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Episode 20

AGCI’s Frontline Work in Ethiopia

Mathewos, Haile, Azeb & Wass, AGCI Team Members in Ethiopia

[DA] You’re listening to Together by AGCI. I’m Dayn Arnold.

Coffee. I love it. I’ve seen it in all of its stages, from the cherry on the tree to being sorted and dried, processed, roasted, ground, brewed and consumed. But there’s no coffee experience quite like that in rural Ethiopia. Some wikipedia pages say that coffee originated in Ethiopia, and that all coffee can be traced back there. Coffee in Ethiopia is a twelve-hundred year old tradition, and when I had the privilege of experiencing the coffee ceremony at the home of someone with no electricity and no gas stove, it felt like I had been transported back in time.

In the US, those who love the art of pour over coffee, my favorite brewing method, know how to achieve the perfect brew through grind, timing and temperature. It takes time and practice to find the right balance, and despite it being a relatively simple brewing method, it usually needs a thermometer, timer, and scale to get it just right. But old-school traditional Ethiopian coffee is something unique. Everything is manual, from roasting the beans in a pan over a wood fire, to pulverizing them in a mortar by hand. It’s a full sensory experience. There is the aromatic mixture of freshly cut long grass, burning frankincense, and brewing coffee, mixed with the gentle sounds of conversation in Amharic, popcorn popping, and the bleating of the baby goats peering in through the open door. But the heartbeat of the experience is not the process. It’s all about connection, all about community. Even if there hadn’t been a big white guy in the room, this experience would largely be the same, a way to connect with family and neighbors. The people are the point of the coffee ceremony. We Americans could stand to learn a few lessons in community and hospitality from these folks who, by our standards, have so little. And we need to do what we can to help preserve these communities that are so hard hit by nature, poverty, and now, COVID-19.

Clearly, Ethiopia is a special place to me, a place that AGCI has been working for many years to provide a hopeful future to children and families endangered by poverty, famine, and instability. 2020 has been a difficult year for all of us, but for the children and families we sponsor, the need has only increased. Fortunately, even in a challenging time, our sponsors have truly stepped up, and the number of families we sponsor has increased dramatically since March. Even since I recorded our Ethiopian teammates a couple weeks ago, the number has increased by nearly 40 families. Our team has shifted into high gear in this time as they navigate, COVID, natural disasters, new TBRI trainings, and are working toward a bold initiative to address the needs of a massive population of homeless children in the capital city.

Our team mates there are Ethiopians, most of whom have been working at AGCI for the last 10, 12 years. They are committed to the work of AGCI, and are simply lovely people to spend time with. We wanted to check in on them as they navigate their day-to-day work with families who are struggling even more under the added pressure of a global pandemic. First we will check in with our country director Mathewos, a brilliant man who is quick to laugh, sings to himself when there is a spare moment, and who knows more stats about Ethiopia (and the United States, for that matter) than just about anyone else I know. Here is Mathewos.

[MS] Hello everyone. My name is Mathewos. I’m the country director of AGCI Ethiopia. I’ve been here for the last 14 years, almost. And, uh, we are providing child focused support to Ethiopian children. Some aid agencies and also the government authorities estimate that 4.5 to 5 million orphan children in Ethiopia.

[DA] Okay, I want to interrupt a quick second to point something out. Mathewos just said that there are around 5 million orphaned children in Ethiopia. The overall population of the country is around 100 million, so that means that orphaned children make up almost 5% of the entire population. If 5% of the US population was orphaned, that would be around 16 million children, or the combined populations of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and the Dakotas. There is a LOT of need. Alright, back to Mathewos.

[MS] Um, mainly because of HIV AIDS and, um drought. Uh, war also. We experienced war 20 years back.

I would like to give a update on current situation of COVID-19. Currently Ethiopia has about 65,000 cases. And on average, 1000 deaths, more than 1000. And recovered from the cases 25,000. It has tripled, almost, in a month. Yeah, it’s the… The danger is, uh, the, the capacity issue, because Ethiopia didn’t have any capacity to test, but gradually the capacity is increasing. Still, cannot be affordable for Ethiopia to test, to take a massive tests. Uh, initially when the coronavirus, during the coronavirus outbreak, the government declared state of emergency. Public restriction, social gathering, and social distance, and all these things. Also, transport and other services with half capacity, but it was not affordable for people to stay at home and get bread for daily life. So now that that situation has been changed, because the coronavirus issue is not improving. What the government now introducing is opening our economy, opening transport and, um, with some measures of social distancing, using facemask, and testing, all these things. So this is current situation on health.

[DA] How are families adapting to this right now? What is the need now?

[MS] Yeah. What we are doing is, you know, starting the March, 2020, this year I mean, the schools are closed, but we are using the sponsorship fund to support the families like a rescue fund, or to respond to coronavirus. Because poor families, they are not able to get income for their family, for basic needs. So what we’re doing, just, we didn’t discontinue the sponsorship fund so that the family can use, the children can use in response to coronavirus. Like food, and hand sanitizer and other coronavirus equipment like face mask. So now currently the school is going to be open, but we don’t know exactly when. They’re assessing when they, uh, they open the school, just we continue because we didn’t discontinue the sponsorship.

[DA] Our next guest is Haile. He is the senior social worker and sponsorship coordinator for All God’s Children, Ethiopia. He is also hilarious, and one of the most easy going people you will ever have the pleasure of being with. Haile is going to share about AGCI’s sponsorship work in Ethiopia in the world right now. One quick note, Haile will mention the word “woreda” multiple times. In Ethiopia, a woreda is a district, each of which is part of a zone and a region. Kind of like a county. Now let’s hear from Haile.

[Haile] Yeah. AGCI works a great job in Ethiopia. Especially we are working in three regions, Addis Ababa, Tigray, and Gambela. Currently, we have around 582 childrens in our program. And still we have so many waiting lists in every woredas. And just we addressing through, as I say, just we address only three regions. Within that region there is also a lot of needs. Still, we can’t address because our resource is very limited. Our target is just orphan children in every woreda, in every region. That’s why we are working in the countryside. Like in Tigray, Gambela. So as we discussed with woreda officials or with regions, still there is a lot of needs in every woreda. So we need to increase our sponsorship programs. We need to address a lot of kids because the need is so a lot. And we have also, we have, we have been also see a lot of succeed students in our program. A lot of students graduate every year. So AGCI doing a great job in Ethiopia.

[DA] For a typical family, how does the sponsorship help their family?

[Haile] Yeah, sponsorship is so… Especially this time, coronavirus is just limited our, their activities, day-to-day activities. So all families depend on our sponsorship, our support. The family is completely depend in our, uh, in our support, especially the last six months. The AGCI support is so important for their life.

[DA] Yeah. I think one of the things that I have always liked about AGCI’s sponsorship is that it’s not only for education. It is also thinking about what are the practical needs for the family, from food to, uh, the savings program, all of that stuff helps the entire family. And not just… It does not only buy school supplies or a uniform or something like that.

[Haile] Yeah. Especially after schools are closed, uh, kids are at home. Yeah. Family uses the money for food, for medical, for any emergency thing. We don’t need to force them to save. Rather they… We advise them to use the seed money for different emergency, or some food, some shelters, and that’s like that.

[DA] Yeah. This is the exact kind of thing that, that we want families to be saving for as when there is an emergency. And they need to have that extra money. Like, that’s exactly what saving is for. [Yeah.] Great. Well, is there anything else that you feel that the listeners to this podcast might need to know about the sponsorship program?

[Haile] Yeah. I just, uh… I wanted to say thank you for our sponsor families, our donors, and our AGCI staff there. Uh, you’re doing a great job. We see that practically how their life is changing through AGCI support because they send their children to school without any difficulty. Like just school uniforms, uh, foods, different things. So, we appreciate you, your hard work for these, uh, needy families.

[DA] Can you maybe tell me about what can happen in families that live away from the city and when they have no option and they have to send their children away to try and find work. Can you maybe tell me a story of what can happen in that kind of situation?

[Haile] In the countryside, most of the families are farmers. So if, uh, they don’t have any support from any organization like AGCI, uh, most probably, their kids are sending to the farming and keeping, uh, different… Uh, yeah. Like shepherds or different things. In countryside is normal even in this situation.

[DA] I want to add a little to what Haile was talking about. In rural, agricultural areas, a family’s level of poverty can become so extreme due to drought, illness or even COVID-19, they feel they have to offer their young daughters for marriage, or put their children to work. Some children are even sent hundreds of miles from home to work in Ethiopia’s largest city, Addis Ababa, where their vulnerability puts them in danger of trafficking or slavery with no way out. There is a huge population of children in Addis Ababa who have been separated from their families, and have undergone trauma that leaves them in a constant state of fight or flight. Even if the child is somehow reunified with the family, they will likely be ill equipped to help their child overcome their trauma without intervention.

Fortunately, that’s where our team mate Azeb comes in with the principles of Trust Based Relational Intervention, or TBRI, to work to strengthen families and prevent children from leaving home in the first place. If you’ve been around AGCI over the last couple years, you’ll recognize the acronym TBRI, but for those new to it, here’s a summary:

TBRI is an attachment-based, trauma-informed intervention that is designed to meet the complex needs of vulnerable children who have experienced toxic stress and trauma. Studies have shown that living in the restraints of poverty is multifaceted and can result in various traumas due to the effects of war, devastating hunger or malnutrition, and abuse or neglect. For example, a child who is malnourished due to poverty has little capacity for learning and brain development because his fear of hunger is constantly dominating his behaviors.

The effects of these traumas, when unhealed, can include developmental, psychological, and cognitive impairments that can significantly impact the overall development of children and their ability to trust adults and those around them, leading to difficult behaviors that can impact generations to come. However, when fear is reduced through connection and when children feel they are safe and their needs are met, these children can begin the process of healing from trauma and rewire their brains to produce better outcomes.

With 5 millions orphaned children in Ethiopia and 30 percent of the population living in severe poverty, we know there are millions of children who have experienced some form of trauma, or who are at risk of experiencing some form of trauma. We’ve been brining TBRI to families in Colombia for the past 3 years and have seen incredible changes in children and families throughout the country, and now our goal at AGCI is to bring TBRI to Ethiopia, through change makers and local leaders like Azeb.

Our teammate Azeb has been learning and adapting the principles of TBRI to the Ethiopian context, and even in her very first group of 20 families, she has seen a beautiful response. On a personal note, I think Azeb is amazing. She somehow maintains a perfect balance of compassion and fearlessness, and is a role model for girls everywhere. Let’s hear from her now.

[Azeb] My name is Azeb. I’m from Ethiopia. I work for AGCI for over 13 years, yeah, 13 years. And I’m working with the children. Um, I’m now currently my, uh, job description is Child Advocator and Administrator Officer.

First I want to say thank you to AGCI to give us this opportunity to train, uh, the TBRI training. Uh, and also to share with the community. We are learn almost one year, yeah. It takes, uh, one year, and we are learning a special force with collaborator with other, uh, organization. And it was very helpful for us. And currently I share the TBRI principle for 20 families. Uh, it means, uh, each family have three to five children. So, uh, we can calculate four child, one family. It’s a big opportunity to address for 80 children from 20 family.

[DA] The principles of TBRI stress connection with a child, not punishment. Connecting with a child through play and affection can begin to rewire the brain, and gives a child what he or she needs to build healthy attachment in their family. Stronger attachment helps to strengthen families, reducing the number of children leaving home or having to live on the street.

Azeb is going to mention Ethiopian families raising their children “the wrong way” by using “the stick.” This is not a reflection that Western culture is somehow superior to Ethiopian. We strive to defeat the white-savior mentality in all of our work. What she is saying is that traditionally, it is common for an Ethiopian family to use corporal punishment for discipline, which does not typically foster connection between children and parents. Azeb is starting to train these 20 families in the principles of TBRI, and she is starting to see some positive changes that can hold the key to family stability across the country. Back to Azeb.

[Azeb] Before the training, most of us, even to me, me, we are, uh, using the wrong way to growing up our children. And now I can say the training is changing our life. So, uh, let me share you one moms tell me, that… She told me that after I took this training, I work on playing to build trust and confidence with my kids. Uh, and she said, thank you to AGCI, help me to connect with my children. And so when I listen, when I’m hearing like this, uh, kind of a comment, um, I’m very grateful to give this, uh, training.

[DA] Yeah. For you because you are a mother, um, how, how has TBRI been, uh, something new or a good change for you personally?

[Azeb] Yeah. Um, it’s a good question for me. Uh, yeah, I’m, uh, a mother of two kids. Uh, before I’m, i also using the wrong way. In the culture, we as using, we are using stick to correct our kids. And yeah. My mom also, uh, using this method when I’m growing. So, uh, it was very a good opportunity, even personally. And my big satisfaction is when I train to the community and they are coming from the poorest area. So they have, uh, many, uh, many challenges financially. So they are, uh, trying to insult in the, like, correcting by the method of the, using a stick. So, I don’t have words to say like, uh, how it is very important to our country.

[DA] Yeah. So you feel like it, it will have a very large change to the way that people have raised their kids for a long time. Do you feel that is… That, um, the families that you have met with, does it take them some time to get used to a new idea or do they, do you feel like they see it and they understand it?

[Azeb] Um, they are, uh, very, uh, happy to use this method, and they are, uh, in playing to correct their… to attach, to connect with their kids. When they are sharing to me, they are crying. It means we are in the wrong way. And they told me that. So it was a very big opportunity for all of us, even, even us in Ethiopia.

[DA] To me, when I hear more about TBRI, I am always amazed that it can work in many places. Like it, it works like the principals are helpful with my own children and the principals are helpful for, you know, our orphan children in Colombia. And they’re helpful for the families in Ethiopia. And it’s really amazing to me to see how, uh, universal those ideas are. And I think it’s really great that it has been impactful for you. And that it has been valuable for these families. And I look forward to seeing what, what can come next when more families are able to be trained with that.

[Azeb] Yeah. I hope we expand this program to address, uh, all over the country, uh, because no one’s tell them about this, uh, principle. So, um, I am happy to help in this kind of, uh, training to give them.

[DA] Our last guest today is Wass. My first trip to Ethiopia was in 2017, and Wass was our driver. He’s much more than a driver, but that’s one role he consistently plays. Because I’m 6 foot 4, I often sat shotgun in the van he drives, and have had many conversations with him about both Ethiopian and American culture. He is a self-proclaimed country boy who often wears cowboy shirts, and loves old-school country music, which was the soundtrack to hours of dusty driving from one location to another. He knows many families by name, and cares deeply for them. Let’s hear from him now.

[Wass] My name is Wass. and I’m starting working with AGCI since 2009. Uh, since that I am just working with AGCI and, uh, also, uh, see a lot of change in my life and also in my life, my family’s life, cause, uh, as, uh, we get a lot of training, a lot of like, you know, support from AGCI. Even not, even for us, we can see a lot of change in our lives. Uh, when I just, uh, uh, continue to tell or share, uh, some of the things that I’m seeing while I’m visiting, uh, the families, uh, I can see like, you know, the change, like, you know, gradually. Like, uh, before, like, you know, we start like, you know, uh, helping or supporting them, uh, some of the kids was like, you know, staying with their families in the church for begging, and a lot of things. But after we just starting supporting them, uh, we didn’t see like the kids in the church or like in other places for begging.

Uh, also when we just like, you know, visiting their homes, we can see like the change. Like before, like, uh, maybe there is nothing at their home, like for recreation or like, you know, for like the studying, and things like that. But after we support them, even when we go to their homes as this corona pandemic expand in Ethiopia, the government tried to just like, you know, broadcast the education through television. And most of the family was, don’t have the television before we start supporting them. And most of them, they just, you know, purchase a television for their kids. And they’re just like, you know, uh, studying with television and, uh… All the time when we go there, we see the change, and… Sometimes when we, when I see other kids in the streets, uh, I can see that how those kids are blessing to get AGCI support, to just like, you know, uh, go out, like, you know, from that street. And they stay at their home. Uh, also like, you know, when we just like, you know, ask them how, uh, how things are going to happen if you don’t get a support from AGCI, especially now in this time. They say, before they were like, you know, doing like, you know, washing people’s clothes in home to home, but now everybody’s not interesting, uh, to support or to let anybody to come into their home. So their only support what they get right now is AGCI, uh, sponsoring program. So because of that, I can see that the AGCI support is means a lot for the most of the families.

[DA] Yeah. How, how has it been, I mean, with COVID and with, um, you know, other things that have been happening in the news lately in Ethiopia, how has it been for all of you as a team to experience these things?

[Wass] Uh, as you see, like, you know, it’s, uh, motivating us a lot because, uh, as we told you, like, you know, most of the family was working in different places before this corona pandemic starts, but after that, most of their income stops, and only like, you know, hope what they get right now is a support from AGCI. And if we’re not working hard to support them and like, you know, to just like, fulfill what they need, we know what’s happening. We know the consequences. Because of that, that helps us to get more and more motivational and like, you know, motivates to do a lot of jobs.

[DA] Are there any challenges to you as a team or to these families that, uh, you can see coming up in the future? Like it could be COVID related or it could be something else. Um, do you foresee any other things coming up that will be, um, challenging, that maybe we need people’s help for?

[Wass] Yeah, actually. No, as you see, when we try, when we went to like different families, you know… If like, you know, the economic problem because of this Corona pandemic is carry on, like, you know, most of the family will affect a lot. So as you see, when we just like, you know, go and visit some families, everybody’s coming to us and begging us to help them. So if this corona pandemic goes on and like, you know, if it affects the economy, uh, because of that, there’s a lot of people that they are really in need of a lot of helps.

[DA] It’s, it is exciting to see that AGCI continues to increase the number of families that our supporters are sponsoring, but it’s also important that we continue to increase that number so that more families can of reach that support. Are there, are there other options for these families, or is it kind of AGCI, is, is the option for them for, to receive help or aid?

[Wass] Right now I can see that most of the families are only like, you know, help, what they get right now is this health from AGCI. Because most of like, you know the small business is kind of like, you know, down. Because of that, most people, you know, they don’t have like a job. Even if there’s, there are like some kids who work as a street vendors and different things, but because of this corona pandemics, you know, most of the business is going down. So because of that, most of the family is kind of like, you know, in problem. So if like, you know, AGCI supports a lot of families, that will just like, you know, help Ethiopia’s kids to get a better life in the future.

[DA] Yeah. Is there anything else that you feel that, um, our supporters or people who might be listening to this need to know about what is what’s going on, what the need is, how they can help? Like what, what do you feel that people don’t quite understand that maybe we can understand a little bit better?

[Wass] Okay. You know, like, you know, there was like one, uh, because most of the… I can live around like, you know, most of the kids who just live in that area. And I, I know that there was some kids who are like a beggar with their families before we start supporting them. And now, because of our, like, you know, supports, now the kid’s staying at home and studying their, her education. So if, when I see a lot of kids on the streets, on begging with their families in their church and things like, I can, like… You know, I wish that, you know, AGCI will help a lot of kids too, like, you know, uh, send, uh, children to school and they staying out here home for education, a lot of things. So when I just like, you know, see a lot of kids on the streets, uh, they’re begging money with their families, and it takes… Like that, I can like, you know, feel that I wish that AGCI supporting a lot of kids, uh, to like, you know, to send them to school, and also like, you know, to create a better life for those kids whose streets.

[DA] Like, for the long term, for these families, as, as they, you know, as their kids are actually able to graduate from school or university, um, what, what do you think are the long term impacts for, for this type of help that our supporters are able to provide?

[Wass] You know, when you help one kids, uh, they, when they get a better education and a better life, you know that their future is in a bright way. In Ethiopia there as one trend. When one person got something they can share with their neighbors and their families and things like that. It’s all about the generation, the community, and all of our, the kids around that families.

[DA] It’s definitely about providing help and aid for the children and families are right in front of us because that’s important, but it’s more about the generational impact. And that’s, that’s also why the TBRI training is important because it can also have a generational impact and it can, you know… You give it enough time and you, you have enough resources there and you can see really large change happen over time because of whatever small actions that we can do as a team.

[Wass] Yes. Yes. That’s why all the time when we travel or when we work somewhere, when we see some kids or any, even like older people, when they act like, you know, badly, and we can say, Oh, I wish like this TBRI program is going all over the countries. You know? If we just like, you know, start this program early, we don’t see a lot of chaos in our countries. You know, that… Our brain is going to be like bright because of, like this TBRI program. And like, you know… Now it’s in a small scale, but I’m pretty sure that it will help a lot of people to develop a better nations.

[DA] Yeah. It seems like the impact will be very large.

AGCI is blessed to have such a capable, strong team on the ground in Ethiopia as the need there is so great. Our prayer is to continue to strengthen and support families through sponsorship and the principles of TBRI, and to build a strong team of people here in the US to make it all happen. If you’re interested in learning more about how to get involved in our work in Ethiopia, click the link in our show notes.

Thanks for listening to Together by AGCI. If you haven’t done so already, subscribe to the podcast wherever you download podcasts, and consider leaving a review on Apple podcasts if you’re so inclined. The more we can expand the audience of our little podcast, the more opportunity we have to support the work our team in Ethiopia does. If you have questions, comments, or suggestions, or want to send us a fresh batch of Ethiopian coffee, send us an email at We hope that you will continue to walk with us as we support this work – together. We’ll talk to you soon.