Open Arms of Minnesota

Reflections on Ethiopia

By Ben Penner, Farm Director

Now that I’ve been back from Ethiopia for a few weeks, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the work of Open Arms in that country. Our support for the nutrition project there has been vital to nearly 4,000 people over the years, and that is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of the scale and scope of the need. Sometimes, however, our first impressions are the best, and so I’d like to share some of my initial thoughts in fairly raw form. Perhaps this will give you a sense of the experience as it was happening.

Here are those thoughts:

> I’ve been learning what I can about the history of Ethiopia. I’d like to be a good guest here but I feel like I am primarily an American overseas — someone certainly interested in positive social change, but at best limited in my knowledge of how to effect that change and at worst naïve about how the world really works. Trying to fit this all into a workable framework would probably take years — I only have about a week.

> Marble. The first thing I notice getting off of the plane from Amsterdam is the marble. Marble is everywhere in the airport. The strip malls and shopping malls have marble. Marble is everywhere, and marble is cheap — in Ethiopia. How is that for some perspective?

> Driving southward out of Addis the traffic turns from cars, minibuses and taxis to large semis straining with cargo and shipping containers. Yoseph, our guide today, tells us that the large amount of truck traffic on this road is going to and from the main shipping port in Djibouti. The traffic on this road is indicative of the development going on throughout the country and especially around Addis. Foreign investment has created a frenzy of economic activity — manufacturing, construction and public works projects such as the widening of Bole Road (the main road in Addis from the airport to downtown) is managed by Chinese companies with Ethiopian labor.

> There is so much open land. It is the dry season so it is hard to imagine green fields, but the land itself is fertile and — with enough water, labor and time — is very productive. The government has begun a number of different irrigation projects to address the need for water during these dry periods. Mostly what will be grown are cash crops — cotton, sugar cane and perhaps teff, the grain that makes the Ethiopian staple food injera.

> I have never seen this kind of development, even when I visited India. The new factories being built take on the cast of global scope and scale, the type of development we hear about on the news but don’t actually see in the U.S. — and yet many people here appear impoverished. This juxtaposition is startling for me. I read that 85 percent of the population in Ethiopia is involved in agriculture, and by observation I can tell that this must be accurate. Most people appear to be working in one way, shape or form in agriculture. I wonder how the development occurring will affect them and their livelihoods. Will it improve their situation? I hope so.

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