I recently traveled to Ethiopia with Michael Pryce and Joe McCarthy on behalf of the HOPe Charity Organization. Our task was to assess an HIV/AIDS education and development project HOPe is funding with partner organizations, CVM (Community Volunteers of the World) and APA (Aids Partnership with Africa). For ten days we traveled throughout the rural Amhara region in the north. From the orphaned street children to reformed sex workers living with HIV, we witnessed both beauty and crushing poverty, and encountered hope and strength in the people we met.
The first case of AIDS was discovered in Ethiopia in 1984. More than 25 years later the pandemic and its aftermath is still posing a major challenge. A review of the history explains why.
During the late 70s and early 80s the country experienced several man-made and natural disasters: a disruptive Communist government, severe droughts followed by devastating famines. Also, a civil war broke out in 60s and In 1998 a fierce war with Eritrea erupted. This deadly mixture of events fueled the tragic spread of AIDS.
After decades of poor governance, war and environmental disasters, HIV/AIDS went largely unchecked and remains a major development problem.
Our guide and partner on the journey was Marian Lambert of CVM. Wicklow-born and a nurse by training, she has worked in Ethiopia for over 30 years. Traveling with her around the countryside was like traveling back in time.
Everyday we saw a parade of humanity wearing nothing on their feet, streams of women and girls carrying enormous bundles of wood on their backs, boys balancing long eucalyptus branches on their shoulders, and shepherds guiding their livestock to market.
Life in Ethiopia has a unique rhythm and the people are in constant motion. But in this land filled with reminders of the past, communities are fighting for survival and fighting the HIV/AIDS crisis. "AIDS is like a drought in Ethiopia, it is an emergency," says Marion Lambert.
"People don't pay much attention to HIV/AIDS if they don't have food and shelter. All areas of development are involved in the pandemic."
HOPe and CVM recognized that in the fight against HIV/AIDS, it is not enough to deal only with the health consequences of the virus. HIV/AIDS is also an economic problem. More than 80 percent of those infected in Ethiopia are between the ages of 20 and 49 - the country's most economically productive age group.
And HIV/AIDS is a gender and human rights problem. Often, women and girls are vulnerable to infection because of their low position in the community. Exploitation, early marriage, and abuse fuel the spread. When women and children cannot afford to eat, they are more likely to engage in sex work to earn money.
And when children lose their parents and must look after younger siblings, they don't attend school. Then HIV/AIDS becomes an education problem. Clearly, then, HIV/AIDS is a significant contributor to Ethiopia's systemic poverty on many levels.
HOPe understood the root causes and consequences of HIV/AIDS and that is why it partnered with CVM to educate and empower the most vulnerable people, namely women, girls, and orphans. The joint HOPE/ CVM project fosters a community centered approach while collaborating with the Ethiopian government, the Orthodox church, and local officials within the intervention area.
For our ten days we ventured into mud huts, shanty towns, and country classrooms to meet people who are reclaiming their lives. We witnessed the use of drama, music and peer education to promote AIDS awareness and prevent its spread.
We visited housemaids, considered by their employers to be possessions, if not slaves. We saw housemaids associations being organized to empower girls to stand up for their rights and are now legally recognized by the government. We visited rural women with AIDS/HIV who have organized, received training in business techniques, received micro-loans, and have started their own businesses.
During one of these visits, I had the privilege of meeting Mebrat, the proud owner of three sheep and two bicycles - all income generating. Mebrat now makes enough money to support her son and her orphaned nephew. She is also a person living with AIDS and before joining the Persons Living With HIV/Aids Association, her life was centered around staying in bed all day. Today, she has her dignity back and she is contributing to the community.
The trip started as a journey to discover the benefits of the HOPe project and hear from the Ethiopian people. It turned into a greater understanding for us all about what life is like for the millions of Ethiopians in rural communities. The crushing poverty, the hospitality, the pain and the pride are images we will not forget.
To read more about our trip, visit our blog at http:// hopeinethiopia.wordpress.com. HOPe-Charity (Helping Other People) is a humanitarian agency that works with extreme poverty in the developing world. More information at www.hope-charity.org.
The Irish Business Organization will hold its annual golf outing on May 5th and funds raised will go to support HOPe projects. Details at www.ibo-ny.com.