Dan Rankin, for the Gazette
Meeting with the country’s president was never part of the itinerary for Sue Orr or Ellen Sparling when they began planning their trip to Ethiopia.
But thanks to the connections of their travel companion, Gezahgn Wordofa, it became an unexpected highlight when they traveled there in January.
“When Ellen and I arrived, Gezahgn told us he had applied for us to meet the president, and Ellen and I looked at each other and said, ‘yeah right,’ ” said Orr. “We didn’t think that would happen. That’s not why we went. But he managed to make that happen.”
Orr said during their meeting she told Girma Wolde-Giorgis, who has presided over the nation of 78 million since 2001, about her wish to help bring water and medical supplies to his people.
“He was very clear with me Ethiopia is not a poor country that is not in war and not in drought,” she said. “He feels that his people will work and God will bless them. I think he’s right about what his country can do. It’s a hardworking country.”
Orr and Sparling witnessed this first hand over the course of several weeks during which time they visited Dukem, the village where Wordofa grew up.
“I think if we provided clean water for these people it could only help by keeping them safe from health issues and allowing their crops to grow better,” she said. “They could have the opportunity to have another business. I think it would be a real step up.”
Apart from their presidential tête-à-tête in the capital city of Addis Ababa, they spent their time providing residents of the village with gifts of medical and school supplies, as well as beginning the process of digging a well that would finally mean a clean source of water for the area.
“There’s no running water there, only a pond – a very dirty pond,” said Wordofa, a former UN ambassador and founder of the multicultural association based out of the United Way Perth-Huron building. “There are donkeys and hyenas and other animals and humans all drinking out of the same water. They also need a special guard for that water because sometimes in the day people come from different areas, from four hours away, and steal the water.”
Wordofa speaks from experience, having grown up and attended school in Dukem, now home to roughly 3,000 people, before moving to Russia to be educated. His dedication to helping immigrants and refugees become situated in Russia helped him become a goodwill ambassador for the UN, and permitted him to travel to countries such as Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan advocating for refugees.
In April 2011, he moved to Stratford, where his interest in learning and supporting Ethiopia has grown.
“People are ready to support me,” he said. “When I talk, people are interested to learn more and to help.”
That’s how he met Sparling, with whom he helped create the group Youth for African Sustainability, which can be found on Facebook, and Orr, who has previously traveled to India, Bangladesh and Kenya with the organization Sleeping Children Around the World.
During their stay in Ethiopia, the group slept at the home of Wordofa’s friend in Addis Ababa and used a rented car and driver to visit Dukem – a little over an hour’s drive from the capital.
“We wanted to try to immerse ourselves in the village and meet the people,” Orr said.
Getting to the pond from the village meant proceeding on foot due to rocky conditions, and they made the trek alongside the village’s women and children who brought back the water on donkeys.
“Once that water dries up, they have to walk even further,” Orr noted, adding she suspects that, by now, the pond has dried up due to heavy use.
Afterwards the group spent time with the school children in the village, handing out breadsticks and bananas and some supplies from Canada such as backpacks and pencils and shoes.
Speaking to the children, they determined that their biggest wish was for clean water, but desks and things such as soccer balls and jump ropes were also sought after. The jump ropes and soccer balls were easy enough to track down, Orr said, and, after a little research, she found that desks for three children would cost about $50 each.
“I decided I would buy one and I put it on Facebook and actually 35 people said ‘Yes, put me down for a desk,’” she said. “But our main focus was to be the well water.”
Through fundraising dinners, coffeehouses and donations, Gezahgn and Sparling had collected about $5,500 for the project, and Orr estimated that, based on similar clean water projects she’d heard about, they would need about $10,000 more in order to see the job to completion. But she didn’t anticipate how much the region’s rocky ground would contribute to cost of the project.
“When we met with the engineers, their first plan was close to $200,000,” she noted.
“To get at the ground water you’ve got to dig. A company there needs around $50,000 only to dig,” said Wordofa. “The surveyors found the water was very far down – 200 meters.”
To even begin digging, which would require highly specialized equipment, road improvements are also necessary to ensure the safe passage of the equipment, he added.
Wordofa’s connections with the local government have sped up the creation of a proper road, Orr said; however, the additional piping and generator needed for a well that could be used by about 3,000 people and as many as 60,000 cattle on a regular basis would cost an additional $95,000.
“After that, we were a bit winded,” Orr said. “I told them until I have these quotes verified and at least half of the money, we’re not comfortable moving ahead.”
While the Ethiopian engineers’ reports are being reviewed by an independent Canadian consultant, Orr has been looking into joining up with a local charity that could provide receipts to anyone making donations to their clean water project. She expects both of these steps to be completed within the next month.
For now, they are looking for more venues to share their story, she said.
“It’s not going to be an easy fix to raise this money. We’re talking a few years in the making here. But I don’t think we’re talking about just Stratford helping.
“I do believe with some other people we met while we were in Ethiopia, there’s potential for our efforts to be concerted with some others.”
Wordofa said he has felt blessed by the support they have received from the church groups and organizations that have already seen their presentation.
“The churches here are very wonderful,” he added. “The people are ready to support. I’m very sure that we can give them water very, very soon.”
To learn more about the Ethiopian clean water project, contact Wordofa at the multicultural association office via the United Way office at 519-271-7730.