I am writing this blog post back home in Brooklyn about my last couple days in Oromia-Ethiopia, especially about the afternoon of the last day, when I traveled to the small town of Holeta, about 30 km west of Finfinne/Addis Ababa in the heart of Ethiopia’s industrial-scale agriculture, with a young man named Ebessa who was in the midst of starting his own philanthropy to fight HIV-AIDS and help poor children get an education. Holeta also happens to be the place where Nelson Mandela received some military training just months before his arrest by the South African government, the subject of a new documentary film currently in the midst of production entitled Mandela’s Gun. Ebessa is the older brother of Tesfa, the man who had been our driver the previous two weeks, and my purpose for meeting with him was simply to scout out possible non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with whom my students at Wagner College might do some volunteer work if they visited the country. Earlier that same day, in fact, I had met again with Aster and Lensa of the Gudina Tumsa Foundation (whose site in the arid district of Fantalle I had visited in 2010) to discuss this very same subject over lunch. However, what I thought would be a simple meeting with Ebessa turned out to be a lot more.
The day before (New Year’s Eve day by the European calendar) had been pretty much the usual for me and my wife Maya. My stomach had recovered from whatever it was I ate on Sunday that had caused it so much distress, and I had spent the morning writing a blog post about the previous few days. After a quick lunch at Kaldi’s Coffee — the Ethiopian version of Starbucks (except a whole lot better than Starbucks) named after the fabled goat-herd Kaldi who discovered the coffee plant — Maya and I visited the beautiful campus of Addis Ababa University and the ethnographic museum that is part of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, housed in a building that was once the emperor’s palace. We then had coffee with the scholar Dr. Ezekiel Gebissa, who teaches at Kettering University in Michigan and whom I have met several times in the United States at Oromo Studies Association conferences. He was in Addis to run a short winter-term seminar at the brand new Center for Human Rights at the university, and he gave us a brief tour of the center. He also invited us to come out to see the legendary Oromo pop star Ali Birra give a live show for New Year’s Eve, but Maya and I had already planned a triple date for the evening with my friends Alessandro and Roba and their girlfriends (recently arrived from France and Italy) at a fancy Egyptian restaurant, and I was still not feeling 100% enough after Sunday night’s food-poisoning to attend a late-night concert. Perhaps coincidentally, or perhaps not, all of us on this triple date are in bi-racial relationships, which got me to thinking that if you aren’t in a bi-racial and/or intercontinental relationship, you just may be out of touch with the twenty-first century, ha-ha-ha. Then again, who cares. After this last evening out, I thought that things were tapering off — that the next day I’d just have a couple of meetings, after which Maya and I would have dinner with her grandparents, and then we’d go to the airport for a midnight flight home. But the afternoon turned out to be one of the most interesting afternoons of my whole trip.
Ebessa picked me up from outside the Kaldi’s Coffee by the Bole Madhane Alem Cathedral in an ancient Toyota Corolla he’d rented for our trip from an acquaintance. In the open compartment below the dashboard were some CDs and DVDs that belonged to the car’s owner, including bootlegs of the American TV suspense drama Nikita with sexy pictures of actress Maggie Q on the covers. Ebessa had originally planned to become an evangelical minister, attending the Mekane Yesus Seminary, but his experience as a high school student volunteering to help victims of HIV-AIDS had instilled in him a passion for philanthropy, and so he changed his program of study to management and leadership. He got a job with an NGO working in Holeta, but that program was phased out after two years (as is, unfortunately, far too often the case with such non-governmental programs.) During those two years, he had formed a relationship with the community, and so he decided to start up his own organization that would help poor children go to school. He was currently working with about 80 children (about ten from each of the eight kebeles — or “wards” — of the town) to help them with food security, school supplies, and life-skills. In addition, considering his own experience with short-lived programs, he is already planning for the possibility that his program may not last by setting up a chicken and goat farm that will be owned and operated by the families he works with even after he leaves. After we drove into town, he first first took me far off the main road to this farm, where we met a few of the men and women caretakers. When we left, the caretakers said “ciao” — the Italian word for goodbye, which is how most people say goodbye in Ethiopia. Next, Ebessa took me to visit one of the neighborhoods to visit a couple of the families and their homes. On the way from the farm to the families, we picked up an elementary school teacher named Kidist who works closely with some of the children.
In the pictures uploaded to the blog, you see me, always with my pad and pen, taking notes. On this trip, I learned a lot about Holeta and the “kebele” town organization that I didn’t know before. As is explained in the town’s promotional video that I’ve inserted below, Holeta is a big agricultural area with a government research facility and even a wildlife preserve. For ordinary people in the town, the research center is simply the place where they go to get milk. Holeta and the nearby towns also have many large flower farms owned by foreign corporations, and you will sometimes see Chinese and South Korean writing and flags next to the Oromo and Ethiopian writing and flags. On the one hand, such agribusiness is good for the community, providing thousands of jobs. The parents of the children I met worked for these companies. On the other hand, the families still seemed quite poor, living in small houses with dirt floors, mud walls, and thatch roofs, and the companies did not always follow environmental standards, so the long-term effects on the local ecology (especially the water) is a major issue. From the elementary school where Kidist works, if one looks in one direction, one can see these enormous industrial-sized hot houses, and if one looks in the other direction, one sees the construction of a brand new building for a facility that will train security guards for government embassies. It’s a curious irony that these two things would be within sight of the same school that is itself looking forward to the children’s future.
Further down the dirt road from the school, we stopped and got out of the car and walked for a bit, passing the kebele office building, which is important for a number of reasons. For those of you unfamiliar with Ethiopian history, a “kebele” is an administrative unit originally set up in the 1970s after the revolution to transform the feudal system of lord-and-tenant farmer into a system of governance by peasant associations. What I learned is how central the kebele office is for the community, as it is the office that allocated the land for the small homes that I visited and it is where families go to get water from the faucet (unless they want to get it from the local creeks, which may or may not be polluted.) If anyone wishes to do business or philanthropy in the neighborhood, or even just visit, one must go through the kebele. I visited just one of the eight kebeles in Holeta. At the first home I visited, I met a small boy named Tibabuu, who showed me the perfect score he received on his math quiz that week.
I left with many questions, and reflecting on my experience now, a few days later, I think that getting a complete picture of the situation would require months of work. One question was a question that Ebessa was himself dealing with, and that is how to create a grass-roots NGO that would be able to sustain itself. Another related question is funding, and a third question is when and how to begin identifying which individuals had HIV-AIDS since it still was a horrible stigma in the community, despite government and church efforts at public education. Lastly, I wondered what my students could usefully do there in the limited span of a week, or if the place would simply be too difficult for them. The promotional video above explains that the name “Holeta Genet” suggests a garden of Eden. It isn’t.