The cell tower in Maji was down when Odyssey II got there. Nahosenay missed cell reception because he had a new girlfriend. But Yacob and Stephanie said the quiet surprised them. It left  space in their minds that made it worth being out of touch.

What the -- Power Monkey? (1)

I brought a Power Monkey with solar panels, but could I figure out how it was supposed to work?

power monkey audience copy

So I recruited help with that Power Monkey . . . but we never did get much power out if it.

Originally, though, the lack of connectivity had more than one member of the team anxious. How would we stay in touch with husbands and families? How would we update our supporters and friends? The power grid hasn’t reached Maji. it’s one thing to go off-grid with one of the new power technologies creeping into the scene in the USA. It’s another challenge to live altogether without. How would we keep our cameras juiced up, people asked me? Our phones? Yacob’s Jambox? Before we went we researched some options—Power Monkeys that charge with small solar panels or a car charger, clever solar blow-up lanterns for the supper table, flashlights, of course, and candles.

Once there, we stayed in a house that had been built in 1990 by John Haspels and his crew, with some help from my husband Mark.  Janie and I share a room, partly out of practicality, and partly because giggling together at night, problem solving, and sharing our impressions, is so precious.

A translation team of three Dizi men, nearing the end of a many-year project to develop an alphabet for the Dizi language and translate the New IMG_0173Testament, uses one of the rooms as an office. Our Odyssey team took over the bedrooms and our cook set up beauties burners on the floor in the kitchen area. Our hosts dug a new latrine nearby just for us. (Troy gets extra stars from the women for carrying a camp toilet in his checked luggage for night-time use in the former bathroom!) Young boys from local families make a few Ethiopian Birr carrying water in bright blue jerry cans for cooking, hand washing and our bucket-baths.

The doors of the house stood open to the light and air all day. Chickens minced through, checking for yummy crumbs. 

“Look out,” Janie said to one of them. “The cook is right here, watching you!”

IMG_0171Our struggles were temporary, of course. One of my goals in going to Maji was to gather the stories of people for whom Maji, and the neighboring government center in Tum, is home. How does the lack of power impact their lives? What difference would it make if we could help bring both public and private money together to create a mini-grid and  power co-op (maybe solar, maybe micro-hydro, maybe some combination)? Janie and I recruited Maureen to help us interview and photograph for this dream.

I’ve done some work with folks from the international arm of USA’s National Rural Electric Co-op Association (NRECA), in co-operation with Obama’s Power Africa initiative and the power sector of Ethiopia. They are developing a whole-country strategy for power. I want the people of Maji to have electricity to ease their lives. I tell Janie I feel like a politician trying to bring home the pork.

In fact, supplying power to Government centers like Tum is a priority for Ethiopia, but Maji’s remoteness has so far held back progress. Some businesses have generators. The cost of diesel is prohibitive—$4 per gallon in a place where even the top government official makes only $250 per month. Fuel is brought in by truck over roads that wind down into the Gibe River gorge and back up, deeper and deeper into the mountains of SW Ethiopia. Chinese and Korean companies have laid asphalt now, but eventually, going as far as we do toward the Sudan boarder, gravel takes over. No one is even trying to market individual solar units this far from the import sources.

According to my friends here, there was a recent government meeting with federal level officials in the nearest big town, Mizan Taferi. The provincial leaders said, “We were told Tum was a priority for electrification. What is happening?”

You are still a priority, they were told. But the grid runs out in Jemu, about eighty miles away, and to bring electricity any further, the government would need to build a sub-station. The Maji area officials left the meeting and turned to each other. “Then we will put our hope in Caroline and the people (from NRECA.” Yikes! The pressure is on!

The NRECA folks attended a world summit on power and other development issues in early January. While they were in Addis they did some of the policy research it will take to advise Ethiopia on how to improve the entire power sector—how to expand participation in the grid, which runs along every roadway, but only reaches a less than 25% of the population; how to handle the power that will be exported to neighboring countries when the dam on the Blue Nile River is finished; how to build mini-grids with solar and micro-hydro power and start co-ops to administer them.

Meanwhile, school boys in Maji tell us they study at night by flashlight—something they

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

Before we left, these boys got their semester grades. The tall boy on the right came first in his class.

have to buy themselves. What they earn carrying five gallons of water several hundred feet will buy one battery. And foreigners who will pay for water to be carried don’t come often. These boys compete for spots in the university system with youth from Addis Ababa, Jimma, Mekele—cities where electricity is lighting up their study tables.

These boys’ mothers still cook over wood fires on the floor; homes are filled with smoke, causing sinus, upper respiratory and eye infections, especially in young children. The town shuts down at eight o’clock when the sun goes down.

Still, when I asked the boys if they have hopes of passing the competitive university entrance test, they all laughed and said yes. Of course they do. Aren’t humans people of hope?

Dreaming Big in Maji

On the warm Sunday afternoon I was in Maji, we walked down to visit the forestry-seedling nursery.  It lies along the path that ends up at the waterfall, where I ran with my sisters and my teddy bear (named Teddy), trying to keep up with Dad who was headed down to fix the generator.  Several hundred eucalyptus seedlings have now been planted on the grassy hillside.

Ato Marcos could "see" just where the trees and the vegetables will be growing soon.

The idea for this whole project came from Ato Marcos himself.  He told me about it–when he was in college getting his diploma in agriculture, he visited a church that was growing fruit and vegetables for the local community.  Back in Maji, he watched their church’s huge piece of land lying fallow, and remembered what he’d seen.  If he, with his ag training, could put that land to use, might it support him (so he could leave his government job) and also bring income to the church?  He’s a man with vision, eager to learn more, full of plans and dreams.  He’s the kind of partner we all want to have–and to be.

A posed photo is always a formal moment in Ethiopia. L to R: Dr. Yshak, Ato Marcos, the guard and a gardener.

Behind the men in the photo left, the bright green leaves you see is the corch tree fence.  When you put their papery-, thorny-barked branches into the ground they grow, making a fence goats and cows can’t penetrate.  The eucalyptus aren’t any more fun for cattle to eat than they would be for us, but the apple seedlings might have been highly sought-after forage.  This is a great example of indigenous solutions–who needs barbed wire when you have corch?
From the fence, to the cleared land, to Ato Marcos’s vision of where vegetables will go (among the trees during their dormant season so that working with the vegetables will also keep weeds down around the trees), to his care in planting them (in holes eighteen inches wide by eighteen inches deep), to the eager look on his face as he talked about the training courses in pruning and grafting coming up, I could see this project is in great hands.
Later, as we drove back to Jimma to catch my plane, I got a brainstorm of my own.  I saw it in a flash–an apple drying operation . . . Maji dried apples famous all over Ethiopia . . . why not?  When you have a great partner, your brain dares to dream big!  I hope I can be an equally inspiring partner, along with others on this side of the world, sharing our efforts and our resources to make something happen that is, really, unimaginable.


I’m rattled for a few weeks after I come home from a trip to Ethiopia. Thrown into confusion about who I am and where I belong. An Ethiopian friend once tried to convince me to buy land and build myself a home in Addis Ababa. “You speak Amharic,” she said. “You belong here. You need to come home every summer, and then retire here.” And I come back to the US feeling the same: I speak Amharic, don’t I belong there?

This trip was particularly rattling because I visited the town of Maji, in SW Ethiopia, where I grew up. I slept and ate and met with Maji church leaders in the former mission compound. I stood in the living room of my childhood home, so clear in my memory—the Franklin stove where we melted crayon bits on the sly, because the drops of shiny color

The house I grew up in--it used to look so much bigger!

The house I grew up in–it used to look so much bigger!

were like jewels; the funky green rug; the platform rocker Mom and Dad took with them from Portland, Oregon; bookshelves lining every wall. It sits empty now, as the church folks try to figure out how to use the space to serve the community somehow. One of their ideas is to start a literacy center for Dizi children—they do much better in school if they learn to read first in their own language.

In what used to be our dining room sits a hand pump wrapped in burlap. Bags of cement lie in the corner, bundles of pipe along the wall under the window, where the dining table used to sit. The pump has been donated, a new well has been dug, and they will plaster the sides with cement and install the pump this spring. I hand carried the donation they needed to get the job finished, and it sat on the table in flickering candle light as we talked together about plans.

The electric and water systems my dad installed were destroyed decades ago in the fever of “Yankee-go-home” socialism. Every other time I’ve visited I’ve had to remind the church leaders that missionaries from the US won’t be coming back with their mechanical know-how and lots of cash from headquarters to back them up. It seems to have sunk in: the church leaders know they will have to come up with their own, locally sustainable systems now. The hand pump will be a good first step.

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

A woman who brought her sick baby to the clinic

Another encouraging sign—the old mission clinic is back in service and was crowded the weekend I was there. A few months ago the church held a fund raiser and people donated cash, quintals of grain, sheep, whatever they had, and hired a nurse. He looks about eighteen. I was thrilled to learn he’s a Dizi himself.





And now, here I am back in Oregon, thinking of Maji. I can’t seem to shake it, the love I have for those hills, that sunset sky, eucalyptus smoke in the air, the lilting musical

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

Looking from the new apple orchard toward the old mission compound.

language, wooden cowbells going tonk with every step the cows take, grazing on the hillsides across from the mission. I’ll be rattled for a few more weeks before I get my heart all the way back home.