Small Projects Making Big Changes in Ethiopia
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
GODE, Ethiopia, Apr. 22, 2006 This is the rainy season here in this southern Ethiopian town, but there is no rain.
Ethiopians meet U.S. servicemembers April 21 at a water project outside the drought-stricken town Gode. Photo by Jim Garamone
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Without it, the region remains brown and withered. News reports say the area has received very little rain in the last three years.
Cattle and goats - the measure of survival in this region - waste away. Dust devils form in the afternoon as the temperatures routinely go into the 90s and 100s.
But as long as the Shebelle River flows, there is hope, because the river has water in it even during drought years. The river starts in the highlands of Ethiopia and runs to the sea in neighboring Somalia.
Gode has U.N. food distribution sites. UNICEF, the U.N. group that focuses on children's welfare issues, and the International Red Cross also function in the region.
Now Gode also has a U.S. Army civil affairs team from Fort Bragg, N.C., working to not only feed people for the moment, but also to allow them to sustain themselves for the long term. The team is part of the Combined Joint Task Force Horn of Africa effort in the region.
There are few trees in Gode, and the only vegetation is on land where the river touches. But an irrigation project, conceived and executed by villagers and encouraged by the soldiers, has turned barren fields green and allowed 400 families to remain on the land.
"It's a $1,000 pump," said civil affairs team Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Starbuck. "It's something very small, but it has a very large impact."
A previous civil affairs team started the irrigation project. "The villagers were in dire need of assistance and approached the civil affairs team," Starbuck said. "The villagers did not want to move away from here, but they were at the point where they had no crops and their cattle were dying. It was just a desert area."
The team worked with the villagers to come up with a plan for using the pump and then supplied one they bought in downtown Gode.
"The villagers dug their own irrigation ditches, sowed their own crops and at this point four months later, they are on their second crop rotation," he said. "They are sustaining their own fuel, they are maintaining the pump."
The village grows food on 20 hectares of land. The cash crop is "long fodder" for cattle - green corn stalks harvested before ears of corn develop. But in addition, each family has a 20-by-30 meter area for their own crops. The families raise onions, tomatoes, grains and other crops. This gives them food to eat and they can sell some to finance future projects, such as cleaning out more irrigation ditches and buying fuel and oil for the pump, Starbuck said.
"This is completely self-sustaining and that's why we targeted it," the sergeant said. "We want to give them small pieces of the pie so they can bake their own big cake - so to say."
Team member Staff Sgt. Terangelo Davis said the people of the region want to work and aren't afraid to work hard. "They don't want handouts, they want to be in charge of themselves," he said. "They want what every other person in the world wants - a better future for their children."
Davis said the civil affairs team lives with the people. He said relationships in the area are important and the basis for all decisions.
"Living with the people helps build relationships and trust," he said. "I was a combat engineer with the 4th (Infantry Division in Iraq) before, and I never got a chance to meet the people. We were too busy looking for bad guys or locating caches.
"Here you can see a difference for the people with every mission," he said.
Team medic Sgt. Ty Blain said the team works with local doctors and Ethiopian military medical personnel to set up medical civil affairs projects. Gode will have a MEDCAP - a community medical care outreach project - in May and joint task force medics will travel to the region to provide medicines, give inoculations and take care of small injuries.
The team has a number of other projects in the works. One is to get a similar irrigation pump for a group of Ethiopian women so they can provide for their families. Another is facilitating building "burkas" - water catch basins - for towns so villagers won't have to walk two or three kilometers for water.
Gode city officials are worried about sanitation, so the team is working on a sanitation project with them to adapt donkey carts to pick up trash and deliver it to a dump the city has started, Starbuck said.
Starbuck said the team is working with international and national aid partners to leverage the resources dedicated to the area.
The four-man team covers an area the size of Connecticut. There are no paved roads in the region and travel is by four-wheel-drive vehicle only. "I don't know how long it would take to drive from one end of the area to the other," Davis said. "Days probably."
When it does rain, the roads flood out and make travel impossible.
The team eats the same food as the locals, and has a small force-protection group with it. There's an Air Force communications specialist working with the team also that keeps members in touch with their home base in Djibouti. The team gets supplies and mail every two weeks.
But the difficulties are worth it, said Starbuck. "It brings a smile to your face when you are able to provide a water source or they have a new clinic or you give a village a way of life, where in hard times they were ready to move out," he said. "You couldn't ask more than that."