Two Duluthians recently spent a few weeks in Ethiopia, traveling through the southern part of the impoverished African nation to promote clean water and hygiene.
Dr. Bill Himango, who grew up in Two Harbors, and Crystal Taylor, members of Rotary Club 25 of Duluth, traveled to the county for a 2,000-mile tour of villages, homes, orphanages and medical centers.
“It was a heart-wrenching experience,” said Himango, a retired neurosurgeon, adding that his visit made it painfully clear that clean water is an unattainable luxury to many Ethiopians.
The clean water effort has been a major focus for Rotary Club 25 recently. The club has partnered with the Proctor High School DECA club to raise nearly $50,000 for Global Team for Local Initiatives, a nonprofit that serves indigenous people in southern Ethiopia, through several events.
The Boeing Foundation also matched the fundraising with an additional $50,000 grant.
With the funds, GTLI was able to build five new water wells in indigenous communities. Himango and Taylor made the trip to visit the wells and see what their fundraising efforts accomplished.
“Before the wells, these people were getting their water literally from puddles,” said Taylor, the Rotary Club’s public relations chair. “Our streams and creeks are a lot cleaner than where they were getting their drinking water. There’s a lot of bacteria and problems with the water there.”
Himango and Taylor flew into Addis Ababa, the largest city and capital of Ethiopia in late March. They spent several days in the capital before embarking on a trip through the southern part of the county.
There is almost no economy in the country, said Taylor. Very few people have jobs, and those who do make an annual salary equivalent to about $2,000 to $3,000 USD.
Medical centers were overcrowded, with patients literally laying on top of one another sometimes with just one doctor to serve the entire facility, Taylor said. The saddest part of the trip, she said, was a visit to an overcrowded hospital where an entire facility was not being used.
“There was blood on the floor and the whole place smelled of urine,” Taylor said. “Then we went next door and they have brand new equipment, brand new technology, an ICU unit, 20 beds. And none of it was being used.”
Taylor said conditions were much better in medical centers run by private organizations, which are mostly funded by foreign nonprofits.
GTLI was picked as the recipient of the Rotary Club’s fundraising because the organization is helping to improve the lives of Ethiopians, Himango and Taylor said. The organization’s mission is to educate people about hygiene and how to live sustainably.
While in Ethiopia, Himango and Taylor traveled with Lori Pappas, the director of GTLI. Pappas is a Minnesota native, but now spends most of the year in Ethiopia
She realizes the importance of offering information without disrupting the culture, Himango said.
“Lori doesn’t want to throw western culture at them,” he said. Her focus instead is on increasing awareness of potential hygiene problems and providing tools for cleaner, healthier living.
While visiting with Ethiopians, both in the city and the indigenous villages, Himango and Taylor discussed the importance of practices that are taken for granted in America: properly cooking meat, washing hands, brushing teeth and having designated areas for getting water and going to the bathroom.
They also made a presentation to the Addis Ababa Rotary Club, encouraging members to do their own fundraising efforts to improve conditions in Ethiopia.
Himango and Taylor’s trip was a follow-up to about a year’s worth of fundraising efforts. Proctor DECA initiated the clean water project last year before partnering with the Rotary Club.
The first event, an “American Idol” style singing competition between local high schools, raised about $22,000.
In February, the two groups hosted a massive snow angel-making event at the University of Minnesota Duluth. The event fell short of the hoped-for world record, but it helped raise approximately $14,000 for the clean water project.
Still short of the $50,000 goal, rotary members applied for a grant from the rotary district office, and were awarded a matching $14,000.
Calculating expenses and fundraising from each of the events, the club is just shy of the $50,000 mark, Taylor said, although members expect to raise the additional money during their annual dinner and auction in May.
All told, with the Boeing grant, contributions to GTLI are expected to exceed $100,000.
Taylor, who works as public relations specialist at WestmorelandFlint, said the clean water project and trip inspired her to create her own nonprofit. She said she wants to establish an organization to help improve mental and physical health for local children.
“It inspired me to do something sooner rather than later,” she said. “I want to be able to bring back that cultural experience and find ways to give back to our community in a greater way.”