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Cycle-touring Tanzania, for a cause


Two sets of thick, nubby tire tracks disappear over the steep slope. This is a cliff, really, a cliff in remote Tanzania ending 1,500 feet below on the hot, sandy Masaai Plain. It’s not a good place for injuries of any kind, and especially not the bloody kind of gashes sustained after falling off a mountain bike. Blood (and fear) is detected easily by lion, hyena, snake, scorpion and the like in wild places like this.

Today, after five days riding up and over Tanzania’s green, lush Usambara Mountain Range, it is finally time to descend into a harsher, hotter Africa.

Though hilly and rutted roads are the norm in these mountains, mountain-biking the Usambara had been relatively easy so far, as long as you took it slow and steady.  For most people in our group of five foreigners in their thirties and forties, this method worked well. I think the cool, misty mornings had something to do with it. I could see, after a few days cycling here, why they call the Usambara “The Switzerland of Tanzania.” We had stopped for a full day and night in the village of Lushoto, singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” with friendly girls walking home from school, eating sugarcane with happy young boys, whose only use for knives was to cut wild sugarcane. Passing through the farm towns, “helloooo-muzzungu!” rang out from anyone working the fields, and children pushed us up the hills, grabbing the backs of our seats and running furiously behind us, laughing the whole way. The mountains felt safe, giddy almost, with happy monkeys in the trees above us and happy children nearly everywhere else.

But the exit route out of this veritable African idyll, so far, isn’t so pleasant. Our guides, two Tanzanian brothers, decided to lead us out of the Usambara and onto the Masai Plain via a new route, a little-used cattle track beginning in the village of Mtae (muh-tie). It’s main purpose was to switch-back down the mountainous shelf known as the Masai Steppes. This track, peppered with thorns and full of deep rocky ruts, gave this amateur cyclist chills on a rather hot day. I’d never seen anything tougher on which to ride, and especially on a bike laden with too many tee-shirts stuffed in the panniers. I rode my brakes (always) and got off the bike (often). Whether riding or walking, I swore, loudly and steadily, at this horrid little cattle track. Local women, hiking the track uphill with heavy baskets of firewood on their heads, smiled knowingly as I shrieked and swore and sweated past them.

* * *

Yassin Madiwa, one of our two guides, saw the errant tire tracks first, where the riders had obviously missed the switchback and instead rolled off the slope.  He peered down. Definitely no trail. Just thorns, bushy tangles of trees, loose sandy soil, and rocks. He got off his bike, examined the tracks and thought, Could they … have ridden down this? The two women were the least experienced cyclists in the group of riders, made up of three American women and two Englishmen.

Certainly the others wouldn’t have lost the trail like this, Yassin thought, endangering themselves and possibly the rest of the group in one sweeping, poorly-thought-out decision.  It was only the seventh day of an 11-day cycling trip. It was not a day for losing two American women on the Masai Steppes.

He called the two women’s names, long and loud.

One of those names was mine.

TO BE CONTINUED (NEXT WEEK) ….

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Lhasa, at last


The conclusion to my 3-part story of traveling from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet via high-speed rail:

The instant-comfort-with-other-foreigners phenomenon happens again in the dining car, where my husband and I meet another American woman. She is 73 years old and traveling alone. She’s no less energetic or excited about the world as the young Harvard graduate we’d met earlier. After she explores Tibet, she’s headed to the highest point in India. She definitely does not buy an oxygen tube, feeling perfectly fine at 15,000 feet. Instead, she chats with us about her love of travel. We discover that we have both reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania.

As we get closer to Lhasa, a few of the cars’ bathroom floors are completely covered in sewage. Time. To. Get. Off.

Claustrophobia and intense restlessness set in. My husband spends hours on end in the dining car. Normally gregarious with strangers, he has reached his social limit and doesn’t feel like talking to anyone. We sit across the table from one another and stare out the window at the Tibetan Plateau.

Like us, the Chinese wait-staff appear as if they do not want to talk to another soul. Visibly weary at journey’s end, they stand and stare at one another behind the beer cooler. The looks on their faces say don’t ask us for another single thing.

For everyone, it’s a relief to pull into Lhasa.

The doors open and cold, thin, squeaky-clean air breezes in. We breathe a clean breath for what seems like the first time in weeks. Lhasa, at last.

The Lhasa train station stretches the size of football field in one big platform covered by a high ceiling — way too large for this one single train arrival per day. There are no schedule boards, and no one waits inside at the station for anyone.  Is this against the Chinese government rules, perhaps? People-less, the giant station nearly swallows us whole.

Just outside, the Himalayas loom in all directions; the sun sets behind those to the West. Out here, families greet one another in the Great Outdoors.

Lhasa is still an outpost city. There are no high-rises here. Yak herders, walking for hundreds of miles, have pitched their tents just beyond the train station parking lot. They will sell a few yaks and then go home.  We make our way into town under pink and purple skies enveloping the Himalaya.

LHASA, A CITY DIVIDED

To get to the Tibetan sector of Lhasa from the train station, you have to drive through the Chinese section first. It is a saccharine place, with neat rows of new shops with floor -to-ceiling glass fronts and Chinese shop girls wearing tight jeans milling around the mannequins that also wear the same tight jeans. The Chinese government has offered incentives for Chinese settling here, and it shows in how many storefronts use only Chinese lettering. Even in Tibetan sector of Lhasa, where we are staying, grocery stores are Chinese-owned chains.

My husband and I venture out for a walk the first morning, and cross from the TIbetan sector into the Chinese.

Sidewalks at nine in the morning on the Chinese Side are full of waving arms. Human arms waving in big circles, and human hips, bending from side to side. These mostly-female employees wear identical store-uniform skirts and aprons in pastel green or pink. They face their storefront, their backs to the cacophony of the streetscape unfolding behind them: the passing of Tibetan donkey carts packed full of vegetables with their clanking chimes, or motorcycles zipping by, or the women in traditional dress walking past silently, with equally quiet babies strapped to their backs. Patriotic music blares out into the street. When the mandated exercise session is over, the music stops and the employees go inside, like nothing ever happened.

The Tibetans walk and drive and pedal past all of this as if invisible in a territory no longer their own.

On the Tibetan Side, though, Lhasa’s sounds and smells would overwhelm me. Hearing the scraping of hand-mitts on stone of prostrating pilgrims inside and around the Johkang Temple gave me a new appreciation for Buddhist devotion. Inside the temple, the chanting was low and intoxicating, and yak-butter candles lighting every dark corner made the experience nearly surreal.

But then, intrusion. At the Potala Palace (the former home of the Dali Lama, now exiled in India), video cameras and recording equipment and Chinese soldiers in every quadrant of the eerily empty palace angered me. Our Tibetan guide warned us not to talk of the occupation or Chinese politics in public. There were recording devices placed all over. We could talk about it inside the car, though, once we were out of Lhasa and heading out into the villages.

Despite Chinese occupation and the physical absence of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan way of life is enduring and being passed on to the young. A trip to the hillside Sera Monastery, about six miles outside Lhasa, where laughing young monks debate every afternoon, gave me hope. These monks reveled little fear as they practiced their beliefs. And, after visiting Sera Monastery, as we hiked down the hillside to catch our bus back to Lhasa, a young man, maybe 20 years old, happily ran toward us. He saw us looking at our guidebook, and asked in English if there were any pictures inside of the Dalai Lama. Tibetans desperately want to see their exiled leader, but the Chinese ban any images of him. We flip and flip through our guidebook but there is no picture to rip out and give the young man. He looks over our shoulder, hoping to see his holy leader, and to take him home. His faith is steadfast, not impeded in the slightest by the Chinese occupation.

We apologize that there’s no picture in our guidebook and mean it more than we can say.

He thanks us for looking, smiles and walks away. On our way out of Lhasa the next day in our Land Rover, the train-bridge over the Lhasa River reminds me of our long journey from Beijing. If my presence here changes anything, I won’t fully know it unless I return. For now, all I can know for sure is that the only change I wish for Tibet is a peaceful end to the Chinese occupation. I’ll support the worldwide effort as best I can by bringing awareness to the issues. It’s all I can do — at least now — in the hope of preserving such a rich and wonderful culture. For now, though, I’ll take in — and lock into my memory — the wide openness of the Tibetan Plateau unfolding before me in every direction.

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To Tibet, riding the world’s highest rails


 

On China’s sleek new train from Beijing to Tibet, the you-know-what is always sloshing in the squats. Overflowing aluminum toilets and door-less sleeping compartments filled with restless travelers (a few gasping for oxygen with tubes in their noses) wasn’t quite what I had envisioned when my husband and I signed up to take China Rail’s much-lauded route across the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau — as part of our honeymoon.

A romantic trip? Romantic wasn’t quite the word for this, but this journey along the “Roof of the World” from Beijing to Lhasa certainly held an exotic allure. Chinese propaganda reinforced it, as did the news pieces published shortly after the high-speed line opened. And with the hubbub, booking the journey was hard to resist: perhaps it was simply the idea that we could watch the dawn creep over the Himalayan Range from the comfort of a warm train compartment.

Opened in the summer of 2006, this is officially the world’s highest train journey, carrying half a million people in and out of Tibet each year. The shiny new cars glide effortlessly over five high passes, some more than 16,000 feet above sea level.  Over the 60-hour journey, the train stops just eight times, and only for a few quick minutes.

Some would say the Qinghai-Tibet railway line is a work of engineering genius. Several sections cross some of the world’s most active geological fracture zones. It took 227,000 workers five years to complete the line, and the high-altitude working conditions required 2,000 medics (working in on-site hospitals with oxygen chambers!). Not one person died building it.

I’m starting to wonder, though, if some of us passengers near the toilets might very well expire from fumes.  It’s June — peak travel season — which is part of the reason the plumbing is protesting. It seems as if this train — for all the feats of Chinese engineering required to get it up and running, and all the fanfare (and controversy) over its opening — would contain working toilets.

Still, I see no one passing out – yet — at least from the lack of oxygen on a train that cruises at an average altitude of 13,000 feet.  We can thank a special oxygen-generator under the train and piping in the walls that directs the extra oxygen into the ventilation system for that.

A PLACE UNCOVERED

Tibet was once a place that had a kind of natural shield – the unforgiving terrain — to protect it from the masses. Now with the train, we can shield ourselves from it, at least until we get to Lhasa. And now, the masses are starting to come to Tibet. Critics say this train, as the years go on, will bring way too many Chinese into Tibet who will stamp out the Tibetan culture. It’s a dramatic conclusion, and most of the time I bristle at dramatic prophecies. But I can’t see another end for Tibet unless it gains independence. The Tibetans are way outnumbered by the Chinese, and the longstanding Chinese-government occupation makes it easy for ethnic Chinese to move in.

Tibet is empty. Yet Tibet is full – of a spiritual confidence, of a culture steeped in history, of values still largely unaffected by consumer culture. Tibet is also a study in flatness and height, dirt and cleanliness. Tibet is new and old all at once: fresh geologically (the Himalayas are the youngest mountain range in the world) but old spiritually and historically. Tibet’s people are resilient yet acquiescent. Outwardly calm yet brimming with spiritual energy.

Perhaps naively, I want to get to know Tibet a little before it changes too much. I want to know what I can do – if anything – to help it. I’m hoping our two-week visit, staying in local guesthouses with a small tour group, will help me find out how.

From the train window, I gaze out over this vast plateau flanked by the Himalaya on two sides. Perhaps I’m hoping that some of the Buddhist spirituality to rub off on me. My wants conflict me, because so many other people want Tibet too, and this train is far and away the cheapest way of getting here. I also feel conflicted as I am helping to globalize (and in the process homogenize) Tibet, one of the last lonely places left.

A NEW TIBET?

China Rail installed oxygen outlets in the walls so passengers can buy individual connection tubes for about $2 and “plug in.” It’s funny to watch people stick the tubes in their noses in their compartment (there are outlets over each bed), near their seat, or at a table in the dining car. I wonder, might this train be a metaphor for the New Tibet? Could this high-tech thing, capable of dampening the blow of high altitude travel for potentially millions of people over the coming years, be making Tibet into a softer, more pampered version of itself?

What about those that feel dizzy but cannot afford the $2 tubes?

Foreign tourists like me, of whom the train carries only a handful on this particular summer run, are part of the problem. For the time being, we are a small percentage of those flooding into Tibet, but we represent big change to Tibetan way of life. Why aren’t the train’s nay-sayers mad at us? Aren’t we part of the controversy too? Chinese or not, we are all part of this history-in-motion.

Right now, though, most of us Westerners in our tour group are trying to blend in, an impossible task. Even so, we do our best to mimic the locals, cooking our giant store-bought tubs of spicy ramen noodles using the hot boiling water from spigots in the walls next to the toilets.

One evening, not wanting to set my toothpaste on the filthy bathroom sinks, I hold the tube in my teeth as I use the restroom. One turn of my foot on the slippery floor, though, and it flies from of my mouth and lands directly in the toilet.

I stare down at it. Is this really happening?

I look again. It’s still there.

My conscience won’t let me leave it where it is to clog the toilet, so, holding my breath, I go in.

TO BE CONTINUED ….

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Going Inside Kibera Slum (Part 3)


The conclusion to my 3-part story of  inside Kenya’s biggest slum, Kibera, and travels into other slum areas around Nairobi:

After listening to these courageous HIV-positive women, I buy about a dozen of the blue, green, yellow and red beaded pins the women make and sell to raise money for their public education campaigns. They put some of the money in a fund for medical expenses when one of them develops full-blown AIDS. They smile, grateful for the donation, and I thank them for letting me into their inner circle.

Once outside and in the light, Brother Cleo and I are surrounded by children. It’s as if smoke signals announcing the arrival of a priest and an American woman had gone out while we had sat indoors for a little while. Like the women I just met, the children all stare at my camera; the easiest way to end any awkwardness, I think, is to offer an impromptu photo session. Indeed, the laughing begins as the camera lens clicks. Only a few (more self-conscious, teen girls) walk away, camera-shy.

The laughter of children. It’s the same joyful sound no matter where you are.

A MEAL OFFERED

Brother Cleo and I leave to go higher up the hill to visit with one of the families Brother Cleo has been ministering to. The parents and their young children live in a lean-to, made of plywood and scraps of tin. A pot of water boils on tabletop gas burner.

According to The Slum Project, water mains cross underneath the 1 million people living in Kibera Slum to carry water to surrounding golf courses and estates, yet the utility companies do not provide access directly. Instead, Kiberans must either purchase water by the liter from water brokers, at prices that can be upwards of 20 times the price paid for metered water in the city. Many who can’t afford that walk to locations outside Kibera with cheaper water and haul it back to their living quarters.

A pile of lettuce sits on a table. The family offers us lunch. Brother Cleo whispers to me, “We’ll eat later, back at McCauley House.”

Taking Brother Cleo’s cue, we smile and politely decline, saying we have plans later for lunch.

With visitors, sharing what you have — however little that may be — is part of the Kenyan culture here. But in Kibera there is very little food to go around. According to The Slum Project, Oxfam, Concern Worldwide, and other aid agencies, Kibera is in a state of prolonged food crisis.

Spotting my camera, the family is eager for me to take their picture, and ask to send it back to them after it’s developed. They have never had a family portrait before. They stand proudly outside the back of their home, near a kiln that backs up to other shacks.

After the photo shoot, I thank them for inviting me into their home. Brother Cleo and I keep going up – into the commercial center of Kibera. Even after being here a few hours, I find myself, still, unprepared for the rivulets of sewage that flow down crevices in the hillside. Again, I clutch my trousers at my hips to save the bottoms from soaking up the wetness.  Just a half-mile away, where I’m staying inside the Holly Cross seminary, restrooms with clean, flushing toilets work perfectly. So much could be done to extend the city water and sewer lines here, but it doesn’t happen.

Instead, malaria and cholera and typhoid spread through the community. Diseases that don’t have to exist.

We step into the courtyard of one of the schools the late Mother Teresa set up decades ago, then walk along the railway at the “top” of the slum, where we see the farm animals, the garbage heaps, and the makeshift shops with boom-box music drowning out other shops’ boom-box music. They sell car parts and underwear and everything else in between.

After snapping at least a hundred photos, I’m officially overwhelmed.

AT THE BOTTOM OF THE SLUM, A FAMILY RISING

Before we leave Kibera, we stop and visit a family who has received seed money from the McCauley House priests to start and run their own businesses. They live at the bottom of the massive Kibera hill, where the open sewers drain into the field and form a kind of moat around Kibera. This family tells me that their small snack cart near downtown Nairobi, purchased with the grant money, is doing well. They introduce me to their 20-year-old son, who has just begun studying at Nairobi University. His parents beam with pride as he talks about college.

Much of his success – and his parents’ newfound success as well – can be traced back to a teen center that the McCauley brothers run near the seminary. This is where young people from Kibera can just be teens; some, in time, end up introducing their  families to the priests. The teen center is our last stop for the day. It’s a plain building painted yellow on the outside and containing big open hall inside where teens can play music, dance and support each other. A priest is always nearby to talk. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one.

When we arrive, we’re greeted by a few young men hanging out in front.

“Brother Cleo!”

They offer hugs, high-fives. This young priest is a trusted friend.

“Hey there!,” Brother Cleo answers, smiling.

Brother Cleo pats them on the back, asks how they’re doing. The priest on duty at the center comes out and waves, then goes back inside. A few girls watch me peek through the open doorway, giggle, and return to getting the space ready for a dance party they’ve scheduled for later that evening.

MORE WALKS, MORE SLUMS

Over the coming days, we would travel all over Nairobi to visit more projects run or supported by the priests. I got the sense that Brother Cleo walked with me as if he were trying to see this place with fresh eyes, like mine. We visit a boarding school for impoverished girls and spoke with the headmaster and a few students; we go inside a health clinic crammed with patients who would be seen regardless of their ability to pay.

All of these places receive money that the priests raise, and everyone asks if I would kindly tell my friends back home to donate, too. Brother Cleo never pressured me to give any money, or make any promises to anyone here. He just wanted me to see it from the inside. With Brother Cleo gently leading me forward, I could scratch off the ugly surfaces of the slums. And in doing so — in facing the hard realities — find a greater sense that, yes, something could be done in the slums.

This would not be my last experience in a slum. It was only the beginning.

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Finding China, beneath the yellow fog


Part One (of two) from travels in China

Most of the world is aware that in Beijing, the fog is not the cool, lilting, low-lying cloud we wish it were — you know, the kind mysteriously enveloping bonsai trees and waterfalls in all those old Chinese landscape scroll-paintings. In Beijing, the fog lives in tandem with honking car horns and hot, sticky humidity that drips off your forehead.  Only at night does it feel ethereal, and only if you lie to yourself that it drifted in off the Yellow Sea.

Beijing’s ever-present fog is pure pollution – tons of toxic particles hanging suspended in the city’s air from cars and trucks and factories.

Pure pollution. It’s an oxymoron fitting for modern-day China, a country already full of ironies. Long-steeped in what was once pure — ancient tradition, spare living, Confucian morals and healthy diets – it’s no secret that China, in some places, is polluted on the outside, and sometimes on the inside, too.

China’s bear-hug of capitalism has been strong and fast, and no number of no-drive days in the cities (an obvious public relations scheme by the government) will make any noticeable difference.

But dissecting the multiple forces at work that have made Beijing China’s version of Los Angeles is another story for another time and place and destination.

This story is about little Jinshanling, and how the smog and all that it represents is starting to poison her.

Jinshanling is tucked in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, more than 150 miles away from Beijing. The tiny village, with fewer than 200 people, is a pocket of civilization older than most civilized places in the world.

My husband and I are here as newlyweds on week two of our honeymoon, hoping to see a slice of old China. We wanted to really see the Great Wall, to find a section where we could take in the grandeur without a lot of people around. The big question: how do you do that in the most populous country in the world?

Answer: Google it. Even Jinshanling can be found on a Google search.

What I found, really, was a local tour company that for a few hundred dollars would provide a Chinese guide, two nights’ stay in Jinshanling, one night of camping inside one of the Great Wall’s abandoned watchtowers, and an eight-mile hike on quiet, sometimes crumbling sections of the Great Wall to the village of Simatai.

The company wanted full payment by wire transfer to China before we left the United States. My husband smelled a scam, but I pressed on.

“What’s the worst that could happen?” he asked.

I pause and say nothing. Instead, I turn my head to the side and smile.

I would let him answer this one himself.

“We show up and no one comes for us at our hotel in Beijing and our money is gone.”

I agree, yes, that could happen.

We wire the finds.

And so here we are, in a van, less than 18 hours after touching down in China, winding through the country roads on the way to Jinshanling. Three hours drive from the city, and the pollution-fog lingers among the corn stalks and hovers over the fruit trees. It sticks to the hillsides like an ugly cloud of cigarette smoke obscures the walls of a pub. It makes my skin feel like the floor of a fast-food restaurant.

This far from Beijing, I naively thought it would be gone by now.

Guiding us is Beijing lcoal Hai Li,, an ever-smiling 30-year-old, and our non-English speaking driver. Also with us is a 40-something couple from Australia, the only other people on the tour. (I suppose most people do not prefer to blindly wire money to China like we do. Their loss.)

We hadn’t expected all this to go so smoothly.  But neither did we expect Old China to be so effortlessly enveloped in New Beijing’s sticky dirt. Of course we knew long before we bought our plane tickets how rapidly China, especially its cities, is developing. The dizzying pace of all the construction makes me wonder how one of the world’s healthiest populations is going to deal with all the crap in the air and water and soil.

* * *

For three hours, during our long smoggy drive, Hai Li sat quietly in the front seat of the van.  Seemingly out of nowhere, she would offer up what seemed like government-mandated propaganda.

“The government says more freeways will bring more progress to all of China,” she says as we speed along the eight-lane thoroughfare out of the city, built in advance of the 2008 Summer Olympics.

But once in Jinshanling, she transforms into a deft guide. But Hai Li’s tone softens once we are in Jinshanling, where she makes quick work of convincing two soldiers posted at the town gate to let us all inside – even though it’s just about to get dark and all the tourist shops are closed.

We’ll be sleeping on the Great Wall tonight. But first, I walk down the center of the only street in town, the main one, and I instantly love Jinshanling. I feel lucky to have found her, still quiet and uncrowded in the 21st Century. I hope she stays that way a little while longer.

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Singing in a foreign tongue


 

Lululululu! Lululululu!
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.

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