From the canyons of Manhattan to the highlands of Ethiopia

July 27, 2018
Written by Gabriela Gerlach
Photo by Gabriela Gerlach

Recently, Concern Program Officer, Gaby Gerlach, swapped her desktop in midtown Manhattan for a mountaintop in northern Ethiopia to get a firsthand view of how she’s helping to make a difference.

A connection

I was born in Venezuela, a country now facing a terrible humanitarian crisis — so living and working in one of the financial capitals of the world has always been something of an internal struggle for me. Every day, on my way to work in Manhattan, I pass luxury stores, Michelin star restaurants, world-renowned hospitals… and the occasional poodle in a stroller. It’s a far cry from the poverty and desperation that afflicts so many people, all over the world.

And yet I have another connection, one that keeps me very much in touch with reality.

Woman sitting at cubicle desk

Gabriela Gerlach at her desk in New York. Photo: Kieran McConville

I work as a Program Officer with Concern Worldwide, managing U.S. government grants in places like Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo, Niger, Sierra Leone, and Ethiopia. They are countries where extreme poverty is an everyday fact of life for tens of millions — and I consider it a privilege to be involved in the effort to change that reality.

Journey to another world

Recently, I left my cozy Brooklyn apartment, set my email out-of-office, and headed for the ancient lands of Ethiopia, to spend time with our teams on the ground there. Despite all the reports I had read and the skype calls I had been on, the visit would turn out be truly eye-opening.

Sunset over hills

The light of the setting sun catches the dust in the air over the rolling hills of Amhara, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is the world’s most populous land-locked country ,with a population of over 100 million people. Nearly half are under the age of 15 and most families are dependent on agriculture. In this age of climate change, being reliant on the rain for your very survival is not good. This country has been deep in drought since 2016, with hunger and malnutrition a growing problem. That’s what we— and many other agencies — are trying to tackle.

“Stunningly beautiful… but hurting. Badly.”

Ethiopia is a stunningly beautiful place, from the incredible mountain ranges, gorges, valleys of the north, to the vast plains of the south. But it’s hurting. Badly.

Thatched hut in rolling hills

A traditional dwelling in the highlands of Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo: Gabriela Gerlach

Climate change

Amhara in the north is particularly vulnerable to climate shifts. Some parts of this region saw almost no rain at all for two years. But the good news is there are reasonably simple ways to make life better for those who live here, like irrigation projects, wells, and alternative cropping methods.

Women carrying water on a hillside

Women carry water up a hillside in Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo: Gabriela Gerlach

In Amhara we focus on nutrition, particularly in households with children under 5 years old. We also provide access to clean water, seeds for vegetable gardens, health services and training, and hygiene education. Because Ethiopia is no stranger to droughts, we also put a lot of emphasis on strengthening people’s resilience to drought. That means working with communities to create programs that are sustainable, even after Concern moves on.

Potatoes!

One example is our potato project, funded by USAID. It’s a pilot program that introduced Irish Potatoes to the highlands of Amhara. Traditionally farmers in this area cultivate mostly barley — however years of drought damaged the crops and resulted in malnutrition rates spiking, as families could barely feed their children for months at a time. While farmers here were suspicious of the potatoes at first, three years of successful harvests have changed their minds!

Man with Ethiopian headgear

Muhammed Ali is a poatao farmer working with Concern in Amhara, Ethiopia. Photo; Gabriela Gerlach

“He has been able to feed his family, buy a second ox for ploughing, and pay back his member’s loan”

I sat with Muhammad, who told me how a plot which had yielded 330 lbs of barley now produces well over 2 TONS of potatoes. He has been able to feed his family, buy a second ox for ploughing, and pay back his member’s loan to the Potato Cooperative. That organization was established by Concern and the community with U.S. taxpayer funding and is now virtually self-sufficient, with new members joining every year.

Ethiopian landscape

The highlands of Ethiopia – beautiful but difficult. Photo: Gabriela Gerlach

People helping people

One characteristics that struck me about the people and communities I met with during my week in the highlands is their willingness and desire to help each other in times of need.

“She was worried that, despite my gigantic and overpriced hiking boots, I would tumble and fall.”

Zeretu, leader of a local Water Committee took my hand as we walked down the steep hill to visit the water spring. She was worried that, despite my gigantic and overpriced hiking boots, I would tumble and fall.  And it was a long way to the bottom!

Ethiopian woman in field

Zeretu Yimer is a community leader. Photo: Concern Worldwide

While protecting me from mortal injury, Zeretu proudly spoke of how her committee ensures that the most vulnerable households are exempted from any fees for the spring and deliver clean water to the elderly and disabled every day.

Amazing people

That same afternoon I met with a committee that was tasked with the job of developing and implementing action plans for potential emergencies. Each represented the community in different roles — a teacher, a religious leader, and a lead farmer. They were also responsible for helping us to identify the most vulnerable houses in the community, making sure all were included various Concern projects. These amazing people – outside of their program duties – decided to start an insurance fund from their own pockets to provide for those who may fall on hard times.

Ethiopian men on a bench

Members of the Disaster Risk Committee share a laugh. Photo: Gabriela Gerlach

Back at my desk in New York, after the angriness of another morning commute, I reflect on the commitment and dedication of my Concern colleagues on the ground in some of the world’s toughest environments. And it inspires me.

“I realize we all have a part to play.”

Sitting in a cubicle half a world away, it can sometimes be hard to see what my contribution is… and whether or not it actually helps. But, having met the Concern staff and communities of Amhara and seen the projects in action, I realize that we all have a part to play. And by working together, we can really make a difference!

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