleek sheep, goats, donkeys and even cattle, slaking their thirst under the eyes of youthful herders.
Interconnected projects, addressing everything from water and soil management to seed, health and homemaking, have transformed life for the people of Legedini.
Nuria Umere confidently gives a tour of her neatly organized, one-room, stone and earth home. A neighbor describes the seeds and techniques which resulted in extra food, which he sold to buy animals to fatten, which he then sold to buy new seed and put money in the bank for the future. Now, he says, he does not spend all day searching for wood for his wife to carry miles into town to sell for whatever she can get for it; now there is food, and his children go to school instead of hiking to carry water.
In Ethiopia, Catholics are less than 0.5 percent of the population, which is predominately Orthodox Christian and Muslim, yet the dioceses of the Ethiopian Catholic Church play an outsized role, partnering to save lives and increase food security and health. Bishops, such as Woldetensae Ghebreghiorgis of Harar, must navigate challenging political situations, interfaith and ecumenical considerations and all manner of logistical and resource challenges to support this prophetic work of love for God and neighbor. The program staff of CRS and the dioceses travel rough roads, reaching out time and again to forge and maintain relationships which make engineering and agricultural know-how yield potable water and consistent crops.
The future of such vital initiatives includes partnerships of concept as well as that of resources and national policy. Emergency aid, from such U.S. legislation as the Farm Bill and PEPFAR, must be paired with development aid; local survival and self-determination must be accompanied by national and international concern and respect; military initiatives must not muddy the waters of humanitarian assistance; religious differences must not obscure a common understanding of the value of human life and dignity. Government funds are vital, but so is support CRS receives from parishioners all over the United States.
There is hope and heartbreak in this beautiful and difficult country. Both are visible in the faces of the orphans, some of the 800 to 1,000 destitute and dying people finding refuge in the Missionaries of Charity’s compound in Addis Ababa, one of 17 MOC centers in this country. Despite horrifying ordeals, the children eagerly stretch their arms out to strangers, beaming.
Sister Benedicta, MOC superior in Ethiopia, gives visitors a holy card with a prayer in Amharic on one side and a traditional Ethiopian-style painting of the crucifixion on the other.
Under the outstretched arms of the crucified Christ can be seen, in English, “I thirst” and “I satiate.” In the streets of Addis Ababa the smoke from eucalyptus cooking fires rises like incense, a prayer for hope and help.
Susan Stevenot Sullivan, the director of Catholic Relief Services for the Archdiocese of Atlanta, visited Ethiopia with a CRS delegation in August. She is also diocesan director of the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, JustFaith, Justice for Immigrants and Parish Social Ministry for Catholic Charities.