Today we visited an NGO that is making a difference in the lives of children with programs that provide food, health care, education, protection, psychosocial support and, perhaps most importantly,  income generating activities that address poverty.

Beza Lehiwot Ethiopia, which loosely means “giving for life,” serves people who live in or near the Mercato, Africa’s largest market in Addis Ababa.  Because the Mercato is such a place of exchange and concentrated population (and the location of truck stops, bars and the bus station) it is also a place where there is a lot of poverty and high rates of HIV/AIDS.  The  unpaved streets are lined with food stands and shops made of corrugated metal sheets.   One shop was adorned with bunches of bananas, and a side of beef hung in another.  Vendors were carrying all of goods to and fro.  One man had a large wooden bench strapped on his back, while another carried a stack of red plastic chairs that towered over the crowd.  Donkeys laden with sacks of grain made their way around our taxi and toward the center of the market.  Our destination, the Beza Lehiwot Ethiopia “headquarters”  is made up of a series of rooms around a courtyard, and houses a feeding center called My Father’s Kitchen, as well as a small day care center.

The purpose of our visit (myself,  Sweta Shrestha, Kate Konkle and Laura Laskofski) was to meet with women from the vocational program that teaches women to sew, then launches them into small businesses though provision of a sewing machine that they pay off over time.  We wanted to explore whether this group might become a partner for the emerging Wisconsin without Borders Marketplace.  I am hoping that UW-Madison students can serve and learn with this community in a number of ways that enhance health and well-being, including support for the microenterprise.

We met the group  in the local school where they have  a workroom. There were about 10 women, along with 4-5 children, clustered around their sewing machines (the non-electric foot pump kind!), some doing handsewing while they waited.  We shared awkward translated introductions, but generally smiles prevailed, as we told them about ourselves what we were interested in, and asked them ithey would like to sell some of their products in Wisconsin!  They told us a bit about their lives, both before and after the program,  and then we made our way to the table where their goods were displayed.  Brightly colored napkins, embroidered pillow covers, pieced balls with the amharic alphabet on them, and small stuffed animals — alligators, hippos, an elephant.  They also earn money by making uniforms for local schools.

We asked the women if we could take a group photo to display it with the products, and we asked them what they would like us to tell the buyers about them and their work.  “Our vision is to support our children and send them to school,” said one woman, who went on to explain that she has been earning 1000 birr (about $60) a month through the sewing work. Previously she had been washing clothes to try to make ends meet.   “Tell them we are very thankful,” said another, “we do need markets, the government gives us some opportunities but this additional one will help us to get enough.”  Another woman only smiled and held my hands for a moment, but she spoke up later on behalf of the group when it came time to discuss how ordering and shipping would work.  The women also sold us sample items to bring bring back to Wisconsin as the basis for an order that we will place.

I am so grateful to Dereje Shiferaw of Save the Children and Dawit Gultneh of Beza Lehiwot Ethiopia for sharing their work with us.  After working at the policy level on programs for orphans and vulnerable children for the past 4 years, this short visit meant so much to me, because  I was able to see that change is really happening for some of the people we wanted to touch.   Stop the world I want to get on!  That is what I was thinking.  I would love to spend more time here, be partner and friend to these communities, as they change their lives.  I very much hope I will be able to stay engaged through my students and supporters of University of Wisconsin without Borders.  Any takers?