by Richard Robbins
Apologies for the long silence. We had no internet access in the north so we were communicating sparsely with Martha by text. We were able to see some emails by parking in front of a fancy hotel that had free wi-fi in their lobby, but sending e-mails was somehow impossible. We are finally back in Addis Ababa and have a longish day here before we fly home tonight.
Unfortunately, I didn’t follow my normal routine of writing updates along the way, even knowing they couldn’t get sent. I was frankly just too too tired. Ethiopia wins the prize so far for most grueling travel. The idea of opening my computer at the end of those long days was just too daunting. I think I also finally succumbed to what Martha had suffered from on our last trips–I’m simply so overwhelmed by the experience that the idea of trying to communicate what we have seen in an email seemed totally impossible.
With that said, I will try and give a glimpse.
The area we were in was near the city of Bahir Dar on the shore of Lake Tana. The lake is the second largest in Africa (after Victoria). On the day we arrived there, we did take a little boat ride out onto the lake. We visited a small island that has a 9th Century monastery. There are many small islands on the lake, and numerous monasteries built on them that survived the Muslim invaders in the late middle ages. Legend says that the Holy Grail is actually hidden in one of these monasteries.
A few quick things about the area. First off, it is very beautiful. Much dryer and flatter than the south, and people are dressed precisely as you probably picture them – men in shorts with blankets wrapped around their shoulders. Every man, from about 5 years old, is carrying a stick. Part walking stick, part cow herding tool – the stick is ubiquitous. Very few paved roads. Most people walk very long distances for everything – and almost all the people are subsistence farmers.
Our first day out for interviews we visited a school in Yilmana Densa and met a great group of girls. The highlight by far was the visit we made to the home of a girl named A. (name withheld). She lived a good mile or two from the nearest road, and although our brave driver managed to get us about halfway by driving through fields, we did a fair bit of walking. She is now 14 or 15 (ages, again, are dicey). A. grew up with a single mother – her father had passed when she was quite young. When A. got to be about 12, her mother promised her in marriage. This is well in keeping with local tradition, but A. was not happy about it. We could never quite get an answer from A. about where she got the idea to resist the plan, but that is exactly what she did. She simply told her mother no.
A.’s mother, being a wise and caring woman, decided that A. was right. She canceled the marriage and agreed to keep her in school. We talked at some length with three generations of women in this family – A., her mother, and her grandmother. They told story after story about the situations women face in this culture. The stories were grim, but their strength in the face of it all was quite inspiring.
Alex kept marveling at the fact that A.’s mother actually built the house we were sitting in. Which brings me to the conundrum I often face when writing these emails – there is simply so much about the experience that is totally remarkable about the place when seen from our point of view, but none of it seems strange to them. And of course we have always said that this film would try and see the world from their point of view. So without question, the most important thing about A. is her strength. Her willingness to stand up for herself is truly inspiring. It is inspiring to her mother and grandmother. It is inspiring to the World Vision folks we were with.
But… for us I feel like I need to add… A. walks miles to school barefoot every day. She sleeps in a one room house with her mother and brother and several cows. They sleep on a dirt floor – no beds. They have no plumbing and no electricity. Aside from a few tell tale signs, they are living now just as their family has been living for centuries.
I say all this because I think it is important to understand that the progress that this brave girl is bringing to her village – the idea of education for girls – is coming in the absence of practically any other kind of progress. A. didn’t learn about women’s rights from a newspaper, or television, or Twitter. She has, for all intents and purposes, nothing. She doesn’t know any women who have been to college, and only a few who even went to high school. She has no role models. She has no belongings except for a few clothes and a couple notebooks World Vision gave her. But somehow, against the most impossible odds – she has this idea. The idea that she should stay in school. Get an education. Become a doctor. Help her family. Help her country.
Anyway. I feel like I have probably said all this before. But she is just an amazing kid. What she needs from us to make her dream come true is so tiny. So insignificant to our lives – but everything to her.
Alright, I’m going to hit send and order another cup of great Ethiopian coffee. And maybe send some pictures. And then I’ll write some more.