Africa Day, celebrated both on the African continent and around the world on May 25, is an opportunity to take stock of the continent’s development, achievements and problems. Today Africa is frequently mentioned in connection with the migrant crisis and the need to help the hundreds of thousands of people who are displaced or leave their homes due to military conflicts, drought or extreme poverty. I spoke to Lenka Pešková about how the Czech branch of ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) is helping in Ethiopia, presently the biggest host country for migrants on the continent.
“In Ethiopia we are collaborating with our partners from ADRA Ethiopia and we have been working in an area bordering on South Sudan. As you may know South Sudan is right now in a very difficult situation and there are many migrants streaming to Ethiopia. We are supporting a refugee camp in the Gambella region, together with many other NGOs. Each is assigned a different task and ADRA, as an organization experienced in WASH i.e. water, sanitation and hygiene is engaged in building latrines and promoting hygiene habits among the inhabitants of the refugee camp.”
How many refugees are in that camp? You visited it in person, so tell us a bit about the conditions there…
“When you visit the camp you get very frustrated because you see hundreds of people living in very poor conditions. The people coming to refugee camps come both from the cities and rural areas and they are used to different conditions, but either way their life changes dramatically in the camp. Many of them come with a lot of traumas, a lot of memories from the war zone or something similar.”
What kind of conditions are they living in? What are the main problems? Do they get enough medical assistance, what do they do all day?
“Well, it depends on how you want to look at it, because almost everything is a problem. There is not enough access to medical care, there is a lack of latrines, there are no schools or just a few schools supported by some NGOs or the government. The living conditions are rough. Imagine a big tent where many people live cramped together, as many as one hundred people can live together in one tent where families are separated by plastic sheets to give them a feeling of greater privacy. When they have been living there for a longer time, they can move to simple shelters where its one shelter per family. The living conditions there are extremely simple, just a fireplace and a few simple things for daily use. But the people don’t complain and you can usually see them in quite a good mood. So it gives you mixed feelings.”
As many as one hundred people can live together in one tent where families are separated by plastic sheets to give them a feeling of greater privacy.
Do you feel that the international community is doing enough to help in such camps?
“I think that the international community is doing a lot, because if it were not for the international community I cannot imagine what the conditions in these camps would be like. But, of course you can always do more and we should think about our responsibility and show solidarity with the people who are living in such difficult conditions. ”
You’re also helping the country to fight the effects of drought and famine…
“Yes that’s true, we are reconstructing water wells in the Somali region of Ethiopia, near the Somali border. We work to reconstruct water wells and once a well is reconstructed we show the locals how to maintain it. We select a “water committee” which consists of five people including men and women and their task is to take over responsibility for managing the water well, we train them in technical matters, in hygiene standards, we teach people using the water well how to behave, how to protect it from infestation and so on. The “water committee”” also collects money for the well and once they have a fund they can use it for maintenance or reconstruction. So that is our way of providing sustainable aid.”
What is cooperation with the locals like?
“When we collaborate with a community we always have to agree in advance on what they want and in what way they would be able to contribute. We never work with a community which is not interested in collaboration. If we try to support them, we expect them to collaborate, not simply to receive aid.”
Given the hardships these communities face - are they looking for a quick solution by simply migrating somewhere where conditions are better? Or are they willing to struggle on and make a living in difficult conditions where they are at home?
“I must admit that I really admire these people, I admire them for having the energy to fight for a livelihood day-in-day-out against all the odds, for their determination to make a better future for themselves and their families. When we helped them with the latrines for example, we provided the technical solution and the materials and they provided unskilled labour – digging a pit, building the latrine, and so on. So the community provides what it can, which is usually unskilled labour. This also supports a sense of ownership of the latrine, water well or whatever help we are providing. We do everything possible to ensure that, once we leave, they know about the work that went into the project, that they feel a sense of ownership and take over responsibility for it.”
You visited many of these areas – the older generation is probably used to hardship, but is the young generation willing to struggle on or are they moving to bigger cities or even thinking of going abroad?
“There is a natural shift from rural areas to cities because the young feel it gives them more opportunities. But in reality the cities bring more poverty and more difficult conditions, so we try to support the rural areas in order to create better conditions for the people living there, in order for them not to migrate because migration does not bring a positive impact for the community. As regards young people, I think they try to go abroad to study but usually they say they want to come back to help their community. I met some people in Ethiopia who studied abroad and who came back to work for NGOs. They are extremely valuable because they know the community, the language and a well-qualified.”
I understand you are also helping in the health sphere in Ethiopia? Can you explain how?
Women are much better partners in any type of enlightenment activities because they always think about their children and their family.
“That’s right. ADRA was involved in helping the health sector for many years. We supported a number of hospitals focussing on mother-and –child health projects. Many mothers die in childbirth in Ethiopia and children under 5 are very much at risk from malnutrition. For three years we supported the maternity and childcare unit at Leku hospital in the Sidama region. We gave them technical equipment such as incubators and other things and provided training for their medical staff in how to use the equipment. Just a few days ago I learnt that the hospital was declared a model hospital for the region, winning a prize with a financial award that they will be able to invest into the hospital. And we are really happy that the energy we invested into the hospital has been multiplied and now they can develop the place even more.”
I understand that women in Ethiopia are a big partner for you. That you teach them awareness about hygiene and health matters and they spread the message further – is that right?
“Yes, you are definitely right about that. Women are much better partners in any type of enlightenment activities because they always think about their children and their family. I don’t want to say that men don’t, but for example in the Gamablla refugee camp 80 percent of the inhabitants are women and children. So NGOs and the government rely strongly on women, who are very trustworthy and responsible partners.”
You have visited Ethiopia in person for some of these projects – have you witnessed fundamental change or is that a long-term process?
“Yes, I used to live there a few years ago and now when I come back I’m always really surprised that people’s thinking and behavior is changing. The technical conditions are changing as well, though it is incomparable to what we know in Europe of course. In the big cities you get everything that you want. You have restaurants, a cinema, a swimming pool, everything you can get in a European city maybe but if you go to smaller towns or rural areas you barely get the basic comforts, you have to go somewhere for water, the electricity is not stable and people are living in very simple and poor conditions. Children often walk several hours to school and in the school there are maybe 50 students per one teacher. That is a picture of a normal village, but in the refugee camp it is much more difficult because even though people have access to water and so on, they have no access to education and so you get a generation of people with no education, with no skills or experience to live outside of the refugee camp. So we always try to support the hosting community as well and when people end up in a refugee camp we try to help them to move to some village and live a normal life. Our advice is: don’t stay in a refugee camp for a long time.”
You said the attitude of people was changing, in what way? The reason I’m asking is that with this migrant wave you’re also getting some economic refugees, migrants and environment migrants. Do you feel that it’s tempting people to move just because their life is hard where they are?
“It might be of course, imagine that you don’t have enough food for your children and you know that your children are not going to have a good future because there is no school or there isn’t any access to information and you know they will suffer the same as you do, then you might try to do everything to help your family and to help yourself. So, I don’t want to judge economic migrants.”
Is there still a chance to fight this, to change it? Is there still a chance to make life easier for them there?
“Of course, I think that there are many opportunities. We could talk for hours and hours and I could give you numerous suggestions about what we could do together to help people in Africa or anywhere in the world to help improve their life, health, access to education, access to water, safety, equal rights and so on. There are many things you could do, but of course I don’t know where the limitation is, the border where people feel comfortable and safe or they don’t feel comfortable and safe and so they decide to migrate.”
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