Uryadi’s Village is a project that takes a very important approach to helping those in need: they work WITH the local community, customs, and officials. One of the things I heard about again and again while on our visit to Ethiopia, and even saw plenty of evidence of, was foreigners coming in with (sometimes) great, inspired ideas of how to transform a difficult situation, and failing to consider or work with the locals. Sometimes this involves the wasting of thousands and thousands of well-intended dollars, which is very discouraging.
As an American adoptive parent of three children from Ethiopia, I’m sensitive to the “white savior complex” idea. One defined by affluent American or European citizens “serving” third-world countries in a misguided attempt to build up their reputations. One needs only to spend a bit of time in the Ethiopian countryside to see that there are a lot of happy people who are not in need of ‘saving.’ Depending on how one defines that term, they could probably help ‘save’ stressed out affluent visitors in many ways. But just like everywhere in the world, there are people who really are in need of support, or opportunity, or a helping hand.
It’s complicated, right? So if you just pull the race and identity piece away for a moment, and focus on true need, it’s a little more straightforward. There’s a baby who has been abandoned under a tree, in a ditch, or worse, and it will die if it’s not cared for. Here’s a family with a special-needs child who don’t have access to healthcare and have no resources or information on how to best care for their child. Here’s someone in front of you who is hungry, thirsty, in pain. Uryadi’s Village is doing this kind of work, in a place where the need is great. What they are also doing is integrating into the local economy by buying local services, sending children to local schools, and hiring local workers.
When we were planning this trip, Jennifer shared with me about the grain feed they do a couple of times a year, and invited us to help. Our trip was first an opportunity for my kids to reconnect to their heritage, and related, we were very interested in visiting, learning more about, and helping at the Village in any way we could. I enthusiastically accepted, and our family purchased half the grain for the feed.
Uryadi’s Village is in a neighborhood of Soddo that has many impoverished families and community members. The international connections, enthusiastic volunteers, and foreign visitors who bring donations and share their time and talents in many ways at the Village; that kind of wealth can be shared to benefit the local community, and it is shared, in a number of ways. In the case of the grain feed, the local churches are invited to submit lists of parishioners who are in need. Churches of all denominations are included, and the pastors and Imams manage the recipients. In this way, those in need are being determined by authorities in the community, not by Uryadi’s Village.
When we arrived Christmas morning (not early, because This is Ethiopia and the 8:30am invitation didn’t inspire any sense of urgency in anyone) there was a crowd growing outside the gate. There was a great deal of confusion because those pastors took their jobs very seriously, and wouldn’t allow us to serve people until they were marked off their lists. Some churches brought twice as many people as they had warned the village of in advance. People of all ages came with bags, many of them repaired and carefully folded in order to receive their grain. We had to make on the spot decisions about how much to distribute in order to leave no one without. There was a lot of winging it!
People with disabilities, young women with children, many elderly, some of whom were blind and led by children, came with gratitude to receive a supply of life-giving food. This was a combination of corn and wheat, purchased locally, and typical of what is ground together to make bread or porridge.
My favorite part was receiving the people, looking beautiful people in the eye, taking their hand, welcoming them, wishing them well and helping them unfold and open their bags. It was very simple…sharing of the abundance with those who had less, and I was grateful to be involved.
Heavy bags of grain were slung on shoulders for the walk home. Our children, Jennifer and Mike’s children, the older children of the Village, walked people home to help carry their grain. My boys were great and involved helpers, my daughter helped to fill bags or hold them open while grain was poured in. She was enthusiastic and present, which I was proud of, because she is eight and can be very self absorbed.
It was a great project, a great example of simple service, and we were honored to be involved! I continue to admire how UV creates programs like school sponsorship for neighborhood children who are not orphans, but whose families are struggling to afford their education, or the decision to hire a local grinder to grind grain for their baby formula rather than bringing in equipment of their own. Participating in the local economy, working with churches and government officials, being aware of local customs and priorities; it’s a great way to help.