by Jean Shin, Volunteer
Traveling light is something I know a few things about—or so I thought. Repacking my backpack in Addis Ababa for my 2nd attempt to enter Denan, I had to pause and think what I really need on a daily basis. Sticking to my strict rule of whatever-doesn’t-fit-into-this-one-bag-comes-out, I was able to hop onto the plane with a light carry-on—and huge anticipation.
Looking down on the changing landscape, from lush high mountains to arid terrain, I could sense that we are getting closer to the lowland of Ogadan, the ethnic Somali region of Ethiopia. Seeing the excited face of Dick Young, the Founder of The Denan Project, as we flew over the Project’s horseshoe-shaped hospital compound that’s clearly visible from above , I knew there awaits something special, something that came to be…against all odds.
The ride to Denan after switching from plane to car in Gode kicked off with a roadblock. My heart sank when our two vehicles were stopped by the army, and we were asked to wait until the following day. Half-heartily refusing to accept that I’m the curse (as I wasn’t able to enter the area in 2009 due to rebel activities in the region), I felt so relived when we were able to zip through the gate the following morning. With Denan still 90 minutes away—and our ambulance convoy out of sight, Dick had asked Mukhtar Adem (Head of our local partner OWDA) to stop the car to get closer look at one of the refuge camps that weren’t there when he passed by 3 months ago. As the people (mostly all women except one man and children) gathered around us, I started to crisscross the camp not knowing where to fix my eyes at…hundreds of temporary huts (only about 4 ft high, not even big enough for me to stand up in) with no trace of food or water. As we learned that these are the people who lost everything, including their livestock, to the rain/flood that followed the disastrous, record-breaking drought of the last season, I couldn’t help but feeling the wicked hands of the mother nature. As we are leaving them, following Mukthar’s advice not to send our water truck and Plumpy’Nut to them as our resources are committed to the people of Denan, and there seems to be a UNICEF medical vehicle visiting them on a weekly basis, I was beginning to feel the weight of the decisions we make…and the responsibilities of having the choices to make.
Being a day late (with no way to communicate the delay to the hospital), our arrival was met without the jovial excitement I often saw in previous reports, much to my relief. Then there was…a sight that even Dick had never seen before: bright colors of bougainvillea and green leaves hugging the dusty, brown walls of the compound! When we later learned that one of the Elders had donated the seeds (quite pricey in that part of the world) and planted the greens without even being asked, I could sense that things have turned the corner…and began to come to its fruition, quite dramatically.
The marathon of meetings that followed our lunch (yes, they killed a goat for us) was nothing short of eye-opening for me. On a personal level, my biggest concern up to that point was the possibility of not being able to communicate with them in the usual way I connect with people (trying to understand their intent, and the reasoning behind what they are saying). It took only a few minutes into our meeting with the disabled group (who paid back their micro loan ahead of schedule and saved their profits) for me to realize how silly I was to expect anything other than a real dialogue, a fully articulated exchange of thoughts and sentiments dotted with a sense of humor that’s universal in English and Somali! Detecting the same connection and warmth on all the faces I was greeted with, including the hospital staff of 40 men and women (who voluntarily put aside 2% of their salary to fund expenses for transporting patients they cannot treat in our hospital), I felt the close proximity to what surrounds us…the basic necessities of living with what surrounds us…and the desire and will to go beyond the limits of what surrounds us.
Being awake at 4AM listening to the ever-so-vocal donkeys, and counting the countless stars directly above me, I waited for the sun to come up to my right with sleep-deprived-yet-invigorated eyes. The same rhythm of the morning, but never a same day: accompanying the doctor during his morning rounds and seeing mothers with mal- nourished babies; surveying an abandoned health facility in nearby Burqayer for possible expansion; walking to the riverbed to catch up with the women and children of Denan who make the trip twice a day to fetch water; sitting with the Elders trying to work out a financial arrangement for the use of the tractor, and so on.
Among all those unique encounters, there is one thing that compelled me to raise my hand for an immediate action. Having canceled the water pipeline inspection schedule due to rebel sighting in the area, we went over to the school where the project has been providing supplemental financial help for hiring and training qualified teachers. Having seen pictures of empty classrooms with no desks and chairs, I was glad to see students sitting on their chairs and listening to the teacher. But as I was walking around the school, my heart was getting heavier. From the corner of my eye, I see military personnel with guns walking around, and the skinniest cows I’ve ever seen chewing paper on the ground having nothing else to eat. Clearly not the kind of educational environment I’ve known. And when I realized that there is only one textbook per class—and it belongs to the teacher, I just couldn’t contain myself. I didn’t know where else the kids can escape to in that environment if not to books! In my attempt to move the issue to a priority list, I’ve asked Mukhtar how his kids in the city get textbooks. His answer: I bought them for them. A failure of the state education bureaucracy, yes. But the kids need the books now, not later, right now…my murmuring continues as I’m still waiting for the cost of the textbooks to come from OWDA.
With my dusty backpack on my shoulder, and my dustier hair itching my skull, I hopped onto the plane to Addis. Only then I realized the contents of my backpack. 2/3 of what I thought was essential for my daily living were lifeless, needing batteries to be recharged. I almost forgot about them. I didn’t really need them after all. I was unplugged. And that was A-OK. I know the kids in Denan want them—they told me so in no uncertain terms. It’s their turn to play with being plugged in…Now they are ready like the bougainvillea that opened up against all odds.