Sunday, June 19, 2022

A COVID Wracked Wrap-up Before Homeleave

Oren off alone last week.
It has been too long for an update and that is the result of a lot of work as we approach a summer homeleave, as well as the fact that the past 3 weeks has been spent primarily in Addis at the office, so no great field visit updates.

That is not to say that the time has been uninteresting, it has been so in both good and very challenging ways. I will say by way of beginning that I am 40,000 feet over Western Ethiopia at the moment as we have just reached cruising altitude on our trip back to the US. By the time this is posted we will be in Maryland.

David, Rebecca and I are currently enroute as Oren actually went on this same flight exactly seven days ago. This was to be a first for David and Oren trying their hand at flying internationally alone. Unfortunately, the day before they left, David got a positive COVID PCR result and was not able to fly. Oren decided to go on alone to have an extra week in the US. There was another family on the flight who we knew, so that gave him a boost of confidence as well.

He did arrive without incident and was picked up by his grandparents at Dulles. David is admittedly jealous that he is already there, and without school, has been needing to occupy himself while we work. He did two 1000 piece puzzles and took apart and rebuilt a lego technics set twice during the time while listening to Artemis Fowl novels on his iPhone. He was very happy to have the week completed.

COVID has been a cross-cutting theme throughout the past 3 weeks, and it was a most unwelcome visitor that seemed to take over our lives (this is despite the fact that I and everyone I know is vaccinated). Admittedly Ethiopia had avoided the omicron variant for months while the US was in its thrall (my parents, in-laws and all siblings got it in the past 8 weeks). We had become quite lax about masking and the govt. dropped all mask requirements at public events. When it came, almost everyone we knew started getting it. Most of the people in our church, then our accountant Eyerus and her husband Moses got it.

Within a few days, Oren woke up to tell me he had a sore throat. We almost panicked as he was in the middle of his final chemistry and history A levels. This could not have ben worse timing. There is no simple option to make up, and this is part of a 2 year cycle. (The Cambridge system is quite unforgiving).

He went to his last test and when he came home I gave him a rapid test, only to find he tested negative. I was not entirely confident about the result, and about 5 days later David started coughing and sniffing, this time with fever. I tested him as well as he was due to leave Addis to fly to the US in 7 days. He was also negative with the rapid test. Two days later, despite feeling better he asked to be tested again and this time I got a positive result--what we suspected about Oren and him all along.

On Friday we took them for a PCR test as they both felt very well. Oren was negative but David’s was positive, so we had to rebook David to fly with us. (Ironically the US lifted the PCR test requirement for travel 5 hours after Oren’s flight landed!)

In the meantime, the rest of our office staff has had COVID. For some reason, Rebecca and I remained asymptomatic throughout (thus far) despite extensive exposure to children and staff in the office. Unfortunately, the day before we traveled, probably the result of a team party at a restaurant, Rebecca got a gastro infection and had to get a course of Cipro 24 hours before we left. But at this point, we are all in good health traveling back.


Our team with Hana in the back
A long introduction but I do want to recount a few of the highlights of the past 3 weeks. Probably most significant was the recruitment and hiring of a new staff member. Our accountant Eyerusalem is expecting to go on maternity leave in November, and with our upcoming homeleave we felt there was a pressing need to recruit a new part-time bookkeeper/accountant who could both assist and learn from Eyerus to be able to cover for her during her leave.

I can’t begin to tell you how important our accountant is in our office. There is really no one in the office that could cover her duties because of the amount of record-keeping required by Ethiopian law. Every single transaction has about 6 pieces of documentation attached, all of this in hard copy. She spends a lot of time keeping us in compliance with our auditors. We could not risk having no one to cover for her.

Belie our language teacher
Hiring is not a quick process though and we worked with our regional HR person to prepare a job description, announcement, calculate a salary and budget, way of receiving applications, processing finalists, interviews (4 candidates) before were able to make an offer to someone. We have now hired a young woman named Hana who, Rebecca and I have met through our church where she is also a member. We were able to have two days of orientation with her before we left on homeleave. Eyerus will continue to her in July and she should be fully trained by the time we return in August.

Our team was please with the hire (two of them were on the search committee), and we had several team events with her including a long team meeting, and a team meal together at a nice restaurant (where Rebecca may have gotten her stomach illness from eating a piece of raw meat she mistook for a beetroot.)

with MKC church leaders
Work has been very busy besides recruitment because of our departure. We are not on vacation most of the time and I will be checking email daily, but there are things that are best done in person. We met a number of partners to discuss future projects, and we have been processing a number of emergency requests, including a proposal to continue our relief work in Tigray. We now have a way to bring some funds on UN flights through a project manager at the MKC church. We are working on this as well as continued work in several IDP camps close to the Tigray border.

I had a particularly odious task with Wonde to try to update power of attorney authorization for he and Solomon who need documentation to act on behalf of MCC in my absence. This requires an incredibly complex process of getting a document approved at several offices, and stamps from multiple officials, and several reviews of translation of the document. It took us 2 days of visiting offices and at the last minute the woman serving was going to refuse because she said I could not read the Amharic translation so I could not approve it. I insisted I could (almost but not quite a lie) so she handed me the document and told me to read it aloud. I have in the past 4 months learned the alphabet so I was able to sound out several lines before she rolled her eyes and told me to stop. She begrudgingly approved (although admittedly I did not understand much of what I read.) Still it felt like a huge accomplishment.

I will also add a note about church. Sunday school is done for the semester, and as many of the congregants are foreigners, they have also gone to their home countries for the summer (which is an intense and dreary rainy season in Addis). We had a good bye Sunday in which we said good bye for good as well as temporarily to many friends. We also had a final youth event where we took youth to Entoto park and did a ropes course. Beriket, Oren's friend who went with us as well. It was a lot of fun and I was impressed with how large the youth group is getting.  

After all the farewells it felt like we were almost the only ones left for a couple weeks. That has meant in the past 3 weeks Rebecca and or I have been preaching, leading music, and leading the service. This coming week they convert to a Bible study informal service. We have enjoyed being part of a congregation where we feel like we are needed!

Language study ended for the time being with a big ‘end of unit’ exam. About 45 minutes of conversation. No written test at this point. I wish I could say I was as conversational in Amharic as I was in Swahili at this point, but it is a more complex language. I do enjoy recognizing words though on signs as we now can read. Rebecca does better conversationally than I do.

Other activities which fit well into the end of the school year was some compound maintenance. We try to keep the MCC compound updated and this year we did two very satisfying projects. The first was putting down some stucco tiles on a back covered terrace (which functions as an outdoor covered conference room for COVID, as well as our lunch room for us and staff on work days.) It looks great now and just on time for rainy season. (The concrete slab that was there was not well leveled to let water run off. Now it look fantastic. 

The other exciting project to add to our growing farm is a vermicompost enclosure. Our guard Solomon who is also a builder made a great little structure and now we will be able to enrich our soil with worms and worm compost (as well as feed the chickens with surplus worms)! We are very excited and the worms arrived a day before we left once the structure was built. (The soil in our yard is quite depleted.) This is one advantage of having a food security manager on our staff (Mesfin)! Because we first saw these things in some of our food security development projects. 

Rebecca continues some of the highlights of the past 3 weeks here.

We enjoyed one delightful surprise over the past two weeks. On a Friday evening, our German neighbors Hana and Lukas came over to purchase a few eggs. As they exited their gate, they heard a mewling in the bushes. They investigated and saw a tiny kitten, abandoned by its mother. Passersby urged them to take the kitten and feed it. So, they picked it up and knocked on our door: “We hear you have a rat problem,” they said. “We have a solution!” The little mite was dark brown and very stinky. We did our best to wash it and try to give it drops of milk from our fingers. We mutually agreed that Hana and Lukas would try to raise it for the time being, but that if it survived, we would adopt it when we returned from home leave in August. It was so small and it seemed that it might not make it. They brought the kitten back with them for bible study, and we were quite shocked. It turned out that the kitten was actually black and white, not just brown (I guess it really was covered with a lot of mud and poop when it was found!). H&L had bought a tiny little dropper bottle and it was eager to drink milk like a baby.

Over the past two weeks, we have taken turns cat-sitting during the day while H&L needed to go to the office for work. Care of the kitten was on the intense side. But meanwhile, our kids were home from school, so they had more time. For a couple of days, David was sick in bed with a fever, but he just snuggled up with the kitten, fed it milk, and kept it company. Even Oren thought it was pretty cute and took some turns cuddling it. As David got better, he also started multi-tasking with the kitten: putting together a lego set or a puzzle, with the kitten perched on his shoulders, while listening to audiobooks.

Initially, when the kitten appeared, the dogs were very, very disturbed. On the first night, Friday tried to nip it at one point. But over the past weeks, they have become more adjusted to the little creature. Of course, when the kitten is around, it is the most interesting thing in the room, and they can’t stop following it with their noses, licking it, pointing at it. At some moments, we could see instinct battling with the dog super-ego, Bella sniffing and sniffing and shivering because she wanted so much to nip. But they got to the point where the two dogs, David and the kitten could all hang out on one bed together very peacefully. The kitten is so small, so not a threat to them, just a curiosity. They know they are more important than it. There does seem to be a little competition between the dogs, though, over who will be more maternal. Hana and Lukas plan to keep bringing the kitten over once a week so that the dogs remain accustomed to the new little member of our family. And truly speaking we need this cat. We DO have a rat problem. As we were finishing the packing this morning, a whole herd of rats were cavorting heavily in the ceiling. They sound as big as cats. They can’t get down into the house but they make quite a ruckus.

Another dimension of this past month included a week of the Great Lakes Initiative Leadership Institute. For many years, I have been part of this gathering of Christian leaders from East Africa, joining together physically in Uganda for theological reflection on God’s mission of reconciliation. However, COVID is still a reality that limits travel, and so we held the Institute virtually for the second time. This year, I was part of the content and design team, which meant that I’ve been meeting often to select and invite the main speakers, plan the program and troubleshoot the many issues that arose as the Institute neared. The theme we selected this year was “Tackling Identity and Ideology Conflicts” – a theme that really hits home no matter which country we come from. On the one hand, God has given us a wide range of diverse and beautiful identities. But when those differences are weaponized to divide communities – worse, to divide the body of Christ – then we need to confront the divisive narratives that undermine God’s reconciling work.

This year, we were able to recruit some truly stellar plenary speakers – several of them long-time founders of GLI, but two of them newer. All of them were African scholars and practitioners who brought fresh insight to the scriptures and gave us theological insights to chew on.  We also had some excellent testimonies from people involved in grassroots reconciliation efforts. I was responsible for the worship times during the week as well. (Mainly I drew on the musical gifts offered last year by participants). The major challenge of an online conference is that it is just very difficult to keep people’s attention on that medium. We did our best to tighten up the program, provide opportunity for interaction, and have moments of worship response after speakers to give participants a chance to transition. Technology glitches are also a constant fear, and I did have one day where every form of wifi failed me towards the end of the worship session. On another day, a powerful hailstorm provided lots of background noise during worship, even in spite of my best efforts to be in a quiet secluded space in our guest container.

I think participants really appreciated the conference this year – almost all were able to stay through the entire 2.5 hours of sessions for five days in a row. I also was grateful for the time of learning. But it was also a stressful load that week, trying to fit in all the work and appointments in the morning, and then shutting myself off for almost 4 hours each afternoon, during the week the kids were off school. I was totally exhausted by the time the conference was over Friday night. Which is when I found out that David would not be traveling after all – parenting would continue for another week. I nearly had a meltdown about that, because I was so tired.

Fortunately, it turned out that David decided to be extra agreeable this past week. Since I really needed a good rest on Saturday after GLI, I suggested that we take a healthy walk back at Entoto Natural Park. David said, “Sure, I’ll go. I have nothing better to do!” And so we set off at the bottom of the hill, intending to walk the entire triangular circuit of the park this time. We had nice conversations about a lot of things and finally got to the far end of the park with the viewpoint. We were a little footsore at that point, so it felt good to sit down and have an ice cream cone. Then we started to look for the new path that would lead back to our starting point. Sadly, we realized that this leg of the path is not yet completed. We had no choice but to totally retrace our steps and walk back the way we had come, a total of 13 km. It was a little more than we had bargained for, but David did a great job holding it together, listening to his audiobook on the walk back. The fresh air was great, but what a way to rest! Not! When we got home, I think Paul and I both ended up sleeping for about 2 hours.

This week has been really intense with work and we’ve more or less ignored our son. But we’ve tried to have time to play a game with him each evening and watch an episode. David has been relatively cheerful about our distractedness, thankfully. One night we Hana and Lukas come over with the kitten, and after our dice game, we ended up playing with the kitten as it played with the dice. It was very cute and funny and we had a lot of laughs. David has even been extra helpful in tidying up the house and trying to leave it in a condition where our housekeeper Yeshi can easily clean it.

Paul back to finish up:

We left early Saturday morning and got on the Ethiopian flight that goes pretty much directly to Dulles airport. We tried a new route through Lome this time and found the Boeing 787 about half full. That was great for stretching out across seats for sleep. We arrived about 8 hours ago and picked up by Rebecca’s parents and Oren.



Saturday, May 28, 2022

Destruction is easy, Rebuilding is harder: Week 2 of our AD visit

Rehabilitating a gully with barriers and trees

When I left off the last blog, our Area Directors Wawa and Kristen were halfway through their visit to our program. Kristen and I had visited the Prison Ministry project earlier that week. Now it was Wawa’s turn to experience more of the program on the ground once Kristen left Saturday morning.

On Sunday morning, we decided to break our routine of attending our local international church. Instead, we accompanied our colleague Solomon and attended his Ethiopian Mennonite (Meserete Kristos) Church. I am afraid we have been a bit remiss, and this was actually the first time we had attended an MK service since we moved to Ethiopia. For the sake of our kids, we have intentionally made a church home with a congregation that speaks English, and we volunteer a lot in a variety of capacities. It is not easy to find a Sunday when neither Paul nor I have responsibilities.  But we’d blocked out May 15 long back and made the trip across town.

Mesfin, myself and Wawa at 
Bahir Dar

The sanctuary was pretty large, and when we got there at 10 am, it was perhaps half full. The congregation began with a time of prayer and intercession. By 10:15 when the sound system was up and running, there were almost no chairs empty. A group of young adults, dressed in white with shining gold trim, did a beautiful job of leading music and certainly put one in mind of a host of angels. About halfway through the service, we were given an opportunity to greet the community. Paul had carefully practiced all the proper prescribed greetings in Amharic and he did a very nice job. We could see how delighted people were that we were trying to understand and speak their language. A guest pastor gave a very moving and quiet message on the subject of the corrosive influence of bitterness. The only difficulty we had was the high volume of the sound system. I have now discovered that David must have extra sensitive ears because the worship time was almost unbearable for him and he had to leave the sanctuary for a while. According to Solomon, extreme loudness is sadly typical for evangelical churches here. We now know to leave David at home next time.

walk along Lake Tana

Wawa, our colleague Mesfin, and I were up early on Monday morning to head to the airport for a 7 am flight to Bahir Dar on our way to the town of Debre Marcos. Normally, we would drive directly there in about 6 hours. Unfortunately, there has been quite a bit of insecurity along the main road between Addis and Debre Marcos in the past months, due to violent clashes between extremist ethnic groups (nothing to do with the conflict in the north). So, for security reasons, we flew further north and then were met by an MSCFSO partner staff member with a truck to drive us five hours back south. Wawa has been struggling with back issues in the past few months, so first, we needed to stretch our legs and get a good walk. I was glad to have the chance to walk just a little bit along Lake Tana, hear the orioles in the trees, and experience a few minutes in this new, green city. We got a quick breakfast and then hit the road.

Clearing a field of eucalyptus

I have never traveled at all in this part of the Amhara region – Gojjam is one of the more culturally conservative areas – and it was really wonderful to finally see more of the country. As we left the lake area, we gained elevation back up into the highlands. Most homes are built traditionally with tall eucalyptus poles and then plastered with a special kind of mud-clay mixture. Eucalyptus plantations are ubiquitous in this part of the country and there seems to be a huge market for all parts of the tree, especially for charcoal and construction materials. The attraction of eucalyptus is that it regenerates quickly, putting out new shoots when a tree is felled. New marketable wood is available from the same tree every 3 to 4 years. And it grows just about anywhere. The dark side of eucalyptus is that it poisons the soil, sucks up every drop of moisture, and does not allow the growth of any other vegetation around it. Prices for eucalyptus are falling and farmers are beginning to understand that it is just not worth it to grow eucalyptus anymore. But it is very hard, long work to uproot and prepare the ground for other uses.

Mesfin and I at road lunch

We had a couple of very pleasant stops to stretch our legs again along the journey and one sort of funny stop for lunch in a small town on the way. They had very good food, Shiro wot (chickpea gravy) and tebs (pan-fried little pieces of beef) on injera. But it was next to impossible to convince them to produce a receipt for our lunch (which we needed to claim expenses on this work trip). We finally arrived at Debre Marcos around 4 pm, dropped our things in our hotel, and then went to visit the MSCFSO office.

Our partner staff understood the delays in travel and graciously waited for us after normal office hours. As part of the formal introductory briefing, Yihenew Demissie, the Programs Manager, walked us through the wide range of work they do as an organization. 

Yihenew sharing about MSCFSO work
Migbare Senay started as a child sponsorship program, supporting orphans and vulnerable children. Over time, they have added a wide range of food security projects in the communities around the base of Debre Marcos. MCC (through our back donor Canadian Foodgrains Bank or CFGB) has particularly supported projects in watershed rehabilitation and conservation agriculture. Both of these are climate-smart development approaches to help subsistence farmers scrape a living from their small acreage in a time of increasing challenge.

The highlands of Ethiopia have been farmed for probably thousands of years now. The climate is favorable for crops but the soil has been badly depleted over that time. Traditionally, farmers plow their land up to 7 times before planting, using a traditional maresha plow drawn by oxen. On the good side, this leaves the soil soft and easy for planting with few weeds. But violent rain can easily wash away the best topsoil. Erosion gullies are growing and spreading through once-productive hillsides. 

Plowing next to a massive gully
In addition, there are big problems with finding natural fertilizers. Farmers own cattle and goats. In the past, manure may have been added to the soil to make up for fertility loss. But these days, due to deforestation, there is not enough firewood available to support cooking needs. So all cow manure is saved and dried into flat pies to use as fuel. This competition for natural fertilizers means nothing is left for the fields.

Cooking fuel: cow manure stacked in pies 

On Tuesday morning, we went to visit communities around the Kosso Amba and Tibteb watersheds, and look at the problems and what is being done to restore the land. A few years ago, farmers were completely giving up on farming this land and were migrating out of the area in desperation. 

Wawa and the official project signage

Government efforts to fix the problems were not working. In 2019, MSCFSO was directed by the local government to intervene and big changes are now visible in just two years. We started our visit by climbing a hill between farming fields and an Orthodox church compound, up to the top of the Kosso Amba watershed. There, we met 5 members of the community watershed management committee. They talked to us about how their prospects have now turned around as they have learned about and implemented ways to restore their land. Watershed rehabilitation goes hand in hand with learning about how to practice conservation agriculture. Managing grazing lands by closing some areas is also very important to allow land to recover, and enforcing area closures is one of the major tasks of the management committee. Smaller “extra” projects like vermicompost, poultry projects, forming market aggregate groups, and learning about proper grain storage methods also have added value to the entire project. 

Ayenaddis, Tsebay and Anamaw
And finally, the formation and support of village savings and loans groups have allowed smallholder farmers access to credit so that they can finally make ends meet. 

One woman, Ayenaddis, spoke about how mothers are the game-changes. “We teach our husbands and our children different ways to live and do farming to change our land.” All day on Tuesday we walked through this community and learned about MSCFSO’s holistic methods for bringing health back to the land and the people.

new work on a gully, small trees and grasses

1. Gully restoration. Year by year, gullies can grow and eat away at productive farmland, taking over entire hillsides. MSCFSO implements a combination of physical and biological structures to reclaim gullies and restore them. The physical structures (walls built of brick or stone, within wire “cages”) stop soil run-off at key points along a gully. 

Acacia trees and other species are planted thickly along the gully slopes and elephant grass is added at the base of the gully to stabilize the soil. This requires a lot of manual labor, so there is a “cash for work” aspect of the project, providing jobs for unemployed young adults. This kind of work keeps the youth at home to help their families, rather than seeing them scattered to the big cities in search of work.

new trees planted in the gully

2.     2. Area closures. in the past livestock were allowed to graze freely over fallow fields and open lands. But when animals clear all the vegetation in an area, it because more susceptible to devastating erosion. The land on the top of the Tibteb watershed was nearly barren and riven with gullies. Two years ago, part of the land was closed and trees were planted. On our visit, we walked through a thick forest of young trees and glimpsed former gullies that were filling in with vegetation. The benefits of this closure were now clear to the community. In the past, rainwater violently gouged away the hillside and was even more destructive at the bottom of the watershed. 

Now rainwater percolates down through a forested area, and seeps more gently into the watershed below, also offering clean drinking water. Many of the trees and grasses in the closed area can be cut and carried back to feed livestock that are kept penned at home.


3. Conservation agriculture.

Closed area after 2 years, 
note the trees and grasses
There are three main pillars of this style of agriculture – low (or no) tillage, mulching, and crop rotation. Farmers are learning to pick the most advantageous aspects of farming this way to maximize their yields. People are not ready to stop plowing entirely, but new methods encourage them to plow once and then plant a “green manure” cover crop like Lupine. 


These nitrogen-fixing plants can grow even in the dry seasons and improve soil fertility. After flowering, they are plowed into the ground to increase the biomass of the soil, and farmers immediately plant teff or maize or potatoes. At harvest time, farmers take the grain and normally would pull out all the stalks for animal feed. MSCFSO now counsels farmers to “take the best and leave the rest,” that is, to leave the lower 20 cm stalks of maize or teff in the ground along with the roots – again, this stabilizes the soil and provides some natural mulch cover. 

Soil bund with tree lucern and mulched soil

Additionally, farmers are now aware of how to protect their fields from erosion with some light terracing. They build soil bunds – mounds of built-up earth along the downhill edges of their fields – and plant them with nitrogen-fixing shrubs like Tree Lucerne. This is an amazing plant that improves the soil, provides fodder material for livestock, flowers for bee forage, stops erosion, looks pretty, and grows easily. I am now looking to plant a line of it along the downhill side of our garden!

The payoff of conservation agriculture can be pretty huge. Potato harvests are about double what they were in the past. Maize yield increases are also very high. Wheat and teff harvest increases are not quite as impressive yet – it will take time before the soil recovers enough to show big changes.

I got to try plowing -- it was hard!


4. Vermicompost. Worms are everywhere on a farm, right? Wrong! We have been shocked to find a massive shortage of worms in the soil here in Ethiopia, no matter where we look. Yes, worms used to be a common part of soil ecology, but with soil depletion, the worms have literally died out. MSCFSO has provided each participating farmer with 2 kg of worms and a  method to propagate more worms inside special worm compost boxes made of easily available local materials. It will take time, but each year, farmers will be able to add more worms and compost to their fields, restoring the soil in another way. Mesfin is very excited to start a worm farm at the bottom of the MCC compound next week.

5.    5. Poultry.

Raising chickens for eggs
Another aspect of the projects has been the distribution of a pair of hens to farming families to allow them another source of nutrition – eggs – as well as something to sell if they need to. We visited one family who now had a flock of a dozen chickens and was able to gather up eggs for sale. Interestingly, the village market price is still 7 birr per egg, the same as what I sell for in Addis.

Tsebay's grain storage:
Mesfin points to 2 PICS bags

6. Grain storage and market aggregate groups. By harvest time, farmers are usually desperate for cash, having spent all their savings on seeds and fertilizer. Of course, when everyone harvests at the same time and sells their crops at the same time, the price of maize or teff is at its lowest point for everyone, and so farmers get very little profit. But farmers sell at that time anyway, both to get some money, and also because they worry that if they wait to sell, they will lose some of the grain to mold or insects or rats. MSCFSO is trying to help farmers get better prices for their produce by using improved methods of grain storage. 
Tsebay and his metal storage

PICS bags are the cheapest – big gunny sacks where the grain is sealed inside triple layers of plastic. There is zero oxygen inside and so all insects or molds die quickly and the grain is preserved without chemicals. MSCFSO is also piloting larger metal grain storage bins – also air-tight. These are more expensive so farmers need to save up to buy them. Farmers are forming aggregate groups as well, competing for good prices together as a block, rather than competing against each other. In this way, they can work together to remove the middleman costs of transport and get more money for their harvests.

7.       7. Village Savings and Loans Groups. Rural farmers almost never have access to capital or small loans. VSLAs are an excellent way to band together and help one another.

Abiye Wonge savings group

We talked with five members of one VSLA – they are all neighbors living near one another. They meet monthly and have very strict rules. Everyone must contribute 30 birr per month (about 60 cents US). There are fees for being late or not showing up. But then each can get a loan of up to about $80 USD. Several men used their loans to buy 4 bags of seed potatoes. At harvest time, three months later, they were able to sell 22 bags of potatoes,  pay off the loan and take home $350 in profit. One of the women members of the group, a widow with 4 children, normally supports herself by brewing the local moonshine known as Arake
é. This year, she used a loan and bought 3 sheep before Easter. She fattened up the livestock on the grain by-products of her brewing business and sold the sheep at holiday time for a nice profit.
Meaza, MSCFSO Gender officer &
Jeserosh, VSLA member 

Overall, it was a truly fascinating day of learning about a whole range of agricultural techniques – I’d been learning about CA for years since we worked in Burundi and Rwanda. This was my first time seeing farmers implementing it in Ethiopia. It was also very good to have a quiet time at lunch to talk with Wawa, Mesfin, and Yihenew about why MSCFSO is able to be more effective than larger NGOs. It really comes down to locally hired, very dedicated staff, and a willingness to work on a variety of facets of rural life, all at the same time. The field staff really take time to listen to community members, consider their felt needs and requests, and be responsive to that – they don’t simply impose a program, expect everyone to buy into it, and then walk away in frustration when the community members resist.

The most immediately successful parts of the project have been gully rehabilitation. The next steps of this program involve training more farmers in conservation agriculture because it complements watershed management perfectly. In addition, there is a lot of nearby degraded land outside the immediate project area. More communities are asking for help, but there isn’t a budget for all that cash-for-work gully restoration, so farmers will need to decide to take care of their own land in the same way that they see their neighbors doing.

Mesfin (squatting) coaching on green manure 
with MSCFO staff team

My reflections on all this work brought to mind a larger theme: it is so easy to destroy, so hard to rebuild. I see this in small ways. I watch bored David walk around our yard with a hammer, looking for stones and bricks to pound. I think of the occupying forces of the TPLF and how they ransacked hospitals, destroyed water pipes and water storage tanks, and killed off livestock. Buy a gun, walk into a school, and kill 19 children. So easy and cheap to destroy. On the other hand, the work of rebuilding and restoring what has been broken takes time, attention to detail, every square inch of a gully or a broken water pipe. Years of grief counseling. Great patience, lots of money. And between destroying and building, I know which action is imitating the work of our God. I was glad to visit with people who are bearing the image of God in their everyday practical work.

with the MSCFSO field team

Walking break on the drive

Early on Wednesday morning, we started our journey back up to Bahir Dar, with planned stops to visit the work of another partner, Afro-Ethiopia Integrated Development. AIED is our big water partner. They have a drill rig and a crew of engineers, focused on providing water points for rural communities that have no good water source.

One major learning for me on this trip was understanding the high level of cooperation between the regional government of Amhara and a local NGO like AEID. Here’s an obvious question: How do you decide where to put a well? Do you dig a well in your favorite village? In a place close to good roads? In many other countries, decisions like this might be made haphazardly according to ot the whim of the NGO. In the case of Ethiopia, the government takes a strong coordination role in all development work. With the example of MSCFSO, the government picked out Kosso Amba as one of the most severely degraded watersheds in a certain radius.

Meeting with Durbete officials, 
well is in the distant background

With emergency relief work, the government coordinates which aid agencies send food to which IDP camps. With water projects, the regional government has a list of rural communities in need of a shallow well, and AEID signs an agreement with them to provide services there. You might also ask: isn’t it the job of the government to provide basic infrastructure like water schemes? Well, yes, it is. But the government is severely limited in its resources. Foreign aid agencies no longer like to directly fund government entities. And so a lot of this essential aid work is outsourced to local NGOs which are more directly accountable to foreign donors.

The first well we visited was an excellent example of good coordination between AEID and the government. A small community outside the larger town of Durbete was identified as a place needing a well. But then the local town government heard of the regional government plan and advocated to have the well also serve the town. Durbete had a water system built for about 10,000 people, but now they have a population of about 50,000 – so massive water shortages all the time. The government looked around in their budget and found money to pay for piping to town, electrical connection for a pump, and fencing and guarding of the well site. In fact, the government found a budget of 6.6 million ETB to add to the money AEID (MCC) invested in digging the 96 m well.

Tree nursery to keep the surrounding green

Now, an additional 25,000 people will have access to clean drinking water at this site. We looked around the area of the well – it had been dug and piping would soon be connected. It was a beautiful forested area; not many areas are left in such a natural condition in the Amhara region. The government officials who met us there mentioned that they have now learned how important it is to protect the natural environment in a 100m radius of the well, in order to protect the quality and reliability of the water in the well. They will cut down the few eucalyptus trees in the vicinity, encourage the growth of many other indigenous trees, and they even have a tree nursery full of juniper and acacia up and running to fill the remaining empty land with new trees.  

Checkla tebs, photo credit 
to Wawa

When we were finished looking at the well site, the five government officials invited us to join them for lunch back in Durbete. It was very kind of them and I know my colleagues were very happy to enjoy another meal of different kinds of meats. In fact, I note here that all the local restaurants we visited were connected with an outdoor facing butchery shop. The beef is freshly slaughtered and sliced by the butcher and then grilled by the restaurant. Or perhaps not grilled, but served raw, according to taste. Vegetarian options? In this season, not so much.

We visited one more well-site further up the road. This well was dug about 3 years ago. When the village was chosen, someone needed to be willing to allow the well to be located on a piece of private property. No one was keen to do this except for an older couple, Meke Babil and his wife Abebaye Mengist. They now live right next door to the pump and are keepers of the key. They normally open the pump in the morning and the evening. But when someone shows up needing water in the middle of the day, they are available to unlock it (the pump handle is locked to make sure it is properly used).

Meke and Abebaye

This couple was incredibly cheerful, full of jokes and smiles. They had taken advantage of all the wet ground around the well, planting lots of herbs, flowers, and banana trees. They very kindly invited us to walk around their yard and visit the old well, then invited us into their home for something to eat. We were each given a plate of injera topped with a pile of Aib (a kind of cheese+butter+spices). Abebaye is also a brewer and insisted that I have a sip of her arake
é, which reminded me a lot of the strong cognac I had to sip on occasion when I was an exchange student in the USSR. This was the end of our official field visiting and so then we continued on north to get our flight back to Addis that evening.

Abebaye's brewing set up

We had one more meal with Wawa back at home at almost 9 pm – Paul had done an excellent job of holding down the fort back at home, even with the challenge of having no water on the compound since the Sunday before we left. Wawa left early Thursday morning and then we had a day in the office to catch up on email, enjoy a grueling Amharic lesson, and try to get the household back to normal when the city water came flowing back.

On Friday, I decided that it was a high priority to take a personal day. That’s something I have realized I need to do twice a month in order to keep an even keel in this assignment. In 2014, when we returned from our Burundi/Rwanda work, I was pretty burned out. I learned the importance of honoring God’s commandment to remember the Sabbath and keep it holy. In Tanzania, my workload was light enough for most of our 4 years that it was easy to take school hours on one day a week and have time for rest and prayer. But since moving to Ethiopia, I have felt that we are going flat out, all the time. This is a huge program, with lots of big projects and new emergency projects rolling in and out all the time. There is always an urgent need to be in the office, reviewing proposals, moving money, meeting partners, etc.

The view from our urban garden, where we often
try to imagine that we are enjoying
a peaceful sunset

On top of a heavy workload, Addis is not exactly a restful place. It is a big city, with lots of traffic and at any given time, 2 or 3 people of different faith confessions praying loudly over PA systems. I feel like my body is constantly dealing with noise and I’m sure that it raises one’s cortisol levels to constantly be subconsciously filtering out so many auditory stimuli. One of the best surprises about being in the field (literally) last week was the time to enjoy the silence. No radios, no loudspeakers, just the sound of the wind and birds and a few farmers calling to each other. It was restful in and of itself to be in a quiet place, and that’s impossible in Addis.

Also, we have the privilege of working at the office right in our compound, so we do not have to deal with a daily commute in crazy traffic. I am thankful for that! But that also means that our home is also our place of work and there are lots of comings and goings. In theory, Paul and I are sharing a position that is 1.5 FTE, so we each should work less than full-time. But it is hard to stay home and rest on a workday, when all around you, people are busy working, including making and eating team lunch in our house.

A little place of respite

A few months ago, I was approached by our congregation to join the volunteer Pastoral Team. I was really conflicted about this. On the one hand, I am already way too busy and was not finding the time to pray and have a good perspective on our life and work. On the other hand, the more I prayed about it, I was confronted by the fact that I am an ordained person. I can’t ever walk away from my call to pastoral ministry. I will not be functioning as a whole person, who God created me to be if I am not also participating in shepherding the church when I am called to do that. God’s answer in prayer: attend to Sabbath, with time to listen, time in solitude, and it will all come together. I am trying to trust that this will be true. Of course, in order to find peace, rest, and solitude, I have found that I need to leave the compound. I’ve had a few days so far where I take a taxi across town, pay for the pool entrance at the Sheraton, and take a day of rest. It’s always good for me to start Sabbath with physical movement, and since I can’t safely walk alone in the woods anywhere here, a long swim is also helpful. Another advantage of this pool garden is its comfortable lounge beds. A nap, if needed, is really important on a day of rest, but where can you go in a public space and take a nap? Napping in a restaurant or coffee shop, or even a big public park is pretty weird and risky. But lots of people nap around a pool, so it’s not that strange for me to join them. I’ve found a quiet upper corner of the pool garden where I can sit under a tree, read, pray, journal, nap, maybe order a macchiato, and take stock of life. Hopefully, I can then return home to be a wife, mother, colleague, and pastor with a better frame of mind. The challenge is to preserve those days against the relentless press of the urgent.

Opening the bid box at 3:30 sharp, 
Wonde, Mesfin, Solomon and I

So back at home/office, our big news this week is that we were finally able to sell two old cars, a Corolla and an old Landcruiser. These cars were purchased by MCC back in the 80s. The cars were in primary school when our accountant was born. They are OLD!! And yet, with 300% duty on new cars, even an ancient vehicle is still valuable in Ethiopia. As an NGO, we had to follow elaborate procedures to make sure that there is no corruption in selling our assets: 2 weeks of advertising, people coming to purchase the right to bid, etc. Finally, Tuesday was the day. The bidding closed at 3 pm sharp. Unfortunately, one of our acquaintances arrived at 3:05 with his bid and we had to turn him down in order to not violate the law. At 3:30 pm, the bid box was opened with a crowbar and the 3 bids were removed, envelopes unsealed, details recorded and photos taken for an official record. Thanks be to God we had 1 bid for the Landcruiser and 2 for the Corolla, so both cars are officially sold. About five official documents had to be drafted,signed, and stamped, minutes taken in English and Amharic, and verified. But we have money in the bank for the big car and it was driven out of the yard yesterday. Hopefully, the funds for the Corolla will arrive by Monday, and if the buyer reneges, we get to keep the 20% deposit.

David on Formal Friday
On the home front, Oren has been home for the past two weeks with a lull in his A-level exam schedule. He has two more Chemistry exams remaining (May 31 and June7). In between, he has enrolled in an online American Literature course. He needs one more year of English credit in order to fulfill most college admissions requirements, and no space in his tough A-level schedule next school year to fit it in. Hopefully, he will manage his time, stay on track, and get this course done by September or so. 

David has also had a week of final exams. He’s almost finished with them now and ready for school to be over next Friday. I was glad that he was ready to participate in one of the Spirit days, Formal Friday, dressing up nicely in his old St. Cons uniform! Imagine that if we would have stayed in Tanzania, he would have looked that sharp every day!


A few bonus photos:

Mesfin helps to pump for a neighbor

Textures inside a home

Beautiful young cows, being fattened at home

Arakee apparatus

A Savings group member talking about potato profits

children observing us as we talk with their parents

Remaining, unrestored land of Tibteb watershed

Farming on the edge

Two watershed management committee members, Anelay & Mesgan
MSCFSO staff in the background

An African Oriole at Bahir Dar