Story from the field: Impoverished Yes; Impotent No!

Impoverished Yes; Impotent No! By: Ellen Sparling

I met Geza, a United Nations Peace Ambassador from Ethiopia in 2011. Naturally, though dealing with a language barrier, we hit it off over our passion for travel, culture, and social justice. Over time, we decided it was time to humbly approach the vast issue of water inequality by starting in the village that raised him; a little village called Dukem. Throughout the course of a year, we raised approximately $6,500 in hopes of providing his home community with a well. This well would provide 3,000 people, who lack many essentials of life, with the clean water they needed in order to increase their standards of living. At the end of the year, I decided it was time for me to make the journey to Ethiopia. Not only to see the need and the poverty., but to to see the impact that clean water could have on this community, and why it was so crucial. I also went in hopes of following the trail of money. So often, people blindly donate money to large organizations they believe to be credible when in reality, money gets caught up in the costs of administration and advertisements, rather than the call and cause itself. So, I packed my bags and took a thirteen-hour flight to Addis Ababa. Upon my arrival at the airport, I was greeted by Geza and told that while I was in Ethiopia, we would meet the president. I couldn’t help but to laugh and say, “Yah, okay Geza,” with a sarcastic grin across my face. For the duration of the next four days, we spent hours in meetings with engineers, drilling companies, churches, and numerous other individuals. We also were privileged to spend time with the community we hoped to help. Now, I had been to many developing countries in Latin America before, but never to Africa. Amid planning my trip, I found that I was constantly reminding myself that I would see children with no clothes, no shoes, in absolute dire poverty. That really scared me—it scared me because as a young person, I had not one clue as to how I was supposed to respond to the firsthand poverty I was bound to witness. However, when I arrived to the local school in Dukem, I was caught off-guard by the happiness that the kids possessed. How could it be that these kids could be so happy? It was clear that they were expecting us, as they greeted us with song and jubilation. Cue the waterworks. The children were confused as to why someone would be so upset at the site of smiles and excitement. But how else could one respond to this seeming paradox of pure happiness in the middle of a poverty-stricken place? Anyone who knows me knows that I am a firm believer that if you want to help anyone, you have to have spent time with them. You have to understand and learn to appreciate their culture and why things are the way they are. So, we continued to spend time with the community, and do things the way locals do. Although I was only there for a short period of time, surely not long enough to grasp all aspects of this beautiful culture, my appreciation grew, and grew fast. I have high hopes of returning to Ethiopia to continue to learn more and allow my desire for development to grow.[quote align="right" color="#999999"]On the fifth day, we found ourselves walking down the long corridor of the Presidential Palace to in fact meet and have lunch with the President of Ethiopia. [/quote] It was about the fourth day into our trip when Geza reminded us, “Okay, we’re going to meet the president”. We couldn’t believe how persistent this man was, but after spending time in Ethiopia, we had simply learned to go with the flow. Sure enough, we began receiving calls from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and then from guards at the Presidential Palace. On the fifth day, we found ourselves walking down the long corridor of the Presidential Palace to in fact meet and have lunch with the President of Ethiopia. Geza did what we thought would be impossible. I have a strong belief in him that clean water will be provided to his community. While I learned extensive amounts from the community and its members, the most important lesson I learned was from Girma Wolde-Giorgis, the President. We expressed how we felt so blessed to be in Ethiopia and that we were inspired to help the community that our dear friend Geza was raised in. While President Wolde-Giorgis was grateful for the work we were doing and our passion for social justice, he raised an amazing point. He said, “I appreciate that, but Ethiopia is not a poor country. Our people will work hard, and make progress.” That was not only humbling, but also somehow empowering. We had to keep in mind that he is a diplomat and has to protect the integrity of his country, but by him making this point, it became clear, clearer than it had ever been before, that you should never underestimate the power of the poor. Just because they have been placed into a vastly different lifestyle does not make them incompetent or incapable. It became even more apparent to us that clean water was just the foot in the door Dukem needed to build a better future for themselves. The lesson in all of this is that we, North Americans, are not the heroes, the liberators, or the teachers. We’re coworkers, teammates, and most importantly, students.   Ellen Sparling a first year student at the University of Guelph, majoring in International Development and minoring in Spanish.  She can be contacted by email at

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