From Africa with love

Dawn breaks on Addis Ababa like any city in America. A rooster crows in the distance and a braying donkey can be heard above the swelling sounds of morning traffic. This is Africa. Yet somehow, Ethiopia feels like coming home.

On first encounter locals here address me like one of their own. The color of my skin, the texture of my hair, the cast of my eyes, are all familiar to them. But upon second reckoning of my clothing, the camera bag on my shoulder, my manner of speaking they realize. I am a foreigner, a “forengee.” Yet still I am welcome. It’s up to me to impress upon those I meet that I have come to love their homeland, my motherland, and that I want to stay a bit longer.

Despite my own genetic connection to this place I believe anyone who visits here might feel a similar since of kinship. After all, it was upon this continent that more than 10,000 years ago the human race was born. In our travels I believe that we often see a common bond between ourselves and others, a shared humanity that will likely be the salvation of our race on this planet. This is a letter from Africa with love.

The first leg of this Joy Trip brought me to hike and climb the Gheralta Cliffs of Tigray. With a belay assist from me, my friend climber and writer Majka Burhardt set four new rock climbing routes to be enjoyed by a group of western donors to a philanthropic organization called Imagine One Day. This group  builds schools in remote regions of Ethiopia. With local administrators and staff these institutions are meant to not only educate children, but to also be economically sustainable.

The aid IOD provides gives local communities here the opportunity to build a better quality of life. The money they raise and distribute creates a model of development that can be maintained through the future. Members of the communities where the schools are built dedicate a portion of their economy, based perhaps on agriculture or light manufacturing, to support them. Smart philanthropic contributions like this will allow people in need to become directly involved in their own recovery and wards against crisis in the event of sudden economic or environmental collapse.

In the coming days the IOD donors will visit a few of the schools they helped to create. Majka and other guides will also take them on several adventure outings including mountain biking, a trek to explore 4th century monastic churches carved from sandstone and a climb of the routes she set. This blending of outdoor recreation and philanthropic giving is exactly what the Joy Trip Project is all about.

On our way back to Addis Majka and I made a stop to visit a hospital in the city of Mekelle. Of particular interest is the creation there of a new clinic that treats many people throughout the region who suffer from cataract blindness and glaucoma. We were both made aware of this program through our mutual friend Dr. Geoff Tabin, a Salt Lake City optometrist and climber who established the Himalayan Cataract Project. Caused primarily by chronic infections and malnutrition most cases of cataract blindness are preventable or treatable with surgery. Thanks to the generous contributions of western donors these operations can be performed for as little as $20.

As we walked the hallways of this hospital our guide Dr. Tilahun Kiros introduced us to several of his patients. Some who recently received cornea transplants, others who have had cataracts removed. Each Dr. Kiros said has an excellent chance of a full recovery and restored vision.

While we stood chatting in a hallway I sensed the presence of a person standing close behind me. I turned around to see a man holding a child. She was tiny in his arms and clearly very sick. Her left eye was badly swollen and oozed a thin liquid stained pink with traces of blood. And look her father’s eyes was one of dire pleading. “Please help her” it seemed to say.

Her name is Tameralech Tsegay. She is 4 years old and suffers from a retinoblastoma. This rapidly developing cancer corrupts the cells of the eye’s retina or light detecting tissue. In other parts of the develop world this condition has one of the highest cure rates of all childhood cancers, 95 to 98%. This is a very curable disease.

But Tameralech is dying. The cost of surgery and chemotherapy to treat her is about $5,000. Not a great deal of money for medical treatment in the West. But in Ethiopia it’s a king’s ransom and all that separates her from a full recovery. “I can not save her sight,” said Dr. Kiros. “But I can save her life.”

We left the hospital with the image of Tameralech seared into my mind. It seems such a small price to pay for the life of a child, but in country with a population of 80 million many of whom live in utter poverty without the benefit of health care it’s difficult to weight the value of one life in the balance of so much need and suffering.

“You can go outside right now and find 10 people with a similar problem,” Majka said the next day over breakfast. “Plus she’s got developmental problems. Who knows what the quality of her life would be after treatment.”

At the age of 4 Tameralech is non-verbal and doesn’t walk on her own. She’s a very sick little girl. And Dr. Kiros said that without treatment she will likely die within a year. But who’s to say what she might do with her life or become if she is given the opportunity to live?

So that begs the question: Do you allow one person to die, a child, and use those same financial resources to save the eyesight of 250 other people? The issue is academic. Tameralech’s treatment will require a contribution from donors who have specifically designated the gift to her care. While a single donor is unlikely I’m curious to know if there are those of you out there who would be willing to make a small donation of $5 to $10 to see that Tameralech gets the attention she needs.

I know that many of us well-intentioned types cast about trying to decide how best help those who can not help themselves. I sincerely support the efforts of organizations like Imagine One Day that create systematic programs to correct the long-range problems of those suffering in Ethiopia. But what about those single cases like Tameralech who need our help today just to survive?

It’s a difficult question, one for which I have no answer. On CNN International this morning there was an interview with Melinda Gates, wife Bill Gates one of the wealthiest people in the world. Through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation the couple is trying to help improve the lives those in extreme poverty.

“Aid is being incredibly effective,” she said. “We’re seeing on the ground that giving is really making a difference.”

But we can’t just right a check and have done with it. It’s important to have a more vested interest.

“It’s not just giving money,” Melinda Gates said. “It’s getting involved in a cause and giving of our hearts and minds.”

That’s really what has brought me to Africa. I hope that the stories I bring back will help you realize that despite all the need in the world, there are people out there giving of themselves and making a difference. Even the smallest contribution of your time or money can help. What matters most is that you take the time to become engaged and take action. And in the case of Tameralech it might indeed be possible through a series of small contributions from the readers of this blog to a make a big difference in the life of this one small child. At the very least please share this story with those in your network of friends. And I hope you’ll continue to follow throughout this African Joy Trip.

Special thanks to sponsors  Patagonia, Osprey, Clik Elite and Mountain Hardwear whose generous support makes this latest series of stories possible.

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

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  • Bill

    Fantastic writing James! Soak it all in. Put in a good word for us (were trying to get Majka to come to Michigan Ice)!

    • Thanks for the comment and the encouragement Bill. It’s a great experience. Majka is definitely making plans to visit Michigan. I just might come along too this year.

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  • Abisears

    Very inspiring James. I am even MORE eager to finish up nursing school now. Thanks for sharing and keeping the fire going inside…..

    • Please do Abi. There’s so much great work that can be done in service to people in the developing world. Stay tuned for a piece I’m working up from a two-day visit to Mother Theresa’s Mission.