Saturday, December 21, 2013

Giving and giving back. (Or, how I escaped from jail on my last day in Ethiopia.)

Yeah, I did feed a hyena.
I'm finally back in the United States after a month of getting to know Ethiopia and the people Concordia Humana will be working with to build the well in Harar. I first met the group of University of Cincinnati students in Addis Ababa about ten days ago, and with them from there I explored Addis Ababa, drove twelve hours to Harar, put a wooden stick wrapped in camel meat in my mouth and fed it to a wild hyena, stood in the back of a Toyota pickup truck on a dirt road in a search for the endangered (and equally elusive, even in a nature preserve) African elephant, got a mild bout of food poisoning, was a passenger in a car accident that left me in jail and then hitchhiked back across Ethiopia to make my flight, whereupon I slept in front of the only warm place in the airport (a Burger King, in fact) during a twelve-hour layover in Saudi Arabia, and finally, after a fourteen-hour flight to New York, encountered snow delays that kept me a little while longer from my home in Cincinnati.

I did not have very much time to write a blog post.

First, I'll talk about the adventure of scoping out the well in the village of Harar, and second, I'll talk about the adventure of getting back to the US.

The road out to Qerensa Dereba.
The drive to Harar laid bare the conditions under which millions of rural Ethiopians live, and in a way, why we're doing what we're doing. For hundreds of kilometers, our white van wandered through the crags of a shattered volcanic boulder field with only the hardiest of cacti eking out of the dry cracks of the earth. As the plants struggled, so did the people; giant yellow water tanks were sometimes the villagers' only source of water, and the tanks had to be shipped in from far away. During our dawn-to-dusk drive, we saw exactly one major source of water: a lake located, frankly, in a low-lying area in the middle of nowhere. Other people relied on modern transportation or their own two feet to get the scarce water.

The long walk to the well through chat and sorghum fields.
The well as it is today: deep inside a field, and far
from the main road where everyone lives.
So when we arrived last Thursday at the Qerensa Dereba school, I had a few observations. First, and most importantly, the well that already exists there had approximately the same problem that getting water from a river has: it was far away from the people that used it, so that while it provided clean water that a river does not, it took a long time to get it. And additionally, anyone that wanted water from this well would have to hand-pump it him or herself. Second, I noted the tenacity with which human beings seek an education. In an environment where kids fetch water from a pump and stood looking curiously on at some of the first foreigners they'd ever seen, their parents still built a school with the same mud walls and tin roofs from which they built their homes. There were paintings of the inner workings of the human heart and reproductive systems in the Oromo language on the outside walls of the five buildings which surrounded a small empty courtyard, and the desks were wooden benches on a dirt floor in front of a long-since-new chalkboard.

But, by God, they were going to get the best education they could.

Qerensa Dereba, the school where we're building the well.
Which is really what this is all about. These kids crave to satisfy the basic human impulse of curiosity, and spending inordinate amounts of time fetching water to satisfy another basic human impulse of thirst. It isn't right to have to trade off one for the other.
A classroom in Qerensa Dereba.
So I'm now back here in the United States, having met the players in this endeavor, from the engineers to the local university officials, who will work with Concordia Humana to build a solar-powered well that provides clean and time-saving water. Clean for the health of the body, time-saving for the health of the economy. The fundraising challenge for the drilling and construction begins on Monday, December 23 at Whole Foods in Mason, Ohio, where we'll be wrapping presents, distributing flyers, and taking donations. (But most importantly, taking donations!)


And so now we should get to the second half of this post, which is how I got out of jail and back across the country to make my flight home with a mere five hours to spare. The driver from the tour company that the University of Cincinnati had hired agreed to drive only me back to Addis Ababa in the large van that had taken everyone to Harar. So in a van made for 10 people, it was just me and the driver named Aragawi, who was about the sweetest old man you'd ever meet. We left Harar at the crack of dawn, and I fell asleep in the back of the van.

I woke up two hours later to screeching tires and a body in the middle of the street.

Aragawi, who was also a fairly cautious driver, had struck a man of about 25 while driving through a village. (Since I was asleep, I have no idea whose fault it was.) A crowd quickly gathered around the car, yanked open the sliding door, dumped the guy on the seat, and demanded that we go to the nearest medical clinic. The man was spitting out blood, had a gash on his forehead, and was fading in and out of consciousness. I did my best to dress his wounds with my Johnson & Johnson first aid kit, donning blue rubber gloves, putting gauze and Neosporin on his forehead wound, and wiping the blood off his face. We got him to a clinic, a nurse put a shot of what was presumably morphine into his butt, and he passed out. Aragawi, a usually cheery and quiet man, was on the verge of tears, and I did my best to comfort him.

As we were driving out to go fetch the man's father, the police commander, who looked something like an Ethiopian version of one of the cops in The Godfather, stopped our car and hopped in the front seat. A few minutes later, I was sitting with Aragawi under arrest outside of a communal jail cell made of fenceposts and barbed wire in a town called Kobo. Nobody spoke a word of English, not even a little, and I'd given the police commander 25 of my 40 dollars to help cover "medical expenses." I'm not sure that's what it went toward, but I have no proof otherwise.

Shitaye, the woman who owns the guest house I was staying at in Addis Ababa, was my first phone call. I quickly explained the situation to her - that I'd been sort of blanket-arrested with my driver and that I had a plane to catch in 27 hours in an airport that was a day's drive away. When I passed the phone to the guard, she spoke what little Oromo she knew to tell a man with an AK-47 that if I was held in that barbed wire jail cell, that Ethiopia would never, ever see tourists again. "Think of the consequences of what you're doing," she said. That of course probably isn't quite true, but I owe Shitaye one hell of a favor for inflating my personal importance to the point of being released by a guy with the power to kill me if I'd tried to leave on my own.

So a short bajaj (tuk-tuk, rickshaw, three-wheeled go-kart, call it what you want) ride later, and I was at the bus station in Kobo, which was a shack-booth on the street that sold tea, and also apparently bus tickets. A bus pulled up, I paid extra to sit backwards on the gearbox since there were no extra seats. At this point, I'd slowly migrated my passport and other important documents to my winter coat for security's sake, and was wearing said coat in hot desert weather. But, the bus was here and I was free!

This is where the second bus broke down. The
view in the other direction was approximately
the same.
Except, obviously, the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. Having no idea how to fix a bus with a broken clutch (and also never having even driven a stick-shift anything) I still desperately offered to try to help fix the bus. "No, no," the driver said, "just sit back, relax, and chew chat." Chat, of course, is half-meter sticks covered in leaves that contain a stimulant chemical. Everyone on the bus except the driver, including the guy that spoke good enough English to understand my story and had given me the equivalent of 5 dollars (not at all insignificant) to help get back across the country, was high on chat. They offered me some, but I politely refused, deciding rightfully that this was not the time for a psycho-chemical experiment.

After ninety minutes of waiting around in the waning afternoon sun, my dam of desperation broke and I got out of the clunked bus, stood on the side of the road with my luggage, and waved my arms at passing cars. The first man who stopped was named Mengistu (not to be confused at all with the genocidal dictator of the 1970s and 80s). I explained my situation as quickly and as clearly as I could (I believe I said, "This bus is broken and my first driver is in jail") and without further questions, he told me to get into the car with him and his two friends. I piled my luggage in the back, and we were on our way.

This is the moral of the story. Every morning, I'd wake up and recite an old Jesuit prayer that I'd learned at my Catholic high school. It goes like this:

Lord, teach me to be generous
Teach me to serve you as you deserve
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To toil and not to seek for rest,
To labor and not to ask for any reward
Save that of knowing that I am doing your will.

It's these values that brought me to Ethiopia in the first place to use my time and talents to effect change in the world that I believe to be good. But Mengistu may literally have saved my life and not only asked for nothing in return, but refused any kind of payment whatsoever when I even tried to buy him the meals that he was buying for me. He owned a construction company and was probably about as rich as a middle class American, but he bent over backwards to turn of the most stressful days of my entire life completely around. That night, we drove 300 kilometers to a city called Adama, and then he picked me up from a hotel early the next morning to drive me the rest of the way to Addis Ababa. I arrived in Addis Ababa in time to have breakfast and a coffee, and then breathed a sigh of relief as I boarded the plane first to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and then finally to JFK the next day.

The generosity of Ethiopians, despite how much less they have than Americans on average, is unparalleled, and even on my last day, Mengistu taught me a lesson about the power of giving. It's something I'll remember for the rest of my life, and certainly as I work with Claire, Peter, Patrick, and Matt from Concordia Humana as we try to raise the money it takes to complete the well in Harar.

And finally, many thanks to all of you for following me through my journey through Ethiopia - there will be many more updates from our fundraisers here in America, and certainly when I return to Harar to begin the process of building the well we've set out to raise money for. Happy Holidays, and check back here in the coming weeks!


  1. Danny, that was a beautifully written piece. It moved me to tears. Not so much of sadness, but of joy in knowing there are young people like you out there with that much goodness in your hearts. God is working through you, and your parents must be enormously proud. I am glad you are back safe!! PLEASE let me know where I can send a donation for your project. God Bless and Merry Christmas! - James Butler's Mom

  2. Hey hey! Thank you so much for the kind words - it really means a lot. There's so much work to be done in Ethiopia, so there are two things you can do. First, as you said, you can donate here: Second, if you like the story, spread it around! The more people that see this, the better. Merry Christmas to you too!