Sunday, March 8, 2009

Ethiopia Part 2

March 2nd

This morning at about 6am, Tameru from Glimmer of Hope came by the hotel to pick us up and escort us by plane to Bahir Dar, a short flight northwest from Addis. Our travel today should be easy, though we've already had some mild hassle. Ethiopian airlines has a 7Kg limit for carry-on luggage... about 15 pounds. The checker at the little carry-on checkpoint didn't even bother putting my bag on the scale. He tried to pick it up and then kindly asked me if I could put it on the scale. I calmly told him “well it's more than 7 Kilograms...” and he told me to check it through the normal luggage system. I said this would be impossible and after a brief debate and some help from his supervisor I was given the okay to proceed.

We're as far as the cafe in the airport now. Tameru has sorted out some awesome coffee and I'm showing him some footage from yesterday. I think he is pleased with what he has seen so far, though it's always challenging to explain what the magic of editing can accomplish.

Photo: Tameru, one of our Ethiopian hosts.

It's 10:30 in the morning now, or 4:30 in Ethiopian time. Ethiopians start counting from 12:00 when the sun rises, and then when the sun sets that's 12:00 as well. Works a lot more intuitively for people without time-telling instruments at their disposal. The sun rose two hours ago? Well then it's 2:00! We have arrived in Bahir Dar and are preparing for our first field trip from this area. The villages we will visit have all been notified that they are candidates for water projects, so we are expecting quite the 'faranji festival' (foreigener party) when we arrive. The landscape around Bahir Dar is mostly brown and dry... blonde-colored like Colorado plains in the winter. I'm feeling slightly sleep deprived so I think i'll take a quick nap before we head out.

March 3rd

I was too tired yesterday evening to update the journal. My head was spinning with the days activities. Since the moment we landed in Bahir Dar we were surrounded by thick layers of African culture. Overall the day was a lot of work but otherwise very pleasant, as we were visiting water projects that have been completed and are now in service. The people in the villages came out to model for us and they were very cooperative, though inexperienced models. Sometimes I would have the translator give a direction to one of the people, such as 'place your hands in the water', and the villager would do so, but maybe they would turn their back and completely block the view of the camera first. We visited four completed projects, and finished the day out at a village called Jugdana where they have a hand pump instead of a spring-fed system. Ryan and I took turns pumping water while the girls from the village filled up their evening water supply with clean, cool water.

Some of the footage I was able to get yesterday will be a coveted part of my portfolio for years to come. Today we are visiting villages that have been proposed for new water projects, and I think the next few days will be challenging because the places we visit will likely have sick children and communities in very poor health.

The coffee here is outstanding, I think I'll go have some now.

Three hours later we are in Gondar, a town much closer to the border with Sudan. To the west is a flat expanse of dry desert. Gondar seems a little more poor than Bahir Dar, though it's hard to put my finger on exactly why. We stopped in the center of Gondar and were surrounded by curious folks, but the pan-handling here was just a little more aggressive than what we've seen in other parts. As well, the skin tones of the people here seem to be darker than those we've been working with previously. Where as the color of the villages yesterday was a very dark red, many of the faces I see here in Gondar are black like charcoal. Filming such dark skin tones is a challenge so we'll likely have to use lighting that will reflect at shallow angles off the shape of the peoples faces.

We just met with the governor of the region or the 'administrator'. He oversees a population of about 3M people, and he gently mentioned his expectations of the charities and discussed the most acute problems faced by the villagers at the moment. He also arranged a private tour of a local castle, the major landmark of the area. I'm not sure what the history of the structure is but I guess we'll find out shortly. At the moment we're making out way through busy traffic and the claustrophobic bustle of downtown Gondar. Navigation here is a nightmare, not to mention the driving itself. I'm glad we have a driver because there are LOTS of issues unique to the driving here. All sorts of different machines operate on the roads of Ethiopia. 99% of the traffic on the roads is foot, people walking along with the classic relaxed African lope that is immediately identifiable. The other 1% is divided among donkey carts, cattle, sheep, goats, little 3-wheeled taxis sometimes called 'tuk-tuks' most commonly associated with India, and finally, passenger cars. We are at the castle now, so time for a tour.

We were just toured around the castle by the manager of the place. He had a great appreciation of the structures and the history of the buildings his knowledge was very detailed as well. He pointed out the spiral staircase leading to the king's chamber, and how it's unique because it spins counter-clockwise as you ascent, which is reversed from most staircases. 'Do you know why that may be?' he asked 'um... to protect from siege?' - I went with my stock answer to castle trivia... I've found that most castle questions can be answered with some variation on that response and it's usually correct. Either that or 'for religious purposes'. It turns out the king served as his own bodyguard, since he was an expert swordsman, but the king was left-handed. Spiral staircases were used for defense, limiting the attacker to one or two wide at a time, and a right-handed spiral staircase (the normal kind) gives the upper-most guard the opportunity to use their right hand to reach around the center column to attack, while the lower invaders have to use their left, which is generally the weaker. Because the King was left handed he had the stairs built for his defensive preference. The architecture of the castle was influenced by Portuguese, Moors, and Indian architecture, the guide said several times that despite the influences these other cultures, Ethiopian architecture stands on its own two feet as a strong, independent style. This is what you would expect in almost anything Ethiopian. As one of the only African countries to resist colonization (they kicked out an Italian occupation) Ethiopians are staunchly independent and proud of their land and culture. They have their own time (explained above) and as the billboards around town have informed me, we are approaching the Ethiopian Millennium, the year 2000.

Photo: Gondar Castle

We're here mostly for water, so that's been our focus. Today I saw a poster outlining how to ethically treat animals. It was basically a bill of rights for animals in Ethiopia, and though I'm sure it's not enforced, at least there is some initiative to take care of the animals, which often shoulder the brunt of the suffering in poor economies. I saw the poster at the Brooke Ethiopia North Gondar Programme headquarters, which shares facilities with some of the water authorities in the area. The purpose of the program is to provide work animals to people in need. If they have a donkey, they can engage in trading or other activities to promote some income.

We have also crossed paths with another form of economic stimulus. Micro-loans enable individuals to buy some basic capital. One example in place here is this: A micro-loan company will loan an individual enough to purchase a cell phone and a calling plan, and then they will position themselves on a street corner with the phone, and a tin, and collect some money from people who may need to make a phone call or send a text.

We have just sat down for lunch, we have 90 Km of bouncy dirt road to travel right afterwards. Our day has been diplomacy and handshakes, and a flat tire up to this point. I'm anxious to get out to the field and start shooting. We are behind schedule and it's tough to notify the villagers that we'll be running late. I understand they have been waiting at the water sites since morning for our arrival, and we'll not be there for several hours yet.

It's now about 3pm Ethiopian time. I am sitting in a hotel bar in a back room shared with about 15 random people drinking Dashen Beer from Gondar. We finished the day out and returned toward Gondar. We are in Delgi now, having not made it all the way back to Gondar. Driving here during the day is risky enough... driving at night would be extremely unpredictable. Today we witnessed the aftermath of five horrible car accidents, all having occurred recently enough that there were still fluids draining from the engines on the vehicles. We did not see a single emergency response vehicle all day.

Leaving Gondar this afternoon we tried several times to stop and get gas, but three of three gas stations in the town were out of gas. Lucky for us, the Land Cruiser we have has quite large fuel tanks and we will be able to get back to town safely as long as we don't get lost, have mechanical problems, suffer another flat tire, etc etc etc.

We are really out there right now. Close to Sudan, on the west side of Lake Tana. We are a long long way from home. Nothing makes you realize how far away from home you really are like thinking back a few days. Just a couple days ago I was in Addis Ababa, thinking 'wow, I'm really far from home'... now, from Addis Ababa, I've taken one flight, one short drive, then three hours to Gondar, then from Gondar three hours on rough dirt roads to Delgi, then on very rough 4WD trails for another three hours to the villages where the water projects are being installed.

Approaching the villages today, we knew they had been told of our plans to visit. I had some idea of the crowds that form around foreigners in the villages, but experiencing it for the first time was very exciting. As we approached the first village we got a glimpse of what to expect for the rest of the day. Children streamed towards the center of the village at full speed. I saw more than one face-plant today, including one that my skateboarding buddy Nelson would call a 'full scorpion', where your heels hit the back of your head. The people come from all around, summoned not only by the sound of our engines, but also from the horns carried by the sentinels and militia of the towns. As we approach, they sound the call through horns made of... well... horns. Cow horns to be specific. They use the horns to summon up the townspeople for meetings or other important events. People came towards us over a hill carrying red, green, and yellow flags. Not Ethiopian flags, which have a 5-point star in the middle, but three simple stripes of color blowing in the hot breeze from the west.

I just asked Tameru what the flags were, and he says they are in fact Ethiopian flags, but the people in the villages cant make the star for the middle so they just go with the red, yellow, and green stripes. Take a second to think about that.

Photo: Hand-made Ethiopian flags with no star.

I also asked Tameru if there were any reliable figures for infant mortality rates in the rural villages in Ethiopia. He looked at the floor and replied that he didn't know. In the following conversation I heard the number 15%, 30%, and 10%, and various ages that children generally die when they are infected with water-borne diseases.

NON-DEPRESSING FACTOID OF THE DAY: In Ethiopia, it's appropriate to get your waitress's attention by snapping your fingers or clapping your hands.

As we rolled into the village we were no fewer than four vehicles and about sixteen people. In addition to the 'core team' in our Land Cruiser, we had picked up some regional representatives, guards, translators, diplomats, local officials, government administrators, and militia-men. I thought for a moment about the importance of my video. To these people, my cameras are more than just lenses and lighting, they are likely the only window they will be afforded to communicate with the rest of the world. The film I make will be one of the main tools we need to raise the money to implement the clean water sources for these people. So I figure about 5000 people are counting on me to make a film - that will raise the support - that will build the wells - that will tap the water - that will PREVENT THEIR CHILDREN FROM DYING.

So... we arrived in the first village and went to look at the current water source. A crowd of about 400 people gathered in absolute silence to observe the goings on. There were a few women at the spring filling water containers. They took turns filling the containers and chasing away the livestock who wanted to have some of the water. At the very top of the small pool, the water comes out clear. I would say clean, but it is contaminated. However, it is clear. They carefully scoop up the water into hollowed-out gourds and pour the water into yellow water containers, generally old cooking oil containers. As we spent more time at the water hole, the crowd started getting more curious and closing in on the scene. One of the most crazy parts about being in a crowd of Ethiopians is how quickly they get out of your way when you need to go somewhere. In one instance, I was separated from my camera bag by a tightly packed mass of about 100 people. I made the universal sign for 'I need to walk here now'... basically a slow speed karate chop with my hand held vertically, and then I just walked forward at my normal speed. I did not bump a single person. A 4-foot wide path appeared almost instantly, then closed in again right away, then opened again as soon as I changed lenses and went back to the spring.

Photo: Ryan takes a GPS reading at one of the proposed well sites.

The feeling is tense at these places. In addition to being surrounded by strangers, I am also surrounded by men with automatic weapons. These are the local militia, a legal branch of the government used for protection of the villages. At one point today, I had to ask no fewer than four armed men to please exit the background of my shot. They obliged, but with the sort of body language that clearly said 'we will do as you wish, but don't forget that we're the guys with the guns'. Okay, done.

The people here know how media works. Normally the villagers would transport the water back to their house and drink from it there, but when the camera is around they are more than happy to grab a cupful of the dirtiest water in the pond and put it in their mouth for the camera. Honestly, not unlike filming with professional climbers... ;-)

At the third village we visited today, they had already dug the first part of the well that is proposed to be placed. Ryan and the folks from Glimmer of Hope are accustomed to this sort of effort. Tameru, our guide and knowledge-base for the project is accustomed to dealing with the pressure and constant strategizing from the villages as they grapple to get their needs to the top of a very, very long list of potential recipients.

At two of the three villages we went to today, we were offered some of the local delicacies. Chick peas and … wait for it... roasted chick peas... are the seasonal treat. I had some raw chick peas, which come out of the pod like the peas you eat at a sushi joint. Grilled chick peas are small and brown, and have a bland flavor and soft texture. I could tell from the way they were presented that these little peas were very valuable to the villagers. I didn't want to eat too many, but after a day of stress and shooting I had to indulge in a handful or two. They smell like microwave popcorn.

I was also offered honey wine, like mead but different. I was told it is alcoholic but I could not taste any alcohol. The fermented honey wine has crusty bits that float on the top of the container, and the people offering it to me gave it to me in an old tin cup with nails holding the handle to the container. The drink was good, but not too different. Tasted like iced tea mixed with honey. I said 'namase ganalo' (thank you) and went back to work.

There are a lot of things about this place that you would not realize, and when you read my account you probably have a different version of reality than what actually exists. If you collect your information about African culture from the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and those travel shows that always tilt in favor of getting the host to eat the freakiest shit they can lay hands on, then you're like me: lots of false preconceptions.

As a filmmaker I'm fighting an interesting creative battle here. Do I portray the villages as the worst 3rd world poverty you've ever seen? Should I focus on the kids with flies in their eyes and distended stomachs? (there are a few) or should I also include footage of the guys on motorcycles who follow us around and stop every now and again to send a text message to their friends in a different village? (I saw two of those today). Do I shoot the women drinking diseased water from a pond they share with cattle? Or the evening beer-drinking session in the local bar, where men drink 70-cent beers and pass time? (surprised? Well so was I). Should I film from the standpoint of a totally detached observer? Or should I film from the standpoint of a marketing consultant who is trying to assemble the most convincing marketing program possible for my client? The fact is if Ethiopia pooled all their discretionary income... stopped drinking beer... stopped smoking... enjoyed no luxury items... spent all their spare time working on developing these clean water resources.... then they may already have provided wells to most of the people already, but in the process you would have turned the country into communists. If you were Rush Limbaugh, you could probably find half a dozen reasons a day to justify a statement like this: “Why the hell should I give up my hard-earned cash to help these people, when they seem more interested in smoking cigarettes, drinking beer, and socializing with each other?”

I might reply: “Well, yes, it's possible to see some cigarette smoking and some beer drinking here in even the poorest parts of Ethiopia... and I have the footage to prove it. But I have one question: How do you propose I go about filming dead children?” – and to prevent Rush from jumping in here, I would have to quickly add - “who have already decomposed?”

march 4th

Today we have visited several villages. I'm sitting on the tailgate of the Land Cruiser typing this up as about 100 sets of curious eyeballs watch me from a perimeter about 20 feet away. If the kids encroach too much the guard chases them away by throwing cow dung at them. The children are quite content to stand around and just stare at me. I can see them comparing notes about Americans. 'Obama' is one of the only words I recognize.

We have visited six sites that are candidates to receive new water projects. The situation is bleak and the people here are not healthy. At one point the village school came out and lined up to show their support for the project. Since they were arranged so neatly I had my assistant hold our makeshift backdrop and I shot a photo of each student as they filed past. During the shooting I was mostly concerned with getting everyone in focus and taking the shot before they walked past. Afterwards, I looked at the photos and I noticed one thing in common with almost every face – asymmetry. The faces of the children in Ethiopia are not symmetrical and it leads to some interesting and very sobering portraits. The students would gaze into the camera with the sort of look that was at once curious and fearful. These kids have possibly never had their picture taken, and the expression on their faces is what you would expect from a person who has never looked into a camera. Since I was shooting African people against a white backdrop, the photos are basically black and white. One color I notice in the photos is the slight red tint in the eyes of the children affected with cholera or dysentery or chronic diarrhea.

Photos: Three of the students.

As I went from village to village today I was concentrating on collecting some audio from the various places. In a film, the background sounds you hear are called ambiance, as they serve to capture the ambient noises found in an environment. The gathering of filthy water takes place not to emotional ballads of strings and heart-rendering pleas for aid, but to the sound of birds chirping. Sick children transport the diseased water back to the village not to a voice-over of a charity asking for your money, but to the gentle rustle of leaves in the breeze and the mooing of cattle. In short, the sound of people suffering is a lot like the sound of your last day out in the park.

NON-DEPRESSING FACTOID OF THE DAY: Spicy Najeera inside normal Najeera is called Furfur and is quite tasty!

This evening Ryan and I went to the downtown market area of the city and found some entertainment. We had our driver with us and he helped us locate a couple foosball tables. Foosball is quite a phenomenon in Ethiopia. For 3 Burr (about 25 cents) you can have a game of Foosball. As we hung out around the foosball tables a large crowd started to gather, eventually turning into quite a scene. The power in the town kept blinking on and off, rendering foosball impossible during the off times, so I ran back to the hotel and grabbed some headlamps which we used to keep the game going. I took some photos of the games, but eventually the town militia grabbed me and 'requested' (in the way that only 5 big guys with 5 big guns can) to have me take their picture. Of course, the answer was “yes it would be an honor to take your picture! Smile!”

Photo: The Delgi Militia

Thursday, March 5th

Today we got a slow start. For some reason the thought of eating Njeera again this morning made my stomach turn, so I think maybe I have mild food poisoning from the meal last night. When I was presented with some wheat bread my appetite returned and I was able to eat as normal. Breakfast and lunch today consisted of thick bean paste, scooped up in pieces of fresh bread. We also found some bananas and it tasted amazing to have some fresh fruit, which is a bit of a luxury in this area.

Today we got to witness the excitement as a village placed a cap on a completed well site. When we first arrived, all we saw was a hole in the ground about 8 feet wide and 25-feet deep. These hand dug wells work well here because the soil is (generally) soft and stable, and the diggers can hollow out the well fairly quickly (more on the opposite of that in a minute). After going down to the desired depth, the workers begin to place concrete cylinders inside the well. This will ensure that all the water that is drawn from the well will be free of ground contaminants. The workers lower each consecutive ring into the well one on top of another by stringing ropes around pipes and tying the ring off to the pipes. Then about 20 men can lift the cylinder and place it over the hole, and the ropes – wrapped several times around each pipe for friction – are slowly released and the ring is lowered into the well.

Photo: Getting ready to lower the cylinder into the hand-dug well.

After the column of concrete cylinders reaches the surface the people build up a platform of stones and fill in the gaps with concrete. After this cures they will build a wider platform that will serve as the filling station for the pump, affording enough room for the pumper and the filler to share the platform and collect water comfortably and safely.

We also visited two sites that are candidates for new systems and I shot some scenic material from around these locations. On our way to camp we stopped by another finished site and shot a few photos that Ryan will use for wall displays in the Wine for Water tasting shop in California. I've rarely shot for an image that will be blown up to the size he's talking about – 8 feet by 12 feet, so I had to make sure everything was exactly in focus and properly exposed. I got two horizontals and one vertical that I'm very proud of and I think Ryan will get a lot of mileage out of them. He estimates that about 10,000 people will see the full size displays in the wine store each year.

Photo: One of the shots from the completed project

Tomorrow we will begin our journey back to America. It will take us about five days of fairly continuous travel to return home. Not much by historical standards but in modern-day transportation terms that's a heck of a long time.

Every time I turn on my computer to jot down a note about my footage... wait a minute...

I was just handed a brimming cup of 'local beer'. Let me take a minute to describe it before moving on. Local Beer is a home-brewed concoction of water, sorghum, local grains (maize sometimes) and just before they ferment it they add honey. The appearance is extremely off-putting. Chunks of grain husks and other material floats to the top. The color is a greenish-yellow. The smell is unmistakably beer... but you can tell right away that it's not Fat Tire. The flavor, surprisingly, is manageable. It's weak by American standards. It's sweet but not too sweet. I'm not sure if I'm going to finish the cup I've been offered but it's a very nice gesture nonetheless and like most things here it's better than I imagined. Okay... where was I?

Every time I turn on my computer to jot down a note about my footage, a little warning bubble pops up from the menu bar and says 'wireless network not connected – no wireless network available'. I usually make an announcement to whomever is listening that “HEY GUYS... I'M NOT GETTING ANY WIRELESS! ARE YOU GETTING WIRELESS?” It doesn't take much in the way of humor to break the tension here, and there's plenty of tension to break.

Today our host from ORDA, one of the local agencies working to bring clean water to the region discussed with me the importance of trying very hard to find the funding to complete the wells we have seen the sites for. When the rainy season comes it can be very hard to implement the wells because the fields turn to mud and it's not a good idea to drive across food fields when they should be growing food. Our host is respectful and he is not giving us a hard sell. He knows that he's preaching to the choir but the situation here is desperate. Each village that does not have their drinking water secured by the time the rainy season comes will have to endure another year of child mortality and suffering, because the rains bring with them disease, spreading surface contamination into the open springs and creeks where the people are gathering water. Getting all ten projects implemented in the next few months is likely not possible because Wine for Water is such a young organization, and as a result it is likely that several... a few?... many? Of the faces dotting the background of my photos and videos will no longer be with us come next year.

NON-DEPRESSING FACTOID OF THE DAY: A lot of the people here carry herding sticks with them at all times. When they stop for a minute, they either crouch on the ground of the lean up against the stick and raise one foot to rest against the opposite knee. The position is iconic for Africa and as often as I see it I have not been able to draw my lens to it in time to catch a good photo.

I am at this moment sitting under a tree watching Ryan (try to) play Frisbee with about 20 kids at the same time. It was too dark for Frisbee about twenty minutes ago but they're still at it. Ryan accidentally pegged a little girl and she ran away. He tried to catch her to offer her a little present like a pen or something, but she ran away as fast as her little legs could carry her, screaming 'Faranji! Faranji!”.

I found out a few minutes ago that the well we visited today that they were capping is the one Ryan paid for out of his own pocket. He has pledged to find funding for the other ten water projects as well. At this moment, there are six ants on my computer screen.

Tonight we are camping at Jantegena and our gracious host Mulualem Ashenafi has arranged for some electric lights to adorn the campsite, which, he tells us, should draw quite a crowd.

And indeed it did. Tonight was a terrific celebration. About 150 villagers came out and they all brought picnics – Njeera with bean paste and chili sauce. Everyone sat around and watched the sun go down, and they also watched as I shot Ryan's portrait that he needs for marketing himself and his organization. Throughout the shoot, I have had lots of assistance from the helpful folks surrounding us. I rarely have to carry my own gear. Every time we stop at a village and open the back of the land cruiser there are several sets of dark hands reaching to help shoulder some of the load. After my initial surprise and reluctance to release my grip on my precious gear I got used to it and I saw this same work ethic and desire to help out in any way possible as a very pervasive trait of the villages seeking some clean water infrastructure. One of the guys always helping is Wonide Engeda, a full-time employee of ORDA (Organization for Rehabilitation and Development in Amhara) working in the communications field. I generally cringe to have other hands on my gear, but the team-effort mentality is essential around here. After dark, we started a fire and everyone danced around the fire clapping and singing. I made a fool of myself and tried to mimic the intense shoulder-vibrations that the people use as their staple dance move. Basically, to dance in this part of Ethiopia is really easy... just act like you're trying to shake your head off your shoulders. Keep the beat, keep a smile on your face, move towards and away from the old guy doing the singing, and you'll do just fine.

Photo: The village comes to party. Picture by Mulualem.

Friday, March 6th

We are stopped momentarily while our driver fixes another flat tire. This is number five on the trip, our spare tire is in good shape and we should be on the road again soon. We filmed a small amount at the well site today. It was a beautiful moment when they finally got it working and clean clear water started to flow. There was clapping and singing and celebration. It's funny though how culture pervades everything... here's a couple examples: In Oman, the Sultan developed a few water projects for some villages – expensive projects requiring deep bore holes – and everything was great until the townspeople started turning up sick with ailments you would not normally expect from groundwater. It turns out that the appreciative villagers had thrown chickens into the well to thank the spirits, and the chickens rotted in the well, polluting the water. Another example happened this morning. The people from the village with the new well are accustomed to having to scrap for position in line to get water from the trickle of a source they have available. It's chaotic and there is a lot of importance placed on who gets to fill their cans first. Despite the fact that the new well was putting out about 5 gallons of water per minute... more than enough for everyone... there was still jostling and yelling at the well site. It went away quickly though as everyone had their cans full in just 25 minutes and it began to dawn on them that they probably don't have to fight for rank anymore. Just another added benefit to having a clean plentiful water supply. The tire is changed now (they're pretty good at it around here) so time to go.

This morning we left Jantegena and stopped briefly in the outpost of Delgi. After that it was a two-hour drive on very rough rocky road to Gondar, where we took lunch and I introduced myself to another film crew from Austria and chatted with them about their experiences and techniques and also plugged my upcoming Pure premiere in Vienna (gotta hustle!). We picked up pavement again at Gondar and are now going to Bar Hidar, where we will catch a flight back to Addis Ababa tomorrow. In two days we will be taking Ethiopian Air through Damascus to London and then I connect through Chicago to reach Denver.

Saturday, March 7th

Today we are leaving Bahir Dar to return to Addis Ababa. Our flight leaves at about 5pm and we are spending the day meeting with the people at ORDA and discussing the specifics and the time line for getting the projects implemented. There is some pressure coming from the organization towards Ryan to try to get the projects going before rainy season, but as a new organization it is a big challenge to pull together the funding in just a couple of months. The administrator of ORDA is an intelligent person, and as before the pressure is respectful but also very present. The people are desperate and the desperation works its way through the system eventually arriving at the top. The people involved with the organizations are very sensitive to the expectations of the people. One of the issues complicating the process is that many of the villages have already started digging wells on their own, and if the projects are not implemented before rainy season then the wells will cave in and the work will be lost. ORDA could go ahead and fund the wells at this time, with a guarantee that Ryan will pay for the projects this year, but there are complications with raising funds for something has already been paid for by another organization, and it has become very complicated in the past with some of the other charities that have funded projects in the area. The word 'desperate' has been used about half a dozen times. At the same time, the villagers were instructed to not begin digging wells until told to do so, and it would be potentially negative to allow the villagers to begin to find ways to dictate the pace of the development because this can result in hard feelings if plans change or funding does not come through.

Today I asked Mulualem a difficult question, and he handled it without problem. I said “So if we install clean water to the villages, and it is just enough to provide for the current population, what will happen in ten or fifteen years when the children are no longer dying young, and the life expectancy grows above 45 years? Will we encounter a shortage?” Mulualem says they are currently looking about 10 – 15 years in the future, and there are long term water projects on the radar that would consist of deep bore holes and modern water distribution systems capable of providing clean water for a growing population. Also, as people are no longer sick and tired, they will develop more economic activities and they will not rely as much (or hopefully at all) on government assistance to build the wells. The current level of community contribution to wells averages about 6 – 10%, meaning the community manages to pull together about 300 – 500USD and they contribute this to the project as a way of showing good faith and commitment to the project.

Photo: Mulualem

As we are getting ready to depart Ethiopia, I've decided to leave some things here. With Wonide Engeda, (pronounced one-day) the ORDA photographer, I left my F-Stop camera backpack. It's a bit too small for my video equipment and I think he could get a lot of mileage out of the fact that the bag seals up very well with rubber-lined zippers. It's a dusty place here and having a clean bag to house your camera is key for keeping the mechanism running. He was stoked to say the least. I'll also leave a pair of Kaenon Polarized sunglasses with our driver Gecha. I believe driving is his main source of income so preserving his eyesight will be important.

I guess I'll close the journal with a few observations and some of my own personal thoughts. I've been here for a couple weeks... total... so I'm far from an expert. I still struggle to remember the names of the towns and villages we were in and the names of the people we met, so my observations are not so much from the standpoint of an expert, just someone who was here for a short stay in the company of some of the poorest people in the world.

Observation 1) Everything here is working at 100% capacity. From the overloaded buses and trucks to the 70-year old boats still carrying loads across Lake Tana, to the hands and feet of the people, to the soil and the springs and the environment. Anything extra, whether in terms of money or energy or time, is converted into food and consumed, yet the people still appear under-nourished. I'm not big by American standards but in the video Mulualem took of me dancing last night I look like a linebacker dancing next to stick figures.

Observation 2) Lack of clean water is a major gear in the poverty machine. In the villages we visited that have clean water, the people were happy, smiling, and full of ENERGY. In the villages where the women scoop water from a puddle shared with livestock and breeding insects, the people gazed into my camera with blood-shot eyes and a look more weary than anything you can imagine. I work with athletes all the time and I train hard myself and let me tell you, these people are really, really tired. In addition to the physical effects of hosting parasites and suffering from outbreaks of diseases like cholera and dysentery each rainy season, the emotional fatigue of rampant child mortality must be a burden heavier than most westerners can imagine. When filming or shooting photos of people, I always use the eyes of the subject to get a focus point, so throughout this trip I have been looking deep into the eyes of Ethiopians, and let me tell you, there is a big difference between the ones with clean water and those without.

Observation 3) There wasn't much conversation in the Land Cruiser as we went from place to place. We weren't discussing the intricacies of the situation. We weren't talking about the pros and cons of project implementation here. There just simply wasn't that much to discuss. These people need clean water and if they could do it themselves they already would have. Some people may wonder what these people have been doing all these years, and why this is such a big problem now. Well, here you go: these people have been dying young. They have been and continue to suffer and die young. Clean water can prevent this. The situation is just not that complicated.

Observation 4) You have to be very careful about giving impoverished people any indication of opportunity, because they may completely derail their lives by trying to start making preparations for change. Even mentioning the possibility of a well in a village sets off a chain reaction that may culminate in the villagers spending precious money and energy digging a well based on the advice of village elders instead of qualified hydrologists, and even after such a huge quantity of extremely dangerous work the well may be dry and a new one may need to be dug only a few meters from the first. It's more than just the villagers also. If you casually mention a dollar amount or a level of support, this number gets burned into memory and it acts like ratchet. As things change, you will never be allowed to reduce this number, only increase it. Any mention of a greater contribution makes a tiny little click in the mind of anyone within earshot, and this again is an example of the power of desperation.

Desperation is a force to be handled with great care.

Chuck Fryberger
Addis Ababa Ethiopia
March 7, 2009


Steve Schultz said...

Really, REALLY cool to hear what you had to say about all of this. It's been interesting to see your perspective on all of this.

Blackford said...

Incredible post Chuck. Truly an excellent description of your trip, and a awesome glimpse into the village life of Ethiopans you were around. How can we support or contribute to the project?

chad said...

very interesting posts... I once worked on groundwater projects in the Caribbean and can somewhat relate (of course, the water shortage in Ethiopia is far worse).

Today, I will drink my two liters of... Monday recovery (from climbing this weekend) water... with a greater sense of appreciation.

Mike said...

Great posts on Ethiopia! I have friends and family living in Bahir Dar and some friends here in California starting a charity to help build wells and schools and such. Can you help me out with who this "Ryan" is and where his wine to water store is? I think it would be great to link up with him.

Yilkal said...

great blog about your recent trip to ethiopia. i am stunned about how much of the intricacies of the ethiopian culture and ways you have been able to pick up in such a short time. i also appreciate your willingness to discuss your dilemas of what you were seeing before you.

Suburban said...

Bravo Chuck. Beautiful post.

Movecrafter said...

Hi Everyone.
Thanks for the comments. It's great to be back in America, where the problems all seem so small.

Not a sales pitch, but a few people have asked: Ryan Broersma is the 'ryan' in my blog. He is the executive director of Wine for Water which is the charity I was working with. He can be reached at

This is a new organization so I'm not sure if the web site is up yet, but he does check the email so if you would like more info please drop him a line.

Thanks for all the positive comments.