The villagers – new friends, really – shrieked in joyful song as a volunteer house-builder handed over a key to the first homeowner. Then it happened again, lulululululululululu! with the second homeowner, and again with the third. The clapping and singing kept building until all six houses had been properly dedicated with a key handover by two of my team-members. Tears started forming in the corners of my eyes after the first. By the last, I was beaming, smiling, and singing with the locals, the tribal tones breaking into some hard-to-find section of my heart that was reserved for the people of Ethiopia.
Even after three trips to the African Continent, I don’t fully understand this affinity for a place and people that have little to do with my own race or culture. There’s something about the Africa, though, that makes me want to come back before I’ve even left.
I first landed in Ethiopia by accident of flight schedules in 2005. Children with big, beautiful dusty smiles gathered behind me, following me like I was a kind of Pied Piper, as I explored the capital of Addis Ababa on a 10-hour layover. I’d been gone three weeks, cycling through Tanzania with a charitable organization, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and touring AIDS projects in Nairobi’s biggest slum, Kiberra. I was ready to be home – but flights from Kenya to Portland, Oregon require many legs that rarely match schedules. Ethiopia wasn’t on the itinerary, but a day in Addis presented itself, and I just couldn’t stay in the airport. As I explored the tiniest of shops on dirt-and-gravel roads, greeted and kindly sent off by the smiles of the shop owners (even when I didn’t buy anything), I vowed to return.
The first humanid, “Lucy” was found in Ethiopia, in the Great Rift Valley. Researchers are still figuring it all out, but many say the human race was birthed here. It’s something that might explain the pull I have to the people and places of this part of the world, or why the Ethiopians I met on that day in July 2005 — and their invitation for me to come back someday — remained so strongly in my memory.
So, in 2011, I kept my promise to return to Ethiopia, this time with the backing of Habitat for Humanity International, a charity I’ve worked with for a decade as a volunteer team-leader. I gathered a group of 13 volunteers, and off we went in March to build houses in Debre Birhan, a high-altitude town (pop. 67,000) about three-hours drive to the northeast from Addis Ababa.
Ethiopia is not usually at the top of list of places most journey to, just because. There’s often a humanitarian reason people go to Ethiopia. Many come to adopt babies. Others come with work-orders from an NGO (non-governmental organization) trying to aid one of the poorest nations on Earth. I suppose we were no different, but I was determined to see this place not simply from the perspective of a humanitarian, but of a person that truly, sincerely wanted to be here. I wanted to connect with people — not people with resources and people without them, but just people. Period.
Still, I would be naive to think that our economic divide wouldn’t show. The reality is, a lot of places are lumped into ‘the poorest on Earth’, but Ethiopia actually is. In 2010, the United Nations ranked Ethiopia as the world’s second poorest (Nigeria was the absolute poorest). This UN ranking uses its brand-new, more nuanced poverty index developed in partnership with Oxford University. The new calculator takes much more into account than gross domestic product or gross national income. Basic access (or lack thereof) to sanitation, clean water, education and a way to feed one’s family creates a true baseline of extreme poverty. Ethiopia lacks in all these areas, and as a result it drops to the bottom of the global rankings. It’s a place that deserves more of the world’s attention, in my opinion.
On this, our final day with the people of the Habitat ‘village’ (500 houses) on the outskirts of Debre Birhan, I sang lulululululululu with the locals, surprising myself with my ability to articulate my tongue to make the sound, and the strength and depth of my tone. A few of my fellow volunteers looked quizzically at me — noticing how loudly I was able to match the pitch and speed of the tribal song. I wasn’t sure either, what had come over me.
Maybe it was just energy from the last 10 eventful days in a place few have ever heard of. One afternoon, our team visited with three Debre Birhan families soon to receive Habitat houses — in their current homes, oftentimes one-room dirt-sided shacks with no windows. One woman suffered from leprosy and had children and grandchildren who would move into the new Habitat house with her; during another family visit, we learned the father, a weaver, supported a disabled wife and three active teenage children; during our last stop, Tedibaba (in the picture above) a single mother of two girls and a teenage boy, made exquisite coffee and popcorn for 15 people in her 6 foot-by-10 foot shack, smiling the whole time.
The smiles of the Ethiopian people – especially Tedibaba’s — stayed with me as we left Debre Birhan the next morning. We helped build about 15 houses while we were there, the last phase of the Habitat village development. After volunteering, I traveled to Lalibela, in far-northern Ethiopia with a few of the team members, taking in the natural and architectural beauty of a place I’m grateful, honored really, to have journeyed. There is always more to really see, if we just open our eyes. And, if we feel so compelled, more to hear when we let go and sing with abandon in a foreign tongue.
OF RELATED NOTE: News reports are emerging today of a climate refugee crisis – a drought – that now affects eastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya, and Somalia. More than 1,000 climate refugees are arriving daily at the Dadaab Refugee Camp, in Kenya. A Public Radio International reporter on the scene is currently witnessing 12-day waits for food once these newly-arrived drought refugees, now numbering 30,000, arrive at the fence-line of Dadaab. Capactiy has already been reached, and refugees already registered at Dadaab are passing food and water through the fence to help the crowds outside.