“We used to see ourselves as one of the animals. Now we see ourselves as human beings.”
I was born smack dab in the middle of the ’50s, television’s golden age. In 1952, three years before I was born, there were only 146,000 televisions in Canada. Four years later there were an estimated 2.3 million. By the time I was 10 years old, 92 per cent of Canadian households owned a television. That’s a greater percentage than those that owned a telephone, an automobile or an installed bath and shower.1 Our household had all of the above.
It is no wonder, then, that many of the defining images of my life have emanated from a cathode ray tube. But of all the television images stored in my mental archives, the most haunting ones are of the 1973-74 Ethiopian famine. I can still close my eyes and see starving children lying in the laps of listless, starving mothers. Their ribs are starkly outlined above distended bellies and their undiminished eyes stare through the camera’s lens and right into my soul.
Those are the images I carried on board Ethiopian Airlines flight 503 from Toronto to Addis Ababa this past November. I was one of five Canadian editors/journalists invited to visit development and humanitarian projects supported by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank (CFGB) in Ethiopia. The Foodgrains Bank is a partnership of 15 Canadian churches and church-based agencies working together to end global hunger. The 15 member agencies represent 30 denominations with over 17,000 congregations. The PAOC’s humanitarian agency, ERDO, is one of those 15 members.
After a 12 hour flight, we landed at Bole International Airport, traded our Boeing 777 for two Toyota Land Cruisers, and set out on a six-hour road trip to our first destination. Over the next nine days we drove 2300 km, from the Wolayta-Soddo region in southern Ethiopia to the desert Afar region in the north. We visited three different development projects supported by Canadian church relief agencies and CFGB. When I boarded a plane to come home, I carried with me a whole new set of Ethiopian images.
I came home with images of resurrection. I saw land, severely degraded by drought and erosion, being brought back to life through land rehabilitation projects and the practice of conservation agriculture. I saw the looks of pride in the faces of farmers as they explained the dramatic increase in crop yields. They spoke about being able to feed their families, send their children to school and upgrade the roofs of their homes from grass to corrugated tin.
I came home with images of human dignity. Thirteen women gathered in a shady grove. Some stood, some sat, but they all smiled as they told us about their Self Help Group (SHG), and how it has empowered and changed their lives. Each week, each member deposits two Birr—roughly a Canadian dime—into the SHG account. The group is totally self-governed. The leadership committee rotates yearly and the chairperson of their meetings changes weekly. All of the women present had been part of this SHG since it began in 2007. Members are able to apply for loans, perhaps to start a small business, or to purchase school supplies for their children, or seeds for their gardens. In seven years, no member has ever defaulted on a loan. In this village of 520 households, there are currently 16 Self Help Groups operating.
I saw dignity again in the face of Mohamed, a 57-year-old Afar village elder. We were in the northern region of Ethiopia. This is extreme desert. Pastoralists by tradition, the Afar have always depended on the availability of low-lying vegetation and water for their cattle, camels, goats and sheep. Their dome shaped huts, called ari, can be easily disassembled and moved when they need to find grazing land for their herds. There is chronic food insecurity among the Afar and when the rains don’t come, these people are among the hardest hit.
But Mohamed’s village has put down roots. The construction of an irrigation system that draws water from the Aura River enables them to grow staple crops, fruits and vegetables. They still have their animals, but they also have fields of maize and teff, and groves of banana and papaya trees. I saw the desert blooming, and I saw the dramatic difference it is making in the lives of the Afar people.
Mohamed is head of the local Water User Association. In a quiet but confident voice he tells us, “We used to see ourselves as one of the animals. Now we see ourselves as human beings.”
And I came home with an interesting image of hope. I was standing with one of the young Ethiopian development workers on the retaining wall of the Aura 2 water project. The rest of the group had moved on, but sensing that Derebe wanted to talk, I had lingered.
“There are three things that people need most,” he said. “Number one: water. Number two: water. Number three: water.” He grinned. “It’s a line I learned from my college professor and mentor,” he confesses. Then Derebe captured the power of hope for me in this image:
“I asked one of the villagers what he thought of this project. He told me it is a female camel.” He saw my blank look. “You see, a female camel is the most valuable animal the Afar people can own,” he explained. “They give milk in both wet and dry seasons. They are transportation for us, they bear us more camels and they are easier to keep than a male camel. And, if we have to, they can even be eaten for food. This project is a female camel.”
For many Ethiopians, life is still dangerously uncertain. Rain dependency and the demands of a rapidly increasing population make daily survival a precarious balancing act. But positive changes are happening. And Canadian development agencies like ERDO and CFGB are valued partners in those changes—I’ve got the images to prove it.
ERDO’s food programs with CFGB qualify for Canadian Government-matched funding of up to four dollars for each dollar donated. Visit www.erdo.ca for more information. ERDO and the Foodgrains Bank were each acknowledged in the Top 25 Charities in Canada (2014) published by the Financial Post. ERDO (Emergency Relief & Development Overseas) is the humanitarian agency of The Pentecostal Assemblies of Canada. ERDO is involved in four key areas: Crisis Response, Food Relief, ChildCARE Plus (Child Sponsorship), and Community Development. David Adcock is the CEO. Stephen Kennedy is the editor of testimony magazine and lives in Peterborough, ON.
1 http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/television/, accessed May 12, 2014.