Team Kiwi 09 Bahir Dar Gallery


“We ourselves feel that what we are doing is a drop in the ocean,

but if that drop were not in the ocean, I think the ocean would be

less because of that missing drop.”

                 Mother Teresa


What is it that makes people living quiet, ordered lives in New Zealand, volunteer to go to a foreign country, to do work they wouldn’t normally do, in challenging conditions, for no pay, for people they have never even met?

I guess there will be as many answers as there are people. We all have our drivers.

For me I think it is an acknowledgement that life has been pretty good to me, and I am happy to give a little of what is left of it to try and enhance the lives of some less fortunate than I. I also love to travel, I enjoy adventure, and I enjoy meeting and making good friends.

Our arrival in Addis Ababa probably found us a little jetlagged and weary, and we were not given much time to recuperate before being taken on a series of cultural and promotional activities. These were good, but I hope we are a little more laid back on our return here so that we get more of a view and feel for Addis on our way home.

 The long twelve hour bus trip from Addis to Bahir Dar was a turning point. We had split into two groups, with the others going to their site in Jimma. There was now a definite feeling of identity and team spirit building in our group.

The trip was enlightenment to all of us – such variety, huge scope, a comparatively prosperous agricultural lifestyle on fertile looking land. Wherever we looked there were people – sometimes hundreds, sometimes only a few, but always someone. There are people literally everywhere in this country. No matter how far from the nearest town or village you can expect to see someone. The closer in, the more people, all walking to and fro, or minding their animals or working their crops.

This has been a valuable day for all of us.

The anticipated first day on our building site in Bahir Dar was a big deal for most of us. Our task was to dig foundations. This was not an easy job in the hard, sometimes rocky ground. The day was very hot. City dwellers’ hands were soft. Outdoor workers’ hands were not accustomed to the 25mm deformed reinforcing rod crowbars, and the rough eucalyptus pick handles complete with bark and knots. (Note to Marty. Get this sorted another time. Masochism is not part of this deal.)

Not withstanding this, we got stuck in with a will. Friendships and alliances were formed and by early on the second day we had cracked it - rocks and all! Blisters on hands and black finger nails were not only a pain but a badge of honour.

We have a great group of experienced builders who now made a start on the erection of the framing. It was satisfying to see the timber going up and the shape and dimension of the project forming.

While this was happening, others of us carried on learning the plastering skill. The material used is called chikka. It is red mud mixed well with straw and left to mature for a week or two. This had been done for us in advance and so we were able to get into it with a will. With walls up to 5 metres high and the chikka wet and sticky we got dirty. Well, filthy really. We threw, we chucked, we slapped, and we joked and smiled. We had chikka chuckers, chikka chicks, slappers and stirrers. We got chikka on our feet, legs, arms, head and face. Our clothes were covered. Once again we worked in little teams and we continued to get to know and understand each other. Again, at the end of the day there was great satisfaction in seeing the results.

It has been interesting to see the positive attitudes of the team members.

All came here determined to leave their mark. We have found that size is not the critical factor. In many cases, the smaller diminutive ones had the greatest output.

Passion, commitment and personal integrity abound in this group.

 While all the sweat and effort is going on, we have our team manager, Ethiopian ex-pat, Darwit, working with us and for us. There was great humour as he was the first to suffer from sunburn and peeling skin. So much for the soft life in Auckland! Darwit is such a valuable component in the team. Confidant, interpretor, problem solver, go-between, and smooth operator – the key man and admired by us all.

We have a great range of talents within the team. Catherine and Carina with their medical skills, tending our bumps and bruises as well as our other discomforts.

We have Jan and Nigel who are recording absolutely everything on still and video. We await the results of their work with expectation and some trepidation. The camera seldom lies!

Bill and Art and Mike bring their building skills and strength, planning and setting up and supervising our projects. Jan the outdoors worker, who when not behind her camera, is constantly head down or up a ladder doing whatever is required – well.

Richard, Jackie, Nigel and Phillipa, fresh from their city jobs are determined and committed. Mike brings a commitment to workplace safety and his daily briefings have seen us come though without any major injuries and no ambulances required.

Willie is determined that this challenge will help turn his life around too. As the real junior in the group, he gets all the odd jobs which no one else wants.

Neville comes with the wisdom of years, a constant stream of puns and jokes, and a work output which belies his alleged antiquity.

And then there’s Geoff, the southern farmer, determined and committed to the project. Has a real pride in being in the team, relishes the physical work, a joy in the camaraderie of the group, and a penchant for occasionally saying the wrong thing.

Behind it all is Marty! Marty, the driving force for the whole project. He had the vision, the passion, and the strength of personality to make everything work well. His logistical and organisation skills are outstanding.

Thanks for the opportunity to be part of your plan, Marty.

During the early stages of the building project we were given a couple of half days free to visit local places of interest.

First we went to the Blue Nile falls. These are only about 30 kms from Bahir Dar but over possibly the worst road we travelled on. The Blue Nile is a major tributary of the Nile and has its source in Lake Tana, Bahir Dar is on the lake’s shore. The Blue Nile is brown! It has a major power generating plant just upstream from the falls, and unfortunately much of the water was being diverted for generation which diminished the spectacle of the falls a little. Nevertheless they were still quite spectacular and were set in magnificent scenery. It was steep country with attractive green vegetation.

Also there is a very photogenic large arched stone bridge built in the 16th century by the occupying Portuguese at that time.

The village nearby seemed very poor and squalid, but interestingly, it was one of the very few places we saw which had reticulated water with taps at regular intervals along the main road.

 Another morning we went on a leisurely cruise on the lake to visit an island where a monastery, also dating back to the 16th century stands. There are still monks there, and it is the home of some amazing works of art from that earlier time. Painted in the African style in vivid colours, they depict many of the Biblical stories. It was good to be out on the soft tranquil water for a while, rather than battling the rocks on the building site. On the way home we cruised around the outflow of the Blue Nile and saw people out in papyrus boats. There is no fibre glass or plywood here. One lone fisherman even caught a small fish as we went by.

 Day eight on the building site saw a change of direction. During lunch break, Art had been exploring the greater building area and discovered the school. It was derelict. The roof was only tattered blue tarps hanging from the rafters. Most walls were broken and open. The whole structure was on a lean. Not a place for good quality teaching and learning.

Art was moved enough to suggest that maybe we could do something about it and divert some of our energy and personal resources into constructing a new room. That was Friday mid day. Darwit immediately found the right people and Friday night was spent drawing plans and buying materials. No resource consents or building permits here! On Saturday morning we all started on digging foundations. The ground was even harder here and consisted of mostly rocks- big ones. We still had only our cruel crow bars and bare hands. Spades and shovels didn’t make any impression. We gave it six hours and then knocked off for the rest of the weekend.

When we turned up on Monday morning, dreading the prospect of more digging, we found that not only had the holes all been finished, but a start had been made on the roof structure. Our local staff had worked all weekend and we really appreciated that!

By Wednesday 10am we were ready to hand over the new school building complete with seats and new real blackboard, replacing the old piece of corrugated iron which had filled that role before. The chikka-ing still has to be done, but the local  church congregation has agreed to complete that.

Everyone is so happy!

The project gave us a new focus and energy. We enjoyed the hard work. The authorities are pleased, the teacher is absolutely thrilled, and the children are happy and playing on the new sea-saw and swings which we also built. A true win-win for everyone.

 As the school building was completed and handed over, complete with the NZ flag painted on the door, we returned to the house building project. It was noticeable now that some of the impetus from the top and the locals had dissipated. Although some work was continuing from the locals (who were obliged to deliver sweat equity,) and staff, there was little organised for us to continue with. We were going about looking for work to do. We had formed our own work groups and were keen to continue the vigorous work patterns we had got used to over the last couple of weeks. Most of us were not the sort of people who wanted to just stand around waiting and watching.

I guess we had reached our main objective a bit early, and no real plans were in place for super achievers such as we were.

 The next stage of our visit was to go and visit some of the sites of historic and geographical interest in this part of the country.

We had had a day trip to Gonder earlier. We had learnt the excitement of driving on Main Road Ethiopia. The rule of driving on the right hand side of the road is interpreted very liberally here. In fact, it seemed common to drive wherever suited unless actually meeting other traffic, and then only sometimes judging by the several head-on smashes we saw. This was compounded by the constant small mobs of goats, sheep, cattle and donkeys in our path along with the multitudes of people moving to and fro and claiming the same road space, called for very regular use of the distinctive horn on the bus. The onset of darkness did nothing to relieve any of the risks.

Our next road journey to Lalebela took ten hours. The road was challenging, the weather damp, the towns squalid, and the people often seemed severe. This was all offset by the spectacular country through which we drove. We went over high passes approaching 10,000 feet, driving around the rim and ridge above the beautiful valley floors way below. Every available space was cultivated with the steeper parts all terraced with rock retaining walls. The centuries of hard work were well evident. This was all subsistence farming - peasant people working to provide food for themselves and their families. As we kept saying, “it seems to work for them.” The muddy, rocky roads and tracks in the village where we stopped for lunch, brought home to us just how difficult life must be for the local people. Art summed it up when he said “this is real third world here, mate”.

Arrival in Lalebela, in the dark again after an almost inevitable puncture on the bus, was a relief. A good meal and a good sleep were a priority for most.

Lalebela had something for everyone. The rock hewn churches are a unique feature which most of us enjoyed. Marty’s physical challenges were also enjoyed by those fit and intrepid enough to attempt them. For others, it was a time to kick back, relax and recuperate. There seemed to be a number of people not very well here, but all kept going without complaint. In the absence of any other sound reason we blamed it on the altitude.

It may be that we spent a day too long here. The surroundings were spectacular, but there was not a lot available to do in the town other than see the stone churches. After the first half dozen or so, some of us were suffering from hewn stone indigestion.

Perhaps the highs and the lows of our visit there were all on the last scheduled day.

The low: Spending around seven hours in the airport waiting in vain for a flight to depart.

The high: Getting a free night in a very nice hotel with clean rooms, flush toilets and an opportunity for a shower. We all enjoyed that evening!

 As we approach the conclusion of the tour, we can look back on some of the special things which happened:

 v     The sheer hard work involved in the building project

 v     The nice relaxing bar along the street in Bahir Dar which served cold draught St George beer.

v     I enjoyed my evening role as the dragon. My battle with St George was most enjoyable. I didn’t beat him, but he didn’t put out my fire either. Let’s call it a draw. Maybe we will continue the battle again sometime.

v     The intermittent and unpredictable behaviour of the water and power in our rooms

 v     Solid Gold Ethiopia broadcasting its Top 10 from 4.30 am, at high volume from the street side PA system at the nearby church. What happened to numbers 4-10? We only got 1-3, but we got to know them pretty well!

v     The camaraderie on the work site was great. We found out much about our lives, our families, and our bowel activities, all in some detail and in glorious colour, for those who ate the beetroot.

 v     The beauty and grace of the local women and the apparent charm and eyelashes of the men.

v     The many children and women we were able to treat for eye infections, among them a family who had walked four hours to be at our site by 8am for treatment for mother and baby. We did more than build shelter and a school!

 v     Another very special experience was seeing the palpable pleasure and appreciation of the new home owners as we handed over their keys. That was very satisfying.

v     There were our visits to the chosen charities and organisations which Marty had organised for us. Design for Dignity, Hanna’s Orphanage, and the Fistula Hospital. I know we were all challenged by what we saw there, and I suspect we will find ourselves compelled to do something about one or more of those in the future. It would be easy to come home and let those things drift to the back of our minds. We should not let that happen. Remember, we do more than build houses.

 Along with all those memories, I will always have some outstanding images in my mind – both good and bad:

v     The serene look on the faces of our hostesses.

 v     The far-away look in the eyes of Habtamu, one of our best teenage helpers, as we drove away. Was he trying to imagine where we were going, and where he might one day?

 v     The strength and agility of the slightly built men who helped us on our buildings.

 v     The constant beggars. Some obviously needy, and some obviously not so. Where do you start and stop with that?

v     The women carrying huge loads.

 v     At our lunch stop before Lalebela, a ragged woman with pleading eyes putting her begging hand into the backdoor of our bus, a man beating her away, and the door closing and us, driving away.

 v     For me the enduring image will be the eyes. Eyes blank with blindness. Eyes dull with despair, and younger eyes, bright and smiling with youth and expectation.

 So, what is the future for our host country? 

I feel their centuries of living their traditional subsistence life are nearly over.  Adidas and Pepsi and most other brands are there.  They are creating a need.  TV aerials are not uncommon.  Personal computers are available and being used by young people.  Many have sophisticated cell-phones.  Huge jet airliners take the more privileged wherever they wish to go.  Information technology is flourishing.  People can look over the fence and see how another part of the world lives.  They are very soon going to want some of what they see. 

How will the system cope with that?  Will it be able to adapt to that change quickly enough?  I can well see that huge increases in agricultural production could occur overnight almost, if modern technology were employed.  I suspect it will inevitably happen.  What will be the local impact of that in the rural areas?  Sadly I think we will need to wait at the bottom of the cliff, pick up the casualties and continue to build houses and schools and give more for some time yet.

As we approach the end of this chronicle and the end of our tour, it seems appropriate to look back at what we have achieved.

 My opening sentence pondered why we went.  We each went with an expectation.  I hope all those expectations were met.

 For me, it did more than that. 

Yes – we built ten houses, and the school room which was a special bonus.  I guess that was the primary reason I went. 

Perhaps more than that, I found I was mixing with a group of very committed and like-minded people, working toward a common goal.  We were in a foreign and challenging environment and we genuinely cared and looked out for each other.  The friendships formed there will be an enduring pleasure for me. 

To see a real third world community was a first for me.  That was challenging and sometimes harrowing.  I am glad I have witnessed it but I am very glad to live where I do. 

I enjoyed meeting the people.  Everyone was open and welcoming.  I never had an unpleasant experience with the local people.

I enjoyed our touring round Ethiopia.  I saw a diverse and beautiful country with a great, interesting history.  I saw the potential for prosperity particularly in the rural areas. 

Perhaps the most satisfying thing for me was the physical challenge.  It was hard work and I really enjoyed that.  For me it was all very satisfying.

All the rest of the group will have had their expectations and challenges and satisfactions.  I hope we can all look back and say we each did our very best and delivered and gained value from our efforts.

Did we do enough? 

No.  Housing is not enough. 

Clean water and good sanitation are pressing needs.  To achieve those, public attitudes must change.  That requires education and time. 

No, not enough, but we made a start and we tried.

I will conclude with a parable written by an unknown author and contributed by Neville Kay, our senior team member.

An old man was walking along a beach littered with starfish which had been stranded by high tide, when he came across a young boy who was picking up the dying fish one by one and throwing them back into the sea.

 Perplexed, the old man approached the boy and said, “Son, there are thousands of fish here, as far as the eye can see. Even if you continued all day, you could not return them all to the sea. So why do you bother to save only a few?”

At first the boy did not reply but picked up another fish and threw it into the sea, before turning to the old man and saying with a smile, “You see, I saved that one!”

And then added,”If you were to help me we could save twice as many.”

Author Geoff Smith - Team member

 Click to view photos here.

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