Journey of Discovery to Ethiopia and Back

by Allison Stone

Deep in the rural Ethiopian countryside, our group of 15 college students filed off a bus to visit a schoolhouse built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). A hundred waiting children cheered, sang and clapped as we walked up to the cheery yellow building. We said our hellos and settled into three groups of fifty to play a few lively rounds of “Duck Duck Goose.” Once the “geese” were too tired to play we began a conversation about our cultures and ways of life.  A little girl raised her hand and blew us away. “Education is very important,” she said, “but we need clean water, healthcare and food to survive. Without those things we cannot live.”

With that simple, devastating statement she exposed the chasm between her world and ours.

As Jewish college students from Hillel at the University of Washington and Seattle University, we had rarely been exposed to the depth of need we saw in Ethiopia. Our journey with the JDC was intended to provide us with an opportunity to learn first-hand about this African nation, to see the contributions that the Jewish people have made through the JDC, and to give something back. During our 10-day trip we distributed medicine, shared stories with Ethiopian students, and learned about the Jewish connections between Ethiopia and Israel. The program was not intended to be a one-off experience but to inform our thinking about global affairs and to deepen our commitment to tikkun olam for the rest of our lives. Nothing was more provocative than Ethiopia’s profound lack of drinking water.

Access to fresh water in Ethiopia is one of the lowest in the world. Women spend hours per day trekking to groundwater sources, often walking twice a day for miles with small infants of their backs. The JDC has been actively working to build wells in various rural communities and currently is working on a project to build one near the school we visited. Our group decided to walk to the current local water source to see where the surrounding community gets its water. We trudged along the fields for 20 minutes until we came across three women bent over filling old plastic jugs with what looked like water perfect for a young child’s puddle-jumping. The water was brown, cloudy with insects bathing in the hot sunshine. My stomach churned as I was taken back to the global health courses I took at UW and the emphasis they placed on contaminated drinking water as the source of many deadly and infectious diseases. We watched in horror as the women loaded up the water, placed the jugs on their heads, and marched home. We silently followed them back to our bus where two bottles of fresh, clean water were waiting in each seat.

As our bus pulled away from the school, my mind raced. It only costs $3,500 to build a clean-water well that will last a community ten or more years. Lives would be saved, illnesses prevented, and the women’s time better spent.

Ethiopia faces many challenges and it’s easy to allow the overwhelming feeling of defeat to overshadow all hope for development. I am still trying to invent ways for my family and friends to experience Ethiopia as I did so that they can feel the same sense of urgency that I feel. Maybe they too will feel the potential to bring about change and to save lives. When I remember the songs and smiles of the children I realize that every contribution makes a difference, no matter how small.

Allison Stone is a senior at University of Washington, studying International Studies with an emphasis in Public Health.