Team Kiwi 08

The First Taste

On the 20th of September 2008, 24 individuals from all over New Zealand descended upon Auckland International Airport filled with excitement at what the next three weeks had in store. Most of our group would be travelling to Ethiopia with Habitat for Humanity’s Team Kiwi Builders for the first time.

After the many hours of in-flight service, security checks and departure lounges we finally arrived to a warm, sunny afternoon in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital city. Following a warm welcome from the Ethiopian national office, the weary members of TKB08 led for the second time by Marty van der Burg boarded a coach to take us to our hotel. 

During our first exposure to Ethiopia there were many eye openers as most of us looked out the window at a city in poverty. Children and families asleep or wandering aimlessly on the streets, open storm water drains dumping contaminated water into the streets, the hustle and bustle of an overloaded city and of course livestock dotted amongst the urban sprawl.

In the words of our leader Marty, “This was it!” We had arrived in a place for only a short time but a place that would challenge any preconceived expectations that we initially had.

As the coach pulled into the car park the team were happy to finally be only minutes away from lying horizontally. So much so that I doubt many people even noticed the security guard standing with an AK-47 loaded for the patrons’ protection. With luggage unpacked we wearily checked into our rooms ready to unwind and sleep off many hours of jet lag. Many of us however were too excited to sleep and decided to venture out for our first taste of the capital. The sights and sounds of a bustling Addis Ababa bought tears to many in the first few hours and busily digital cameras began to fill memory cards. Our journey had begun.

The following morning a more refreshed looking team met for breakfast and discussed some of our first impressions. This also included a jovial requisition of whose room had hot water, a flushing toilet, shower curtains or even power.

Over the next two days the team visited the Habitat National Office we met the staff at the office some of which would accompany us to the work site. We spoke with Kebede Abebe and discovered just how valued the time was that we had given up for a common goal of building houses in Ethiopian communities. We spent a morning at Hanna Orphans Home delivering donated items and fundraised goods from New Zealand. The morning spent with the children and hearing of Hanna’s dedication to change was a humbling experience. Seeing children meeting and greeting total strangers and automatically taking us into their hearts was incredibly moving. Their smiles and laughter will be remembered by us for many years to come.

After a hearty farewell from the orphanage we began our journey to Debre Birhan. Located 150 kilometres north of the capital city, it seemed inconceivable that our bus journey would take us 6 hours. Then we saw the road that we were to travel on and immediately understood. The bus meandered along the main road, dotting in and out of copious amounts of road works, and through small townships and villages. The team were able to soak in the many sights of rural Ethiopia. Camera’s flashed and comparisons to home were made but all were in agreement the view was breathtaking.

We arrived at the Debre Birhan affiliate in the late afternoon and were greeted by many excited, inquisitive and smiling faces. Many of which belonged to the families that we would assist in building their homes. The team were formally greeted by Kinfe Seifu the Debre Birhan Affiliate Chairperson who delivered a heart warming speech that again outlined just how appreciated our trip to Ethiopia was. We then arrived at the Hotel Eva which was to be our home for the next ten nights.
Building at the Debre Birhan Affiliate.
We arrived at the site on the first morning ready to leap into action. Many of the houses were at various stages of completion so it was a bonus that the team (for whom building skills were a minority), would have the opportunity to try their hands at a variety of different activities. All 24 members of the team were greeted again heartily by many of the locals at the site and with tasks assigned the work began. Our first task was to begin digging the foundations for six houses. Employing the traditional kiwi attitude the team jumped into action no questions asked just good honest graft!

The teams were assisted by many of the locals and by mid afternoon there had been noticeable progress made. It was obvious that ground had been broken in more ways than one. Many of the locals came to have a look and as they did introductions were made and friendships began to form. The team retired to the hotel that night dirty and tired but invigorated and ready for day two.

Over the next seven days the balmy Ethiopian weather ensured that we were able to get as much done as was physically possible. 12 house trenches were dug, Chika was thrown (all too often at each other!) at the outside of 10 houses and at the inside of 5 houses, 2 floors were compacted, 4 roof frames were prepared, 1 roof was erected, 4 toilet floors were concreted, 1 set of walls were constructed, 10 rock foundations were prepared and copious amounts of boulders were carried from a to b. By day eight the team were tired, chika stained, sun burnt, blistered but over all satisfied that we had made a significant contribution to the building effort which of course was the main focus of our journey.

During lunchtimes the team were provided with a locally made traditional meal which made for a wonderful opportunity to sit and talk with the locals and listen to their stories. Many children would visit the site and this was a highlight for many of the team their innocence and excitement motivated many of the team members. The children would invite us into their games and them into ours. Many of us learned how to count in Amharic and even a traditional song or two was learnt. Slowly in a pigeon english kind of way the language barrier was broken.


During our stay in Debre Birhan the local hospitality was extended far more than any of the team expected and we were treated as long lost friends not merely visitors. We were lucky enough to experience the Mescal ceremony, an Orthodox Christian tradition celebrating the finding of the true cross. We spent an R&R day visiting an underground church and strolling along ramshackle roads with the awesome scenery of rural Ethiopia as a backdrop. It left us breathless and that wasn’t just the altitude.

The last day of our stay in Debre Birhan was dedication day. Although the houses that we dedicated to the families that day were not completed by our team specifically, they had been completed by volunteers and members who were all a part of Habitat for Humanity’s efforts and we remembered them as we handed the keys to 12 new homeowners. It was a moving experience. Seeing the joy and appreciation in the faces of those people receiving something that we all, in western society take for granted said it all. It left many of us feeling that there is much more that can be done and for many a seed has been planted that will hopefully grow one day into change. We spent the remainder of the afternoon at the site enjoying the hospitality of the people who had opened their hearts to us over the past nine days. We took pleasure in enjoying a traditional Ethiopian barbecue – a first for many. The team were fare welled with gifts and certificates of participation from the local people. Keife Seilu spoke again of our efforts and thanked us warmly. To this Marty replied with a speech on our behalf that moved many of our team to tears as we reflected on the journey thus far, the changes to our previous ways of thinking and how moved we had all been through having had this experience.

To show the teams thanks and appreciation we performed an energetic rendition of the Haka, Pokare kare ana and the national anthem. We said our teary eyed farewells to the many people that we had become close to, addresses were exchanged between many of the team and those they had worked closely alongside and slowly 24 red eyed faces boarded our bus and left the site for the last time. It was by far the quietest bus ride back to the hotel.  

Rest and Relaxation

Early the next morning (a little too early for some) with our main purpose for travelling complete, the team boarded the bus bound for six days of R&R before returning home. The next leg of our journey led us north to Lalibela and would take two days with an overnight stop in Dessie. With a few small hiccups and again some teary eyed farewells at the hotel we departed Debre Birhan it was noticeable that there had been some huge impressions made on all of us during our stay as again our bus was a lot quieter and more subdued than other journeys. The journey to Lalibela was a beautiful one with views of countryside that could only be described as postcard perfect.

During our stay in Lalibela the team visited famous Rock Hewn Churches, this was a powerful experience and led us through the history of Orthodox Christianity in Ethiopia. The team also had the opportunity to visit other churches in the area. However some took the opportunity to reflect as individuals on the effects the trip had on them whilst soaking up the beauty of Lalibela. 

Farewell Ethiopia 

After three nights in Lalibela the team packed up and flew back to Addis Ababa where the last two days of our Ethiopian experience would be spent. Once back in the capital the team visited the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital and were lucky to meet with Dr Catherine Hamlin who with her late husband, Dr Reg Hamlin opened the hospital in 1964. The couple had worked in Ethiopia previously and realised that this country was where their work would do the greatest good.

The team also visited the Oromia Coffee Farmers Cooperative Society Ltd. Here we learnt the plight of the coffee farmers and how Fair Trade coffee organisations can help and are trying to make a difference for the impoverished coffee farmers.

Our last stop and possibly the most emotional of all was our final visit to the Habitat for Humanity Ethiopian office to say our goodbyes and farewells to the staff, many of whom had accompanied us to the Debre Birhan work site.

On the 20th of September 2008, 24 individuals met at Auckland International Airport and on the 9th of October 2008, another teams experience had come to an end. Our group was incredibly grateful and humbled to have the experience that we did. In a three week stay we were able to witness things that have challenged our own thoughts and opinions. Some of us were saddened; many of us were angered, some felt fulfilled and others were empowered but something that we all shared was seeing the beauty of Ethiopia, a country steeped in history and the vibrancy of its people. 

If you are able to take your western blinkers off for long enough you can see a nation of people who underneath that blanket of third world poverty are warm, caring, funny and loving. Many qualities of which are no longer able to be found in Western Society.  They are people of tradition and culture but they are above all – survivors and the indications that they are trying to make changes for the better are evident. The team were privileged to have this opportunity and in the hearts of many of us deep down, we know we received more than we gave.

Trip photos can be seen here.

There are more trip photos here, by Evan McBride, a fellow team member.

Moragh Sutherland, Member of Team Kiwi Builders 2008.

 Team Kiwi 2008 Sponsors