Executive Director of SSI Mell Josephs traveled to the small town of Debre Berhan of Ethiopia for a two-week duration this past August, under the supervision of Fred Gage, who retired from his campus position of VP of Information Services in March 2008.Gage, a Habitat project veteran, was nominated as a project leader and proposed a trip to Ethiopia, where he had experience from his time spent in the Peace Corps. The trip concluded with work being done on fourteen houses, six of which were completed.
In late January of this year, Gage began recruiting for the Ethiopia trip. Typically, trips within the Habitat for Humanity Global Villages programs look for 12 people per project, to incorporate enough flexibility within the budget.
Josephs was chosen as one of the recruits for the Ethiopia trip due to a very chance series of moments.
She knew previously of Gage’s involvement with the Peace Corps and Habitat global programs. Gage visited Sykes during the recruiting process and told Josephs that he “may have one more space available,” but the chances were not very high. She applied that day and was accepted for the last position in the Debre Berhan project.
“That’s how I knew this was meant to be for me,” Josephs said.
Prior to leaving for the trip, Josephs received donations in the form of clothing from Chester County Hospital. The donations were made with the intent of being left in Ethiopia, to help serve the huge need for clothing and other necessary items.
Josephs and the rest of the recruits left on August 14 (US time) flying Ethiopian Air. Gage left a few days earlier to prepare for the arrival of the recruits.
The team arrived in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The project site was a three-hour bus ride away, at 9,000 feet above sea level. The trip to Debre Berhan was along one of the few paved roads in the country.
“And it should be noted,” Gage said, “my definition of paved roads is much different than their definition.”
The change in altitude provided some discomfort amongst some of the recruits. Gage was very grateful for the extra days prior to the project’s initiation to adjust. Josephs noticed no real change until exerting herself to run.
“I said to myself, if I could train here for a few months, I would beat out every race in West Chester,” Josephs said.
Once stationed at the project base, the recruits began immersing in Ethiopian culture. All of those working on the project dressed respectfully as per the culture; women dressed in pants that covered the knees, and t-shirts or long-sleeved shirts.
Ethiopian food was also another adjustment the team had to make. Though many of the natural citizens were comfortable dining on raw meat, the team was offered cooked lamb as their primary meat. Other main foods included lentils, chickpeas, bread and peas. Much of the food was prepared and served in rations on injura – a fermented grass that served as an edible plate, napkin and silverware.
“I loved every moment of the uncomfortableness, because it really put me into the country, I was not a tourist at all,” Josephs said. ” [Muslim culture] is a whole different way of life, and it just flows.”
When working on the houses, the team labored side-by-side with the people who would own the homes after their completion. Every to-be-homeowner worked on every house, since it was not clear who would inherit which home until after all fourteen were finished. The Ethiopian workers included men, women and children, who were assigned in small groups to work with a partner from the Global Villages team.
Each house was constructed with a mixture of chika (fermented mud and clay), eucalyptus poles and rocks. Tree bark was used to tie all of the materials together. Normally, houses are given dirt floors, but concrete floors were made for houses of the disabled.
In addition to working on the 14 houses, the Global Villages team went into some of the local schools to visit with some of the resident children.
“You know what was interesting? They use English as an instructional language, but when we went to the school, I didn’t see a single English sign,” Gage said. “It’s more an awareness than a fluency.”
Josephs agreed, “The children just want to grab your hand and follow you around, and say ‘hi!’ And they’re all so, so bright.”
When she arrived back in the United States, Josephs noticed an altered state of mind, where she was fascinated by world issues.
“I felt increasingly cut off from the world,” she said. “I had immersed myself so deeply into another culture that I didn’t even realize it.”
Gage is now in the midst of planning a trip to Botswana in August of 2011, and plans on returning to Ethiopia again in January of 2012.
Josephs hopes to participate in another global outreach program again, “and I will probably do another more difficult placement again, most definitely.”
Tara Tanzos is a fourth year student with a major in English and a minor in creative writing. She can be reached at TT649875@wcupa.edu.