Over the last two weeks I’ve bounced back and forth between Addis and Ambo many times. The 2 hour drive between the cities can be relaxing, thanks to the lovely scenery, and I have to constantly remind myself to enjoy the view instead of looking at the road ahead and freaking out as Yonas passes slower taxis and busses on the narrow, winding road. Once out of Addis, the chaos of the big city transitions to quiet, scenic farmland with rolling hills and the occasional mountain. The vast majority of Ethiopia’s economy is dependent on subsidence farming, including the export of coffee and, surprisingly, fresh-cut flowers. We pass by many greenhouses on the way to Ambo, all filled with roses.
On Thursday, May 14th, Rudy and I attended the Seminar on Technology Innovation at Ambo University. The seminar was a joint venture between Ambo University and Stand for Vulnerable Organization (SVO), the NGO that we are collaborating with for our research project. Lecturers at the university gave talks about innovation in the developing world, specifically Ethiopia, including adobe housing technology, rainwater harvesting, bio-sand water purification, and solar energy. Rudy gave the keynote address about his personal and academic connections with Ethiopia, including the algae-duckweed innovation (ADI) project that I am a part of. We arrived a few minutes late and walked into a crowd of hundreds of students clapping and welcoming us. Overwhelmed, we did what we were told and took seats at the head table facing the audience. The seminar proved to be interesting as the power was out for most of the time, thus speakers gave talks from their laptops without any visual aid for the audience. Later on, all the seminar guests, including myself, were asked to judge science fair projects done by the secondary prep school. The high school students designed solutions to problems currently facing Ethiopia (and really, most of the world): access to clean water; a reliable, renewable power supply; clean, safe transportation options; home security; and sustainable housing design. The students presented their ideas on posters and many built working prototypes of their designs, constructed out of trash and recyclable materials and complete with electrical circuits and motors. It was inspiring to see the hard work and ingenuity these students put into their designs, especially given the very limited resources which they had to work with.
That Saturday I had the opportunity to help Katie distribute belated Christmas presents (which got stuck in customs for many months) and household supplies to the guardians and children in the SVO/Because of Kennedy program. Rudy and Katie’s NGO, Because of Kennedy (BoK), partners with SVO on many programs which aim to empower vulnerable women and children to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to escape the cycle of poverty. While the children in the program, all of which are orphaned and living with either a single parent, their grandparents, or distant relatives, are supplied with school uniforms, books, and access to a medical clinic, the guardians are required to attend classes on entrepreneurship, managing finances and savings, family planning, nutrition, etc. The families in the program have sponsors in the US which write letters, send Christmas presents, and sometimes visit the family on organized BoK-sponsored trips. The SVO/BoK program differs from many large sponsorship programs in that it focuses on empowerment and developing the self-esteem and self-efficacy of the guardians with the goal of the guardians’ businesses becoming sustainable and the family ‘graduating’ from the program after 5-7 years. On Saturday I helped Katie distribute Christmas presents to the children from their sponsors, along with soap and hair oil to each guardian for their household. While the SVO/BoK program is much more than just distributing presents, it was priceless to see the excitement of the children as they received letters, pictures, and gifts from their sponsor family. Even more exciting was when they received pictures of themselves with their sponsor family from past BoK trips to Ethiopia and when they were told that their sponsor was coming to Ethiopia next week to visit them. Over the years I’ve grown pessimistic about large sponsorship programs – many seem more like organized ways for people in the developed world to ease their guilt by throwing money or presents at the problem, than sustainable solutions to poverty in the developing world – but this experience refreshed my outlook and opened my eyes to the good that certain programs are capable of accomplishing. While the fruits of an education and successful family business will prove invaluable in the long term, reminding children that they are worthy of love, success, and happiness is just as important.
After distributing gifts, Katie and I returned to Addis. On the drive home, Yonas invited me out the next day to explore Addis without an agenda focused on finding an item in the markets. Sunday is Yonas’ day off, so it meant a lot that he wanted to spend it with me and show me his city. We bought some beers at a corner store and drove up Entoto Mountain, home of the palace of the first King of Ethiopia. We toured the museum, which contained artifacts from the first couple of generations of Kings and Queens, drank buna (coffee) on the side of the mountain overlooking Addis, and shared our beers sitting amongst the silent eucalyptus trees in the forest. It was a great retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. After descending the mountain, Yonas took me to a traditional Ethiopian coffee house and restaurant where we enjoyed a huge plate of injera, tibs, and many other types of meat that I forget the names of. It was great to get out of the house and see a different side of Addis, with no itinerary except relaxing and hanging out with a friend.