My time volunteering
Assosa, capital of the Benishangul-Gumuz Region in the far west of Ethiopia, is a traditional, conservative and devoutly religious community with a number of prevalent challenges. Most notable among these are the lack of support structures for the homeless, the unfamiliarity with donating blood, the absence of a rubbish disposal infrastructure and the deficiencies in help for marginalised groups and institutions just beyond the boundaries of the town.
To consolidate a strong and effective team dynamic with a robust work ethic, it was our first and highest priority to understand each other’s culture and to the greatest extent possible, our languages. Thus we threw ourselves unreservedly into the society, in all its triumph and catastrophe, to make ourselves worthy of the love and respect of the traditional Ethiopian. We held two hours of language lessons each day, planned by each counterpart partnership: one in Amharic and one in English. We held presentations and explanations throughout these sessions regarding our cultural nuances, and we came to understand who we are in our societal and individual contexts. We attended cultural gatherings, ceremonies and festivals, and embraced our host families as our own. Upon this basis we constructed our projects.
The first project my team designed and executed was a large-scale town-wide mobilisation and rubbish clean up initiative. This was due to the heaps of refuse that were to be found around the city, with no significant method for rubbish disposal aside from burning and occasionally dumping in one of the town’s temporary landfills. With the assistance of the Assosa Environmental Protection Agency (AEPA), the VSO volunteers met with municipality chiefs and the mayor, arranging a date and plan for an initiative aimed at tidying the town of its copious trash. On the day, over 800 townspeople were mobilised in three locations, AEPA and VSO volunteers delivered speeches to the public on the separation of rubbish into recyclables, compost and landfill waste, which was followed by all participants scooping up the rubbish, sorting it accordingly and bagging it using spades, gloves and sacks provided by the VSO team. Local journalists and news teams were on hand to film interviews with the VSO volunteers, and our message was proliferated across the region. This project had mixed results. On the one hand, it was an enormous occasion for the town to learn about the correct methods of disposal, however this did little to dent the heaps of rubbish across Assosa. As of today, this is still no permanent rubbish disposal infrastructure there, and the permanent landfill is several years and millions of dollars from being constructed. Thus, our initiative, while educational, will have little to no long term impact in the maintenance of a clean Assosa.
The second project was blood donations initiative. The population of Assosa, steeped in traditional practices and rural lifestyles, had little awareness with regard to the need for blood donations for the preservation of life in emergencies. To enhance this awareness, the VSO team, in collaboration with the Red Cross of Assosa and the local red cross, marched through the town in a parade of over 200 individuals waving banners on the importance of blood donations. Beginning and ending at the Red Cross compound, this event was concluded with local song and dance presentations upon a stage, followed by speeches by three VSO volunteers and Red Cross officials. The primary actors exposed to this presentation number in the thousands.
The very next day, having put the word out in the town, we held a blood donations event under a gazebo at Assosa University, in which hundreds of students witnessed the safe and swift procedure of donating blood. The VSO volunteers waved signs and chanted slogans in the Amharic language, (I demanded that they learn these with perfect pronunciation) in order to persuade the students to donate. Speeches and dancing took place, and a crowd of hundreds gathered. These numbers are deceptive, as we only gained the modest number of 28 donations. This, however, is as many donations as the Blood Bank of Assosa acquires in a month. The strongest impact here was in developing the perceptions of the primary actors, both the participants and those witnessing, as to how and why donating blood is imperative for saving lives.
Our third project addressed the issue of homelessness within the community. The best care for the homeless is provided in its most substantial form by the local churches and mosques. It is common to see beggars outside these religious institutions, as it is here that they receive the majority of their donations and contributions from the public.
In an initiative that addressed this issue while promoting volunteerism, the volunteers of VSO launched a project on International Volunteer’s Day. We sought to spread awareness, precipitate support and provide food and blankets for the homeless of Assosa. This project was executed in partnership with a local faith-based organization, the Ethiopian Orthodox Assosa Diocese (EOAD), due to their existing activities and capacity in this area. The help-for-homeless project utilised a newly-created partnership with the Ethiopian Orthodox clergy – representatives of an ancient faith predating Catholicism - to mobilise support of two congregations of the faithful at two separate churches. At the first of these churches, the VSO team brought 50 prepared meals to a gathering of the homeless, where we worked closely with the clergy and in a very intimate, grassroots approach, we fed those among us, sometimes by hand. 22 homeless men, women and children were fed that day.
This project, while small in scale, earned and consolidated both the partnership with the Church and the support of the Archbishop of Assosa and Metekel, His Excellency Abune Dionasios, who invited the VSO team to the second and larger of the churches for its next project. Here, sharing a stage with the priests and the Archbishop, I made a speech to a vast crowd of the faithful and the Archbishop and the team handed out blankets to the homeless as they lined up on the steps of the pulpit. Journalists were present, and the news team from Benishangul Regional News interviewed me on the works and intentions of VSO. The impact here was most notable in the exceptionally warm reception given by the people, and after the event, members of the VSO team were recognised and called to by name by the townspeople as they walked down the street.
The final project brought the volunteers of VSO out of Assosa, into the refugee camps along the Sudanese border. There, we had identified an abjectly marginalised primary school by the name of Beltsotso beyond a village of mud huts, at the edge of an arid savannah. Here, the children, aged between 4 and 10, were largely deprived of sufficient educational resources such as pens, pencils, books, chalk, and the youngest grade had no chairs, but sat instead on a sheet of dirty tarpaulin. Using our budget for this project, we supplied the children with these items and assisted with teaching them for three days a week for three weeks, and now no child at Beltsotso school sits on the ground by necessity. Problematically, the educational resources we provided must be replenished at some point, and that may be a task for future volunteers. Additionally, we could do nothing with regard to the severe water shortage – the villagers may use the local pump at an average of once a week – and the economic situation was not improved at all by our presence. It remains a seriously deprived and largely unknown school upon the edge of an impoverished nation. I made a point to talk about it often in my speeches to the students and townspeople of Assosa, but they remain 30 kilometres beyond the town’s borders amid wider refugee settlements.
The impact of my placement
With the limited ICS funds we were allocated, we repeatedly punched above our weight as a team of 20 individuals in our intentions, ambitions and impact. What we represented was stamped upon the town in our many speeches, our community mobilisations and our distribution of cleaning equipment, food, blankets and educational materials, and by our correspondence with our promises and our actions. We attempted to shatter an ancient prejudice with regard to blood donations, and endeavoured to do so at the most forward thinking institute – the region’s great university – and in the streets among the less educated. We demonstrated that, by the embrace of ten individuals from thousands of miles away, there need be no culture gap between us. We delivered all that we could in the time that we had.
But this time was not long enough. Two and a half months is not sufficient time to build lasting and consistent organisational relationships. To this day, a permanent landfill has not been established within Assosa, and the rubbish disposal infrastructure is fragmentary and largely non-governmental. The burning of rubbish remains a problem, particularly plastics, which releases carcinogens – cancer inducing chemicals – into the air and environment. The views upon blood donations and advancing care of the homeless, as well as the partnership we established with Ethiopia’s ancient clergy, cannot be followed up by VSO’s ICS initiatives, as our succeeding team was evacuated from the country and ICS there has ended. Consequently, my intention of developing an interfaith initiative for the homeless with the Orthodox clergy and the mullahs of the local mosque, in an attempt to bridge the religious divide, cannot now take place. Beltsotso school remains at the margins of society, struggling for water and basic resources. There can be no guarantee of follow-up, except in the non-organisational, individual initiative of the former volunteers, half of them local, and the other half in a different hemisphere.
The greatest impact we had was in the relations we developed with our Ethiopian counterpart team members, and upon the changes we underwent as volunteers. We established knowledge, trust and love that endures today, and evolved our view of the world.
My unforgettable moments
My best memory is of giving a speech to a congregation of around 500 of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faithful in the presence of the Archbishop of Assosa and Metekel. In this speech, I spoke of the importance of helping the homeless of the community, and also of the need for greater awareness for donating blood. I spoke of the environment, the lack of public disposal infrastructure in the town, and of the relation between good health and a clean community. I spoke of our upcoming project, which we executed the week after, in which we equipped a highly marginalised primary school, Beltsotso School, with educational resources, stationary, books, and crucially, with chairs. I spoke of the necessity for continued assistance for this school and of the imminent need of the children. Most strikingly of all, while many of the congregation to whom I spoke showed little propensity for English, their reactions and receptivity showed me that they understood much of what I strove to communicate. What I knew of Amharic, I demonstrated, and mutual respect was swiftly established among us.
The impact my placement has had on me
I am now working for VSO, and I will pursue a career in the field of International Development. I will return to Assosa one day and I intend to contribute further to this great society.