4 Dec 2010

The Broom

Here is the story of something that happened very recently in Ethiopia, at Fitawrari school in Akaki, where there happened to be staying a volunteer from Mediterranea.
A little 8 year old girl had the misfortune to fall from the top step of the school (a total of 5 steps) while holding a broom. Horribly, the handle of the broom remained vertical as she feel and hit the ground. It sunk deep into her head. The girl started to bleed profusely and everyone was very frightened. It seemed that no one knew what to do. Some even began running from the scene.

Our Mediterranea volunteer, who had previously been a volunteer at the Order of the Sisters of Mother Theresa of Calcutta in Addis Ababa where amongst other things she had assisted with the treatment of day patients, put on her gloves, that she always carries in her pocket, and attended the little girl. She cleaned away the blood in order to see the wound, using the only thing available…cotton make-up pads. She blocked the gash in the girls scalp. After a little time, the bleeding slowed and she was able to inspect the wound. As the gash was indeed deep she arranged for the girl to be taken to hospital. At the hospital they approached our volunteer and asked her what she wanted, she said ‘a doctor’.

Because our Mediterranea volunteer does not belong to any branch of the medical profession, she is a law student and is our eldest daughter.

1 Dec 2010

Fighting Against the Stigma of HIV & AIDS

UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV and Aids, has a mission. Mediterranea participates in that mission. That mission is stop the discrimination and devaluation of people who live and are associated with HIV and AIDS.
“Discrimination”, for us, refers to the unjust and hostile treatment of people who have or are perceived to have an immune problem related to HIV.  It’s important to observe that even when a person feels a certain stigma towards another, they can still choose to not behave or act in a way that is unjust or discriminatory.
In Ethiopia, AIDS tests are free, as are the antiretroviral medicines necessary to treat the disease.  Babies and pregnant women who have tested HIV+ are given preventative medicines.  That’s not to say that all those affected are being treated, just those who have access to the medical services.  However the country is certainly making progress against the disease.
Parallel to these advances though is the stigma of HIV, which is very much apparent in Ethiopian society.  In Abugida, we have given preference to HIV+ children and they live together with HIV- children without any problems.  This has been achieved simply because the parents of unaffected children want their children to go to Abugida and they know of our selection criteria.  Most schools don’t accept HIV+ children but in Abugida the school is for everyone and everyone must live together.  The good food, care and attention that the children receive is a big attraction for the parents and, in the end, all the children live together happily.
Regrettably the same cannot be said for adults.  Here we have been pioneers by employing HIV+ adults at Abugida.  Each day, however, we are confronted with the prejudices of some of the local leaders.  They think that HIV+ women are not suitable to care for children.  They believe that such women should not work in the kitchen.  Unfortunately it seems to do little good arguing that for an HIV+ woman to be of risk to the children she would first have to cut herself, then find a knife and cut a child and then mix their blood together.
We continue fighting the discrimination that exists towards HIV+ people and do this in the area where we have influence, in the Abugida school.  We continue to emphasize that being HIV+ is a condition only of interest to those infected not to the whole community.  We are fighting so that people are not obliged to have an HIV test when applying for a job, where they would be discriminated against if the test showed positive.
There are 1,500,000 people in Ethiopia who are HIV+ and this is only the tip of the iceberg as the number represents only those who have taken the test.  1 in 7 residents of Addis Ababa are HIV+.  Do they expect all these people to live off charity, not to be allowed to work and to be condemned to the margins of society and into prostitution?
We continue fighting the fight but it is not easy.  The option we have taken at Mediterranea is to stand firm and not to permit any sort of discrimination in the area that we influence.  We are winning battles but the war is far from won.

Remembering Part 1

In the next few days it will be 4 years since we took our first steps in Ethiopia. At that time we had already been working 7 years as an NGO with experience in other countries, but in Ethiopia we were new.

In November 2006 we contacted a local NGO whose president we had met on an earlier, private trip. This man took us to see an empty orphanage in the city of Nazret with the intention that we would help. It was an orphanage with more dust than the Sahara desert and equally as uninhabited…although he insisted that the children were away for the weekend.

We had almost given up on him when he took us to a very small and humble school operating out of a container in the neighbourhood of Mekanissa, Addis Ababa. He told us that it was a school for Eritrean refugee children and Ethiopian children from a very poor area and that his NGO was supporting it. The school and the children touched us deeply and our first thought was to construct a decent school for these children. We visited the school various times bringing things for the children, each time noticing that the teachers seemed more distant. Until, on the last day, they wouldn’t even let us in, they were very angry with the president of the NGO. Since we were new to the country and the country had touched us deeply, we didn’t catch on at the time that this man was using this school as bait for his own interests.

So we were sent packing still holding the 500 sweets and 300 packs of biscuits that we had brought for the children. To have distributed these in the street could have provoked fighting so we decided to take them to some nuns that we knew. The nuns, who are very practical, were in need of much more basic things than sweets and biscuits. They didn’t say anything but it was easy to deduce. And so, feeling rather ridiculous, we left.

The president of the NGO told us, when we were back in Spain, that the teachers we angry because they hadn’t been paid for months. And we, as the novices we were, naively sent him from Spain money for all the salaries that he told us were outstanding, so that he could pay them. Some days after we sent the money we asked him, “Have you paid the teachers?” to which he replied “No, and I’m not going to, but if you want I can send you a false invoice.”

This was our baptism as an NGO in Ethiopia.

To be continued…