Light for Those in Darkness

Different kinds of darkness and light

Isaiah spoke about spiritual darkness in the famous passage that Christians interpret

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

Many parts of Africa are beautiful, but dark.

as pointing to Jesus. But 67% of Africans live in physical darkness, beyond the reach of national power grids.

According to USAID and the Power Africa Initiative, many Africans will never get national electrical service. What is life like for them? Not romantic, like going “off grid”here in the US! Imagine your children sick in the night, and you groping in the darkness to respond. Imagine the cattle in the enclosure next door       becom

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

We forget that the simplest LED light is a miracle!

ing restless. You go out in the dark to see what’s attacking them—a hyena? A snake? Imagine carrying your cooking, washing and bathing water up steep hillsides, five gallons at a time—40 pounds—because there’s no power for a pump. One power expert titled a Time Magazine article:

Why Energy Poverty is the Worst Kind of Poverty. He wrote, “As long as people remain in the dark they will remain poor.”

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

Abeza, an elter of the Maji church took me to see the Maji Health Center.

“Will you help us?”

Church elders in Maji, Ethiopia, where I grew up, met with me last year and asked “Can you bring us a solar panel for our clinic? Our women who come to deliver are suffering.” If the women went into labor at night, they told me, the nurse held a flashlight for the midwife. If both the mother and child needed help, the birth assistants held the flashlights in their mouths.

Solar Lights for Maji Health Center 

I went to Ethiopia in September 2016 to follow up on that request. I met with the solar provider


Notice the chair on the box . . . simple technology can work.

the first afternoon after arriving in Addis Ababa, paid the downpayment on our vehicle rental, and made arrangements for transport.

I took with me a technician from the solar company. He not only installed the clinic unit, but came back to the guest house and voluntarily put a switch in one room, ran a line and a light and switch to the new latrine, and installed a porch light for security in the guest house.

Four women waiting in the clinic guest dormitory watched the Health Center installation. Everyone on staff, both from the Presbytery and from the Health Center participated. Four lights were hooked up—one each in the delivery room, the examining room, the office, and the women’s dormitory. I was later told that the women were thrilled, and were asking,

“Can this be put on grass roofs? If I had this, I could have light in my

The women didn't miss a minute of the installation process!

The women didn’t miss a minute of the installation process!

house and light in my cattle bier!”

Interestingly, I had a flood of Facebook friend-requests from Ethiopia as a result of posting pictures of this process. I thought I was updating US Facebook friends, and what I received was not only thanks from them, but thanks from Ethiopians.

The Maji Story

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

The Maji waterfall, where my dad installed a small grain mill and generator in the 1960s.

I’ve written about Maji before. Just to reorient you–Maji lies on the southwestern edge of the Ethiopian highlands, 8500 feet high, near the Sudan border. It was once the most remote outpost of the Presbyterian mission. The beauty of Maji’s mountain views,waterfalls, and eye-popping sunsets gave me endless joy as a child growing up in Maji.

The Ethiopian power grid ends 80 miles away. The cost to bring diesel the three day drive from the capital makes generator power unsustainable. Development has stalled. 

For decades, the tiny church in Maji also floundered for lack of leadership. Dad almost left mission work, he was so discouraged. But he had obeyed his call to plant the seeds.

Maji is beautiful, but dark.

In time, as local leadership matured, the church began to grow. It is now strong enough to step forward and serve the community effectively. “Your father brought us the light of the gospel,” the leaders say to me. “Please help us bring the light of electricity to our people!”

I leave on Friday to talk to the women of Maji, to see if they would be interested in starting a co-op to distribute solar home systems (SHS) to families in the county. I have registered a non-for-profit organization to support them. If they are willing to do the work on the ground, I will promise to be a channel for their support from the USA.

I’ll let you know what they say! Stay well!

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 Adventures of Oolibee

Literacy was another feature of this complex animal we called Odyssey II. That passion, my sister Janie brought to the Odyssey, of course. But she kept saying to me, “You’re essential part of this! You’re the bridge between the languages! Especially if you learn to read Amharic like you say you’re going to!”

The plan was, when we returned to Addis Ababa, the artists and writers would collaborate in a workshop to create the raw materials (texts and art) for some early readers in languages of Ethiopia. It was an ambitious goal, but Janie soothed her anxieties by repeating her mantra: Process, not Perfection. Production was even further down the road, and we refused to let our spirits be dampened by worries about production costs.

Ethiopia has 88 separate languages, in four language families (For those who like to know these kinds of details: Semitic, Cushitic, Omotic, and Nilo-Saharan.)

Once the main language groups are accounted for, almost 12% of Ethiopians speak “other”. The Dizi (dee-zee) people of Maji area are one of the small tribes, about 40,000, with their own distinct Omotic language. Some years ago, Bible translators, under the Wycliff spin-off SIL, developed an alphabet for writing the Dizi language. At first, the three translators were the only people who could read and write Dizi.

The Dizi alphabet--there are sounds we don't have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.

The Dizi alphabet–there are sounds we don’t have, of course, but the Latin alphabet has enough duplication (c and k, x, q, g and j) that translators can make it work.


When I visited the county government headquarters in Maji this trip, I was pleased to see a Dizi alphabet poster on the lobby wall—the equivalent of A is for Apple, B is for Baby. Because it uses the Latin alphabet, I read some of the words. People burst out laughing to hear Dizi coming from a white woman, even though I only knew what the words meant by “reading” the pictures. I was delighted to see that the local government in Maji has embraced the SIL work on Dizi literacy. Ethiopia has taken seriously the research showing that if children learn to read first in their heart-language, they are more successful for rest of their school careers.

And since I was last in Maji, some boys have taken Dizi literacy classes. Passages from the book of Mark, which was written in simple Greek and is full of stories, are being printed and used for these literacy lessons: the Bible is the only written material that exists in Dizi.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia.

Daphne Nelson of Monmouth College created an easy-reader book for children in Ethiopia. Henrietta the bird (bottom right) visits Ethiopia and searches for a nesting place.

Here’s another piece of the literacy stream that flowed together in Odyssey II: back in Illinois, at team member Jeri’s college and Janie’s and my alma mater, an art student was floundering for inspiration as she faced her senior project. When she heard that the Dizi language has no easy readers, she created one. It’s a simple story: a bird visits Ethiopia and searches for a nest. So one of our mini-projects in Maji was to get that simple book translated.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to  translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Mehakle, at the table with me, and friends, worked together in three languages to translate the Henrietta-the-bird story.

Jeri and I sat down with Mehakl, a boy who graduated from Maji high school’s tenth grade and now teaches in a remote elementary school. As happens everywhere in Ethiopia, it didn’t take five minutes for eight more boys to gather around the foreigners to see what we were up to now. I orally translated the English text into Amharic for Mehakl and his friends, and asked him to write it in both Amharic and Dizi.

Ethiopian schools teach using the rote method, so the boys struggled with the concept of not producing a word-for-word translation. I kept repeating that we wanted a concept-based translation in good Dizi. (Of course, I was expressing this complex idea in my simple Amharic!) The breakthrough came when one boy said,

“On this page, the bird’s name is in the first place. “Was” is in the middle place. “Happy” is in the third place.” I was able then to say,

“We don’t want a place-by-place translation.”

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the translation team, and me, with the finished book.

Jeri Condar of Monmouth College, the entire translation team (which grew as we worked), and me, proud of the finished book.

That’s when the translation committee, as we called it, really went into action. They debated each sentence until they reached consensus: yes, that’s how we would say it best in Dizi.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children's book before, be able to "read" the pictures? To our delight, when Janie pointed to a dog, she whispered the word in Amharic.

Janie wondered, would Oolibee, who had never seen a children’s book before, be able to “read” the pictures? We were thrilled when Janie pointed to a dog and she whispered the word in Amharic.

Daphne, in Illinois, had named the little bird Henrietta. I asked the boys to choose a common Dizi girl’s name, and to our delight they suggested Oolibee. A real Oolibee was three years old, full of spunk and adventure, running around our guest house while her mother acted as sous-chef to our cook.

Another mini-project Janie and I had taken to Maji with us was to create a book with photographs of children from Maji. We asked Oolibee’s mother’s permission to photograph her. Nahosenay, with his true artist’s eye, agreed to follow little Oolibee around and photograph her. The text will be simple: she is running; she is eating; she is sitting.

So we’re making our little contribution to Dizi literacy, with the adventures of Hennrietta-Oolibee. We also got a little noun-book, made with photos of Ethiopian children in adoptive families in the USA and printed in Amharic and English translated into Dizi as well. And we have hopes of adding the verb book featuring Oolibee.

One Maji-morning, to prime the creativity pumps for her upcoming book-making workshop back in Addis, Janie showed us beautiful children’s books she’d lugged in her suitcases from the US. Some artists used torn-paper art. Some artists created with broad strokes and bright colors, others used misty neutrals with lots of white space. The beauty of children’s book art in the US is stunning.

But at the time, Addis Ababa and the book-making workshop still seemed a long way from Maji. We loved the people who were hosting, driving, guiding and cooking for us. The scenery never tired. It was going to be hard to tear ourselves away from Maji, even with the literacy project to launch ourselves into back in Addis.


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?

Ethiopian Odyssey II–Artists

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

A card by Stephanie from Ethiopia Odyssey I.

Ethiopian Odyssey I had taken four artists deep into the Omo region of Ethiopia, capturing the beauty of that land and donating their art to raise money for Ethiopia Reads, the non-profit my sister Janie helped start. Ethiopia Reads plants libraries for children in Ethiopia.

Odyssey II came into my life when Janie told me she wanted to go to our childhood town of Maji, Ethiopia one more time while she was still hale and hearty. “But I’ll only go with you or Chris,” she’d said. Since Chris (who also speaks Amharic) is a full time elementary school teacher, I became the tour guide of choice. Janie’s artist friend, Stephanie, had heard her talk so much about Maji, she suggested this trip become Odyssey II.

“Okay,” I had said, and we settled on January, 2016. At the time it seemed so far away and so unlikely I hardly took it seriously. Finding myself in Ethiopia at the end of January, with a team of eight including Janie and Stephanie, amazement washed over me—we were in Maji, and my new friends were finding SW Ethiopia as beautiful as I do.

As I began to write, the four artists (two Ethiopians and two from the US) were hard at Yacob paintingwork. Yacob, who teaches at the fine arts college in Addis, wore an apron and sat on the ground spread-legged, painting. We dubbed him Mr. Pandora, and enjoying the jazz coming from his Jambox through his phone.

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

As always in Ethiopia, a small crowd gathered to watch whatever we did. The Ethiopians from Addis were as interesting in Maji as we foreigners!

Nahom, a full time artist, also from Addis Ababa, finished one painting by sitting against a tree and bracing his canvas-board on a rock. His second piece he started, pinned to the tree. He stood back, reaching at arm-and-paint-brush-handle length to apply the paint, just as I picture painters doing.

Troy, from Connecticut created a

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

The breeze was stiff that morning, but Troy was resourceful.

studio for himself by arranging some pieces of corrugated iron to shelter his easel from the mountain breeze of Maji. The report came back that he had found his zone, so we didn’t disturb him.

And Stephanie took shelter from the wind in the former mission teacher and nurse’s house until mid-afternoon. She produced gorgeous washes of color representing the hills and ridges around us, then gathered everything up and headed back out into the sunshine after lunch.

The other four of us wandered the former mission compound, drinking in the view from the western side, over the valley and through the gap. We marveled at the eucalyptus trees that were big when Janie and I were children fifty years ago, now grown so huge it would take all four of us to reach around them. Janie and I tried to visualize—where was Mom’s circular rose garden? Dad’s shop, which we called the magazine (emphasizing the second syllable as the Italians did when they taught the word to the Ethiopians)? The grove of false-banana trees where we caught the tree frogs Janie tried to toilet train?

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our play so many years ago.

Poignant moments, with a sister and playmate, overlooking the scene that back-lit our games so many years ago.

And as friends from Maji town met us on the path, the others wandered on, leaving me to shift into Amharic and play that bridging role I love so much.

The stars over us the first night were brilliant in a totally dark sky. The moon rose later, so bright there was no need for flashlights. The peace of that place soothed us all in mind, body and spirit.

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.

Roads More Traveled

Have you heard the one about the first road in Ethiopia?  So when King Menelik ordered a car from Queen Victoria, his British advisers told him the car would need a road.  The road was built, the car arrived, and as he ran along on his first trip out, the car discovered that various Ethiopian animals had gotten used to using his road.  He came first to a goat and

Ethiopian goats using the road

Ethiopian goats using the road

said, “Hey!  This is my road!”

The goat said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too.”  So the car agreed the goat could use his road if it paid a fee–two birr  and fifty centimes (the Ethiopian money).  However, the goat only had two birr, so it gave the money to the car and scampered off into the underbrush.

The car went on and came to a dog using his road.  He said, “Hey!  This is my road!”  And just like the goat, the dog said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too.”  The dog agreed to pay the fee, but only had three birr.  The car took the money and drove off, because he didn’t have change, either.

Donkeys use Ethiopian roads with impunity

Donkeys use Ethiopian roads with impunity

Then the car came to a donkey, standing in the middle of the road.  The car said, “Hey, this is my road.  Get out of my way!”  The donkey said, “I like this road.  I want to use this road, too,” and  it agreed to pay the fee.  The donkey even had exact change.

To this day, when a donkey in Ethiopia sees a car, it just stands there in the road, because it paid its fee and has every right to use the road.  When a goat sees a car, it scampers away because it knows it owes fifty centimes.  And when a dog sees a car, it chases after the car shouting, “Give me my change!  Give me my change!”

With apologies to Robert Frost, in Ethiopia every road is heavily traveled.  And until recently, there have been no sign posts on Ethiopian roads–there was only one road to anywhere you wanted to go, and you had to know  where to turn at one of the few crossroads, or you had to ask someone.  In Amharic, queen of passively elegant languages, you did that by asking, “Will this road cause one to go to Maji?”

 You can hear the relief in people’s voices when they tell you the road is coming in Ethiopia. It means they will finally be connected to the rest of the inter-connected globe, and to all the creature comforts the world has created–fuel to run grain mills, so women don’t have to pound grain by hand; matches; batteries for radios; clothes; plastic basins and buckets to use instead of gourds.  I had been told that the road was coming to Maji, and what a difference the new road made!

My companions on the new road told me which sections  the Koreans are building and which sections the Chinese are building.  They told me how the Koreans treat Ethiopians and how Chinese treat Ethiopians (there’s even a joke in Amharic about Chinese English!)  I remembered conversations with Ato Solomon Nega.  He had been a street boy, taken in by Presbyterian missionaries and given work in people’s homes and the guest house.  I worked for him after he had become the Bethel Synod coordinator.  He could tell me which missionaries were tender-hearted, which were selfish, which hadn’t worked through residual attitudes of racism . . . Ethiopians are gracious, but they miss nothing.

As the road of short term mission trips becomes more and more heavily traveled, we need to be aware of how we come across to our hosts.  I heard someone recently say that white men are the only population in the world methodically taught to say no to other people.

Cross-cultural roads can be rough going.

Cross-cultural roads can be rough going.

And I suppose that means white women have learned unique ways to get around white men and their bold “No!”  Are we aware of these differences in culture?  Do we ask people what would be helpful from a partner–and then shut up and listen?  Do we know to listen for a “no” that comes in silence, or in polite evasion?

Will we do the work it takes to make sure our cross-cultural relationships can bear the weight of linking us as the "body of Christ?"

Will we do the work it takes to make sure our cross-cultural relationships can bear the weight of linking us with the rest of the "body of Christ?"



I’ve also heard it said that short term trips are an expensive way to do mission–high transport cost per time spent in the field, no cultural understanding, no shared language,  and relationships too new for deep spiritual conversations.  But they are very efficient ways to get education.

Let’s be sure we go as gracious guests and learners when we travel into the majority world, and not just dominate with our wealth, expertise and confidence.  The church is not our road; we all, like the donkey, belong there!



High Tech, Low Tech

Saturday, the day I arrived in Maji, was market day.  I walked around “downtown” for a half hour, enjoying the bustle of activity–not much different from when I was there as a child half a century ago.  But wait . . .

 Wait.  There was a difference.  What’s that hovering over the cattle, the piles of hot peppers for sale, the raw honey in gourds, the

butter wrapped in leaves?  It’s a cell tower!

All over Ethiopia–all over Africa, I believe–cell phones are connecting people to worlds they may never visit.  I hadn’t taken my iPad with me to Maji–could I have gotten on Google using my 3G connection?  Amazingly enough, it’s possible!

But I had realized my battery would quickly run down and make my iPad into a flat, dead piece of plastic and chemicals.  Now I realized people face the same problem with their cell phones.  After all, the real key to technology is electricity.

It turns out that in Ethiopia people can get small solar systems.  They set the collector panels on their thatch or tin roofs, or prop them up carefully on chairs in front of their houses.  The panels hook to car batteries, which store the electricity for evenings or cloudy days.  People who can afford  two- or three-outlet systems power light bulbs for a few hours in the evening.

Cell technology has scuttled the slow, laborious process (that wasn’t really happening) of erecting telephone poles across the world’s second largest continent.  Now it seems entirely possible that the solar technology going with the cell phones could bring “rural electrification” efforts to a halt.  It’s a good thing, because no matter how many dams or generators are erected across Africa, the kilowatts are snatched up by industry, malls and equipment-rich urban Africans, leaving nothing for people who still live in the country and farm.

I was intrigued to think about how owning a cell phone and a solar system to keep it running is going to change cultures that have non-initiative woven into their languages.  In Amharic, you don’t drop something, it “falls from you”.  You don’t catch a cold, “a cold catches you” (and indeed–who would chase down a cold?)

In our years of working in Ethiopia, Kenya and South Sudan, my husband Mark and I ran into problem after problem that seemed rooted in the lack of cause-and-effect thinking.  Pre-science cultures, with a pre-science languages.  That will change for these children–what an interesting process it would be to study–as they grow up watching their parents figure out how to think ahead and keep their cell phones alive!

Another question got me chuckling.  The Suri people also have cell reception in the hot lowlands where they live, off the escarpment from Maji.   (These two tribes flare into violence with each other from time to time, violence fueled by the gun, another high tech import that is changing  cultures).  Where do you carry your cell phone if you don’t have pockets?