'We, too, are Ethiopians, as is all mankind'

Beneath an improvised canopy, Ashland resident Lew Nash surveyed the Ethiopians who had come to say goodbye. It had been a long, hard 10 days. But now speeches of gratitude and farewell would be given, a large baked bread would be ceremoniously cut and shared, and rich Ethiopian coffee carefully served and passed around, all against a backdrop of newly constructed houses.

Lew, his wife, Kate Thill, and 20 other volunteers, all members of Habitat for Humanity, had arrived in Ethiopia some two weeks before, landing first in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. This was Lew and Kate's ninth international build with Habitat for Humanity, an international agency committed to building homes in partnership with people in need.

Almost immediately they left for Dessie, some 400 kilometers away, a punishing 12-hour bus ride across rutted and washed-out roads, through a sepia countryside dotted with agriculture, herds of sheep and goats and scattered villages with thatched roofs.

Dessie, above 9,000 feet, is a town of 150,000. Its main street a scrim of dust, pedestrians and traffic moved slowly, avoiding ditches and gullies and rubble. "There are no tourists here," Lew said. "No airport either. So white faces like ours are rare."

The bus took them to the Ambasa Hotel, their base. It was shabby and run down, the rooms stark, water a mere trickle from the faucets.

It was chosen, Lew explained, "because the kitchen is well run and has kept past volunteers healthy. We must be careful what we eat as health issues are serious. We drink and brush our teeth with bottled water and sometimes use it for washing. Showers, at least the North American kind, are only a dream."

From the hotel it was 20 minutes by bus and another 20-minute hike to the building site. On a bare hillside, houses were already under construction. More than 100 people — community members, children, dignitaries and families — were gathered beneath a large tent, there to welcome the volunteers. Schoolchildren, dressed in blue uniforms, a few carrying flowers, stood in practiced lines, and women wearing colorful wraparound skirts, their heads modestly covered with light cotton shawls, watched intently. Some of the men were in western dress, others wore turbans and loose wraps. "It was a joyous, heartfelt and overwhelming display of appreciation for our being there," said Lew.

For 10 days the volunteers dug ditches, framed houses and carried a sticky mud and straw mix called chika that was spread thickly over narrow eucalyptus planks.

Eucalyptus, long ago imported from Australia, is a resilient tree that thrives in the Ethiopian climate. It also grows long and crooked, Lew pointed out, and when cut twists and buckles and resists nails. Once the two- or three-room houses were constructed and the interior and exterior walls covered with chika, a tin roof was added.

From beginning to end, the Habitat build was completed with the supervision of the locals, "sometimes causing long discussions," said Lew. "We have to remember that it is their project, in their country and for their people."

Soon the volunteers settled into a routine, hiking the trail to the build site carrying tools, lunches and bottles of water, always flanked by small children. "The kids are eager to practice their English," explained Kate, "so there was much shy giggling over the language exchange. Only about 25 percent of Ethiopian kids get to go to school, but those who do start talking English early on."

Returning to the hotel each evening, mud-spattered and spent, they sent their clothes out to be laundered at 17 cents a bundle and then gathered for a group meal.

As the houses were completed, blessings were offered and good luck speeches made.

And soon it was time to say goodbye. The volunteers, local officials, families and members of the community gathered beneath the same tent erected for the welcoming celebration. Bread and coffee and orange soda were served and speeches given. Lew, the senior member of the group, was expected to say a few words.

"Ten days ago," he said, speaking through a translator, "we came as strangers. Although we came from far away, we, too, are Ethiopians, as is all mankind. You greeted us with a welcoming ceremony that we will long remember. We have been greeted each morning by joy in your children's faces as we walk to work. You worked each day with us, you have sweated with us and laughed with us, and you taught us how to make houses using local, inexpensive materials in a way that we had never seen before.

"We have learned much from you and we hope you have learned from us. Today we leave as friends. As we worked together we came to know you as brothers and sisters with the same joys and sorrows, the same hopes and desires, and the same disappointments as with all peoples. We have enjoyed our stay in your beautiful country and the work that we have done with you. With Ethiopian sun on our faces and Ethiopian mud on our shoes, we are now truly Ethiopian."

The next day the volunteers left on a bus to Lalibella, one of the ancient capitals of Ethiopia, where they continued their journey through Ethiopia before heading home.

Chris Honoré is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at honore305@yahoo.com.

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