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.