Guest post by Siobhan Sheerin who has recently returned from Ethiopia after three months working with the organisation Concern Worldwide.
I’ve worked for Concern for over two years, based mainly in their London office, but I’ve always been eager to see Concern’s work on the ground first-hand. I was just waiting for the right opportunity to take the plunge.
Like many people, I was deeply affected seeing the suffering of millions of people during last year’s devastating drought in East Africa, when Ethiopia was hit pretty badly. So when the opportunity came to work here, I knew this was my chance. I upped sticks, leaving behind my comfortable existence in the UK.
The first thing that hit me was the altitude. At a height of around 7,500 feet, Addis is the world’s second highest capital. For the first week, I flipped between exhaustion and a strange feeling, similar to being underwater, and even the smallest exertion left me gasping for breath. Thankfully, this ‘air hunger’ as the locals call it, soon subsided.
Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world, and has suffered from food insecurity for many years. Most people rely entirely on local agriculture, so when the are late, or fail, like they did last year and again this year, people’s harvests fail and they simply don’t have enough food to eat. It’s a cycle that, sadly, keeps repeating itself.
One of the worst affected areas over the last two years is the Amhara region in the north. Concern works across this entire area, in some of the most hard to reach mountainous villages, delivering emergency nutrition, providing seeds and livestock, and helping people get access to clean water.
Access to water is a real issue in the area, with many walking for hours every day just to get to the nearest water source. It was while in Bugna, a remote village in the Amhara, that I saw both young children and old ladies carrying 25kg water containers on their backs, and clambering barefoot up mountains that I could barely manage wearing my sturdy walking boots!
The inaccessibility of these areas in the north has to be seen to be believed. Getting around by car is almost impossible at times, and in many places travelling by foot or donkey is the only option. The people here eke out their living from the land – life is hard.
Yet despite living in extreme poverty, the people don’t just want hand-outs, they are resilient and hard-working – and want to help themselves and build sustainable lives.
People like Getu, who had received a container of potato seeds from Concern and planted them all himself in one day. He proudly showed me his field, and told me his first priority was to feed his family, with any surplus being sold at the market.
Or like Shewaye, the young mother whose children were treated for malnutrition by Concern last year, and who wanted to display her newly-acquired knowledge of breastfeeding with an impromptu practical demonstration.
Of course I’ve found some of it hard going. Two bouts of horrendous food poisoning had me floored for weeks, and wishing I was back at home, and the poverty I’ve seen on the streets of Addis is distressing. But I can’t really complain . . . I’ve never had to walk for four hours to get water, then carry it barefoot back uphill, and I’ve never worried about where my next meal is coming from.
The rainy season here is now in full swing, which makes going out difficult at times, and I’ve never really gotten to grips with the staple food injera, a sort of sour pancake eaten at every meal. But there are many things I will miss now I’m leaving: hearing hyenas howling in the distance when I am dropping off to sleep, my daily commute through a bustling market whilst negotiating donkeys, chickens, goats and shouts of ‘farangi’ (foreigner), the hordes of children keen to practice their English and shake my hand; and of course, the people.
It has been the Ethiopian people who have made the real impression on me, particularly Concern’s Ethiopian staff. Generous and friendly, and rightly proud of their country, my colleagues work long hours in remote areas, travelling on foot to help people because there is simply no other way. The staff in Bugna have to drive for almost three hours to the nearest town just to use the internet, which certainly put my office IT problems into perspective.
My Concern Ethiopian colleagues are true humanitarians. The work they do here makes a huge difference. They are saving lives – helping people to help themselves out of poverty, feed themselves and their families and make a living.
I’m proud to have been a part of the work they do, even for just a short time.
Photo by treessfts via Flickr