Sunday, February 11, 2007

Day 4 - Afar and beyond.

We never did get back to sleep – the braying donkeys and crowing cocks ensured there would be no more sleep that night so Nanci and I sat on the side of our little grass hut until the camp and surrounding village woke and the kids started to gather to wonder at their strange guests.

Again it was going to be a long travel day. Our destination was the holy city in the north called Lallibela. But before leaving the area we wanted to visit the site of a second water weir / diversion project that was currently under construction.

So we packed our things, ate a breakfast of injera, scrambled eggs and goat, said our goodbyes and headed out onto the dusty dry desert.

Some ten or so kilometers from the camp we suddenly came upon the most wondrous hives of activity. Under the direction of SSD, some two hundred Afar, having temporarily diverted the river, were building (without any machinery what-so-ever) a massive weir to divert water to an irrigation ditch that would eventually water several more thousands of acres of land.

It’s hard to describe what this looked like, and the pictures don’t do it justice. Men, women and children, digging, hauling, mixing, pounding, crushing, piling, dragging… It looked like a chaos of activity but sure enough, a sophisticated structure was forming. I was a little confused at first why such a large structure was being built for such a tiny river, but apparently when the rains come, this humble stream becomes a frightful force. The structure itself is designed to withstand the particularly powerful floods that come every 50 years.

Again, the tribe organizes itself to send roughly half its people to the worksite – the work is paid for in food (6 kilos of grain per person, per day – provided by Canadian Foodgrains Bank) while the remainder of the tribe cares for the animals. So the very real need for food today and food security for tomorrow is combined to meet both needs. It’s brilliant. Once the irrigation project is complete, SSD will provide training in sustainable farming techniques and Canadian Foodgrains Bank will continue to provide food for the workers until such time as neither are needed.

The energy of this work site was awesome and exhilarating. We had planned to only stop for a quick visit and ended up staying for several hours.

Irrigation ditch leading away from the river.

Leaving the desert we came to a washed out bridge in the road and had to cross the now dry river bed about a hundred meters upstream. This bridge had been destroyed by a flash flood only two weeks earlier. This gives you an idea of the volatility of the environment here.

I think I mentioned in a previous post that the reason the Afar people have to adopt agriculture (rather than rely solely on their traditional pastoralist way of life) is that climate change has dramatically increased the frequency of drought in a region that is already rather dry and barely able to provide food to sustain it’s inhabitants. Having been back now from Ethiopia for several weeks, what has most dramatically impacted me is the conviction that our contribution to climate change is one of the most pressing moral issues of our day. We, especially in the Church, are horrified at loss of life and well being as a result of sexually promiscuous lifestyles, but we are not yet horrified by our own environmentally promiscuous lifestyle that is arguably destroying more lives than the former.

I read a paper recently by Walter Brueggemann , a tremendous contemporary theologian, who argues that the persistence of hunger in a world entirely capable of producing enough food for all, in the end, is an issue of fidelity; a fidelity that issues from a three-way covenant between God, the earth, and its people. For our part, our covenant is to a love-fueled justice –one that is binding not in the remote, legal sense, but rather in the familial sense. In other words, I don’t share a table with my wife and children because I am legally bound to do so, or because of an intellectual consent to an external notion of egalitarian justice. I share a table because I adore them. I’m just happy to be there with them. Charity is not a result of do-goodism, it is the offspring of cherishing, that is… love. But love puts claims on both the lover and the beloved. And I can’t authentically proclaim my love and continue to willfully live in a way that brings harm to those I cherish.

I guess I am beginning to understand that charity is not simply giving from “my” excess to another’s pitiful need. At the supper table, I don’t think myself generous when my children load their plates with food. We don’t do that kind of math at all. We eat, we laugh, we tell stories as we subtly, mutually (unconsciously) negotiate our life together. True charity is about coming to the table, with all God’s children and celebrating responsibly and joyfully the gift of creation that is God’s good gift to all. It’s a very different way of thinking about possessions and entitlement and all the assumptions that make the capitalist world go ‘round.

Sorry…. I’m rambling.

We left the Afar around noon and drove the rest of the day arriving early evening in Lallibela. Again, the landscape was powerful, the people beautiful and the ride was worth every bumpy, joint-jarring moment:

Those are my sunglasses!

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Back to the story… The Afar Region / Day 3

Leaving Weldiya

We again rose early in the morning so we could get to the Afar region before noon. For several hours, the journey continued much the same as it had the day before except that we left the main road and began to travel into what felt increasingly remote. The spectacular relief of mountains and valleys continued to astonish us. At one point we stopped to view one of the few lakes we would see – but quickly were engaged by a family who lived roadside. There was something uniquely lovely about these folks and our short encounter, trying to communicate, laughing at our mutual clumsiness, taking pictures, sharing names etc, is still one of my favorite memories of the trip.

One of the disappointments of being foreign, and wealthily so, is the inevitable divide or barrier that such a chasm creates. I often felt sad that with most roadside encounters, interest in us was largely material. And who can blame them? These are some of the poorest people in the world. But deep imbalances of wealth make it almost impossible to be genuinely interested in each other as people - and that, perhaps, is the greatest poverty of all.

With this family, however, there seemed to be something genuinely mutual and joyful about just hanging out on the road for the half hour or so we stayed. For those few minutes I was quite conscious of being, well… happy. And I honestly think they felt the same.

We continued to wind our way through the terrain until we finally came to the Afar Desert which is one of the lowest regions in all of Africa.

Roughly 1/7th the size of Manitoba, the Afar region hosts 1.6 million people (mostly nomadic pastoralists) and some 10 million sheep, goats, cattle and camels. It is an extremely arid region, flat and hot with sparse vegetation. This is the area where Lucy was found, one of the oldest human fossil remains (3.2 million years) ever discovered.

The Afar people live nomadically in villages of dismantable grass huts – basically large upside-down baskets covered in grass. They boast they can pack up a whole village in less than a day to move to a new region. Moves are precipitated by depletion of foraging for livestock, or by outbreaks of malaria. Recently, however, their traditional way of life has been threatened by climate change; already a hostile environment with droughts typically coming every 15-20 years, now the droughts come every 5-8 years making the land incapable of sustaining its inhabitants. For the Afar people to survive, they need to take up the challenge of agriculture, something relatively new to them.

Several years ago, a group of young Ethiopian agronomists and engineers set up an organization (Support for Sustainable Development) and base camp in the Afar and began to help the indigenous people transition from a strictly pastoralist nomadic existence to a more settled agriculturalist way of life. I think it’s pretty hard for us to imagine how profound and difficult this transition might be. But now, in our own context, global warming is forcing us to accept that our way of life is also unsustainable as well. We haven’t quite felt the absolute pinch of this yet, but there is no longer any doubt that our survival is going to depend on a courageous and radical rethinking of the very assumptions that fuel (pardon the pun) our culture and economy.

For the Afar, one of the first structural developments needed was irrigation. As the land has never been farmed, soil fertility is high – just add water, and the place explodes with green. Elizabeth is a young Ethiopian woman from Addis Ababa. She has a degree in agriculture but

her gift has been the ability to mobilize a people to build a water weir and five kilometers of irrigation ditch using a food-for-work program (sponsored by Canadian Foodgrains Bank). Elizabeth organized a massive effort that has resulted, without modern machinery, in a desert becoming a garden effecting the food security needs of thousands of indigenous people. Not only is this a green revolution, but a social one as well. At the onset of the project, the Afar people (read: the men) claimed that the project would never work if led by a woman. Two years later, not only has the desert yielded needed food as a result of her determination, but now women sit at councils with men in a society that has never known such a thing. This is the stuff of miracles.

Elizabeth and I on water weir.
Irrigation ditch leading away from water weir. This was all dug by hand.

Same ditch a few kilometers later.

The actual farming/gardening projects have been led by this man (I can’t remember his name.) He too is an agronomist from Addis who is teaching basic sustainable farming techniques (crop rotation and composting) ensuring soil fertility without resorting to inorganic inputs (fertilizers) which contribute to a whole host of problematic assumptions and practices. This is responsible, organic, sustainable agriculture – food secured in covenant fidelity to the land. I found myself struggling to hold back tears as we walked through the acres and acres of bounty. Showing me hot peppers!

Plowing newly realized farmland.

Later that evening, the community gathered to share with us some of their traditional dance and song. This was extremely moving on so many levels. It was hard to believe that we were so privileged to witness such things. I sang as well – it was the first time any of them had experienced ‘western’ music. I’m not sure how much they liked it, but evidently they found me somewhat interesting. At one point an elder stuffed a small amount of money in my shirt pocket. Apparently this was a symbol of approval. I found out later there was some stress about me being a Christian among Muslims, but although I was unaware of the underlying tension, I fortunately didn’t say anything alienating. In the end, it was a mutual encounter that we all enjoyed immeasurably.

Kids watching me play and sing.

Teenage girls pose for Nanci

After darkness settled, we sat out under the stars on grass mats. One woman roasted and ground coffee for us (a traditional ceremony we would enjoy many times during our trip) as we debriefed the day before turning in for the night.

Our sleeping quarters - affectionately referred to as The Hilton

At about four in the morning, Nanci and I were both awake listening to the animal sounds, both familiar and unfamiliar. We walked out into the night air and stood for some time under the still gaze of heaven’s stars. I felt strangely like a ghost briefly privileged to witness something ancient and deeply good. I half expected to see Abraham standing beside us, unaware of our presence, in humble awe, silently receiving God’s favour. It was a holy moment. We stayed out to greet the dawn.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

A Moment of Zen...

“Despair relieves itself at the expense of those in its environs.” How else do we explain the West’s willingness to expend the earth’s resources to such a degree that the rest of the globe is deprived of its share and the earth is endangered? This is a question Marva Dawn asks in her book Unfettered Hope – A Call to Faithful Living in an Affluent Society. It is from this same book that I re-read, earlier this morning, that in order to bring everyone on the planet to the same general level of consumption and well-being as the average Canadian; we would need the resources of four or five more earths - right now.

What is interesting about Marva Dawn’s analysis however is that she doesn’t simply blame callous greed and ambition for the present imbalance. It is more tragic than that. It is the profound loss of systems of meaning that causes a people to “ease its pain by means of production of more commodities (and the consumption of them), while the rest of the world suffers from an opposite kind of hopelessness – the inability to secure what is necessary to live.”

If that is true, who will take this painful thorn out of our paw? She quotes Raimon Panikkar: Human beings cannot live with a conscious, unrelieved sense of the “vanity” of their lives and endeavors. If their gods die, if their optimism is dashed by events, if the habit of hope languishes in them, they will likely construct bogus hopes out of thin air and sheer determination.

Jesus help us. The unfettering of hope, Dawn suggests, is the crucial work that needs doing in our numbing affluence. This is probably worth thinking through – especially for me as I continue to contemplate the nature of my work and calling. What kind of music, which stories, help to restore a practical “habit of hope” to a culture that has lost its sense of place within the wider context? A doctor friend of mine once explained that a cancer cell is simply a cell that has lost its sense of place in relationship to the rest of the body. And the result is catastrophe for the whole body."

Everyone asks us, “Has the trip o Ethiopia changed you?” Well… sadly no. When I came back devastated from what I saw in Calcutta over a decade ago I told a friend that I'd never recover from what I saw there. "It's amazing," he said, "and disappointing, just how quickly you'll recover." But that’s the work now – the work of turning an adventure into a transformation.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Road to Weldiya

We woke pretty early to get on the road. Sam was concerned to get our traveling done before nightfall as the roads would be fairly rough and he didn't relish navigating them after dark. So we gathered in the lobby at 6:30 am and met the last two additions to our party. Kebede Lule is an independent Ethiopian filmmaker who Sam hired to accompany us as guide, translator and cultural consultant. Kebede has produced numerous informational films for various Christian development/aid organizations like World Vision, Compassion etc. His story is incredible, having been imprisoned and tortured in the 80s for his resistance to the communist party and as a consequence of his faith. His spirit is gentle, almost shy, and he has a heart of a servant - I mean this in the most flattering sense.

Mesfin was hired as a driver for the extra vehicle we would need to make our journey. Mesfin spoke very little English and so we didn't get to know him well. But he seemed like a nice enough fellow with a ready smile.

I don't remember much detail of the first few hours - the highway was initially paved as we wound through the mountains, north-east toward the city of Weldia where we would spend the night. There were people everywhere with goats aplenty as well as cattle. At first I thought the amount of folks on the road was due to our proximity to Addis, but I soon realized that in a country of 70 million people in an area roughly twice the size of Manitoba, it was unlikely we would experience many uninhabited areas. I was surprised at how mountainous it was. Largely due to media coverage of the famine in the 80s, my image of Ethiopia was of barren flat-lands with little or no vegetation. I had no expectation of the numerous spectacular vistas we would encounter over the next week.

We stopped for breakfast in Debre Berhan, one of the oldest towns in Ethiopia - scrambled eggs with peppers and the finest cup of coffee I've ever had. Although Ethiopia is the only African country that has never been colonized, they were briefly occupied by the Italians in the early 20th century. The happy result being that no matter where you are in the country, no matter how remote and cut off from the rest of the world, you can always find a restaurant of sorts with an industrial barista machine with some of the best coffee or Cafe Macchiato you'll get anywhere. The bathrooms however, would be consistently less impressive.

Camels! I wasn't expecting camels! This fellow stopped to talk to us while his camels continued to run down the mountainside. He was hoping we'd help him out with a few bir (Ethiopian dollars) but none of us thought to exchange for modest denominations of money so we convinced him to accept a few cookies instead. Once he accepted the cookies, he suddenly startled to see his camels trotting gingerly a kilometer or two down the road and he bolted off in a panic.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was the thousands of gorgeous children who everywhere waved and smiled eagerly at us. To stop the vehicle even for a few minutes was to get swamped by kids. They all wanted their pictures taken - some would ask for a bir or two but most asked for a pen. "Pen sir? I go to school. I have exams. Pen please." We must have heard that a thousand times.

The kids loved to tell us (in English) their names. Nanci asked some to write their names in her journal - for some reason I find this very moving. My name is Tew! My name is Kasu! My name is Mitu! My name is... I am here! I exist! I am not one of 70 million, I am Deribe! Don't forget me. I can imagine it delights God to hear someone proudly say their name. And I can hear God respond fondly, "Yes indeed. You are Abebe. I remember you well."

The poverty here is astounding. Most of Ethiopia's population are farmers. And most farm families are surviving on the harvest of a meager acre or two of land. Here in the highlands there is not much possibility of irrigation and so survival is dependent on the good will of nature. The last few years here have had good rains and so we didn't get a sense of current destitution, but it is not hard to understand how perennially vulnerable these folks are. With the population density such as it is, and the need for building materials and firewood, the mountains have already been stripped of trees and the resulting problems of erosion are evident everywhere. The population of Ethiopia is expected to double in the next twenty years and I can't help but shudder at the inevitable catastrophe that lies ahead in the not too distant future.

Thatched huts and extended-family hamlets are everywhere (average family size - 6). Most of the country lives with absolutely no modern conveniences in the home or in the field. Cooking is done on open fire, water is hauled or harvested, and fields are cultivated by the simplest, labour intensive means. Ethiopians work very, very hard.

By noon, the paved roads gave way to gravel roads which became our reality for the rest of the trip. Often, their condition slowed us to a walking crawl and our bodies were soon bruised and sore from bouncing around like "dice in a cup." A fine dust filled the air and covered everything. Following close behind evil smelling, black-smoke billowing vehicles kept one in a mile state of nausea. Narrow roads, crumbling away to sharp escarpments and more than one vehicle overturned or over the edge kept one somewhat uneasy about our safety despite the obvious skill of our drivers.

Reminders of past conflicts were plentiful. Wars here have been many - conflict internally as well as with others, especially with Eritrea to the north. Sam opined that if Ethiopia would determine, for one generation, to solve her disputes with dialogue instead of guns, she could overcome her primary difficulties with the money and resources currently sustaining the apparatus of war. I wonder what good could be accomplished if in North America we did the same? What would it take for us to repent of our trust in "horses and chariots" to ensure our covetous self-security?

We eventually arrived in Weldiya at Lal Hotel (a solid 1.5 stars) after driving fourteen and a half hours to cover 450 kilometers. We had a quick supper and crawled under our mosquito nets only to lie awake most of the night as a result of jet-lag and over-tiredness. Tomorrow we will come to the Support for Sustainable Development base camp in the Afar dessert - another long day - 6:30am departure.