My friend and colleague Kathy Kniep was kind enough to take some time to visit with me about her recent trip to Ethiopia, where she and her husband helped to build a library for a school. Kathy and I know each other through our activity with a non-profit organization in Oregon.
Kathy’s experience and the way in which she lives her life fit in perfectly to the philosophy of TSM blog—she is a do-gooder through and through. Kathy was born during the Johnson administration, so she was around during the second wave of the feminist movement and she identifies as a feminist; yes the “f” word. Kathy has spent the past sixteen years here in Portland with her husband. Although she is originally from St. Louis and was brought up as a Christian, she currently does not identify with any particular religion.
Kathy’s countenance is consistently calm and calming, however she was quite animated when she talked about her experience with the children she met while working in Ethiopia.
I had been wanting to do a service vacation for years and I had to coordinate my partner’s’s schedule and my schedule and mentally be in a space where my time off could be “working.” It all came together last year. We have some friends that went on a Habitat for Humanity trip in Africa and they and another couple on that build started a non-profit that would promote education and school builds.. Their goal is to build or renovate 100 schools and the one in Ethiopia is school number eight.
Why Service vacation?
I am service minded. I get far more out of serving than I put into it. My partner, Eddie, and I have always looked to go to different places with different languages and customs and cultures. When you travel though you can only connect with local people so much, where as in a service vacation you get to know the people better and truly connect with them. I don’t presume to say “know” them but we definitely connected with them. Plus it was a great way to be with my friends and an incredible opportunity to support their efforts.
The school is located in the Afar region, in the town of Semera. The Mahi Difu School has 120 students, and half of the students are boarders and about a half of the boarders are orphans—orphans for a variety of issues—border conflicts with Eritrea, Sudan, and Kenya, and the combination of poverty and HIV/AIDS.
Breakfast at 6:30 and be at work by 7:30. It was very hot (she says emphatically). We would have lunch at 11:30 and go back to work about three, after the heat of the day, as did the locals. We would finish after a few hours in the afternoon. Brian, the founder, somehow got us a few beers, not always cold, in a predominately Muslim area—the construction workers would have a beer with us. Sometimes during our happy hour, the kids would join us. We were building a school library and it was the first library in the region. The kids would greet us in the morning as we would walk into the campus; they would hug us and greet us with open arms.The language barrier did not matter. They loved to help.We would shovel and haul gravel and big rocks for a foundation, to lay cement. (She smiles a huge smile as she talks about the kids.)
There was one young man that stood out, Mohamed, a 14-year-old. Really he stood out for many of us. On the job site for example, he would show us how to do our job (she says with a smile and giggle of remembrance). He had a little sister with ringworm; Mohamed took care of his sister and many of the kids in the school. Our friends who were vets recruited Mohamed to help care for his sister and treat her twice a day for the ringworm. The organization is giving him a scholarship to ensure he finishes school now and has the resources to get to Addis Ababa for high school. The Ethiopian teachers challenged us to a volleyball game at the end of the day. We managed to hold our own but we did lose.
Most significant memory of the trip:
Our time with the kids—their running to greet us and their coming out to help in the afternoons and teaching us hand games. They seemed genuinely sad when we left. A big highlight was when they did a program for us at the end, with dancing, and the principal did a little comedy act for us.
What do you want as your legacy?
I have thought about that and my answer varies depending on the day you ask me. On the days when I’m feeling more ambitious, I want my legacy to be a big social justice win. On other days I’m content to know that already in my life, I have helped a lot of people in my job and volunteer work and that is sufficient. I’m fortunate in that if I went today, I’d go knowing I have lived a rich and rewarding life.
Message to TSM readers:
I want people to know about Be The Change Volunteers. It is a well-run organization with ambitious but doable goals, and they offer incredible rewards. In terms of the travel hardships, we all can do without just about everything for a short period of time. You don’t need construction skills; anyone can help. A lot of the work is just shoveling and laying cement. There is a lot of manual labor. I liked working hard and to be physically exhausted at the end of each day.
I do want people to know about the Ethiopian People. I read so much about Ethiopia and it is such a diverse place—predominately a Muslim and Christian country with a significant number of people still practicing tribal beliefs and customs, asmall Jewish population, and small Rastafarian population. Our first day, we were in Addis and it was Mohamed’s birthday. I found it inspiring that Christians participate in Muslim holidays and Muslims participate in Christian holidays. As a woman there I felt accepted. The Ethiopian people are just beautiful people—both physically and internally—we felt so safe. Geographically it is also very diverse; it has the hottest place on earth but also has mountains and desert. We would do it again in a heartbeat. It is just two weeks out:you can build a school in a two-week trip and meet some really cool people doing it.
Thank you, Kathy. It was a pleasure doing the interview and inspiring to hear just one story among many of people working to make the world a better place for all.