Monday, May 9, 2011

Ethiopia Day Two -- The Warm Welcome

We were up early the next morning -- Dan had promised this was going to be a long day also, and that turned out to be no lie. We packed our things into our two vans to ride up into the mountains to the town of Chencha, and from there begin the walk to Bora. I'd heard about this hike, and was a bit nervous about it... ten kilometers of ups and downs starting at 8,000 feet elevation and ending at 10,000.

Chencha was off the pavement, and up a steep but wide gravel roadway. I could well imagine the challenge of keeping this route maintained during the heavy rains from July through September, and saw a road grader and bulldozer parked near the bottom, a testament to the challenges that existed each year. Construction equipment in rural Ethiopia was definitely a rarity. The town was described as hard-scrabble, and a supposed center for child trafficking for some of the factories near Addis Ababa, but I couldn't detect those aspects of it as we only stayed a brief time before beginning our trek.

The trail was challenging, even for a reasonably well trained runner such as myself. The altitude played into the equation, as well as the steep grades. Neglecting shorts, I found myself quickly sweating into my jeans and t-shirt in the sixty-something degree Fahrenheit day. As we walked, strung out along the trail in small groups, we were enthusiastically greeted by every person we met -- a hand shake, a shoulder bump, kind words that sounded like "sorry, sorry" and included downcast eyes -- almost making me feel like I was receiving an apology. The experience was moving.

About half way through the hike, I saw our bags laying on the ground along the trail. They'd made it to here on the vans, which had taken a long route around -- just passable without the additional load of their human cargo. Here the bags were picked up, not by animals as I'd expected, but instead by human porters -- mostly women. I saw one woman, probably in her early forties, loaded down with two heavy suitcases strapped across her back, and a sleeping bag in her hand. She was marching up the mountain trail ahead of me, and easily arrived at the clinic before I did -- ha! so much for training. I was a little disturbed by the human effort required to accommodate our comfort and convenience, but understood this was the way for these locals to earn some much needed cash. I'm sure they were at least well compensated by our group.

Once at the top of the mountain, we saw, not a village but instead a church and school. Bora wasn't a village in the conventional sense -- there was no collection of homes around these two buildings. Instead the people lived on nearby farms that dotted the valleys and slopes of the mountains. The clinic was expected to serve a population base of about 8,000 people in the area.
Clinics began soon after the balance of the team arrived. As part of the vision team, my job varied depending on what was needed. I spent some time in the pharmacy, counting and filling prescriptions from bulk containers for the doctor/nurse practitioner. Much of the rest of our time was spent shadowing the docs as "runners" (although turtles would have probably been faster than I was). Occassionally, we took breaks to entertain or interact with the children that gathered in the chuch courtyard to catch glimpses of the strange ferengi (foreigners) who were visiting Bora. There were also a series of interviews going on with female adult patients of the clinic, to try to get a better handle on the child-birth and early childhood mortality rates in the area. Part of doma's core mission is to improve the survivability of childbirth for mothers and babies, and the statistics gathered from these interviews would be helpful in understanding the magnitude of the problem.

At the end of the first day's clinics, we headed downslope on a twenty minute steep decline to the Chief's hut, where we would all overnight. Along the way we were again greeted warmly by everyone we met. I was beginning to feel a bit like a local celebrity, and no one on the team was unmoved by the obvious outpouring of goodwill.

The Chief's compound was a walled enclosure with four huts (two for cooking, one for the chief and his animals, and another sleeping hut) and a barn of sorts. Everything was barred shut at night to keep hyenas and other predators out. We ate a dinner of spagetti, bread and wine (purchased in boxes from Addis, as opposed to a local brew), and settled back around a bonfire built in the middle of the compound. There we were entertained by children chanting and singing local songs, and dancing. We were all able to join in or stand back as we wished. I particularly recall the strong and strangely beautiful voice of one of the young granddaughters of the chief, as she called out the song "verses". She couldn't have been older than ten.

Tired, I was one of the first to turn in, collapsing into a deep sleep quickly after I bedded down despite the continuing hub-bub outside. I remember thinking to myself, as I drifted off, that leaving the roadway behind was almost like a trip back in time. These people were living the same way they had for generations -- the only thing modern being their clothes, which looked a bit like Salvation Army cast-offs. They lacked so much from the modern world -- transportation, medical care, proper diets, etc. Even a simple steel pan or a pocket knife here would have value well beyond what we would ever assign it. But, I mused, they had something we seemed to have lost. Bora had a sense of community, and a sense of belonging that seemed to have been sacrificed to our frenetic lifestyles. As I slipped into sleep, I wondered how we could provide the benefits of the modern world, without forever altering this wonderful dynamic, this vibrant culture.

Truly, it had been a day filled with warm welcomes.


  1. The greeting is Saro, saro... don't know how to spell it... and it's just a hello. But it does kind of sound like apologizing to our western ears.

  2. Also.. well-written. Captured just the way I felt when I went in the fall, too.