Every now and again, we experience something so profound that it changes the direction of our lives.
For me that happened in March 2015 when I travelled to the dusty plains of eastern Ethiopia with an amazing charity called Partners For Change Ethiopia (www.pfcethiopia.org). I visited the community of Gende Tesfa, which faces numerous challenges including dire poverty, water and sanitation issues and families living with the physical and emotional scars of leprosy.
Despite a lifetime of travelling, nothing had quite prepared me for my visit. I met children at Gende Tesfa School who started their day on an empty stomach because their parents couldn’t afford to feed them or they had been orphaned. Some children were given sugared water before school to give them enough energy to get through the school day.
The head teacher Wendu Fekade also told me that siblings sometimes had to share school uniforms, and there was nowhere at the school for the kids to play and do sport – simply to just be kids. I felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and helplessness – not just because the children weren’t having a good nutritious diet but because it was having a huge impact on their education and their futures.
I asked if I could meet some of the parents because I wanted to have a better understanding of what life was like for them. Amongst others I met an extraordinary woman called Fatuma, who was caring for her step-grandchildren in the absence of their parents. Fatuma had been treated for leprosy, and despite debilitating injuries was gathering firewood for 12 hours a day for the equivalent of £1 in Birr. It was a daily fight survival but Fatuma had an infectious, indomitable spirit.
After that visit to Ethiopia in 2015, I returned to Cookham in leafy Berkshire. I remember my head spinning with the images of the people I had met and I was haunted by the abject poverty I had seen. I tried to digest everything, but it was difficult. I also tried to recount some of my experiences to my family. Two very different worlds – Gende Tesfa one day, Cookham the next.
My eldest son Joshua was so moved by what I had told him that he suggested organising a fundraising event for the children of Gende Tesfa School. It felt like a drop an ocean at the time.
But I am delighted to say that since then Holy Trinity School and other friends in Cookham and Maidenhead have organised over 20 other fundraisers and raised more than £30,000 for the community of Gende Tesfa. Together we have built a sports ground, funded both the Breakfast Club and business training for 100 mums and dads so that the project can be more sustainable.
But the friendship link which exists between Cookham and Gende Tesfa is not just about fundraising – it is about reciprocal learning, respect and understanding. The children at Holy Trinity School have learnt about Ethiopian food and culture and sent letters to their friends in Ethiopia.
Joshua has just left Holy Trinity School and Jack is in Year 5. But before Joshua started senior school, we decided to embark on a very special family adventure to Gende Tesfa. Both boys got to immerse themselves in school life- cook breakfast for the kids, attend classes, learn some Amharic and Oromo, play football and other games. They both had so much fun.
We were fortunate enough to see all the improvements on the ground which have come about thanks to your generosity. For example – with the business training Fatuma has received from PFC Ethiopia, she is now selling fruit and vegetables and supporting her family. She was incredibly proud of her achievement, and wants to now help other women to set up their businesses.
Our trip to Ethiopia was a life-changing experience for us as a family – despite the poverty and daily challenges, Joshua and Jack were surprised by how happy all the children seemed to be. In the absence of manufactured toys, the kids in Gende Tesfa had created their own games using stones and recycled materials.
But perhaps more than anything else, we came away realising that despite our worlds being very different, there is more that unites us than divides us. Wherever we live in the world and whatever our religion, we all have the same needs as human beings.
If you organised a fundraiser, made a donation or sponsored business training for one of the women in Gende Tesfa, thank you so much for believing in this project! There is still a lot more than needs to be done, so do support Partners For Change Ethiopia if you can.
We are now trying to raise enough money so that we can give 30 more children breakfast and some TLC before every day: virginmoneygiving.com/fund/
We are also looking for more PFC Ethiopia Ambassadors and partners in the UK, so please get in touch if you are interested in finding out more: email@example.com.