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May 21st, 2008 Don Lieber | News Stories
 

Shots from the Heart

Portland-based Mercy Corps is helping America’s image in Ethiopia one goat at a time.

     
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HAVE MERCY: Village elder Ahmed Abdisheed (left) says Mercy Corps “is helpful to us…next to God.”
IMAGE: Don Lieber

A stream of people arrives slowly but steadily on dirt paths to the 5,000-person village of Kalolo.

Each person pulls an animal or two, some having traveled as far as 10 miles on foot to reach this tiny village 200 miles east of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. Goats, oxen and cows dominate the parade. But there are also horses, donkeys, even camels.

Noradeen Salah, a 27-year-old assistant veterinarian with no expression and a square jaw, approaches a small goat. Salah holds a thick, 6-inch needle attached to a small container of white liquid to vaccinate the goat against blackleg disease—a near-guaranteed death sentence.

“If you are not fast, you can get hurt,” Salah says.

“They can kick you,” he says before lunging to grab the goat and jab the needle into its side. He escapes a few kicks of protest before the goat jumps away, confused but relieved of further discomfort.

This scene played out one recent day, one animal after another, for the next six hours. By the end of the day, more than 800 head of livestock were vaccinated by Salah’s needle, as part of a program organized by Portland-based Mercy Corps International 10,000 miles away.

While Mercy Corps gets major publicity when disasters occur—such as the recent earthquake in China or the cyclone in Myanmar—the nonprofit also works throughout the year on myriad projects. One such effort is in the West Hararghe region in remote eastern Ethiopia, one of the poorer areas in one of the poorest nations. For most of its 2 million people, there is no industry, plumbing or electricity. Access to safe drinking water is limited.

“The value of this project to us?” says Ahmed Abdisheed, a village elder. “It is simple. If the animals are healthy, we are healthy. If they die, we die. And we have lived.”

Since 2002, Mercy Corps has spent about $1 million among the region’s estimated 1,000 villages to vaccinate animals in an area the size of Maryland.

The effort to save the livestock population came in response to cycles of severe drought in the 1990s that led to crop failure and pest infestation. In 1998 the U.N. warned of “severe food insecurity” for the region.

“The most important part of the crisis was the effect on livestock,” says Debele Mojo, the Ethiopian-born project manager here for Mercy Corps. “Animals account for about 70 percent of all economic activity here. Animals mean everything.”

By 2002 the situation had grown critical. An outbreak of several highly fatal animal diseases, including bovine anthrax, blackleg and bovine spastic paresis, had wiped out about 40 percent of the area’s livestock.

“It could have led to a famine,” Mojo says.

“There is no way the government could do this by itself,” said Mohammed Ismael, an animal technician in the project.

Mercy Corps started by opening a small office in the regional hub of Chiro. The nonprofit hired 11 local staff members at an average monthly salary of $290 (nearly three times the average annual income for most Ethiopians, according to the U.N.) to administer the purchase of medicines, hire skilled technicians and operate education programs. They also set up accounting systems to ensure each village and each animal could be served—all in a region with nearly no public communication infrastructure or electricity.

The results: Two million vaccinations have been administered and “…not a single death from blackleg, anthrax or bovine paresis since the start of the program,” among the vaccinated animals, Mojo says.

The project has saved thousands of Ethiopians. “Tell the people of Portland” says Abdisheed, “that they are our brothers for what they have done.”

Mercy Corps’ program is one example of its overall strategy to find solutions “tailored to local context and culture,” says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps since 1994.

Ethiopians’ goodwill toward America about the project contrasts with many Ethiopians’ feelings about the Bush administration’s policies.

U.S. policies with Ethiopia are anchored upon the administration’s support for Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. While Zenawi is frequently called one of the world’s worst dictators, the Bush administration considers him an ally in the “war on terror.”

The U.S. ambassador to Ethiopia, Donald Yamamoto, tells WW that “Ethiopia is a strong partner in a tough neighborhood.”

New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof summed up the criticism in a Feb. 21 op-ed, citing Ethiopia as an example of Bush policies that favor short-term stability while “…acquiescing in despotic behavior.”

That behavior includes human-rights abuses from mass arrests to the shooting deaths of more than 200 civilians. And it includes Ethiopia’s 2006 military invasion of Somalia. Human Rights Watch says that invasion unleashed “the biggest unreported humanitarian crisis in the world” and led to thousands of civilian deaths, an ongoing bloody insurgency (similar to Iraq) and the creation of some 300,000 refugees.

Many locals benefiting from the Mercy Corps vaccination program say U.S. support for Zenawi makes the Bush administration’s rhetoric about freedom and stability “hypocritical.”

The consequences of such policies are apparent: For example, I began to notice the image of Osama bin Laden adorning various consumer items for sale on a street in late 2006 in the northern, Orthodox Christian Ethiopian city of Bahir Dar: T-shirts, wrist watches, even toys.

One item stood out: It was a model army M1 Abrams tank with a sticker of bin Laden’s face on the front. On both sides of the tank were scraped-off remains of a U.S. Army decal.

Contrast that with the more recent scene in Kalolo village on vaccination day. Many villagers stayed long afterward, milling about, chatting and sipping buna—traditional Ethiopian coffee. Children played. And unlike in the Christian town of Bahir-Dar, the people here—all Muslim—praised this American intervention.

There was not a picture of bin Laden anywhere.

SLIDESHOW (Photos by Don Lieber)

WEB EXTRA: Portland’s Diplomats, In Their Own Words

Portland’s footprint in Ethiopia includes four Portlanders in the U.S. embassy in Addis Ababa. How’d that oddity happen? “Just luck—we all happened to bid on postings in Ethiopia,” says Darragh Paradiso, the Embassy’s press officer and one of the four Portlanders in the embassy.

Here are quick descriptions of the four:

Kent “Sam” Healy, 45, regional refugee coordinator for the Horn of Africa. A Northeast Portland native, Healy oversees programs that help more than 400,000 people in one of the most refugee-prone areas of the world, including refugee camps in Sudan, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia. He is the longest-serving Portlander in Ethiopia, calling Addis Ababa home since 2005.

Sean Cely, 35, the embassy’s political officer. A native of Northeast Portland with family in Lake Oswego, Cely is responsible for monitoring the human-rights situation in Ethiopia, a country widely condemned for its internal abuses. Among the Portland diplomats, his position may attract the most controversy: Human-rights advocates have charged the Bush administration with ignoring Prime Minister Zenawi’s domestic abuses in deference to his cooperation in the “war on terror.”

Patricia Johnson is the embassy’s cultural affairs officer. Johnson, a native of Corvallis, promotes cultural exchange between the two countries. This involves American speakers, musicians, photo and film exhibitions, environmental awareness programs and English language education. She has been in Ethiopia since 2006.

Darragh Paradiso, 31, is the embassy’s press and information officer. A native of the Laurelhurst neighborhood, Darragh is the embassy’s “go-to” person for American journalists, students and businesspeople. She organizes official visits such as congressional delegations, and assists Ethiopians with information about America, including providing books and magazines to libraries. This includes support to Ethiopian journalists—a sensitive task in a nation ranked second worst in Africa for press freedom, according to Reporters Without Borders “This is a challenging time for journalists here,” says Paradiso, a 1995 graduate of Grant High School. She has been in Ethiopia since 2007.

The Portlanders spoke to WW about their work as diplomats in one of the world’s poorest nations, African perceptions of Portland and the diplomats’ favorite things about Portland.

Describe a recent memorable moment in your diplomatic career:

Healy: “…Standing on the banks of the Nile River in the southern Sudan town of Bor as a barge arrived bringing 300 returnees home for their first time in two decades. One of the most emotional events I’ve ever witnessed.”

Cely: “A leading opposition figure said, ‘Ethiopia always will look to Mother America as a role model for democratic reform.’”

Johnson: “I arranged a joint concert of Muslim Ethiopian performers and Anthony Brown, an African-American singer from the University of Kansas. Muslims in the audience said it was the first time they had been so recognized. The interaction was an electric moment of cultural and religious harmony.”

Paradiso: “A professor from one of the (rural) local colleges came up to me with a pile of Science magazines. He said he and his students were grateful to the embassy for making this kind of up-to-date information available in the town.”

Describe the day-to-day work of U.S. diplomats abroad:

Cely: “Being a diplomat opens a lot of doors in host countries, but the welcome is not always warm.”

Paradiso: “It’s not the coat-and-tails cocktail circuit in old movies.”

Johnson: “Diplomatic work isn’t glamorous.  We work long, hard hours. I love the interaction with Ethiopians, who are among the warmest and most hospitable people in the world.”

How is public opinion about America in Ethiopia influenced by the war in Iraq?

Healy: “Not nearly as much as in other parts of the world, though the Ethiopians have what some consider a very similar situation with their troops in Somalia.”

Cely: “Ethiopians are much more concerned with America’s policy toward Ethiopia. I almost never hear Iraq mentioned.”

Johnson: “Ethiopians often disagree with U.S. foreign policy, but they are warm and accepting of Americans.”

Paradiso: “Public opinion about America in Ethiopia is influenced by foreign policy and international events, but more strongly by personal connections in the two countries. So many Ethiopians have relatives and friends living in the U.S.”

What about the U.S. role in the controversial Ethiopian invasion of Somalia last year?

Cely: “I find them to be very split on this.  Many recognize the security threat that Somalia posed but disagreed with how Ethiopia entered, and finds itself still in Somalia.”

Paradiso: “There’s a wide range of opinion.”

What would Portlanders be most surprised about regarding Ethiopia?

Healy: “Ethiopia has one of the richest histories and cultures of any country in the world, with an empire lasting from the 4th century B.C. to the 8th century A.D. that rivaled the Greeks’ and Romans’.”

Cely: “That despite the country’s desperate poverty, Ethiopians maintain a remarkably positive outlook.”

Johnson: “I think Portlanders would be surprised by the religious harmony, where both Christians and Muslims visit each other’s shrines and share holidays.”

Paradiso: “It’s cold! I’ve been grateful for the Pendleton robe my grandparents sent! We’re above 7,600 feet, so it’s always chilly in the mornings and evenings. On a more serious note: I think people would be positively surprised by the diversity and religious tolerance. I think people would be shocked by the hardships many here still face.”

Have you ever seen an unexpected symbol of Portland in Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa?

Healy: “You see Blazers jerseys around on occasion.”

Cely: “Not many.  I have spotted a few Blazers jerseys from way back—like Clyde (Drexler) or Jerome (Kersey), but that is about it.”

Johnson: “University of Oregon seems to have made some friends in Ethiopia.  I’ve seen ‘Go Ducks’ sweatshirts and T-shirts.”

Paradiso: “Once in Namibia I ran into a guy who randomly met my parents at the Portland Building.”

Is the coffee better in Ethiopia than in Portland? Can you get a latte with soy milk?

Healy: Coffee is the best in Ethiopia.  After all, the word coffee comes from the old Ethiopian province of Kaffa.. Soy? ..and spoil it?”

Cely: “Most certainly it’s better here.  This is the source.  This is like asking if the salmon is better in the Northwest.”

Johnson: “Coffee is better here than anywhere else in the world.  Perhaps because the coffee bean is roasted and ground just before the drink is prepared.  The only place with better coffee is Yemen, but the preparation is better here.  People here fast weekly for religious reasons and cannot eat dairy, so soy products are available.”

Paradiso: “In general, yes. But I miss the ambience of drinking coffee on a rainy day in Portland.”

What do you most look forward to when returning to Portland from one of the world’s poorest countries?

Healy: “Access to outdoor activities (fishing, skiing), the restaurants, and of course, the beer.”

Cely: “A Communication Breakdown burger, a beer and a movie at McMenamins.” 

Johnson: “On my last night in Portland before I came to Ethiopia…I went to Pho Van on 82nd Street. I look forward to pho when I return to Portland, but what I really look forward to is a visit to Powell’s.  I order online, but you can’t smell the books in the computer.”

Darragh: “Seeing my family, going to Powell’s and eating heaps of Tillamook cheese.”

Your favorite Portland...

BAND:

Healy: Pink Martini

Paradiso: The Nick Sweet Quartet

MICRO-BREW:

Healy: Newport-Rogue

Cely: Terminator Stout

Johnson: I am sorry to disappoint you, but I don’t drink.

Paradiso: Black Butte and Mirror Pond, but they are from Deschutes. I think my favorite Portland brew (having spent time in the ancestral home of coffee, Ethiopia)…is Stumptown.

Editors note: The website for the U.S. Embassy in Ethiopia, which includes a contact email to say hi to your favorite Portlander there, is here.


FACT: Since Mercy Corps’ founding in 1979 to help Cambodian refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge, it has grown into one of the largest U.S. nonprofit international humanitarian organizations. The nonprofit provides food, shelter, health care, water, sanitation, education, small business loans and a range of other assistance in 40 countries with a staff of more than 3,500 on an annual operating budget of $229 million.

Mercy Corps also operates in the U.S. In Portland, it manages a self-employment and micro-enterprise program for about 1,000 low-income, minority, women, refugee and immigrant entrepreneurs.

 
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