By Maura Kelly
In mid-April I traveled to Ethiopia and zigzagged 1000 miles across the rolling hills and towns of the northern Amhara region with the HOPe Organization. I came here to better understand the current specter of HIV/AIDS and to assess an education and development project. For ten days we met women in prison, orphaned street children, reformed sex workers - many 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 reported in Ethiopia in 1984. Now almost three decades later the impact of the HIV/AIDS pandemic continues to cannibalize the social fabric of the Ethiopian community. The country's history of man-made and natural disasters: multiple wars, poor governance, famine and drought fueled the spread of the disease and kept resources away for its containment. According to USAIDS, Ethiopia has an estimated 2 million people living with HIV - one of the largest populations of HIV infected people in the world. Some areas show stability but for the poor and rural communities comprehensive knowledge about HIV prevention and transmission is still shallow and access to public health services are scarce.
Our guide on the journey was Marian Lambert with Italian NGO, CVM -Comunia Volontari per il Mondo. An Irish born nurse by training, she has worked in Ethiopia for over 30 years. Traveling with her around the countryside was akin to traveling in a time capsule. Everyday we encountered a parade of humanity on the roads. Wearing nothing on their feet, streams of women and girls carried enormous bundles of wood on their backs; boys balanced long eucalyptus branches on their shoulders, and shepherds guided their sheep and goats 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 - 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."
In the fight against HIV/AIDS, development agencies recognize that it is not enough to deal only with the health consequences of the virus. HIV/AIDS is also an economic problem. With a total population of 73.9 million (50.5% male), Ethiopia is a low-income country with an economy largely dependent on the agriculture sector. 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, HIV/AIDS is a significant contributor to Ethiopia's systemic poverty on many levels.
The initiative I was part of is all about capacity building -- educating, training and empowering the most vulnerable people in the community; namely women, girls and orphans. After attending numerous administrative meetings, I see a multi-sector development model unfold. Regional programs are community centered and local coordinators are clearly identified. Town organizers work in collaboration with the regional government, and the Orthodox church. The stakeholders work together and the NGO plays a key facilitator role. The success of the campaign is always clearly in local hands.
For ten days we ventured into mud huts, shanty towns, and classrooms to meet people who are reclaiming their lives. We witnessed the use of micro-loans, 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 serfs. We saw Housemaids Associations, now legally recognized by the government being organized to empower girls to stand up for their rights.
One of the most memorable meetings we had was with Bishop Barnabas, the Orthodox Patriarch of Bahir Dar and the West Gojam Diocese. The Church is a major influence in the political, cultural and social sector and that is why in 1994 Marian and CVM made a big effort to partner with its leaders. Our meeting took about one hour and ended with our request for the church and priests to work with us to help the housemaids. The Bishop was quiet and listened and without much hesitation said he would help. A day later the church spokesperson told us the Bishop requested a workshop for priests and deacons on the issues.
We also visited rural women with AIDS/HIV who have organized and now receive antiretroviral drugs, micro-loans and run their own small 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. Merbrat now makes enough money to support her son and her orphaned nephew. 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, her health is stable and she is contributing to the community.
The trip started as a journey to evaluate 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 fighting HIV/AIDS. The crushing poverty, the hospitality, the pain and the pride are images we will not forget.