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One Love, One Hut (Ethiopia)

Here's a holiday tale to warm you hearts!


I have just returned from a wonderful visit to Ethiopia. Now, every visit to the coffeelands is amazing, but this one had special meaning for me. On this trip I was accompanied by my sixteen-year-old daughter, Sarah - the first family member to go Javatrekking with me in all of these years. Sarah has developed a deep interest in the welfare of women and children, especially in the Third World, and I was completely blown away by how she navigated the totally different food, customs, clothing, and intense poverty to get to the very human feelings and connections beneath it all.

We landed late at night in Addis Ababa, a sprawling cement city with one glitzy avenue surrounded by slums of Somali refugees. When we got to our hotel we were greeted by Rehima, Sarah's new "sister" who we are sponsoring through college (her dad is a Muslim coffee farmer with fifteen kids). The young women were instant friends.

In the morning I went to meet with Ethiopian trademark officials to help advance their program to generate more interest in and income from Ethiopia's fine coffees. Sarah hit the ground running, meeting with an Ethiopian women's rights lawyer and activist, the meeting arranged by our good friend Sue Holmberg, a Ph.D. candidate at U. Mass who was in Ethiopia for research. When she returned, Sarah was full of information about the status of women in Ethiopia and the gender issues involved. She was on fire.

We hit the road to Yirgacheffe, a pounding straight shot south for nine hours. We passed through dusty plains, small villages and trade centers, past thousands of men, women, children, donkeys, goats and one dead camel, as the colorful yet sobering human ecology of rural Ethiopia, the poorest country on the planet, rolled by. I have been down that road many times, but seeing it through Sarah's eyes for the first time reawakened my awareness of the stories being played out all along the road. Immense poverty, heavy loads and bent backs, arguments in the markets, washing by the river, and everywhere joyful screaming children.

In Negele Gorbitu, the small village in Yirgacheffe where we get our beans, we met with the coop board to talk about our project to raise money for the school by making and selling cards produced from the childrens' art. Sarah handed out the paper and markers and oversaw the project in the large, dirt floor classroom whose only light came through the two windows on the south wall. At recess about two hundred kids swarmed her, which she welcomed, until The Man With The Stick swatted them away, to stop the kids from "bothering" the guests! But they would not be denied (especially as we were handing out free pens!) and kept coming back screaming with delight as he chased other kids away.

That afternoon I had to meet with the coop about quality and delivery issues. Sarah wandered the village, taking photos of kids and families. She also sat with several women farmers and talked to them about their lives with a level of probity and sensitivity that surprised me. At the end of the day she asked if she could have note cards made with her photos of the children, sell them and send the money back to the school (I told you she was my daughter!). You will see Sarah's "Children of Yirgacheffe" series for sale on the website soon!

Earlier in the day Sarah had asked if we could stay in the village instead of driving back to Yirgacheffe town to the local hotel. The coop folks at first said no, as there was no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms or any of the comforts they wanted for their honored guests. I also thought about my bad shoulder and back. But Sarah insisted and after a series of cell phone calls higher up the cooperative ladder they relented. As darkness fell and the not so gentle rain began, we trudged up "a short hill for ten minutes" to the farmer's round wood and mud hut. A half hour later, soaked and covered with the deep red sticky mud of the area we entered the hut, being greeted by Ayele and Tadelech, along with their five children and five nephews and nieces. After the traditional Oromo leg washing ceremony for guests, Ayele asked a simple question. Why would Westerners want to stay in his hut when we could stay in a hotel? They had no food nor comforts for us and were extremely poor. I answered that for us it was a show of respect to stay with them. We didn't feel that they were lesser than us in any way and that the material world would not come between us knowing each other and being true partners in our trading. Also, it was important for us to know how they lived, so that we could share that with our customers, who wanted to know the truth about the lives of coffee farmers and whether our efforts made any difference. As we spoke, the children did their homework crowded around the wicks of small kerosine lamps, barely able to read between the low light and the smoke from the fire in the center of the room. These kids were really dedicated to getting an education! We finished the evening with a simple and beautiful coffee ceremony, and a dinner of false banana pancakes (a starch with no protein or other nutrition) and some cabbage. We laid down on a grass mat on the hard ground and slept deeply. We woke when the roosters crowed and chickens, mistaking Sarah's blond hair for hay, began pecking at her head. We shared a breakfast of a handful of corn kernels and coffee. Outside the hut a small crowd had gathered to see the first Westerners ever to sleep in Negele Gorbitu.

On the road back to Addis after our work was done, we stopped in the sprawling street market in Shashemene, the "Rastafarian" town where many foreign believers in the divinity of Haile Selassie (and lovers of giant spliffs of ganja) have settled. Giant posters of worship to Bob Marley and Rasta peace flags fluttered along the road. We haggled for fabric in the market. Sarah confidently walked down the street talking to people and taking photos, as our driver Nekesh, implored her not to wander away from his protective eye. I noticed with pride that she walked the streets with a new level of confidence and awareness.

That new confidence was severely tested when we returned to Addis and visited a Leprosy community that we support through Polus Center. Nekesh, heir to the prejudices and fears of his culture, didn't leave the car as we disappeared into the compound. The community is basically locked into the middle of the capital, surrounded by rough roads that people with disabilities cannot navigate. While the effects of the disease were evident everywhere in the scarred faces and missing limbs, many of the residents -especially the children- looked unaffected. We found out that leprosy has such a powerful stigma and fear attached to it that the children are shunned if any family members have the disease, resigned to a life with little or no schooling and a future as a beggar in a very poor country. Many of the families were one meal away from starvation. We were invited in to several of the shacks of the residents and we asked about their lives, about any opportunity at all. Sarah was followed closely by the children. She played with them and unselfconsciously hugged several of the little girls, especially Hannah, a spunky six-year-old who we wished we could have swept away with us. It was a painful visit, and the most hopeless I have experienced in thirty years of development work and advocacy.

We spent a lot of time talking about our visit as we flew back to the USA. Sarah channeled some of that energy into a paper about gender issues in Oromo society for her Anthropolgy class. For me, each trip to the coffeelands reinvigorates me for the next round of work in support of social justice and fair trade. This trip gave me something else - an opportunity to see my daughter mature and become more aware before my eyes, and to share an incredible experience of service and culture together. That's the best holiday gift I could have asked for.

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