Why my recent trip to Ethiopia has made me more determined than ever to complete the London Marathon

11034326_853055808074585_4628419856482101325_o   As you will know if you have been following my blog, when I run the London Marathon in April, I will be raising money for Partners For Change Ethiopia, a truly remarkable charity, which helps children living in poverty through a myriad of projects. I have been working with the team since November 2013, and organised a performance at WOMAD for them last summer and a special event at the House of Commons in October. It was therefore a real honour to recently see first-hand what PFC Ethiopia has achieved on the ground.

It may be 3 weeks since I returned from Ethiopia, but the memories of my trip are still crystal clear and will be etched in my mind forever. I met so many wonderful people, who despite living in extreme poverty wanted to help others who were worse off. I felt a kaleidoscope of emotions during my trip – sometimes helplessness, sometime hopefulness.

I spent 5 days with the local Partners For Change Ethiopian team in the community of Gende Tesfa on the outskirts of the vibrant city of Dire Dawa in eastern Ethiopia which is the focus of our 30th anniversary fundraising campaign.

My main task was to set up a community journalism project  with the help of local Ethiopian colleagues on the ground. Over the next 6 months, we are going to follow the lives of six families and individuals which the charity is helping. I interviewed our case-studies at length and found out what daily life is like for them. The picture was generally quite bleak – many parents weren’t able to feed their children every day and didn’t have access to fresh water. Going to school and having the access to education was viewed as a  luxury not a human right.

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Despite what were often quite challenging conditions, the families I met were very proud of what little they had, and like all of us, celebrated precious moments with family and friends. They were amused and entertained by my visit – many children shouted “Ferange” (Amharic for “foreigner”) and wherever I went, I received many communal hugs. The children there  – just like those in the UK  – want to be loved, and have fun.

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Zerhara’s story

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I spent one day with an amazing woman called Zerhara whose life we will be following over the next 6 months. She perhaps best exemplifies the dignity and the inner fortitude of the families I met there. Zerhara has been treated for leprosy and can barely move her chafed hands. Daily chores like cooking and washing clothes are very painful and difficult for her.

Despite being in her sixties, Zerhara is raising her grandchildren on her own in a very basic hut where they sleep on the floor. Their toilet is a hole in the ground with some rags hanging around it. Life’s very challenging. Zerhara works long days gathering fire-wood and earns around 20 Birr for that (less than a pound!)

When I asked Zerhara how she managed to feed her children, she shrugged her shoulders, looked down at the ground and said: “Sometimes I can only give them sugared water for breakfast, and other times they can share a slice of bread. I do what I can but sometimes it’s not enough.”

The family has an ox which is tied to a tree next to the toilet. Zerhara is very proud of it, and believes that if she can fatten the animal, they might have a brighter future.

Meeting Zerhara and others like her moved me beyond words. It was a truly life-affirming experience and also a reminder that although our lives are very different, there are more things which unite us than set us apart – our love for our families and a desire to make the best of what we have.

Mohammad, my first moments in Addis and a dusty run

11050777_849490871764412_100243352146948015_o EbolaAddisOuch! I only managed to have one hour’s sleep on the plane, but not even two nights of sleep deprivation could dampen my enthusiasm to meet the Partners For Change Ethiopia team – oh yes, and hopefully squeeze in a few London Marathon training-runs.

My night-flight to Addis Ababa sped past after I got chatting to a Somalian entrepreneur called Mohammad whose life-story had all the makings of a film. After his mother passed away, the teenager and his brother were uprooted and sent to London to be raised by their aunt. Mohammad was told that his father was dead. It was a difficult time for Mohammad and his brother and they felt a loss of identity and isolation.

It was only years later that Mohammad discovered that his father, although blind and deaf, was actually still alive and living in Jijiga. Although he cannot communicate with his father due to his health issues, being reunited with him has changed his life. Mohammad now makes regular trips to Ethiopia to help his father and his community, and he has imported a truck for his family, so that they can earn a living.

I was deeply touched by Mohammad’s humility and resilience, and his determination not to regret the past, but instead to use it as a springboard for a better future.

As soon as we entered the airport, we noticed a poster boldly declaring that “Ethiopia is Ebola Free”, and we were given a quick health-check by the onsite medical team, some of whom were wearing masks. We were quizzed about whether we had been to West Africa recently.

At that point, I noticed a mother with two young children carrying a lot of bags. I offered to help her to Passport Control. What I hadn’t realised was that she needed to sort out her tourist visa first, so 45 minutes later (!), we all left the airport, but it was lovely to meet a fellow mum. I still remember how a stranger helped me out with my bags in Johannesburg airport a couple of years ago when I was travelling alone with my boys, Josh and Jack.

After going through Customs, I was met at the airport by Solomon, one of the managers at the Partners For Change Offices in Addis. He mentioned that it was a public holiday in Ethiopia – Adwa Day – which commemorates Ethiopia’s victory over Italy in 1896.  Despite the streets being relatively quiet by Addis standards, driving to the hotel was a little hairy, and there was a great deal of dust because a lot of the city is under construction.

I had hoped to log onto the internet immediately, but there was a power-cut in my hotel, and it continued on and off for the rest of the day, but at 11pm, I did manage to make a Skype call home and speak to my husband and eldest son Joshua which was great.

Oh, by the way, one quirky fact about Ethiopia. It’s actually seven years and eight months “behind” the rest of the world because whereas most country adopted the Gregorian calendar some time ago, Ethiopia continues to use the Julian calendar.

One of the many highlights of my first day in Addis was catching up with Mulugeta Gebru, the national director or “father” of Partners For Change in Ethiopia, who is a fantastic ambassador for his country, and over the last 30 years has helped to change thousands of lives. Mulugeta updated me on what the charity has been doing since the event we organised for the 30th anniversary at the House of Commons in October. Partners For Change Ethiopia really has made remarkable progress, and I am sure that I will see plenty of evidence of that this week.

Another memorable moment was doing a dusty 30 minute run in between work meetings. Despite the cacophony on the streets of Addis, my jog was full of surprises and very enjoyable. Just a yards away from where I was staying, I stumbled across a man with his herd of goats, and just around the corner, there was a Coptic Orthodox Church Service taking place. What an adventure! I loved it.

Enough for today. It is wonderful to be back in Ethiopia again. Tomorrow I fly to Dire Dawa to see first-hand all the work the charity is doing in the community of Gende Tesfa….

Off to Heathrow for my flight to Ethiopia (stopping en route for ten pin bowling with the kids!)

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Wow! It has been quite a day, but I am now packed and ready to go to Heathrow. I hope that I haven’t forgotten anything – passport, Ethiopia guide-book, a portable gym, some treats, clothes, my technical equipment and a few other bits and bobs. Fortunately, my friend – award-winning film-maker Angela Robson – sent me her “essentials-list”, so my job was made easy.

We are having a game of ten pin bowling in Maidenhead and going out for a family-meal en route to the airport. My youngest son Jack had a vomiting bug last night, and I think that I had 2 hours’ sleep at most. Fortunately, he is feeling much better today, and I am too excited to feel tired.

I am flying to Addis Ababa with Ethiopian Airlines tonight and I will have a day there before flying to Dire Dawa and meeting the Gende Tesfa community, where nearly every family has been affected by leprosy. My chosen London Marathon charity @PFCEthiopia recently launched the #AllAboutheChild campaign to help families there.

Right, the kids are eager to go, so I must sign off….