Visit to Denan, Ethiopia

Standing with the women of DenanStanding next to some of the women of Denan

By Alice Norwick, Volunteer

It was a long journey from my small town of Woodbury, CT to reach the small desert town of Denan, Ethiopia, almost half way around the globe.  But as a Board Member of The Denan Project for nearly a decade, I’ve always wanted to visit our original project in Denan, to see first-hand the work that our organization has done for this community.  This February that dream became a reality.

Just getting to Denan was a feat.  After a 13-hour flight to Ethiopia’s capitol, Addis Ababa, we took another 3-hour flight to the small town of Gode.  From there we drove for an hour on a new road across the desert, a chalky moonscape of dust, sand, rocks and low growth shrubs.  Every so often we’d pass a few very small huts made of curved sticks with a covering of fabric from cut-up food aid sacks and nearby we might see a herd of goats and sheep with their young shepherds attending them.

The Denan Health Center is a compound on the outskirts, separate from the small village of Denan and within walking distance of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp that has existed  since the major drought and famine of 2000.  All the beds were filled with overnight patients.  These were some of the lucky ones, those who had gotten to the hospital and were now receiving quality care, always for free thanks to The Denan Project’s support.

Some of the images of the people that I saw during my trip will remain with me always.  While accompanying a doctor on his rounds one morning, we came upon a mother holding a small child’s hand and caressing his head.  He looked to be about 4 years old.  But when we asked his age, the doctor told us to our shock that he was 10 years old, and suffering from acute malnutrition.  His mother had brought him all the way across the desert by donkey cart from their village of Harerey, some 250 kilometers away. With IV feeds and the special “Plumpy’Nut” food supplement developed specially to combat African malnutrition, he had a chance of survival. His case, sadly, was all too common and I saw many other children who looked far too thin, or young for their age.  The Denan Project has done so much good in this area, but there is so much more that could still be done, so many more children and people to help.

The poverty is evident everywhere, especially in the clothes the children wear — dusty, some torn t-shirts, flip-flop shoes worn thin.  One little girl had only a skirt, settled around her neck like a poncho.  The women and children spend hours each day walking to the dried up river bed to fetch water from the deep wells that have been dug in the sand there.  The young teenagers use strong rope with a bucket to bring up the water. The women, with many children in tow, carry the plastic, gallon water containers back to their homes.  If they’re fortunate, they’ll have a donkey to help them carry the containers. The water is not free of bacteria and many get sick from drinking it but there is no other choice. In the few short weeks since our visit, the wells in the dry riverbed have completely dried up and now the only source of potable water for the area is our watertanker. We are grateful that recent repairs have put our tanker in working condition, but we worry that it will soon not meet the needs of the community.

Our hospital in Denan is like an oasis in this land of poverty and high temperatures.  It was very, very hot!   Patients come for health care and receive loving attention.  They receive two meals a day and are given vitamins. There is also a learning center that gives information on nutrition and good health habits.  We encourage the women to come to the clinic to give birth and also for pre-natal care. In fact, we just received an award from the government recognizing the excellence of our program to encourage women to give birth at our medical facility rather than at home. One woman we saw had been on the way to the hospital but did not make it in time — she gave birth in the bush and unfortunately the placenta did not come out. She was taken by donkey to our hospital to save her life and remove the placenta.  Happily, she was resting well with her infant beside her.

In addition to our medical outreach, The Denan Project also provides micro-loans to various groups in Denan. While we were there, we met with all the micro-loan groups and were pleased to hear they were all doing very well and on schedule to re-pay their loans.  Most of them have shoats (sheep and goats). One of the women’s groups is also buying and selling fabric and doing well with it.

At the end of our visit we met all the staff together.  Some told us that because of their steady jobs at the hospital and their profits from their micro-loan group, they have been able to upgrade their homes, sometimes gaining even a slightly bigger house or the ability to put up a tin roof.  Their neighbors, who are beginning to see their success, in turn want to better their own lives, and this is starting to create more ambition in some of the townspeople as well.  It was so gratifying to see how The Denan Health Center is empowering people to do more for a better life for themselves and their country-men!

My time in Denan made me thankful for the gifts I’ve been given and my life in the USA where I can turn on a faucet and have clean water, a warm (or cool) home, food in my refrigerator/pantry and quality health care.  I’m also grateful that I’m able to share my good fortune and help people across the globe, through The Denan Project organization, to make their lives better as well. I hope perhaps that those of you reading this might also be inspired to support this organization, which, with your help, could do even more to help those in real need.

Note: since the time of this visit, conditions in Denan have indeed become more dire, with the drought that has been affecting other regions in the country creating real problems for the area’s food and water supply.  We are monitoring this situation carefully and talking daily with our on-the-ground partners. It is likely that The Denan Project may need to step in with emergency funding in the not-too-distant future.

Visit to Denan, February 2016

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By Jarret Schecter, Board Member & Volunteer

I’ve been to Denan many times since my first visit in April 2004, when we first talked about starting an organization to help people of the region. On this trip, like the ones before, I am once again jarred from my usual day-to-day automatic pilot. It’s a very beneficial experience on many levels. Automatic pilot, or automaticity, is not always a bad thing. It’s a way of putting order into life’s chaos. But in a negative sense, it reinforces inertia and detracts from mindfulness and gratitude. My trips to Denan remind me of this, each time.

Cognitively-speaking, when I am in Denan, I am more grateful for the gift of life that have I have been given. Moreover, I realize that there is reason (if acted upon) for much hope in the world, when you can see that so little can go so far. For example, for just a few dollars, a life can be saved with medicines, a rehydration tablet, emergency food supply or a doctor’s care. It is jarring to realize that my typical lunch back home of a slice of pizza and drink costs more then that.

Physiologically, life here also jars me in a very positive way from my usual unreflective habits. In the hundred plus degree-heat in desert conditions, I am hungry, thirsty, and without a shower for a couple of days, I feel tired and somewhat uncomfortable. However, the afternoon siestas with their beautiful rhythm put neuroses in their proper place, and watching the stars light up the night sky while sleeping on the ground in the open-air compound makes the trip all worthwhile. Later in the night, this lovely stillness is magnificently punctuated by animal sounds and a call to prayer that in its own contextual way, elegantly and thankfully ushers in a new day.

Awoken from automaticity my trips to Denan make me appreciate the real and the potential in life.

Blossoming of Bougainvillea…8 Years in the Making

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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.