June 7, 2013 When I think back over these past four days, I almost feel like I have been living in a dream. What we have seen, smelled, tasted, felt, and experienced would take truly more than a day for me to fully describe.
What is abudently clear over and over again is how unfairly we have been blessed in Canada and how in the midst of the most abject poverty you could imagine, we have seen joy and a faith in God that surpasses anything I have ever experienced at home.
Our drive to Wolaita was hours of great contrasts. On one hand, the beauty of many of the areas of Ethiopia is absolutely breathtaking and yet, amidst the beauty is the reality of the extreme poverty that results in children who have no shoes, have only a shirt to wear that is 1/3 torn and has probably been passed down for years, homes made from mud with no beds, no running water, no access to clean water, almost no access to medical or dental care and very little food to eat.
We saw two men on the way to Wolaita at seperate times who have mental illness and were dressed in just in a blanket in one case and in the other, the man had only his shirt on.
We saw children ages 3 and under out in their yards, close to the highway with seemingly no one watching for their safety. Children who were obviously not in school of all ages and who were helping the donkeys carrying heavy loads of wood, rocks or other supplies. Other children were herding the goats, cows, sheep and donkeys while another child who was probably three years old was carrying a load of grass on his back.
When I think of the life of my daughter and other children I know, the contrast between those children and the children here is so extreme that it leaves me wondering how these precious little children can possibly be living in these conditions without education, without a hope for a brighter future and without the comfort of knowing that they will be cared and provided for.
Our two main projects in Wolaita were our shoe and school kits to a rural school with close to 600 students and a visit and donation to a women's empowerment program (2 groups of women).
Kingdom Vision International organized with the school the arrangements necessary to make the donation of the shoes and the kits. We arrived at the school at 11:30 and were greeted by close to 600 children, their parents, government officials, teachers, school administrators, community members and a TV and newspaper reporter.
This school is out in the middle of a very rural community and as we drove on the roads to get to the school, the children would run after the van yelling "ferenji" which means foreigner. It is highly possible many of the children had not seen white people before. When we stopped the van to cross a very deep gully in the road, the volunteers got out to take the pressure off the van and many children came to look at us. These children and many other children do not attend school because the parents cannot afford a pad of paper and a pencil.
The people had put up decorations (like the banners you would see at a used car dealership) and erected a temporary structure that provided shade to the speakers and dignitaries.
The children and teachers were singing and dancing as we arrived. It was truly overwhelming to know that our donation of leather shoes for each student and a school kit would receive this type of attention. We had not antipicated when we started to plan for this donation months ago that we would receive any attention with this donation but found out when we arrived in Ethiopia that this was the largest donation Kingdom Vision International had ever experienced in their years of operation. The staff of Kingdom Vision International were all so excited about this donation and were clearly moved by the generosity of our donors and volunteers.
I was so overwhelmed by the welcome that I had to hold back my emotions with only a few tears falling from my eyes. I was looking at the children who were dressed in very torn and dirty cloths and who in many instances had skin problems, runny noses and flies on their faces and yet, the smiles we saw and the joy on the faces of the parents, children and all others in attendance was evident.
The speeches were many and I was asked to speak on behalf of our organization. I was truly humbled and felt like we were the blessed ones to have the means to make such an impact on these children's lives. The school administrator told us that a few months before, they had experienced their only other donation and it was from a group from Norway. He said the donation was not large but it was the reason why 40 students who had dropped out months before returned to school after Christmas. He also said that it helped take their academic results as a school to number 1 in their region.
All of the people who spoke not only thanked us, they blessed us and asked God that He would be with us and bless us. The adults in particular wanted to shake our hands and in many cases, hugged us with such warmth.
For the children, these leather shoes will be their first pair of leather shoes and perhaps their first pair of shoes period.
Many of the children did not know what a skipping rope or a pencil sharpener was and how to use them. We went in to classrooms to hand out the school kits and saw the conditions of the rooms. The floors were dirt, there were no books, supplies, computers, educational posters, nothing, just a classroom and a few bench desks that would hold four or five students sitting very closely together.
The school was built with no government funding. It was the community that pooled their very, very limited resources to build the school that they have. It was the community that demonstrated the commitment they had to their children's education that built the school.
As I passed out the kits in classrooms, I thought about the joy Samaritan's Purse boxes must bring to thousands and thousands of children each Christmas.
As we left that day, we drove out to the main road and saw the children in their yards playing with their tennis ball and wearing their shoes. One boy came to say goodbye from his home wearing his new red leather shoes with a large smile on his face.
The next day, we went to meet with two women's empowerment groups. We travelled again to a very rural area in Wolaita and met the women in a field that had two buildings. The women were all sitting on the ledge of the base of the buildings carefully cleaning pieces of cotton and once clean stretching it and then spinning it on to a bobbin.
Our volunteers greeted the women and then interacted with them to show our interest and desire to encourage them. I spoke to the women and told them of the research that has found that if change is desired in a community, give resources to women and they will make good things happen for their children and family and for the community.
We made an announcement that we were making a donation of $20,000.00 birr (equivalent to $1,080.00 US. The women were overjoyed and immediately raised their hands towards heaven and were saying "halleluhja, amen". They stood up and spontaneously started to dance and sing and clap. Such joy, such rejoicing, such humility and such faith!!
Two of us sat and spoke with the two treasurers of the groups to ask what they would like to do with this money and about their ideas and plans for their groups. We were absolutely blown away at their responses which included a very long term plan of continuing with the cotton and selling it for a profit, make loans available to the individual women in the group so they can start small businesses and make extra money for their families, invest in goats and corn when the prices are cheaper and they save them until the time they can sell them for much more money. The next phase of the program is to purchase a grinding maching so they can grind spices and sell them and the ultimate goal is to open a store in their community that will sell vegetables, spices and other necessities.
The women profoundly impressed us with their intelligence, faith, capabilities, determination, hard work, perserverance and desire to create change in their community.
I told the women that I would be back to see them when I returned to Ethiopia next and would be very excited to see and understand better the developments in the groups. These women had received training and encouargement from Kingdom Vision International and for the past three years, they formed their group, determined to save $.50 (in birr which is worth $0.13 US) each week which would be held in an account to reinvest in their group.
The group sells the spun cotton and builds capital in their account. As that capital grows, they will be able to purchase a grinder and then make additional money through the sale of their cotton and spices, etc.
The chairperson of the group told us that when one person faces trouble, they leave or get lost; when they are in a community, they remain together.
The women said that one day they believe this group will set a National example.
There is so much more to write but my eyes are closing and I need to be up in 5 hours to start out next day.
I will write again tomorrow.
Thanks for following along on our journey.