A Year in Gambella, Ethiopia

I don’t usually read the Church Times – it is too depressing – but an ad. in a borrowed copy started it all. Searching to see how much organists were being offered my eye was caught by ETHIOPIA in large type. A clergyman, with experience of managing projects, was required to head up a project in the Southwest of the country and to train the local staff.

It took only seconds for Julia to agree that we should go for it, so I emailed my c.v. to Andrew, the Bishop of Ethiopia. His response was swift and enthusiastic. 

We flew to Addis Ababa with one rucksack each to find Andrew, having just been appointed Bishop of Reading, packing. It would be many months before his replacement would be in situ. Could we stay for a year, and would I supervise the clergy? I would be Area Dean, and was told by Andrew’s bishop boss in Cairo: ‘When you speak, I speak’. That was something coming from a prelate described as ‘pharaohic’.

Most of Ethiopia lies on a plateau, and Addis Ababa has a very pleasant climate. The Gambella region – our destination – lies just above sea level and is hot and muggy. It is on the South Sudan bordser and receives refugees from there. Some, including Bishop Mouneer in Cairo, wondered whether, at our very advanced age, we would survive such climate conditions. We did, with the help of long siestas and slightly shorter cold showers.

The project I directed, assisted by Julia, who was able to put to good use her financial wizardry, is based in a compound of buildings that were reaching completion. The library, seating 250, and the office were operational and the priest’s house ready for occupation. We oversaw the completion of the guest house, canteen, training room and chapel, the equipping of the computer room with ten new Dell machines, the planting of hundreds of trees, including mangoes, and bananas (which don’t grow on trees), and the laying down of paths. There were eighteen staff on the payroll.

The Anglican Church has grown rapidly over the past few years and fifty-two congregations are served by a dozen clergy. There are three tribal groups, the most numerous being the Nuer. They are pastoralists, used to roaming with their herds in South Sudan, who sought refuge from fighting there and ended up in Ethiopian camps before being settled in permanent villages. Many were Anglicans before they arrived but refugee camp life seems to have reinforced their commitment and increased their numbers.

Next are the Anuaks, whose tradition is slash-and-burn agriculture. Hostility between the two groups usually arose when Nuer cattle fed themselves on Anuak crops. Now conflict arises because Anuaks hold positions of power within local government. The third group, a small tribe, is the Opo. They live on both sides of the Sudan border, grow crops and smoke river fish. Their one Anglican priest was the most effective community leader among the clergy. There is a fourth group: the Highlanders. These are people who were forcibly resettled here during the time of the Derg. They run most of the businesses and are resented by Anuak and Nuer. They are mostly Orthodox with a scattering of Muslims.

In the early days the library was not being much used, but with the school holidays came packs of young people, many to take advantage of the new basketball/volleyball court or to play football. It became obvious that for these youngsters the library needed hands-on kits such as meccano, lego etc. Friends from Hartland visited bringing suitcases of educational gizmos. Christine, a former head teacher, played teaching games with the younger kids. Our staff found it hard to accept that such play could be educational.

The most successful of our projects was health education. Trained workers visited homes and taught families about basic hygiene, encouraging the construction of latrines. The effectiveness of our approach was recognized at a national conference. During the year over 7,000 homes were visited.

With the women’s literacy project there were problems, but before we left we were able to set up a new programme with the help of the Mothers’ Union, Tearfund and some trainers from South Sudan. It is holistic, encouraging groups of women to set up small businesses. The spur to literacy for many of the Nuer women is the ability to read the Bible.

Each day begins with staff prayers, up to a dozen of us reciting Morning Prayer in four languages simultaneously. One of the group would be asked to pray. No one ever refused or was lost for words. That was part of a novel experience for me: to be in a society where most people were committed Christians and not embarrassed to talk about things spiritual, in the market, on the bus, or queuing up at the bank.

It is difficult in just a few paragraphs to paint an adequate picture of day-to-day life in Gambella. I kept a diary and sent weekly missives to friends in the UK. If you would like to know more I can email it to you. Just ask. And remember: you asked for it!

For Julia and me the year was a rich experience. We made many friends - we have since made two return visits to catch up with them - and we like to think that we made a small difference. However, development work is much harder than most people imagine. To make a difference one would have to live for twenty years in a village, demonstrating through example how life can be improved by better water management, better agricultural techniques, and better handling of money.That cannot be undertaken by agencies or governemnts, only by committed individuals.



Resurgence articles from my   Touchstone  column

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  go to heaven on an egg

  counting the hairs on your head

  organizing madness

  moan therapy

  an elegant self-sufficiency

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  who is Colin Hodgetts?

  without vision we die

  vision and the Small School

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Julia and I spent a year in Ethiopia, 2011-12. Below is a brief  account of the work we were doing. Some pictures follow  the article.

Each week I sent out a newsletter to a number of friends. If you are interested in the development work we were doing near the South Sudan border in steamy lowlands Gambella, whilst overseeing fifty-two churches and a dozen or so local clergy, email me and I will email back a copy.

Colin Hodgetts


chapel fire Gambellalatrine frameColin & Bishop MouneerChristina leads a dancegreeting Xmas sweetsclergy at ordination