Writing after going to Ethiopia has always been impossible.
When I was seven years old I took my first trip to Ethiopia with my family. My teacher asked me to keep a journal as my assignment for missing school for an entire month, because we went in the winter during the dry season, so I missed a good deal before and after winter break. I wrote and doodled in my journal everyday, and when I came back to our second grade classroom, all my writing involved my cousins or the farm or playing outside in Kaffa. Yet, I never was able to tie it all together. But that was when I was seven, and at the time that I would one day be determined to write a book, dash out ten pages of nonsense fantasy fiction, and promptly forget about it the next day.
When I was 12 years old I didn’t write while in Ethiopia, but I came home and still tried, in my own, hand-written journal.
When I was 16 years old, I wrote daily “diary” entries on my phone during our short, two-week trip in the winter (you simply can’t miss one whole month of high school as easily as middle or elementary) and returned to scribble here and there on my tumblr blog. But again, it was only scenes, people, and places--nothing that encompassed the whole time period that I was there.
When I was 18 years old, I went by myself and recorded our entire family tree. I went home and wanted to write the stories of our family history, which is still sitting in my Google Drive somewhere.
It is impossible to abstract out all of my emotions, my experiences, and my day to day thoughts while in Ethiopia into a single, coherent piece, although that’s what I’m trying to do today. It’s not that a blog post is too short--rather, even if I were told to sit down and write a novel about my last trip to Ethiopia, it would still be an incoherent collection of ramblings and loose ends that don’t deserve the term “novel”, don’t deserve any term, really.
I wrote three iterations of this draft that were much less coherent, and it has taken me three weeks to write this blog post. This time, I have a story. The story is not about me (well, not entirely), and it’s not about Ethiopia, and it is not about my family, or being called foreign in a place I consider home, or about the differences between Addis Ababa and the countryside, or about what “being Ethiopian” means. The other three iterations of this draft touched on all those things, but finally, I decided to cut them away, for the sake of telling this story, rather than any other one.
This story is about Muti.
Muti is a village in Kaffa, SNNPR, Ethiopia. I went there several times, during the trips of my childhood, and many of my relatives live there. Muti is a large place, with a middle school and secondary school. A market is held there on Sundays. The surrounding villages have none of these. It is also the last village before paved roads, and so it's important to those who live in villages on the other side of it. They walk or ride horses, so they cannot travel much further very easily. Many come from as far away as 2-4 hours walking for the market. Still more people, children, come to Muti for school. Many will live with relatives or rent housing there during the week and return to their homes only on the weekends.
Muti also has a water problem. All the water in Muti is delivered through spring protections. A spring protection is made where there’s a source of running water (such as a river or spring). You can clean up the site (often by digging drainage trenches and the like) and cover it in a concrete structure. The water produced is very clean, because the sediments of the earth itself can act as good filters, and the protected water source becomes self-cleaning. Afterward, you only need to maintain it by regular cleanings every month. The spring protections in Muti have stopped working, emptying or drying up every 5-10 years. Currently, all but one of the spring protections has stopped working. Many more than just the inhabitants of Muti depend on Muti’s water--and Muti itself has a population of over 2000. The only clean water source that remains is the one next to the secondary school, too far for many of the people in Muti to walk to for water.
One day, far away from Muti in Boston, I called my father. I told him about my life--school was hard, sleep was not happening, UROP-ing at the Media Lab was awesome, etc.--and my father told me about his. He always allotted part of our conversations to telling me about “back home”--our family in Ethiopia, and how they were doing, who was doing what. My cousins passed the national matric exam--not too different from the tests I talked about. Someone’s horse was eaten by a lion; that sentence would not make any sense if I said it to someone at MIT. He also told me the story of Muti, a village that lost its water supply--doesn’t that also sound like nonsense? Just as it’s nonsensical to think of someone at MIT losing their horse to a lion, is it not also nonsensical to think of someone at MIT not having water? I remember putting down the phone and thinking about how striking this difference was, the differences between the problems I told my father about and the problems he described to me.
Another day, also in Boston, I was psetting at a library. My friend Alberto H. ‘17 turned to me and said, “Hey, let’s go to Ethiopia over IAP!!” He was taking an Amharic class at Harvard, and had become interested in Ethiopian culture.
I thought he was joking--and, well, he was, in that I said “ok sounds good” and we both went back to working. But then, Alberto heard about a grant, and so he set up a couple meetings, inviting me to them. We heard about other grants and went to more meetings; we wrote proposals, found faculty advisors, talked to anyone who would listen. I told Alberto the story of Muti, and together, we told the story to everyone else we talked to. We talked to Malte A. ‘17, a junior at MIT and an intern at the World Bank. He was flying to Mongolia for a STEM education project the week after our brief meeting with him. He gave us our initial energy and excitement, urging us to pursue anything we could and telling us, in detail, many of the methods that worked or did not work in his own past international development projects. Most of all, he told us never to get discouraged or give up. Talking to Malte was particularly crucial in ensuring we took our project seriously--he was an example that, even as an undergrad, you could pursue international projects on your own initiative and time. You could even be successful.
We talked to Dr. Ken Strzepek at an MIT-Africa Interest Group (MAIG) meeting, which we attended in order to find people who could help us conduct our project. It was midterms and we did not look ready for an evening of networking with research scientists and graduate students. Alberto was wearing sweatpants, and I had a hat over my incredibly messy hair. Even as we mumbled “excuse our appearances, midterms [something something]”, Dr. Strzepek surprised us by saying, “Wow! Undergrads!”. Out of the 30-40 people at the MAIG meeting, only three undergraduates attended. Dr. Strzepek gave us his card, calling out as he left, "We're partners now! Let me know if you need to know people in Addis Ababa!", the edge of his blazer whipping around the doorway. That day, wearing a beanie, next to my sweatpants-clad teammate, amidst graduate students and research scientists all sporting business casual or better, was the day I learned that something is always better than nothing, and became much less of a perfectionist.
We also talked to Professor Hazel Sive at the MAIG meeting, one of my favorite professors on MIT’s campus. She taught me 7.013 (General Biology), a class with at least 300 people in it, where I would not have expected to grow to personally admire a professor. Though teaching 300 students, she still managed to show that she genuinely cared about all of us. Professor Sive told us to talk to Shalom A. ‘16, another Ethiopian undergraduate student she had worked with who had conducted projects in or involving Ethiopia before.
I talked to Shalom, who then told me about a company called xHub, a startup incubator in Addis Ababa that helped him with one of his projects: teaching a sort of compressed IAP version of 6.006 to tech professionals and university students in Addis Ababa. He said he would be in Ethiopia during IAP as well in case we needed any help on-site.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, Alberto and I actually won one of the many grants we applied to, the Tau Beta Pi Engineering Service Fellowship. We were awarded $3,000 to travel to Ethiopia and conduct research there, with the aim of solving Muti’s water problem.
We were actually going to go.
Now, I tell this story very linearly, but what actually happened was much different than that. Winning the grant meant that what had started out as a phone call, a thought, and a random conversation in a library was going to become real. Our contacts we met through many meetings and emails, where the people we met with and emailed would then refer us to other people to meet with and email. We received one grant out of the many that we applied to or looked for. What seems linear came from something more like a spiderweb--a lead here, a lead there, until finally, we had at least one, straight, path.
I arrived in Ethiopia January 1st, 2016 (yes, I spent New Year’s Eve on a plane). After settling in, I called Shalom and set up a meeting at the xHub offices in Bole, Addis Ababa’s most rapidly developing district. Through xHub, I met Leul Dereje, the co-president of a nonprofit called Drop of Water.
Drop of Water was formed at Ethiopia’s Mekele University. It started when Matt Damon came to Ethiopia working on his own water initiatives and some students went to take a picture with him. After listening to his talk, they decided that they, too, as Ethiopian citizens, should be involved in developing water projects. So they fundraised by selling small things at their school--T-Shirts, pens--and raised enough money to build a well. Then they built another one, and another one, and another. Pretty soon it was the largest volunteer club at Mekele. The president, Hermella Wondimu, left her career to become the president of what Drop of Water is now, a fully recognized NGO.
I admire Drop of Water and the group behind it so much because it involves Ethiopians helping other Ethiopians, young people volunteering for their communities the same way young people in the US volunteer for theirs. It removes the often problematic situation of exclusively foreign nonprofits having control over projects they may not as thoroughly comprehend. Drop of Water (and xHub), to me, serve as proof that Ethiopia has talented, bright young people, great thinkiers and ambitious innovators amidst its population. As the nation develops, these talented people and groups are revealed again and again, refuting shallow ideas about Africa and African people as a whole. Ethiopians have always had a lot of pride--it is the only African country that was never colonized--and now, that pride and energy seems only to be blossoming more. The conversation I had with Leul was an exciting, transformative moment--so much so that I'll need a separate blog post to describe it.
Drop of Water told us that in order to help us implement a well, they needed a contact at a local university. They wanted to have a sort of base, similar to Mekele University, where they could recruit student volunteers and also give them some work experience, helping the community two-fold. For example, they recruited a Mekele student to do a geographical survey for one of their wells, and the student gained some practical experience to help with their resume (we also have volunteer work like this in the United States). So, we looked for universities near Muti that could cooperate with Drop of Water. We were then put in touch with the president of Mizan-Tepi University, where some of my own cousins had attended college. We’re still working, now, on finalizing their relationship with Drop of Water and ourselves in order to implement the wells.
In our search for more technical information, we met with a connection of Dr. Strzepek’s, Yohannes Gebretseadik. Yohannes did his postdoctoral fellowship at MIT, and now works for the UN Nile Basin Project in Entebbe, Uganda. Yohannes gave us a lot of valuable advice on what sort of water data to look for, how to design our solution, and what might work best. After consulting with him, we tentatively decided to perform a hand-dug well project in Muti, a design we’re still working on.
Muti is far from the capital city. It takes a 9-hour bus ride to get to a town, Wush Wush, where we stayed with my aunt. Then, we hiked/rode horses for four hours to get to my father’s village in the countryside, and Muti was two hours walking from there. When we arrived in Muti, we talked to Abba Kifle--a local priest. “Abba” means “Father” in Amharic--Father Kifle. Abba Kifle gave us much more insight into what the community of Muti really needed, what people were struggling with, and what they wanted out of a water source. He showed us all the spring protection sites, the ones that had stopped working and failed and a couple that seemed to only work sporadically, on their way out. He also showed us potential spots for other spring protections or water projects. Abba Kifle was excited about our project, and impressed upon us how dire the current situation was. “The people are really suffering,” he said. It was clear to me he was someone who’s always eager to help anyone who needs him, especially in his community. When we left, he drove us from Muti to the next town, Chiri. Along the way, he collected hitchhikers, who would climb into the back of the pickup truck as he continued pressing on the bumpy road. He jokingly complained--”I am Muti’s taxi, eh?”--but did not refuse anyone.
All this way that Alberto and I had been traveling to get to Muti, I asked people, especially in Kaffa, about the water situation. Little kids, especially. I asked my six year old cousin Ermias, “Muti aacho beeti?” Is there water in Muti? He simply responded, “Aalle.” No, there is not.
My older cousins wanted to know why I had come back so soon--I’d told them before many times that I could not come back before I graduated college. I had to explain simply, since my Amharic and Kafa No’No aren’t too great. I always explained by asking, is there water in Muti? And when they responded, no, I told them, I came here to fix Muti’s water problem. There was no way for me to provide caveats or qualifications--I just wasn’t good enough at the language, and it would take too long. I simply had to tell them, I came here to fix Muti’s water. So, it became a promise.
After returning to the capital in Addis Ababa, we met with the Secretary General of Ethiopia, Negus Lemma, who we were introduced to through Alberto’s Amharic professor. He agreed to help us with any administrative tasks we might have to go through--such as acquiring construction licenses--and agreed that our relationship could form a basis of support for any future MIT initiatives we might want to pursue (which, after this exciting trip, I was definitely planning on pursuing). We met with Drop of Water again and set everything up for implementation as soon as we were able to acquire more funding from MIT.
That is where we are now. Muti still has no well, unfortunately, but we owe them one, and we hope it’s coming soon. The story isn’t finished yet--and truthfully, real stories never do. I could have started this story about water in Muti much farther back then when I began, back to the spring protection implemented at the school by an organization from Colorado, or back to when one of our family friends visited and saw the school children drinking water that had worms, or back to when Abba Kifle was first placed in Muti and witnessed earlier projects. I could end this story right now, too, waiting for a solution--but I choose to say this one hasn’t ended yet. The week that I returned to MIT, I had a phone call with the president of Mizan-Tepi University, and clarified some points of our project and Drop of Water. After that, I had a phone call with Dr. Strzepek, who helped me find some precipitation data in Kaffa. I exchanged many emails with Tau Beta Pi, the provider of our grant, figuring out logistics. I thought after this IAP I would be “done” with this project, hand it off to someone else--but actually, I’m very much still in the thick of it, and glad to be there.
I still can’t believe it started with a phone call, a thought, and a random conversation in the library.
My friend and current president of Chinese Students Club, Jessica W. '16, once asked me the question, "what motivates you?”. She was referring to the current trend that some engineers (especially in software) were worried increased specialization of tasks and the tech bubble were fueling only first-world solutions to first-world problems. She told me she once watched a talk by a Facebook engineer who worked on the Internet.org project, and urged budding software developers to think about the meaning in their work, who their contributions would impact and how.
My response to Jessica’s question was something along the lines of my family in Ethiopia and aiming to fix the problems they face--that’s what motivates me. Yet, I also said that at the moment I was just pursuing whatever was interesting. I thought of helping my region of Ethiopia as a goal for after I graduate, or after I had been working for some time. A lot of people preface the goals they have to better their communities or the world by the phrases “once I’ve got money” or “once I have time”. I can assure you that I had neither of these. I discovered that in truth, you do not have to wait. You can impact someone, somewhere, now--as long as you are passionate about it.