After extended visits over 16 Years, a rich collection of stories and a strong belief in a better future has been seen.

By Art Wigchers
There are two Ethiopias. One is represented by the big cities and larger towns that most Americans hear about. But the real Ethiopia is in the rural areas where four of every five people live. This is an area with longstanding traditions deeply ingrained in the culture. Some traditions are very good while others can be very troublesome. 
Ethiopia is still the land of tukels -- homes that are 12 to 15 feet in diameter with mud covered stick walls and thatched roofs. These homes are divided into three areas. One is for cooking over an open fire. The second is for small animals and young stock so they are kept safe at night. Can you imagine sleeping with chickens or a young heifer that has intestinal problems from drinking dirty water? The family sleeps in the third area.
In the Girls Empowerment and GirlsGain communities, the population ranges from 5% to 70% Christian.  Most of the remaining population are Muslim. Fewer than 1% of people are Catholic.
Many people wonder why the women cook inside the tukel over an open fire when the smoke can be so choking in a small space. The answer is very simple, as the young women have explained to my wife. Food is often scarce and the father and boys eat first. What is left is for the mother and girls. It is the only chance a mother has to try and sneak a little food to eat. If she is seen doing this or if she scorches any of the food, she expects to be beaten.  
Healthy nutrition and sanitation practices are not well understood by many rural families.  As an example, women generally believe they should consume less food when pregnant.  Eating less will lead to a smaller baby, with less severe pain and other complications at birth. Reflecting on another longstanding misperception, a local priest told me that when he was a child he had very bad stomach aches. He said the cool stream water felt very good when he got down on his hands and knees and lapped up the water like a dog. He said it wasn't until he was an adult that he realized the dirty stream water was causing his stomach aches.
This same priest told me his mother had not gone to school a day in her life. But she is very good at adding, subtracting and multiplying up to two digits. He said he'd been with her at the market recently and noticed that when she sold something she would repeat different numbers several times to herself. He asked her why she did that. She explained that at the end of the day she wanted to remember how many units of each item had been sold so she could better plan what to bring to the market for sale the next week.
I've been very impressed by the wonderful job the CRS staff has done in developing the highly successful, woman-dominated  "Saving and Internal Lending Community" (SILC) microfinanceprogram.  SILC groups can range from 10 to 20 women. They are life-altering and they are spreading.
The first lesson learned is how to save.  One group member told me the program had put her on the path to success. With her savings growing by fifty cents a month, she said she was now rich.
I asked a successful woman farmer, "What would you do if you had more money?" She said some people don't know how to farm very well. She would rent their land -- typically two to 2.5 acres -- and farm it herself. 
Another woman in the group had a very good backyard garden, or what CRS calls a "keyhole" garden. It took the local priest most of the afternoon talking to her and the neighbors to piece together her story. She and her husband had farmed the land. But he died unexpectedly, leaving her with three children. She and rights to the land became the property of her deceased husband's older brother -- a custom called "widows inheritance." The older brother already had more than one wife. (Polygamy is one of the concerns of young women.)  This woman was very shy. But her farm had the best-looking crops. She retained her home and is given food for her children as a reward for running a successful farm for the older brother. 
A while back, I met my first group of men participating in the SILC program. They had been working together for ten years. Some of the items they noted that made their group successful at raising crops went beyond the improved use of fertilizer, improved storage of grains, and improved awareness of the right time to sell. These added advantages included:
  • The ten men knew each other before starting the program.
  • They excluded some of their neighbors who they did not think were reliable.
  • All the men have at least a 4th grade education, with some having finished grade school.
  • Only three were married at the start. Now all ten are married and nine of them have children.
  • There has been no turnover in the group.
  • They run the SILC program like a cooperative or association where each contributes and shares information. However, their individual success was based on the grain they raised and sold. This is like a farmers' co-op I saw as a child in Northern Wisconsin.
  • They prepare budgets and forecasts. (They knew that a thrashing machine could not generate enough revenue for them to make the investment. They also knew they would need much more land to ever consider making a tractor economical.)
This CRS/Milwaukee-based project,, takes place in the Diocese of Meki, Ethiopia. It's a mainly rural, very poor diocese. Our project initially focused on training private school teachers as the key to successful channeling of information to parents and youth.  We are working through the teachers in the diocese' Catholic school system.  There are 44 Catholic Schools within the diocese and 28,000 students.  The majority of the schools go from kindergarten through fourth grade.  As noted elsewhere, the GirlsGain and Empowerment programs have been expanded greatly into public schools to help reach as many young people as possible.
Four out of five Ethiopians live in rural areas. Of these, half do not have improved water sources. The water is not only filled with bacteria, it has over four times the safe limit of fluoride. As you reach your thirties or older you tend to have significant problems with the enamel on your teeth and bones may become prematurely brittle.
Three of four people do not have improved sanitation. Most of the people in rural areas do not have an arbor loo. This is a portable outhouse. At least I had that as a kid.  When I was a kid, we used to deworm our pets twice a year. That was one of the first things the new medical doctor started doing every six months to the kids in the Meki Catholic School. Ethiopia now has one doctor for every 33,000 people. (The U.S. has one doctor for about every 412 people.) They have worked with the Chinese to build hospitals in some cities. However, there is a shortage of doctors and nurses, so the hospitals frequently appear empty.  Rural clinics are virtually nonexistent.
Four of nine people are 14 years old or less. This includes over 1,600,000 girls and boys in this Diocese and over 41,000,000 in Ethiopia.  Only 1 in 14 people is over the age of 55.  
Only 1 in 30 living in rural areas is considered to be above the poverty line. To be above that line, one must earn at least a $1.25 US a day.
Farming and rural construction wages for women are about $0.60 a day. Contrast that to the city, where a hardworking woman or man can earn between $1.25 and $2.50 a day doing construction work when jobs are available.  People obtain the right to use the land the government owns.  Without title to the land, occupiers usually do not have sufficient collateral to obtain loans.
You do not see people with cars, as gasoline, imported from Saudi Arabia, costs more than in the U.S. Raw milk and eggs are more expensive than in the U.S. You soon understand why injera, a sourdough pancake made from teff, a wheat-like grain, is the main staple of the Ethiopian diet.  A kilo of teff costs about 75 cents.
The CIA factbook says two of five Ethiopian women are considered literate. To be considered "literate," one must be able to write one's name, give simple directions and make simple change. In Ethiopia, however, this literacy figure is heavily skewed by the big cities. In the country, fewer than 1 in 5 women would be considered literate.
When a woman or girl is not literate, particularly in the rural areas, she is subject to harmful traditional practices --  practices that have deep roots going back hundreds of years. I'm talking about practices against women and girls that are not legal in Ethiopia but are nevertheless widespread. These are:
• Abductions
• Lack of Property Rights
• Lack of Education for Girls
• Forced Marriages at an Early Age
• Female Genital Mutilation.
This is the reason we have focused (our Milwaukee-based segment of the overall CRS program in Ethiopia) on EDUCATION, particularly in the rural areas. We want to empower women and girls.
Our project is focused on the belief in and total commitment to improving the lives of women and young girls in Ethiopia. And EDUCATION is the key.
Through education, this project helps women and girls overcome gender discrimination, realize their potential, and assume leadership roles in their communities. These outcomes help the entire community, the entire country, the entire world.
Your Milwaukee-based project is making a difference!
Our grassroots GirlsGain Project in the Meki Diocese is growing. Every day, we are changing lives and saving lives of women and girls of this generation and of generations to come