by Claire Apostolopoulos, Contributor
Looking out over the lush, green canopy of trees below, I could not believe this was the Ethiopia I had heard so much of as a child in the '80s.
What I had engrained in my mind as a child were images of a dry, desolate place without a hint of plant life. I was not prepared for the near tropical environment of Southern Ethiopia during the rainy season, which typically occurs between July and October each year, if the people are fortunate.
Sometimes, the rains don’t come, leading to the crop failures and famines we have heard of in the past, but this was not the case this year.
My husband Dimitri and I (photo below) embarked on the trip of a lifetime in August; the culmination of an emotional five-year adoption journey to bring home a daughter to our family of four.
In 2008, at the onset of our adoption, my husband and I looked for ways we could give back to the country of our daughter’s birth. We had heard about Run for Water, a grassroots Abbotsford group that is passionate about bringing clean water to the poorest communities in Ethiopia.
This small group of people plan a high-calibre running event that fundraises for their cause. The money raised by donations at the Run for Water every May is donated to Hope International Development Agency, a New Westminster-based organization that oversees the water projects in Ethiopia.
We knew some people involved in Run for Water and ended up joining the board of the event in 2009. I can honestly say I have never worked with a more passionate group of people.
Over the last four years, I have worked with them as a board member, helping to raise over $1 million to date for clean water in Ethiopia.
When we finally got the call to go to Ethiopia to pick up our seven-year-old daughter Blayne, we knew that we absolutely had to make the journey south of the city of Addis Ababa to see where Run for Water’s money actually ends up. We wanted to see it with our own eyes.
So there we sat, sipping sweet lemongrass juice, a specialty of the local lodge we were staying in, awaiting our ride into the mountains surrounding the southern city of Arba Minch, a two-hour plane ride from the capital of Addis Ababa.
Our four-wheel drive arrived with a driver and guide, and we were off. Roads are interesting in Ethiopia. Asphalt is more often than not, a luxury, and the potholes combined with the lack of shocks in our vehicle contributed to a quick consumption of Gravol 3 minutes in to our long journey.
To give you an accurate picture, when driving in this area of Ethiopia, you feel like you are in a live version of Frogger as your vehicle competes for road space with a plethora of things – other cars, kids running alongside you, women carrying heavy loads of wood or yellow water cans on their backs, small children herding cattle with switches, sheep, warthogs and even baboons stealing corn from fields and running across your path. All of this happens at an incredible speed.
As we moved out of the city and farther into the mountains, it became glaringly apparent why Hope International chose this area of Ethiopia to support with clean-water initiatives.
We passed countless women and girls, yellow jerry cans strapped to their backs, walking what must have been long distances, as we did not pass many villages in our three-hour drive.
It was pouring rain and the majority of these women and children had no shoes on and were genuinely struggling to go up the muddy, rocky hills with these heavy containers. I locked eyes with many of them as we were slowly driving up these hills to avoid getting stuck.
I wondered what it would be like if we switched places, all of a sudden. How would I survive their hard life? I felt an enormous sense of sadness and guilt that we were in our vehicle and would be leaving them to make their journey against the elements and terrain.
The Canadian in me wanted to offer them all a ride, but realistically, we passed over 100 of these women and girls during our drive. How could we possibly assist them all?
We stopped at one point and watched below the road as some women and girls filled their containers in streams of brown, filthy, disease-filled water and struggled to carry the full containers back up the muddy banks to the road.
As they filled their containers, farmers had their herds of animals drinking from the same water and their droppings were visible to us all along the banks, adding to the contamination of their water source.
As we approached our destination, we noticed the roads became less populated with these travellers. Throughout our last hour, we did not see many people on the road, just the occasional wild animal or farmer walking livestock.
The rumble of the Hope International vehicle as we finally approached the village of Dembele Otora signaled that something important was happening. No one in this poor village of 4,100 has a vehicle, so the only ones that come here are bringing medical supplies or Hope representatives.
People young and old came running from the surrounding area to the centre of town to gather and see who was in the vehicle. It was wonderful to feel so welcomed but also a bit disconcerting to have hundreds of people clamoring to get a look at us!
We were greeted by one of the village elders and after exchanging pleasantries with the Hope guide, we were shown the crown jewel of the village – its central water point, paid for with funds raised by Run for Water.
This water project was completed in 2010, and included capping one spring and creating one reservoir and 11 water points with 11 washbasins. It required 7.6 km of pipes.
The main water point in the centre of the village was a simple, cement block with several taps and a wash basin. A circular fence made of sticks surrounded it.
We were told the water source is opened for a set amount of hours each day and is then locked overnight to prevent misuse.
I entered the fenced-in area and was able to watch as women and girls walked up to the taps with their yellow jerry cans and filled them with clean water, giggling and chatting with each other.
Through translators, women described how they used to walk three times per day for 20 to 50 minutes each way, and carried 50 litres of visibly unclean water on their back. Both they and their children suffered on a daily basis from diarrhea and stomach pain resulting from drinking unsafe water.
Since the completion of the project, the women say that they are no longer experiencing symptoms of waterborne diseases and have seen improvements in their own personal health, as well as in their children.
Families are also able to divert income saved from medical treatment fees toward their children’s education and agricultural/livestock activities. We did not know that once a village receives clean water, they could request that the government build a medical clinic.
Thanks to Run for Water’s fundraised money to bring clean water, Dembele Otora now has a beautiful medical facility that was recently completed and was being stocked with supplies and equipment when we visited.
This area used to have a high mortality rate for malaria, but the clinic began dispensing malaria nets for beds and educating the population on ways to prevent the deadly disease. They also dispense medication to treat those who do contract malaria.
We were also impressed that the women of the community now had a clean, safe environment to have their babies, with medical supplies and a nurse on hand, which should decrease infant and maternal mortality.
The school has also expanded in order to accommodate the increase in female students who are no longer walking all day to bring water to their families.
Committees are created in the village to oversee the water projects, health issues and environmental issues, with women well-represented on each committee.
We did not realize bringing clean water does not just mean actually having cleaner water to drink. It means improvements to health care, education and women’s rights in each village.
It was a wonderful, overwhelming feeling to be surrounded by people whose lives have changed drastically because of an event our community has embraced. All of a sudden, all of our committee meetings throughout the year – many held after a long day of teaching kindergarten, others held early in the morning in my kitchen over muffins and coffee – have so much more meaning. We made a huge difference here.
As we pulled away from the village and I thought of the women we were bound to see on the drive back, I took some comfort in knowing that Run for Water and Hope International have committed to bringing water to the villages surrounding Dembele Otora over the next few years.
We can and will help the rest of those women and girls walking up those muddy, rocky roads. As we trim our tree this holiday with our newest family member, we are very aware of how fortunate we are to live in such an amazing community whose generosity spans the globe.