Stories from Bekoji – Am I the change I want to see in the world?
Blog , June 25, 2013
I have posted a few stories up about November 2012’s trip to Bekoji in Ethiopia with Stand By Me. This however is for those I know heading out this summer. This is not meant to be a preparation for the trip, nothing here will be like what you see, hear and smell. But hopefully you will get some sort of feel of what to do and see when you get there, and how it will affect you. To have a closer look at the photos just click on them. But before all that, things have moved on since the trip in November. So much so, that the stories here are old. Thats how quickly Stand By Me are moving. As we left, Ahmad the Director of Operations was heading out west to check out a new site for Stand By Me to become involved in. He knew that the town of Dembi Doli was even poorer than Bekoji but what he saw even shocked him! He knew straight away that even though there are no other Non Governmental Organisations involved in this area, that Stand By me would have to do something. Since then Michael Holmes and Al Bennett have been out to Dembi Doli. Its extremely poor and the situation for the organisation to come into is really raw. Hopefully I will get out there.
Back to Bekoji. This was my second trip out and the road there did not seem any shorter. Although I think i managed to see more of it! Just a few shots of the way there.
It was approx a 6 hour journey with a stop in the middle for lunch. Its not quite how you imagine it. The images we have are of large areas of desert with nothing. And for some of the journey that was the case. Then as you slowly wind up the hills and mountains it becomes greener. Until it is almost like Northern Ireland. The road is constantly changing as well. You can see coming out of Addis (which seems to sprawl for miles) that there are single lane roads developing into motorways. Last time it took us about 4 hours to get to a town called Aysala (excuse the spelling). The road stopped there. And it was a journey by red mud road. We even got to stop and help pull a truck out of some mud in the dark. (all the meanwhile there was howling in the distance and all sorts of creatures being attracted to the headlights of the cars and vans) This time the road run out past Bekoji and on to Kenya, so we arrived at the school this time in the middle of the afternoon and while it was still light. We were up so high that the air is thinner. So even jogging 20-30 metres causes some to be out of puff (me) and even the fittest (fell and road runner) for their pulse to increase considerably. This time round I wanted to see more of the where the pupils attending the school came from. And of course all those faces I saw last time. This is Grace. Who is one of the cheekiest little people I know. Her and Isabella my daughter would get on well but I would worry about the resulting collapse of society.
This is her the last time I went to Ethiopia in 2010
These are a few of guys whose picture I got at the school.
There are some really beautiful children who instantly swarm around you and will spend every minute they can outside of class to sit beside you. The school though is what I would call a safe haven, more for those visiting than those who attend the school. It is enclosed in its own little comfort zone and so the reality of day to day life of their homes and rented rooms is not always apparent for those who have made the trip there. In 2010 on the very last afternoon of our stay we got as a group to travel around. This for me is when it became life changing. We visited a mother and her kids in a small wooden shack and the organisation , Stand By Me , were able to help her with some food, and get her children into the school. She was also given some clothes. As i sit here thinking about it I realise the road through the town is now actually just about where that house was. It was such a run down area that even the Mayor of the village wanted to knock it down. We then visited a women whose husband was lying dying of cancer on what was supposed to be a bed. It was a truly sad story. Someone asked if anyone had any spare clothes and I happened to have another t shirt in my bag. The women came out to thank me and you would’ve thought I’d given her a cure. It was truly humbling. And as we moved away from the house there was a hush around the group. It was this sort of reality that I wanted to see, to experience and to try and photograph so others can understand. I dont just see pictures of these people. It awakens memories of their houses, their stories. These things are etched in my mind, and it only takes a second to be back there. Visiting the kids homes is not always easy. The parent (usually only one) may be at work. They may not want you in (very very rarely the case) In one instance we turned up to visit a sponsors house with their sponsor. We were not entirely sure this is where the child lived. And we were also not sure who was looking after them and what their relationship to the child was! We sometimes get well lost in translation. So we arrived Sunday afternoon and the first house I visited was on Monday morning. I was able to spend most of the week travelling to various houses. Not sure these stories will be in order as a photographed them.
The Water Filters.
A project was undertaken shortly after the visit in 2011 by the schools team. It was to get as many water filters as was possible into the homes of the pupils from the Bethany School. We visited a few of the families.
The above photos were of Joseph. His mum was the happiest person that I met in Ethiopia. She was so thankful for the filter and the room that Stand By Me provided. Joseph is sponsored by friends of mine so I had a keen interest in what was going on. His english was superb. He did alot of translating for the kids at the school when we were being asked questions by the kids. He was also big into his art. He had drawn a picture which the team thought looked like our Team member, Jim, who is a microbiologist.
This little girl has HIV. They rent a room pretty much the size of space between the doors in the first picture. The room with the water filter in it was one of the dustiest and darkest rooms i had been in in Ethiopia. There was just a small crack of light allowing me to see. Sponsors I guess one of the hardest things is a visit to where your sponsor lives. You see what is their daily existence. This time round I made a couple of visits with the sponsors to their houses
Above is Sharon, one of the doctors who coordinates the medical teams and has been out a few times to Bekoji. She went to visit the child she sponsored. Her and her mother lived in a small room at the back of a courtyard where it seemed several people lived. It was hard to tell if the doors led to room for rent, stores or the owners property. Again much was lost in translation about who the people where that were standing around watching us.
We headed into an area I’d never been so that Heather could visit her sponsor. Heather is a Dietician and her knowledge vastly improved the diet of the kids in the school. We arrived in a place that seemed a little different to the other house. The fence seemed to surround quite a bit of land with a more sturdy dwelling in the centre. The child that Heather sponsors was very young and we were unsure as to how he found his way home every day. We believe he followed an older child home. When we called at the door, there seemed to be no one there. Then these two adults appeared. We are still not sure of their relationship to the boy but they looked after him. We also saw that the Irish had been here before as well. The Stories. I guess finding out the stories are the biggest part of being there. There is always a story with the kids that attend Bekoji school. Stand By Me only take in the poorest people. Even as we walked around the village and saw some distressing sights we were told that the kids we were looking at were not poor enough to attend the school.
And so we come to the stories. First up was a house that sits right across from the school entrance. Stand By Me have rented several houses near the school for familes who really need their help. They also provided beds for some families.
I have never fully looked at the series of photographs I had taken from the outside of the house. The little boy is washing his clothes while the mum is untangling some hair. As we walked past the house another day one of the kids was about to squat for the toilet just outside to the left in a trench. I dont even think the trench was dug out. It was just the way the ground have formed on the hill. It put paid to my question which was were do people go to the toilet? Inside they have a double double bunk bed. Only in Ethiopia. To give some perspective I was standing right against the wall trying to take the photograph. This one room was the house. Batiru. I loved spending time with this little girl. I have shown some photos on Facebook before and told a little bit of her story. I first noticed Batiru limping through the playground. She had a walking stick. It was like an old persons walking stick, only this little girl had it. She walked awkwardly and immediately I became interested in her story. She had a defect from birth that in the west is corrected quite quickly. But Batiru had been left. And had grown with one leg longer than the other. We made it to her house first thing one morning. But no one was in. She posed for a few shots in the door way of her house. And on the trip back to the school we discovered her mischievous side. She was a messer just like everyone else. Her disability did not stop her and she had to walk a long way home. On the last day of the kids heading home, I noticed her, struggling up the hill, being gradually left behind by the other kids. The good news? She is due for an operation to correct the limp. I cant wait to see her after that.
Grum’s story is on the Stand By Me website. As with all the stories the people on the ground sometimes have to work out the truth and who is indeed caring for the children and were they actually live as opposed to where they say they live. With Grum, the story keeps unfolding. What is definite is that while out playing in a local area an old land mine exploded and shrapnel embedded in her spine. Some versions of the story tell us that the mine had been there for a while and the kids were playing with it and around it before it exploded. It may not have been a mine. She was injured and is unable to walk. Life is tough enough in Bekoji. The roads are uneven and its not always easy to get a clear path. Her life is being pushed around in such an environment. She is beautiful with a very delicate smile. We went to her house. It was not far from the school and again Stand By Me had been involved in sorting this out. I was impressed as we walked into the courtyard that the house at this end of town was a solid brick house. But this turned out to be the front of the land owners house. They had a room at the back. Grum was sitting in what looked like a front porch. After seeing their room I imagine this is where she spends most of her time. I only entered the room for a second and could not stay any longer. It had one single mattress on the floor. The mother had 3 other kids. All sharing this one room. My mind could not even comprehend how this would work day in day out. I’m not even sure where they ate.
There is nothing that can be done for Grum except to make her life as comfortable as possible. In Bekoji that is a big task. As I said at the start sometimes the actual story is hard to find out. A staff member returned to house sometime after to find no one there. It is thought that the father is around and has a good house nearby. Its not easy to find out if they live there or stay there. The truth is that Grum still needs help no matter what the actual situation is.
The Grandmother – Kasech Tilahun and Abraham I think that some of the stories so far are really sad. This story for me was the worst. I have shared this before as a story on its own on my facebook page. The initial visit was to do with the bed that was made. However once there, they told us why they were there. Abraham’s grandmother was looking after him. She looked really old. But I guess her face was weathered. Most of the mothers are in their 20’s or 30’s so i’m imaging this women was in her 50’s or 60’s. She looked so much older than that. I imagine in a country of such hardship to live that long is an achievement in itself. It was her eyes that made me so so sad. It turned out that Abrahams mum had a mental illness. She roamed the town of Bekoji sleeping in the street and begging for money. I’m not sure if she stayed here. The grandmother had to look after Abraham but she looked like she had already lived a life and look tired. And sad. Yet she stopped me and thanked me for the work of Stand By Me, she was so grateful for a house, a bed. I had nothing to do with it but she associated me with them. I will never forget that women as she hugged and kissed me, just because I was associated with Stand By Me. But photographs tell no lies and the picture of her looking slightly away haunts me. It brings me straight back to that moment. The poverty. The immense gratitude.
This little man is amazing. He is constantly running about the site, singing and dancing and getting right in the middle of anything. His mum works at the school and he is not the right age for school yet. So he wonders around the site all day. The full story. His mum has HIV and so does he. They didnt think he would survive after he was born, yet here he was, following us everywhere. (Note : if he has his red dungarees on and starts pulling at the buttons its so he can go do a poo).
Grace and Abeneezer are co conspirators on site
One final tip. Ok then maybe two. Be careful when you go out with doctors. They tell you things you were blissfully unaware of. Oh yeah and if shaking hands make sure its not the hand they wipe their bum with.