A few weeks ago, a group of seven SCOPE board members and supporters made the exhausting, two-day journey from Seattle to Gondar, to see where SCOPE has been working and to plan for the future. Hearing their first impressions and seeing their curiosity and wonder at meeting local health outreach and religious workers reminded me of just how special SCOPE is.
The group had barely gotten over their jet lag when I joined them in a minibus headed out of the city. Within minutes, the cars thinned and animals took over the road. I had long grown used to the rhythm of weaving and dodging; of the car swerving to avoid the ever-present sheep, cows and other livestock standing, staring at the sparse oncoming traffic. The visiting SCOPE team, however, were taken aback.
“Who is watching these animals?” They asked, laughing as the driver slammed on the brakes again to avoid an obstinate mule. From time to time a child would run out from the bushes beside the road, waving a stick furiously at the lazy livestock.
After 45 minutes of dodging animals and their keepers, we arrived at Ayemba Health Center, just off the main road past a field of yellow wildflowers and a dirt soccer field filled with squealing primary school students. SCOPE led a successful program at Ayemba, training community health workers and priests to work together to support pregnant women and encourage them to get prenatal care and deliver with a midwife. The clinic head was happy to see us and proudly showed us around. We toured the simple delivery room, sparse but well supplied, and smelling of diluted chlorine. The team explored the simple waiting area, which SCOPE helpedestablish, and chatted with the midwives.
Soon we were escorted away from the clinic, through the adjacent village, to a very special place- the home of Gebeyanesh. Gebeyanesh worked with SCOPE and, together with a local priest, visited pregnant women to encourage and educate them about getting safe delivery care.
The road to Gebeyanesh’s house was far too narrow and rocky for our minibus. As the team walked through the village, a mob of children followed us- chatting, giggling, and posing for pictures. The path wound through a market filled with women selling grain in the midday sun. Sheep and goats wandered in loose herds, and chickens scurried out of the way as our small group swelled with a small army of hangers-on, eager to keep a front seat to the strange parade moving through the town.
Gebeyanesh’s house was cool and dark, a respite after the walk. A local priest and several women, all of whom had worked with SCOPE, were waiting to offer us a warm welcome. Gebeyanesh’s children solemnly wound around the group with pitchers of water for hand washing before our hostess served up platter after platter of delicious, homemadeinjera– the local grain cooked into a fermented flat bread. She filled and refilled the injera ‘plates’ with steaming spiced lentils and peppery potato stew. Just when we could eat no more, a simple dessert of fresh popcorn was passed around as the central event, the coffee ceremony, began.
Coffee ceremonies represent the pinnacle of Ethiopian hospitality, and we felt deeply honored sharing in the slow, methodical experience.
Gebeyanesh started with a small bag of dried, greenish beans, emptying them into a flat pan over a small charcoal stove. As she slowly stirred the beans, her small home filled with the woody, heavy scent of roasting coffee, mingling with the smoke from the charcoal burner, topped off with a handful of local incense.
While she ground and brewed the beans by hand, the SCOPE team chatted with the other guests. We passed around copies of SCOPE’s annual report, which contained pictures of some of the women present, taken during previous SCOPE events and trainings. The women giggled and pointed out their friends in the illustrations, smiling as we explained how proud we were of their work to help their neighbors stay healthy. The priest offered a blessing- the Lord’s prayer- as we relaxed with tiny cup after cup of fresh, local coffee.
The local women inquired about a previous SCOPE fellow, Anna, with whom they had worked closely. They reminisced about what they had learned and asked to learn more.
Much of my work here with SCOPE has involved visiting and assessing institutions. It is important work. Yet after seeing many health centers in countless small towns, it was veering towards becoming routine. Seeing the Ayemba clinic and Gebeyanesh’s home through the eyes of the visiting team was a fitting antidote to this repetition. Their surprise at the basic setting in which maternity care was provided, and their wonder at the rough terrain of the villages surrounding the clinic reminded me that the challenges here are real- and are often life and death. The warmth of Gebeyanesh and all our hosts, with their slow but easy hospitality, reminded me of the importance of connection and cultural engagement. The respect in our hosts’ eyes for the priest with whom we shared a meal helped me to understand, again, why incorporating faith leaders here is so meaningful.
As we walked back through the village for the car that would return us to Gondar, one of the team members and I chatted. He shook his head and said “wow, you can see all of the pictures and statistics, but seeing the need and experiencing the culture for myself makes it come so alive…”.
Seeing it through the eyes of this wonderful, tough team helped it to come alive anew for me as well.