Bringing back smiles and hope to Ethiopia
This is the sixth in a series of articles highlighting KOICA's volunteer activities abroad. ― ED.
By Lee Tae-hoon
ADDIS ABABA— Ethiopia, a landlocked country in Eastern Africa, is the birthplace of Lucy, a 3.2 million-year-old female hominid discovered in the northern part of the sub-Saharan nation in 1974.
When Jeon Tae-ha, a retired 65-year-old farming expert, first arrived in Ethiopia last September he wondered why people in this magnificent country with great agricultural potential had been subject to starvation and extreme poverty.
What greeted the manager for a rural development project of Korea International Cooperation Agency (KOICA), a state-run aid agency, was a vast landscape of green pastures.
“I love the scenic landscape and weather here,” Jeon said as he talked about his $2 million project in Bulchana and Galo villages, located some 160 kilometers away from the capital city of Addis Ababa.
Bright side of Ethiopia
The weather in Ethiopia is usually sunny and dry with rain common in February through April, followed by a longer rainy season beginning in late June and ending in mid September.
“Unlike in Korea, you don’t sweat even when the temperature reaches 30 degrees or above here as it is not humid,” Jeon said.
Temperatures rarely rise above 30 degrees Celsius throughout the year.
Ethiopia has magnificent landscapes and holds the largest number of UNESCO world heritage sites in Africa.
Jeon soon realized that contrary to the widespread belief, only a small portion of the second most populous country in Africa, with an estimated 81 million people, is a drought-stricken desert.
“The Bulchana and Galo villages that I have been assigned to are some of the most undeveloped and backward areas in Arsi, Ethiopia,” Jeon said.
“The two are located at elevations of some 2,000 meters above sea level and see only 450 millimeters of rain a year. Still it is possible for farmers to raise two to three crops a year if they have access to reservoirs and irrigation systems.”
The average annual rainfall for the country is 848 millimeters, which is close to the global average and twice that of Los Angeles, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Nevertheless, Ethiopia is infamous for being aid dependent and suffering from chronic food shortages. Due largely to the lack of infrastructure, nearly all its agriculture is rain-fed and depends on seasonal rains.
As a result, millions of the nation’s people are exposed to severe malnutrition and starvation when a drought or excessive rain occurs. Roughly 3 million Ethiopians faced famine last year.
Despite agriculture accounting for 80 percent of its economy, farmers in Ethiopia are still extremely vulnerable to these climate risks.
Helping friends in need
Whenever he goes to the Bulchana and Galo villages, children give him disarming smiles and chant, “gam sa ham ni da,” which means thank you in Korean.
Having retired from the Agricultural Technology Center and extended his service in the government body for another eight years, he could have spent the remainder of his life in luxury with material goods.
“As I receive a pension of more than 3 million won ($2,800) a month for my service in officialdom, I could have had a comfortable life without having to work or travel far away,” he said.
“But I wanted to pass down Korea’s knowledge and knowhow for its agricultural development that it learned through its own mistakes and successes in the 1960s and 1970s to Ethiopians, who are now in need of help.”
Jeon said he came to Ethiopia in hopes of repaying debts that Korea owes for their sacrifice and courage in the Korean War (1950-53), during which South Korea was on the verge of losing the nation and its fledgling democracy in a surprise attack by the Soviet-backed North Korean troops.
“I heard Ethiopians were the only military contingent among the Allied Forces that had no prisoner of war, simply because none of them surrendered,” Jeon said.
Of 253 battles, they lost none be it as aggressors or defenders.
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie sent the Kagnew Battalion, drawn from the 1st Division Imperial Bodyguard, between June 1951 and April 1954 as part of the United Nations Forces.
Of 3,158 soldiers that served in the battalion, 121 were killed and 536 wounded during the course of the conflict.
As they never left their dead or injured comrades behind, enemies feared that the Ethiopian soldiers might have been invincible.
“Compared to 121 lives sacrificed in the war, what I can offer to the brethren nation might be small but I am ready to do so,” Jeon said.
He now weighs only 52 kilograms as he has lost 12 kilograms over the past six months after leaving his beloved wife for the 18-month project, which he hopes will breathe new life into the two Ethiopian villages in Arsi.
New village project in Arsi
Jeon has been primarily focused on increasing the income of some 3,200 people in the two remote villages.
“My primary objective is boosting their income, while improving the infrastructure and environment of the two villages, and the capacity of residents on how to achieve and maintain better lives,” he said.
He has purchased 124 Boran cows, which are known to produce more milk and whose meat is much more expensive, and built 23 barns to keep them in.
“A normal cow costs only 2,300 birr (about $167). But the ones mixed with a Boran cow can be sold at 13,000 birr,” he said.
Having launched a crossbreeding center using artificial insemination, Jeon plans to help villagers have more mixed cows.
Since villagers live with their livestock, he also plans to rent the barns to residents as a part of a measure to improve sanitation.
He has also donated two tractors to the village so that people can rent them for 700 birr instead of the 900 birr charged in other areas.
Some 450 villagers volunteered to build a 4-kilometer road that leads to a main road connecting to the capital city.
Those who participated in the construction of a warehouse to keep the two tractors and a mill have become skilled labors.
“They used to be paid only 20 birr a day,” he said. “Now having learned the skills to build structures with cement, they are in high demand and receive about 40 to 45 birr a day.”
Ethiopia is one of the least developed countries, ranked 157th out of 169 in the 2010 United Nations Development Program’s Human Development Index.
The need for water and sanitation in Ethiopia is severe, with only 42 percent of the population with access to an improved water supply and only 11 percent with access to adequate sanitation services.
The situations are worse in rural areas. In rural Ethiopia, women and children walk for up to six hours to collect water.
In the last 20 years, Ethiopia has experienced recurring droughts followed by food shortages and famine. During times of drought, water-related diseases are rampant.
Ethiopia ranks 124th out of 143 nations in the Happiness Index, according to the 2009 Happy Planet Index (HPI) published by the New Economics Foundation, an independent think tank.
KOICA has injected more than $35 million into Ethiopia since 1991. It spent $9.7 million last year alone, up from $4.85 million in 2009.
The aid agency has dispatched 55 Korean volunteers to the sub-Saharan nation, including three doctors, four nurses and 14 computer experts.