Ethiopia, October 2018

A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. October 30. 

Ethiopia is rich in history, culture and wildlife. Today we took a relaxing boat ride on Lake Chamo, which is one of the two lakes we are able to view from the high perch of our lodge.Susanne-blog-2-photo-1-600x842.jpg

We visited the crocodile market which is actually an area on the lake where large numbers of crocs reside. The crocs were sunning and seemed unreal due to the bright green of their skin.

However, as they opened their mouths to cool off, we quickly realized they were indeed alive. We also saw a family of hippos, but I wasn’t able to capture a photo due to their them only surfacing for a quick second. We saw a number of birds including the African fish eagle.


After our boat tour, we traveled to Hawassa to begin visiting water projects with our partner Mekane Yesus Church. As the sun set, we discussed the coming day’s activities and excitement to witness the impact of clean water.


A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. October 31. 

A very long day in the field and my heart is full. Even though it poured and I was cold, wet and covered with mud, I couldn’t help but feel thankful. As I received a ride on the back of a boda boda (motorcycle), I was so happy.

I was surrounded by the most beautiful scenery. The hills are the greenest green and the scent of some fragrant flower and the gentle waft of wood smoke reminded me of my grandmother’s house.

I’ve learned that as a firengi in Ethiopia, I’m a curiosity which results in small children running in terror or wide smiles, screams and shouts as I wave furiously with both hands.

I’ve overwhelmed with the events of the day and my mind is swirling with so many thoughts, but what I can share is that we are all one humanity. People love being connected and by learning about culture, religion, fears, dreams, and hopes, we can reduce prejuidce, change perceptions and what we think should be, and realize that love is the greatest gift we can share.


A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. November 1. 


Our second day in the field involved another day of a long ride on asphalt road, then gravel road, then dirt road deeply rutted. We received what our drivers like to call African massages. As we bounced and jostled and shook along, there was plenty of time to enjoy the beautiful sunshine and mountainous views. The people of the area construct their homes of bamboo, eucalyptus poles, and other natural products. The traditional structures are dome-shaped and are truly works of art. Other structures are square and are also made out of mostly natural materials including mud walls, but with the addition of tin roofs.


We visited five water points today, including one school. The school buildings were also made of natural materials with mud walls and dirt floors. We met Danichele Buuche, the “mother of the village” (in orange), who had donated land for the school and the well. Some 750 students in grades 1 through 4 attend the school, including 9-year-old Enole Eshine (girl in red). Before the well that now stands on the school grounds, the closest water source was a stream located deep in a gorge three hours away. When asked, Enole said that she was going after school to collect water there.


The school itself is located at least 45 minutes through fields and along dirt paths. There are no roads that lead to the village and all materials were hauled in by the villagers. Part of W2T’s strategy for the sustainability of all of its water projects is local buy-in, and part of that is for the beneficiaries to provide labor for hauling materials. No doubt, the village of Gowame has paid their sweat equity. Another day has ended and as we enjoyed the sunset over Lake Hawassa, we had time to discuss the enormous impact that water has on the daily lives of the people we serve.


Ernie and Martha McWilliams accompanied executive director Susanne Wilson on this fall vision trip to celebrate completed water projects and learn more about the culture and history of Ethiopia. Martha wrote this blog entry after a day spent at the World Heritage Site in Lalibela. November 2. 

Today we had a short flight to Lalibela in the northern part of Ethiopia, with a stop in Gondar. The flight to Gondar was 50 minutes and then 35 minutes more to Lalibela. According to Google Maps, the trip in a car would take 13 hours. The road infrastructure in Ethiopia is not there yet, but Ethiopian Airlines does a great job of getting people around.

We had lunch at one of the quirkiest restaurants I have seen — Scottish-Ethiopian cuisine in a building that looked like something out of Dr. Seuss. A delightful older Scottish lady runs the place.

After lunch our guide Johannes (who we affectionately call Johnny) took us to the monolithic churches of Lalibela. I had seen a monolithic church in St. Emilion in France, but the scope of these churches in Lalibela was amazing. Lalibela was a king/priest born in 1101 who visited Jerusalem and had the vision to carve churches out of solid rock as in Jerusalem. They are carved top to bottom and the architectural details are very uniform.

Today was a special holiday honoring the Virgin Mary so we were privileged to see some of the worship and hear Ethiopian Orthodox chanting. As a musician, I could see a tradition right before my eyes going back to the earliest churches who were influenced by Hebrew chant. I was very touched to see young and old people worshipping. Our guide Johnny is Ethiopian Orthodox and knew the scriptures and traditions.

Our time was extra special and Johnny had some of the priests show us crosses that are very holy in the Ethiopian Orthodox faith. One was from the 12th century. The picture is in front of St. George’s church, another incredible monolithic church.


A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. November 4. 

We made it to Gondar in the northwest of Ethiopia. Our partner is the Ethiopia Orthodox Church Development and Inter-Church Aid Commission (EOC-DiCAC). Water to Thrive works through several partners in Ethiopia. Our partners are registered NGOs and have experience in water project implementation and other development programs. Specifically, EOC DICAC assists vulnerable communities through tackling the root causes of poverty, drought, conflict, gender inequality, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Our partners work with local governmental agencies/water departments in identifying the villages in most need. They also assist in training, especially WASH (water, sanitation, and hygiene) and in maintaining the water points.
Today, we visited six water points implemented with EOC-DICAC. We are celebrating with the communities, but also checking the quality of the construction. Our goal is creating sustainable projects. The construction must be based on our best practices with good drainage of run-off, a fence, door and lock, and operating hours. At each of the projects we visited today, the pumps were located on large platforms built off the ground in case of flooding. They also included stands to place the jerry cans.


All of the project sites had water committees who oversee the supervision and management of the well. At each of the villages, the majority of the committees were comprised of women. We suggest at least 50 percent of the committee be female as the women are in charge of gathering water and will be certain to maintain it as it directly impacts their lives. At the villages, coffee was served as a sign of hospitality. I don’t think I’ve ever drank so much coffee in one day. The coffee beans are pounded fresh on the spot, poured in the jabena and cooked over an simmering coals. The pitcher is held high above the tiny cups and poured expertly to the brim. Sugar is then passed around to sweeten the thick, dark liquid. In addition to coffee, we are encouraged to share roasted chickpeas, corn, and other grains. At one of the villages, as we were walking to our vehicles, men from the village came running with platters of injera (traditional bread) and shiro.


The words of gratitude and blessings bestowed on us were genuine and heartfelt. They all share similar stories of walking many hours to unprotected sources of water that make them sick. Some of the villages dig their own wells, but they are open, unprotected, and often run dry. We witness one woman dropping a jerry can into such a well and then pulling it up with a rope. The people share that rats, snakes, and other animals are found in those types of wells. At midday, we took a break and stopped at a little restaurant on the side of the road. Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days for the Ethiopian Ortodox Christians, so we were served platter after platter of injera, shiro, and vegetables. I’ve never seen so much food or that amount of food disappear so quickly. They eat communally and use their right hands to tear off a piece of the injera and use it like a spoon or scoop to pick up the other items. Of course, all of the foods are either seasoned with berbere or served with a side of berbere (a topic for another blogpost).
Our long day ended at a local favorite restaurant called Four Sisters. We were seated outside and provided ponchos to keep us warm. We enjoyed the buffet along with the local honey wine called tej.


As I reflect upon the day, I’m taken back to the words of one of the beneficiaries. He said that every morning he wakes and praises God and asks God to bless the organization and people who brought water to his village because his life has changed. He is the very embodiment of our motto: Build Wells. Change Lives.

A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. November 5. 

Today was another day in the field with our partners in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with an agenda of visiting four wells. And it was a perfect example of when we say we support water projects in remote villages. The first two wells were located about a 25-minute walk from the last piece of navigable road. Although this area of Ethiopia is fairly high in elevation, it is relatively flat and the soil is dark and rich. The land can support many people, animals, and crops. We passed field after field of teff, which is the grain that is used in producing the Ethiopian staple, injera. Teff looks like a short, delicate, light green grass and its grain is tiny. It has become popular as a superfood for its nutritional punch including protein, gluten-free, fiber, and other vitamins.


A couple of other observations about this part of Ethiopia include:
1. Men here wear shorts which is very unusual for grown men
2. The women carry everything on their head vs. on their backs. I even saw a basket with a rooster being balanced on a woman’s head
3. The homes are rough, square, wooden structures which what appears to be mud and straw filling in the cracks
4. Animal dung is used as fuel, as opposed to the wood and charcoal that seem to be more common in other areas of the country

The second half of our day, I earned my stripes and my respect for the women who fetch water on a daily basis was hugely reinforced. The walk to one well took 45 minutes one way, and the last well of the day took more than an hour to reach.


At the first well, we spoke to a young lady, Cassaye Alebachew, who told us about walking 80 minutes to the local river for water. Her husband would tie a rope around her waist so she could wade into the river to collect a jerry can full of water. She would make the walk as many as three times a day. Her walk made me feel a bit guilty for struggling to walk with nothing more than a small camera and my phone to weigh me down. The last well of the day…I kept wondering if I was walking to Sudan. I was pretty certain I was in a another country by the time I got to the well. I fell into a small river that we crossed once the truck could no longer drive us. I saw a sick man being carried back to his village from the hospital.

Once I arrived at the well, I observed a group of children gathering water out of a puddle next to the stream. This was the community’s water source before the well was finished just a few months ago. They now use the dirty puddle water to water their crops and to use for washing. I had my usual entourage of young children, all girls this time. I sang songs to them and helped them practice their English. They told me (through an interpreter) that I was the first firengi (foreigner) they had ever seen. I asked how they knew I was a foreigner if they had never seen one, and they mentioned my white (milky) skin. They helped me forget about my aching muscles, hot blistering feet, and exhaustion. Finally, after walking with me, holding my hand, and asking for me to take them to the U.S., they bid me farewell. These children have my heart!

A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. November 7.


The Simien Mountains are spectacular. Even Homer wrote of them, calling them the playground of the gods.The mountains are recognized as a World Heritage Site for their unique topography and wildlife including Wahlia Ibex, the Simien Fox, and the Gelada monkeys. Upon entry into the Simien National Park, we are escorted by a ranger complete with gun. The scenery is among the most beautiful I’ve ever witnessed. We arrived at our lodge which consists of little huts connected by a stone walk. We hiked for about 40 minutes before encountering a family of Gelada. These monkeys have one of the most complex social systems of any animal and are only found in Ethiopia. The family units consist of mothers, sisters, grandmothers, and aunts. This matrilineal hierarchy is very stable and the females choose the male. They have the same vocal frequencies of humans and sitting among them is like sitting in a crowd of family members, laughing, playing, fussing, and enjoying life. Grooming is a very important part of this system and part of their morning ritual. The males are much larger than the females and their fur is reminiscent of a lion’s mane. They have a fairly short life span of 12-15 years and the babies take a long time to develop.


Their predators are the hyena and the leopard. In order to stay safe, they sleep in crevices and outcroppings on the cliff sides. They possess the shortest, strongest, and fattest fingers among the primates. The most unique thing about them is they are the only grass-eating primate in the world and can pack away one kilo a day.


Watching them was fascinating as they use their hands like little scoops and dig downward and towards their bodies. The munching is clearly audible and they seem oblivious to my presence. In fact, the dominant male of this family moved within 8 inches of me and sat down right beside me. The hike finished just as the rain began and then a hail storm. The weather at high altitudes is very volatile and we went from sunshine to rain and hail to fog as thick as mud soup. After sitting around a fire in the highest bar in Africa, we retreated to our huts with hot water bottles which was so appreciated and kept me cozy all night. Tomorrow, we hit the road and travel to Axum and to begin visiting water projects with our partners, Relief Society of Tigray (REST).


A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia. November 11.

The last two days in the field were extremely long, dusty and hot….14 hours and 13 hours. At the end of the first day, we were visiting the last project of the day in the dark. Geographically, the Tigray region of Ethiopia is the opposite of the lush green southern part where we started our trip. Tigray is extremely rocky, dry and brown. Our partner in this area is the Relief Society of Tigray (REST). We have a fond saying, there is no rest with REST, and this trip was evidence in support of the phrase.


Whenever our donors sponsor a complete well, they are offered the opportunity to provide wording for a plaque that is adhered to the pump head or casement in the spring protection projects. The signage is evidence of the implementing partners as well as the donor. Ernie McWilliams, a supporter traveling with us, was asked to place the sign to the claps and cheers of the beneficiaries.


There is a saying that God created heaven and earth and then took the leftover rocks and threw them in Tigray. As in the other parts of the country, the people use whatever is plentiful to construct their homes and in this case, it is rock. Some of the homes are intricately built and somehow the rocks all fit together. Their roofs are flat and covered with straw making the home magically blend into the environment.


The fences around the wells in this area are also built of rock and are secured with cement to make them sturdy. Someone asked why we require fencing – it is to protect the wells from vandalism, animals, children playing, and overuse. The wells have operating times when the people can gather water and normally includes morning and evening hours.


This area is home to many camels. They are used to transport products, produce, salt and other items and occasionally are ridden.


The model for our water projects includes training around repairs, maintenance, security, oversight and management. Every well required an elected water committee who decides on the user fee, operating hours, collection of fees, whether to hire a guard, etc. Fifty percent of the committee is female, because women are the ones responsible for gathering water and will be impacted greatly if the well falls into disrepair.



We witnessed the success of the model at the last well we visited. A large group gathered including school children from the nearby school (800 students). Interaction with the beneficiaries is always cherished during our time at the wells. Like magic, injera, eggs, popcorn and coffee appear in the field. Our supporter Martha McWilliams enjoyed talking to the students, looking at their school books, and helping them practice their English.


We asked to see their account book and how much each household pays to the maintenance account. The village had a low balance and had been working for two years. When questioned about the low balance, they explained they had to do some repairs to the well which is how it is supposed to work. The wells belong to the beneficiaries and they are responsible for it once it is handed over. The vision of Water to Thrive is for sustainability of the water wells and it can’t happen without the ownership and management by the village.


A Water to Thrive traveler reflects on time spent in Ethiopia and details visiting a special water project. November 13. 

There is always at least one emotional breakdown on every trip I take to visit W2T projects. This time, it happened at the Mekele Fistula Clinic. The clinic helps women who suffer from obstretric fistulas. Fistulas are holes created by prolonged labors. The hole is created by the pressure of the fetus on the uterus which results in a hole between the uterus and bladder or intestines. This leads to leadage of urine or feces through the vagina. The stigma is social, economic, even spiritual. Husbands divorce them and they return to their original families. They can’t attend church because they are considered unclean. They are ostracized. Their families give them a tukul, or traditional hut, and there they live. As the surgeon described it, they are treated like dogs and only have human interaction when someone brings them food. It is a terrible situation, and one that is so important to address. In fact, Water to Thrive board member Lynne Dobson has long been spearheading an effort to build a fistula hospital in Uganda as well.


Mekele Hospital provides a welcoming environment with green space. The garden allows the women to feel at home, to get their hands in the earth, and gives them a safe place where they are not judged. The doctor explained that 90 percent of the surgeries to correct fistulas are successful. I asked about the other 10 percent. He explained that he performs second and even third surgeries to repair the issue.

Water to Thrive is working with the Hamlin Foundation (founders of the Fistula Hospital in Ethiopia and pioneers of the surgery) to address the water issue at the clinic. They have a source of water that is inadequate and is corrosive to the instrumentation (as evidenced by the photo of the sink below).


So far, we’ve dug a deep borehole well, but the water analysis results are outside of the World Health Organization standards. We are currently researching water filtration systems to make the water within acceptable standards. Out of respect for the privacy of the women, I didn’t take their photos, but they were smiling and waved as we walked through the clinic. The doctor is truly performing God’s work.