Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Aster's Front Door

During our time in Sheshemane, Ethiopia, our group of 21 was hit hard by some norovirus-like illness. The benefit of travelling with nurses and doctors is that you also travel with a mobile pharmacy. One morning, two of our smaller team of five were down so the other three of us decided to head out on our own to the centre at Kersa and finish up some of the outdoor jobs that remained. We spent the morning clearing some land where a long abandoned soccer field once lay. It was hard work and we weren't sure at times whether our labour was making any significant difference. When we were done, or felt we had exhausted ourselves, we weren't sure what the afternoon would hold. It was then that we heard that a widow we had met a few days earlier had had an incident at her home in which her metal door had been broken and she was no longer able to secure it at night. Her name is Aster and she lives with her young teenage daughter and at night, they were taking turns sleeping against the door to protect their goats (and themselves) against a small pack of hyenas that roamed through their community.

We knew where Aster lived, having been there just a few days earlier, so we grabbed some tools and went to see if we could fix her door in the downtime we had before our arranged pick up. When we got to her place, she showed us the door and it became evident that the door would need to be welded. We weren't even sure there was a local welder but one of the guys travelling with us told us that at the local school, there was a welding shop that quite possibly could help us.  Dan took the door off what was left of the hinges and Dave picked it up, and we began what we thought was a short walk to the welding shop. We walked out of the community and onto the main road and suddenly we became a spectacle. We were a parade and Dave was our parade marshall, carrying a large metal door on one hip, followed by Aster in bright orange and carrying a large bag of tools, then myself and Dan and Diana, our Ugandan travel mate. We walked down a long hill and crossed the river and then began a long ascent up a hill towards the location we'd been told. We were joined by numerous small children and curious onlookers and our numbers increased as we went along. We climbed the hill against a steady stream of uniformed teenagers heading home from their school day. We received all manner of greetings from shy smiles and eyebrow lifts to shouts and high fives. We were anything but inconspicuous. 
We approached the school campus off the main road, down a long, tree shaded lane. It was there, at the security gate, that we left our guide, a large entourage of children, and proceeded in much smaller numbers towards what was labelled as a machinery shop. We arrived to find it was lunch time and the door was padlocked. We sat in the shade and waited. After a long while, a passerby told us that the welder would return around 2 pm. It was just past 1 so we decided to just wait it out in the shade. After a while, a passerby came and insisted that we move to the shade of a tree in the middle of the road. We sat there, on the curb, and once again, we became the centre of a lot of attention. School children returning from lunch risked the wrath of teachers to linger longer than usual in the schoolyard. Several men and women from the area greeted us and welcomed us to their campus, either by gesture or broken English. A small boy, Samson, introduced himself to us in English and stayed with us for the afternoon as our interpreter. He was the son of the Dean of Students and took us on a tour of the campus while we waited for the welder to return. 
Finally, some machine shop employees showed up and unlocked the shop, though none were the welder. Dan decided that he knew enough to weld the door so with many witnesses and Dave along for support, they attempted to figure out the welding materials at hand. Thankfully the welder showed up as the equipment was in various states of disrepair and Dan would likely have electrocuted himself and probably others had he attempted to take on the job. With much consultation, the guys and the welder, the shop workers and Aster, all figured out a way to fix the door to the best of their ability. Once the door was done, we offered to pay them and all they would take was 100 birr, or the equivalent of about $3.50. 

 During the long journey back, we heard a bit of Aster's story. She was married to a nomadic livestock herder for many years. When they arrived in Kersa, they were to stay for just a few days and then move on but when Aster woke one morning, he and all the livestock were gone, leaving her alone with her young daughter and not a possession to her name and no one she knew in any proximity. Aster began to canvas the community for work and a place to stay and over the years, found herself part of the community. She and her daughter were given a small piece of land and a couple of goats by the fathers in the community. She wisely grew her goats into a herd, instead of sacrificing and eating them at the many festivals throughout the year that call for a celebratory goat.
She has several goats now and also grows wheat on her small piece of land, carving out a small living for herself and her now teenaged daughter. Lately though, her goats have been threatened by a group of hyenas that come through the community, feasting on any unattended livestock. Though she has a small, stick built barn, she brings the goats into the house at night to protect them from the hyenas. Once her door was rendered useless, she and her daughter would take turns sleeping against it in order to provide a little more protection against the hyenas. It's unimaginable. Aster is all of about 4.5 ft tall and probably 80 lbs soaking wet. She's tiny but so feisty, but even a woman of twice her size would be more than vulnerable to the force of a hyena with an appetite. As we walked back to her home through the adjoining community, many people thanked us for taking the time to help Aster, as they knew her well and how difficult her life was.

Our return trip took us through the rural backroads of the community and it was absolutely breathtaking. The countryside is gorgeous but difficult. The landscape is rocky and rough, though the river running through the community is absolutely beautiful. It used to serve as the main water source for the community until a water pipeline was installed in recent years. Now, each yard in the community has water piped to an outside spigot...a luxury for those that live in Kersa. There are still those that come from surrounding communities that don't have piped in water, and you can see donkey carts loaded with yellow water jugs travelling in to load up with water in the morning and out in the afternoon. 

When we arrived back at Aster's home, it didn't take long for the guys to reassemble the door and secure it with a lock. Aster and her daughter would be able to not only lock the door when in the home, they could also secure the lock when they left the home, something they had been unable to do before. Aster's joy and gratitude was more than we could take in. We knew that that night, Aster and her daughter and their goats would be safe and able to sleep soundly. 
Aster and her daughter pose in front of their new, secure, front door.

Gratitude in any language~so beautiful. 

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