Angels of Ethiopia

Translation, courtesy of J.P. Guerschman

From all I have written about Ethiopia so far, it should be already clear that the main problem we find again and again in this country is its people, particularly children, and teenagers. Since the day we arrived and until today when I write these lines, already several months after having left, I have been trying to understand, to find a coherent explanation for this abhorrent behaviour. I don’t know if I have found an answer which explains all my questions (and frustrations), and probably there is not just one but several answers, but through talking to people I consider clever I have probably got closer to the beginning of an understanding. This post is dedicated to these people, whom I like calling the “angels of Ethiopia”.


We met Kate when she was walking down the remote footpath of the Simien mountains that leads to the small village where she has settled. It's a three exhausting hours climb to Debark, the closest town where essential provisions can be bought and 3 hours of rough downhill back to her village. Kate is from England, she is 48 and has been living in the remote Northern Ethiopia for more than 12 years. She arrived as an explorer traveller to walk across the country and during such trip she decided to stay. For several years she lived in Gondar teaching poor children, until getting tired of fighting against local bureaucracy she decided to move to the village and start her own school.

Kate’s village is located within a very rough geography, it has a few hundred people, no electricity, no drinkable water, no sewage system, and houses are simple straw huts. There, together with her Ethiopian husband, she started the local school based on humongous effort and perseverance, with the meager help and donations she receives from overseas. She started by building the first hut which would be the year one classroom, and later she was slowly building the minimum necessary infrastructure to teach. Today she is on her second hut, for year two and plans to continue growing.

The path that Kate chose is not easy. Every day she has to fight against the lack of resources, both from herself and from her students, in order to continue providing the most basic need: education. When I asked her why she had chosen Ethiopia, she answered it was simply because she felt it was the right thing to do. Kate teaches years one and two of primary school to children who basically have nothing at all. Of her 32 students, most go to school barefoot, with shattered and dirty clothes and many are virtually orphans. Her motivations are not religious, but rather pure altruism. Kate could also be considered economically poor, maybe not as much as her students, but she still has to be mindful about food for herself and her family, she must choose when she can buy “luxurious” food items such as meat and she must carefully look after her expenses in order to keep her school running

Despite all that, when talking with Kate who best knows the huge difficulties of teaching in these conditions, I never heard any complaint coming out of her mouth. She talks about the big obstacles she finds in order to get funds, but she never says the word “problems”. She talks about the big challenge of paying every month her biggest expense, the teacher's salary, but her words do not show a mind trapped in worries. From her mouth, only two things come out: on one side, plans and more plans for the future, even without knowing where she will get the resources from, and on the other side a big smile. Thanks to Kate, 32 Ethiopian children have better chances of dreaming of a better life and not end up throwing stones to the faranji (white men), hysterically begging for money and finding the end of boredom in harassing.


Arriving in Wukro is like temporally leaving Ethiopia, such is the effect caused by the catholic mission led by basque Father Ángel Olarán. We arrived there after weeks of fighting against the tireless demands for money from the ethiopian children, the jokes, harassment, stone throwing and just by riding through the village main street you can already feel a difference. People here are mostly kind and children smile, something that becomes more noticeably as we get closer to the Mission

Ángel has been leading the Wukro Mission for 20 years, after having spent the previous 20 years in charge of a Mission in a remote village of Tanzania. He speaks fluent tigrinya (and Swahili) although he is too humble to acknowledge so, and has dedicated his whole life to teaching and providing tools to people for them to overcome their ignorance in order to defend themselves in a more dignifying way and secure a better life. Even though Ángel is a Catholic priest and it is his strong faith what moves him to continue in his altruistic lifestyle, he has never gone on a religious speech when talking about his motivations, his achievements, and results. His words are rather those from an essentially pragmatic and hospitable person whose role is helping, not converting. His religious faith is something he keeps for himself.

During the days we spent in his Mission we met the most incredibly affectionate ethiopian kids; so sweet that I honestly would have liked to ask for their birth certificates to make sure they had actually been born in that country. Many of the children who attend the Mission are orphans, and both Ángel and the volunteers who work there temporarily pay weekly visits to the houses where the children live. On the other hand, the Mission offers a variety of tertiary courses where, for a small amount, the young people can access an education which will likely allow them to pursue a better destiny.

Ángel and his Mission have a significant influence in Wukro. At any place in town you can ask about him and you will be given the indications for how to get to the Mission. You can see people’s love for Ángel in the way they behave towards him. Locals who pass by hug him with huge affection, greet him with love, kiss him warmly, all while he chats and jokes. Seeing him with his people is like seeing those child stories’ adorable grandparents, Ángel irradiates love.

And what about the children?

Paradoxically, neither Kate nor Ángel seems to have an answer for the intriguing, wild Ethiopian people’s nature. During their daily life in Ethiopia, they also get frustrated again and again. Nevertheless, there are some clues where one can start to understand the complexities of this issue.

According to Kate, for example, in rural Ethiopia (85% of the country) there is no such thing as family planning, the average couple has at least 5 or 6 children. This is not so much the problem, however, but it is rather the fact that, as it tends to normally happen, when the father loses his job or can’t produce an income, he moves to another village and disappears forever leaving his 6 children as orphans. Once there, he forms a new family in which he has yet another 6, 7 or 8 children, until when, for economic reasons he has to leave once again and repeat this cycle. It is not a coincidence that Ethiopia’s population jumped from 15 millions in 1935 to almost 90 millions today, and it is expected to surpass 120 millions by 2030.

Ángel knows about the stone throwing issue as well. In 2005 he hosted the legendary basque bicycle traveller Lorenzo Rojo when he arrived to Wukro by bus, after having received a blow in his head which injured his forehead. Neither Ángel has a definitive answer to the issue but when he talks about it he shows the same frustration and lack of understanding that we have, even after 20 years in Ethiopia working for its people.

Help that doesn’t help

During the 80s and 90s Ethiopia was constantly in the news for its terrible famines. In those years the country started to receive an invasion of NGOs, mainly from the so-called developed world. According to many people in Ethiopia many of these NGOs are to a great extent responsible for the irritating begging behaviour of the Ethiopians. Most of the NGOs come to give away but ever rarely come to teach. They give a hand by turning people dependant on help, rather than giving the tools needed to break away from such dependence and allow them to take off by themselves. Even worse, they have created in the Ethiopians the image that white people are there just to give something for free, that’s why people demand from faranji (white people) to give things, whatever they are.

Kate, as many others, with her modest endeavour is a victim of the ignorance of the great recipients of foreign aid in the world. Kate tells us, for example, the UN spend millions of dollars each year on one or two issues and always, without exception, are issues that must end up on the newspapers’ front cover to give a good advertising, regardless of how effective such ‘help’ really is. Kate has never received a single cent from whom receive the most donations. When she gets in touch the frequent answer is: “this year we just work on this (whatever it is) issue” and it always has to be an issue which produces news in the world’s news agencies. Nevertheless, much of this money is lost in the local bureaucracy and corruption and very little gets to produce a significant change in people’s life quality.

Neither the UN nor the myriad of NGOs -which have turned into multinational corporations- are needed for improving the quality of life of those who suffer the most; they clearly look after their political agenda more than giving the people wings so they can fly. Ethiopia is the best example of what receiving aid is (by millions) which doesn’t help so that a few can appear in the news as the good samaritans.

The ineffable George W. Bush, that criminal we all know, was arriving in a private helicopter fleet to the Simien mountains a few days before we arrived to that area. Kate told us he comes often and stays in a hotel which is closed and made available for his exclusive use. He manages a US-based foundation which gives Ethiopia the retroviral drugs used by HIV infected people for free. However, that’s irresponsible help that doesn’t help. Since the day these drugs became free the rate of HIV infection in Ethiopia increased to alarming levels. Why? Because the treatment reduces the virus to a chronic infection which does not put their lives at risk anymore and on top of that it is free, thus it’s not necessary to use protection anymore because people can live with it for the rest of their lives at no cost, thus continuing to spread the disease.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, one of the most fascinating due to its historic legacy, is also the same one that keeps retrograde practices, as old as the age of the Church itself, which makes things even worse. The complete out of control birth rate in the country doesn’t seem to have an ending. There is apparently a lot of government programs to teach family planning but they all get cancelled when people go to church. According to several Ethiopians with a good education level, people are given birth control information. However, when they go to church and ask the priest, he answers that it is ok for them to use protection here on earth, but that they also have to know that when they die and go to heaven maybe God will not like it… With this sentence he leaves in suspense, they induce enough terror in these poor people for them to stop adopting birth control methods. 

The problems in Ethiopia are many and possibly all related to each other, as to give a vision to explain why Ethiopians are the way they are. I am still convinced, however, that there is something in particular, inherent and intrinsic to the Ethiopian culture, that makes a difference with the rest of the world. The origin of this difference is still a mystery to me. What it is clear to me, thanks to my experience with Kate and Ángel, is that a qualitative change is possible as long as it is done in a responsible way. It is help like theirs what generates long-term changes even when quantitatively the figures are insignificant and not enough to make it to the news.This is the sort of small-scale work which eventually can change the world, one by one. It is thanks to people like Kate and Ángel that I restore my faith in these people and it fills me with energy to continue the way we still have ahead in this country.