Having an Agenda

“What is your agenda for Ethiopia this time?” a friend asked me. “Or do you have an agenda?”

I laughed. As my dad would have said, boy-howdy, do I have an agenda! Several agendas, in fact. A friend has invited me to think about how to be more strategic and organized in the work in Ethiopia that keeps coming my way. That will be one of my agendas.

In my suitcase, as I fly out of Portland, I’m carrying a bag of dried apples. I’m taking them

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

The apple orchard is young, but thriving. Apples have been imported to Ethiopia from Kenya and South Africa at great expense. We want to make Maji famous for its apples.

to Maji to show the agriculturalist, Ato Markos, who coordinates the Maji apple orchard what a dried apple looks and tastes like. The 1000 apple trees he’s planted aren’t yet bearing more than he can sell locally, but they will! I need to talk with his leadership team about their marketing plan. And if the grid does get to Maji, might they start a fruit-drying endeavor? Why truck the water in the apples all the way, 500 miles, to Addis Ababa?

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic.

This young woman is the one nurse serving the Maji clinic. Photo by Maureen Evans

Another major goal for my time in Maji is to get a solar unit installed on the town’s clinic. This came as a request from church leaders, and took me over a year to organize. The clinic is delivering up to thirty babies a month. Night deliveries take place in the dark—the electric grid hasn’t reached Maji yet—and the midwife and nurse sometimes have to hold flashlights in their teeth to have hands free. A simple solar unit will allow for night lighting and charging cell phones. I’ve found a solar supplier in Addis Ababa and he is sending the unit and an installer with me in the vehicle I’ve rented for the trip.

While in Maji, I will also meet with the

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government.

Zerihun is the lead translator for the Dizi language. The alphabet he helped develop is being embraced by the church and the local government. Photo by Maureen Evans

translation team for the Dizi language, the language of the people of Maji. Dizi has been reduced to written form—that’s the technical term for developing a writing system that covers all the sounds of the language. Now the New Testament translation is almost finished. The translation team is meeting with expert linguists in Addis Ababa several times a year to check for consistency (is the same word in Hebrew, Greek or English translated by the same word in Dizi, for example). They are also holding community checking events, reading passages and listening to discussions to see whether the intended meaning of the translation is what was actually communicated.

Try reading Dizi!

Try reading Dizi! Photo by Maureen Evans

I don’t know the Dizi language, but I’ve been supporting the translation team for several years. I  meet with them and listen (in Amharic) as they talk about their progress, frustrations and concerns. I’ll take a report back to donors, and go over the budget for next year’s work. This trip I’ll start to ask questions about a literacy program. We don’t think about this, having so many centuries of written language of our own—but once there is an alphabet and written materials, the next problem is that no one knows how to read!

And then, speaking of literacy, when I get back to Addis I’ll meet with people who helped Janie and me last January as we began creating stories and art for early-reader books for Ethiopian children. Again, we have such a thriving publishing industry in the US, it’s hard to imagine that almost no books are published in Ethiopia, and there is nothing at all for beginning readers. They drill their 241-letter alphabet, and then start the sink-or-swim process of reading text books.

Children, parents, teachers and librarians in Ethiopia and the US have created the

We'd love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties!

We’d love to be part of creating fun, colorful, culturally appropriate easy readers for Ethiopian children like these cuties! Photo by Jeri Candor

beginnings of about twenty simple, illustrated stories appropriate to Ethiopian culture. Now we’re looking for help in the translation and design stage. (We haven’t even addressed production yet!) The enthusiasm, the creativity, the goodwill of volunteers is keeping us going in spite of the steep learning curve for this cutting-edge cross-cultural effort.

In Addis Ababa I’ll be following up with young artists and writers to move from the inspiration stage to the revision stage of creating art. I’ll be looking for someone who has design skills and knows Amharic. I’ll meet with some people who have tried their hands at translation—that’s a creative endeavor as well, because our subject-verb sentences trot along using words like building blocks, each in its own place, but Amharic encrusts the verb with not only prefixes and suffixes, but infixes! We wouldn’t know an infix if we heard one!

So that’s my agenda! I’m writing on the plane to Minneapolis, the first of three legs of my journey. I’ve been crazy-busy getting ready for all this. Now wish me well! My jet lag, the possibilities of picking up intestinal bugs, and political unrest in parts of Ethiopia may be greater problems than the inherent challenges of the work. But that’s the way it always is. Our contexts are part of the work.

I’m grateful for the opportunities I have for creativity, spiritual and relational growth as I do this work that keeps coming to me from God. Thanks to all of you who have contributed encouragement, prayer and resource to be my partners!


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?

Asphalt and Apples

Ethiopia and Kenya 218

The view of the other side of the valley from the Maji parish compound.

The small rains are ending, and Maji is as lush and fine as I remember it being.  There’s something new in Maji, though.  On my April trip, I ate a Maji apple–we dreamed of apples, and didn’t have them for years at a time when I lived there as a child!

In those days, the only fruit-bearing tree in Maji, over a mile and a half in altitude, was a single huge, spreading plum that grew like the tree of life in the middle of Dad’s vegetable garden.  It had been there before we arrived in Maji, and no one knew where it came from.  Schoolboys scaled the thorny, live fence and stole plums when they ripened just around Christmas time.  Monkeys hid when Dad came around with his rifle, and sat eating plums and taunting him when he went to the garden without it.  And still, the plums came to the house in bucket loads.  Mom canned plums, and we ate them with home-made yogurt year around.

Now Maji has apples.  I was surprised to learn that these highland apples actually require _MG_5220high altitudes to bear.  The project director, Ato Markos, and his Development Department boss are experimenting with six or seven cultivars.  The hardiest of the trees now stand taller than my head.  There are some mid-altitude apple types that do not seem to like the thin, nine-thousand foot air of Maji as well as the true highland apples, and they will be transplanted to some slightly lower valleys.

The evening my colleague Tara and I spent in Maji, after our welcome feast—after we had consumed the chicken wat sauce, the hard-boiled eggs in the sauce, and then, the coup de grace, the meat tenderized in lime juice and boiled in the hot wat sauce—after we’d resisted all the pressure to have our plates refilled again and again (required of our hosts as proof of their genuine generosity), after the delicious aroma of coffee being roasted there in the dining room and the bitter richness of the coffee itself, Ato Markos brought out a plate of apples and a knife.  Most of the dozen of us at the table had never tasted an apple.  I quartered one, and showed everyone how to cut out the core.  We chomped in.  Wow!

_MG_5236In Addis Ababa, a person can buy apples imported from South Africa.  They are small, hard, and expensive.  These Maji apples glowed.  One, in particular—Crispin—was sweet as candy and left my fingers sticky.  Ato Markos had also glowed as he showed us the orchard.  Now we ate and raved over the apples.  He told us that people all around have heard about the Maji apple orchard.  They ask about the apples—when will they come?—as far as Mizan, two hundred fifty miles away and too low for highland apples.  I’d thought maybe we’d soon find everyone in Ethiopia growing apples.  Now the vision of Maji having a market niche danced in my mind!

_MG_5287The other shock was this–Maji town has asphalt!  The road from Mizan to Maji is sometimes fine, smooth gravel, and through some of the towns, wide asphalt.  Jemu.  Shay Bench. Bachuma.  They used to be market centers deep in forests.  Now an asphalt road runs through the towns, and some have cell towers as well.  Now it really is possible that Maji apples could be transported out of the area and become a source of health and income for thousands of people in Ethiopia.

The project is not over—any new project is a prototype, and faces all the challenges innovation brings.  A market plan needs to be developed for distributing the apples.  There is a scab attacking some of the trees.  Are there partners out there who could go to Maji for a week and help with problem solving?  Ato Markos will work with the agricultural department of the Ethiopian universities, but we could also, if we have experience with apple growing, come along side.

Thank you for helping fund the initiation of this project, something that will benefit not only the small band of people learning to follow Jesus in Maji, but will add to the healthy diet options of people for miles around.  We have two more years of commitment, about $10,000 more to raise for the establishment of this orchard.  Maji still needs you!


And some things are the same as ever–if you ever visited Maji, you would remember the evening fog, rolling up the valley to cover the mountain top and muffle the sounds of birds settling down for the evening.

(Thanks to Tara Chase and her mongo camera, for photos.)

Maji Lore

Dorothy has a flashback--she is fourteen years old and learning to drive!

Dorothy has a flashback–she is fourteen years old and learning to drive!

Ah, the lore of Maji! This summer Dorothy Russell Hanson sat in the old yellow Jeep that she remembers learning to drive in—it’s the same Jeep that her parents rolled down an embankment when the grass was too high to see the edge of the road.  Her mother’s pelvis bone broke in the accident, and local people carried her several days on a homemade stretcher into Maji.

Dorothy’s dad, Fred Russell, gathered up the equipment and parts that scattered as they rolled—he found all but the knob of the Jeep’s gear stick.  He offered an Ethiopian Birr for its return (about $0.25), and several weeks later, someone walked into Maji with it and claimed his reward!

Maji on the horizon--the town and mission are on the saddle above this section of the road.

Maji on the horizon–the town and mission are on the saddle above this section of the road.

Two Daughters of Maji and three “grand-daughters of Maji” made a visit in August. There is no hotel or guesthouse in Maji, so Dorothy, Jenny Keefer, Jenny’s three daughters and their husbands traveled from Mizan and back.  It made  a long day of travel and a short visit in Maji, so they weren’t able to get down to the beloved waterfall, where the mission gristmill once ground grain for local families during the day, and ran a generator for a few hours of electricity every night.  But they could hardly believe the good road where once there was only jungle.

Dr. Yshak accompanied them, and took clinic supplies in.  He stayed on for ten days, and reports that he and Ato Marcos gathered people from eight of the ten local churches to pray for peace, as the Dizi and Suri people have both been traumatized by recent inter-ethnic violence and death.  Then they went out as a community, into the orchard, to weed and plant eucalyptus seedlings in the nursery.

Ato Markos with first fruits.

The four hundred apple trees planted last year are growing—some even producing the first, small apples—and the ground has been plowed and holes have been dug for six hundred more.

Dr. Yshak says that the church is assuming ownership of the orchard, and is proud of the project.  The church is packed on Sundays, and people stand outside the windows to hear the sermons and participate in worship.  This is the first time in the 55 years since Presbyterians went to Maji for the Dizi people to feel the winsomeness of Jesus, and to long for God’s presence with them in this way.  I think the church’s prayer, fasting and confession conferences with Dr. Yshak and Ato Markos have broken through some spiritual resistance. Sermon, prayers and singing in the Dizi language may also be allowing the Holy Spirit to enter people’s hearts in new ways, breaking through the self-hatred that was a legacy from years of oppression and slaving.

Worship in the Maji church.

The crowded Maji church.

How exciting to be walking with the Dizi people, giving them something to develop and take hold of to build their own spiritual future!




Angel Voices in the Dizi Language

"Mish kids" borrow from the culture around them! I was about this age when I made my Dizi language dictionary.

I grew up hearing people “sing” to each other from the hillsides around Maji.  Their language is a tonal language, and common conversation has a musical quality to it.  When people walked from market home, or spent the day out with the cattle on the hillsides, they called to each other,  mellow and sweet.  Or they played gourd flutes with five tones, and the flutes sounded much like their calling.

 Sagu, one of the school boys who worked for Mom to earn enough for school clothes and notebooks and pencils, loved to teach us girls words in his language.  I “nationalized” a tiny spiral notebook and started a dictionary when I was about eight.  Listening to sermons in the two to three languages of every Sunday morning in Maji (English sometimes, Amharic Sagu, right, with Dad and Mom and the Maji health department head (I think). Sagu went from the Maji school to end up with two Masters degrees!always, Dizi always) I grabbed a word in English or Amharic that was repeated, then listened for some repeated word in the Dizi translation, and wrote it down.  I dreamed that I would someday be the only white person to speak the language of the people of Maji.


When I was in Maji this January, a small choir came up from the town of Tum to sing in church.  We guests all stayed in one of the old mission houses; I woke on Sunday morning before light to soft voices singing and the sound of soft picking on the traditional instrument called the krar.  It was Ethiopian Christmas morning, and in my half-dream state, I thought at first I was hearing angel voices.  When one sang, the others respond over and around and with her melody.  I lay and prayed while the Dizi choir from Tum practiced in the next room.

It turned out that the lead singer (right, below) had been a shaman.  They told me she had been possessed by twelve evil spirits until Jesus set her free.  Her daughter (left) plays the krar, and  her husband is a skilled drummer.

Ethiopian Christmas morning in the Maji church--praises in the Dizi language and musical style

This woman is composing songs in the Dizi spiritual tradition.  She is composing the kinds of songs she used to sing to the chief, or in honor of the spirits she served.  These are the kinds of songs the Dizi people grow up singing when they try to appease the spirits and guard against the evil eye, only now she sings in praise of a God who showed his face in Jesus, and who is stronger than all the spirits who have haunted her people.

The choir sang three songs that day.  One was much like Psalm 106, an ancient Hebrew hymn of remembrance, praising all the mighty works of God.  But it was her last song that made the hairs on my arms stand up.  The packed church was completely silent as she sang to the krar accompaniment.  She looked down, swayed from side to side and sang in a high, reedy voice.  At the end of every line she let her voice trail off.  She was almost wailing, and she added a tremulo, something I have never heard the likes of.  I knew I was hearing a song deep in the spiritual traditions of the Dizi people, from a place foreigners had never been allowed into.

People listen intently to "cultural" music in church

People listen intently to “cultural” music in church

I knew I was seeing deep contextualization taking place–people taking their experience with Jesus and pulling it into the continuity of their lives and cultures, making it their own.  They don’t have to move into anyone else’s culture, they don’t have to use anyone else’s hymns or praise songs, they know their own style of worship can be turned in the direction of Jesus and used to praise God.  When this happens, we know that the Spirit of God is working with them and will help them communicate their experiences in such a way that their message truly is good news to those who hear.

It’s been over sixty years since Presbyterian missionaries Fred and Daisy Russell first went  to Maji, and now it looks as though the good Kingdom of God, the Shalom of the Beatitudes and of Jesus’ introduction of his ministry–to heal people, to loose the bonds of the captives, and set the prisoners free–will begin at last to come to the Dizi people.

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.

A Story from Maji, Ethiopia

Here’s a story I remember my dad telling when I was growing up in SW Ethiopia:  “I was on one of my treks, by mule and on foot in the area around Maji, and we got a little lost. When we came to a village, we asked directions, and a huge discussion ensued, with everyone wanting to speak at once and our translator getting muddled. A young boy stepped forward and offered to guide us. I was relieved not to depend on all the confusing directions.

“The boy set out, cheerfully swinging his walking stick. But when we got out of the village and onto the brushy path that led into the next forest, behind us came a flesh-melting scream. A woman, grieving. It went on and on, until I couldn’t stand it any more and turned to ask the translator what was wrong.

“He spoke to the boy—we would have been huddled on the path, stopped in our tracks by the raw despair rising up behind us, but the path was narrow and so we stood in the line we had stopped in.

“’That is his mother,’ the translator said. ‘She thinks we have taken her boy to be a slave.’

“I was shocked—this was 1950-something, and they still remembered the slaving days. I sent the boy back to his mother, and we made our way forward as best we could, from landmark to landmark. Later, the son of one of the Maji chiefs told me, ‘My fathers thought the common people were like army ants; there would always be more of them. We sold them, and destroyed ourselves.’”Ethiopian slave boy:  Governors and soldiers from the Amhara kings of Ethiopia captured and sold slaves from among the darker tribal peoples of SW Ethiopia.

Dad used to stop the Jeep along the rocky road the Italians built to the nearest airstrip and point out the grass and brush-covered scars of terracing on steep hillsides, a skill that had died out when the people had been decimated by slave raiding.

I just read “Slaves and Ivory in Abyssinia,” by Major Henry Darley, who spent a number of years, amazing as it seems, in Maji itself. The weight of human suffering seems palpable on my shoulders this morning. In 1903-1935, when Darley was hunting and exploring in Sudan, Ethiopia and British East Africa, he predicted that the massive slave raiding he saw, the Amharas capturing and selling the peoples of SW Ethiopia, would wipe them out.

He was wrong about that, the Bench, the Dizi, the Kaffa, the Sheko, the Surma—the peoples of SW Ethiopia did survive. But not without emotional scarring. And now comes the next tsunami of oppression: the Ethiopian government is forcibly moving pastoralist peoples from below Maji into villages so that it can lease over 500,000 acres to entrepreneurs from India and Northern Ethiopia to plant sugar cane plantations.

The people can work for wages in the plantations, the government of Ethiopia says. Finally these primitive areas will be developed. Officials promoting the scheme seem to have no concern about wrenching lives into new patterns, destroying cultures. How will the young people in these new villages marry, with no dowry cattle to change hands? That’s one question that occurs to me, an outsider. There must be a million more, about the rhythms of daily life and the delicate dance of relationships that will no longer work as ancient ways of life disappear.

How long, O Lord, the Psalmist cries out again and again. He talks to God about his own oppression, but also about the fate of all the powerless. These things are wrong, he says. “Arise, O Lord; O God, lift up thy hand; forget not the afflicted.”

It’s Advent, the season of waiting for the birth of Jesus.  He was more than just a baby who warms our hearts.  He spoke of the Kingdom of God, and said it is at hand.  When will we see this promised Shalom of God?

And what can we do while we wait?  How can we stand with the vulnerable—“the fatherless and the widow,” as the Psalmist would call them—who have no one to defend them?