Early morning, after breakfast, we all board the bus and are ready to roll for the day. We have to go to Bioeconomy Africa, we are told. It’s about an hour’s drive and we are moving towards the outskirts of Addis.
On way, I am noticing the scenes whizzing past. A rainy day, slippery muddy roads, slums which have tiny houses with makeshift curtains of old pieces of cloth used as doors for a semblance of privacy and roofs of tin sheets. Men and women, in equal numbers, walking around busily on the streets. And children. So many children! The numbers of abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia are alarming. A ticking time-bomb. A by-product of poverty. A collateral damage of what this country has gone through and still is going through. In any catastrophe, sadly, the children are the most vulnerable group and suffer the most, may it be a bad marriage, a drought or a war.
My thoughts come to a halt with the bus. We are in a hilly suburb and the bus is entering a small compound. Happy children chirp around. The energy in any educational institute always energizes me! This is the Yeho Science and Technical Academy. The school is built as a multi-story building. Our conference session is on the 4th, may be 5th floor….I lose count while climbing. The building also serves as the office for Bioeconomy Africa. The vision of this organization is “to see peaceful, green, prosperous and eco-friendly trading African nations.”
As we sit around the conference table, Selamawit introduces herself. Impressive and amiable, she is the Executive Director here. After we are introduced to the many feats of this NGO, our focus for the day is the plight of the fuel-wood carrier women in Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, some 60% of the residents live below the poverty line, we are told (and I wonder, inwardly, what would be the statistics for Karachi if we take away the posh localities in which we smugly live, with feelings sometimes bordering on apathy). In Addis alone, there are some 15,000 fuel wood carrier women, ages anywhere between 10 to 60 plus. But their general life expectancy, due to the health hazards of their work, is around 37 years on an average!! That is because they develop spinal complications due to carrying 50 to 60 kg or wood every day. Their day starts at 5 am and includes a lot of trekking, to and from the forest. Often, forest border guards rape them, as they are picking wood without legal permission, and use the rape as a bribe. They may acquire HIV or other STDs. And if they carry their babies along with them in the absence of someone to babysit them, many a times animals in the forest eat the babies alive!
Saddened beyond belief at their plight, we are all a bit gloomy, till we are taken to Bioeconomy Africa’s project where they have helped better the lives of around 450 of such women. The Gurara Women’s Association. Here, we meet many of these women farming vegetables – weeding, ploughing, planting happily.
They also have some cattle and chickens. They are now able to sustain themselves as well as their families, and are freed from the torturous routine of being a fuel-wood carrier.
With a few others of my group, I talk to Ehet Wolde Mariam, who is the Chairperson for these women, and has been a widow for 14 years. In a black and white dress, Ehet is inspiring! She shares her life’s story – her tumultuous past life as a fuel-wood carrier, her thankfulness at this new and better life and her dreams for her daughters that they may be empowered women with better lives – Ehet shares her past, present and future with us.
This meeting has made us all happier. Once back at the Bioeconomy office, an amazing feast awaits us. But before we enter, in true Ethiopian tradition, we walk over freshly cut fragrant grass that has been laid in our path to welcome us. Once in the dining hall, we are made to smell burning incense, another welcoming gesture. I love the idea! Others in my group have allergies triggered by the fumes.
The traditional coffee ceremony, as is the custom, is preceded by popcorn being passed around. The lunch is sumptuous and has many courses. We eat, talk and enjoy it thoroughly. The lunch ends with the strong, rejuvenating coffee.
Once back in the hotel, we have our session with Charlotte and Debbie, an important “critique” or feedback session in which a chosen sample from the work of each one of us is displayed in front of the entire team for positive criticism, suggestions and encouragement. I personally think it is a brilliant idea. My head is overflowing with ideas of all I want to write about, observing closely the work of my brilliant colleagues. While all year round, we do share our work on an e-group, having the writer or creator of that piece in front of you, explaining the background and willing to take feedback is a different experience – a very value-adding one.
As it is the second last day and we know the last day will be very hectic, we all exchange tiny gift tokens. It is lovely to get gifts from each other’s country – Scarves Kounila got from Cambodia, wooden necklaces Rose got from Nigeria, jewelry boxes Shai got from India, small and cute purses Rina got from Philippines, to name a few. I love the wallets Montessori got from Nepal the best. I give them all Hashmi kajal, a trademark kohl Pakistani women put in their eyes. Girls will be girls, I think to myself, enjoying how they all immediately open their kajal wrappers and start applying it in their eyes with tips from me.
We all know that this is our last chance to shop for souvenirs. Into the bus after a cup of tea we all are. I find the tit bits I need in the first shop only – a few items of silver jewelry and some wooden handicraft pieces.
After that shop, me, Kounila and Shifa head back to the hotel in a cab. Interestingly, we feel safe in a cab at night in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, according a latest study by TrustLaw, is not one of the 5 most dangerous countries of the world for women. Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia are.
On return, after visiting Kounila’s room for a bit, I head up to mine. That evening, the lashing torrential rain in Addis is a treat for me. I am enjoying it from the balcony, fully aware that I will not enjoy this in Karachi except the July monsoons. The feeling has begin to gnaw at me inside that this amazing week is about to come to an end.