A visit to AMREF Water and Sanitation activities in Kechene, Ethiopia
It’s the rainy season in Addis Ababa. When I left a summer heat wave in New York City last week to travel to Ethiopia, one of my friends said “Wow, Africa! It’s really going to be hot there.” It’s a common misconception. In Addis, it was rainy and, well, not cold exactly but certainly cool. However, in one small corner of the Kechene district that was about to change.
I was visiting Addis Ababa to attend a meeting, visit communities where AMREF is active, and spend time with the hard working, highly dedicated AMREF Ethiopia staff. On Tuesday, we visited projects in and around Kechene. A short drive of about 20 minutes took us to our first stop. After a short walk up a slippery muddy path (remember, it’s the rainy season) we reached an open space where modest tin-roofed homes surrounded a new small cement structure that had been recently built. That’s where a group of about 25 residents had gathered to welcome us for our visit to the water and sanitation project in their community.
Kechene district in Addis Ababa is home to over 50,000 people and has high levels of poverty, poor housing, and illiteracy. Sanitation is a particular problem as only 15% of residents have access to clean drinking water. For several years, AMREF, with support from government, foundations and corporations, has been building water kiosks (small cement buildings) in Kechene. Each kiosk, with some variations, includes five to sixtoilet rooms, two to three shower rooms, two to three water taps, and a 5,000 liter water storage tank. These compact, multi-purpose kiosks are bringing water practically to the doorstep of people’s homes. This represents a life-altering change for residents (mainly women and children) who used to travel long, time-consuming distances each day to collect water. In addition to receiving a new local source of water, community members have been trained on how to maintain the systems and how to teach and promote better personal and community hygiene.
This is where I met 36-year-old Addisalem Getechew and her daughter (pictured above). Addisalem is a single mother with three children (her husband died three years ago). Her sister also lives with her. She supports her family by selling injera, the traditional Ethiopian bread.
In January 2012, she was elected by her neighbors as chairwoman of the local water project. AMREF provided her with training to help educate and involve the community in sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene activities, all behaviors that would help improve their health and well-being. Addisalem told me, “it was a hard time, especially for women and children, without toilets before this kiosk was constructed. Our kids were suffering from intestinal problems, diarrheal diseases and eye disease."
I couldn’t begin to imagine how difficult and demoralizing that must have been. But that was then. Now, as Addisalem stood by me gently holding her daughter’s hand, she said, “we are safe and we are happy. I cannot remember any diarrheal diseases after we started using the new structure."
After a self-guided “tour” of the water kiosk, Addisalem invited our group to sit on benches and chairs that had been set up nearby for coffee. A coffee ceremony in Ethiopia is considered an important social occasion in many villages and it’s a sign of respect and friendship. Our coffee ceremony was a shorter, pared down version of what typically takes place but it was just as meaningful. One woman fanned hot coals while a second tended the coffee pot which boiled away (and sometimes boiled over).
Men, women, and children joined us. When I asked a group of children if I could take their photo I received shy, embarrassed smiles that turned into bursts of laughter when they saw their picture on my camera.
One girl handed us a small bouquet of flowers. In another welcoming gesture, scarves were draped around our necks. In addition to strong coffee, large trays of bread and popcorn (a traditional snack food) were served.
I hadn’t expected such an elaborate reception and felt humbled to receive gifts of food, drink and friendship from people who have so little. Expressions of genuine, heartfelt thanks were exchanged all around. I knew we had to leave soon to visit other projects, but we lingered for a few minutes and I was grateful for this rare opportunity to spend a little more time with this community.
A gentle rain began to fall. Umbrellas were opened creating a temporary roof over the heads of our closely gathered group. A spirit of mutual gratitude and goodwill surrounded us. And on a chilly, dark cloudy day, suddenly there was warmth and light in Kechene.