Strong Hearts in Ethiopia

Ethiopia has been very successful in developing its economy over the past decade, with a GDP growth rate of about 10% annually (this is double that of most of the region), despite being land-locked and without meaningful oil resources. While over half of Ethiopians lived in extreme poverty in 2000, by 2011, this figure had been reduced to about one-third - a significant achievement when one considers that the country is the second most populous on the continent, with about 100 million citizens. However, at the individual level, Ethiopia is still one of the poorest countries in the world, with a per capita income of only US$590.

As stated by the World Bank, "the main challenges for Ethiopia are sustaining positive economic growth and accelerating poverty reduction". The government is already devoting a very high share of its budget to pro-poor programs and investments, but large scale donor support will continue to be vital in the near-term to finance the levels of spending required to meet these challenges, and also the front-line efforts of government-approved independent charitable organizations that are able to channel resources appropriately.

The capital city of Addis Ababa is fortunate to have the presence of several large NGOs - the regional headquarters of the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) for example, is based here. UNICEF, US Aid, et al also have representation here. However, these "super-NGO's" typically have their hands full managing large-scale crisis situations elsewhere on the continent, so it falls to smaller local organizations to fight the day-to-day skirmishes with poverty within the city itself. I was honored to be invited by one such organization to work with them for a few days earlier this month.

From a Rubbish Dump: Love and Charity

Laborers work to build a new future, in the rubble of a landslide that killed many families that lived atop the largest garbage landfill in Ethiopia earlier this year. The "mountain" in the background is formed completely of garbage that has been collected here over the past few decades. The building atop it is a new biomass energy plant being developed to convert the organic waste to usable fuel. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Strong Hearts is a government-approved independent charitable organization focused on supporting the community in the district of Kore in southwest Addis Ababa, which contains the poorest slum in the city - at and around the country's largest garbage landfill at Koshe. This area has Ethiopia's largest number of households affected by urban poverty, and also the largest number of those affected by HIV, AIDs, and leprosy. Earlier this year (2017) the landfill was the scene of one of the largest man-made disasters in recent local history, when a landslide at the massive rubbish dump reportedly killed "dozens of families", according to local residents I met there (The Guardian's and Al Jazeera's latest reports in March said the death toll had reached around 60 to 80).

In the Kore landfill slum in the poorest district of Addis Ababa, a mother has traveled hundreds of miles from her hometown in the far north of Ethiopia, to care for her son and his wife, who are both severely ill and bedridden in their one room windowless hovel.  She has herself been ill with a goitre for over twenty years.  She contemplates their immediate challenges while her son's thoughts are lost in the middle distance. Fortunately for them, the government has in recent years become more supportive of independent charitable organizations such as Strong Hearts, that work ceaselessly to give succor to the needy in the fast-growing and rapidly modernizing capital city in Africa's second-most populous nation. The mother wears a cross, a symbol of her faith - Orthodox Christianity is the most popular religion in the country, present since the ancient empire of Aksum in 300AD. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Founded over ten years ago by Getinet Terferi, a visionary Baptist pastor who himself grew up in the district, Strong Hearts states as its mission statements the following:

  • Promote physical and spiritual development among marginalized and disadvantaged people to bring about holistic transformation “from the inside out” for individuals and communities.
  • Inspire hope and grace into the lives of individuals, and nurture the values of sharing, caring, self-respect, self-confidence, and community ownership.
  • Support the growth of community health awareness and assist in establishing safe environments to help communities achieve their development goals for education, health, housing, jobs creation & business development.
Under Mary's Eyes

Under Mother Mary's watchful eyes...

In the poorest slum in the poorest district of the otherwise economically booming Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa, a bedridden woman contemplates her future under the loving gaze of Mother Mary - the only decorative item in her dark and windowless one room hut. Fortunately for her, the Strong Hearts Foundation, a government-supported charitable organization provides day-care for her young pre-school daughter, ensuring that the sick and poor in the city are not left-behind. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Specifically, the organization, which is run by a small team of both volunteers and full-time staff, try to achieve the above by operating the following programs within the community:

  1. Education: Pre-school and primary education for the children of households affected by poverty and/or illness
  2. Day Care: Day-time child care for the children of affected households - allowing for respite for ill families, or to allow parents to work in regular jobs where possible
  3. Hospice Services: Community-based hospice programs for the sick and dying
  4. Church Services: While the religion of its "clients" are not a requirement for the provision of its services, Strong Hearts does operate a well-attended protestant church within the community, that aims to provide spiritual support

My Visit

As Getinet himself was traveling, his colleague (and brother) Amare was my host during my time with them. From the very start he was extremely open and welcoming, stating up-front that I would be given full-access to any and all of their operations.

I was very touched by the warm hospitality extended to me by some of Strong Hearts' clients. This lady and her teenage daughter welcomed me into their one room windowless shack for a cup of coffee and for shelter from the torrential rain that day. They were preparing food on the ground of the alleyway just outside their doorway. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Together with Amare, and/or his colleagues, I was able to spend time with many of the children at their Day Care Center, at their school (including trying my hand at teaching an impromptu "math class"!), and also with several of their families in their homes in the Koshe slums. Unfortunately while I also visited their Pre-School it was largely empty during my time there as this was during their summer break.

A day-jobbing female laborer and her teenage daughter welcome a new feline family member to their tiny one room hut, in the poorest slum in Addis Ababa's poorest slum, situated next to the largest garbage landfill in the country.  While the city as a whole is growing very quickly, there are sub-populations (many of whom migrated to the capital city from the country's vast countryside who need financial and other assistance.  This hut, while extremely modest, would still be beyond the means of this woman, if not for the help of the Strong Hearts Foundation, a government-approved independent charitable organization, who also provided education to the daughter. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

I will always remember this lady and her daughter as my first hosts in this beautiful country - the first to welcome me into their home. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

While I do not consider myself an NGO expert by any means, I do have some experience in the management and provision of healthcare and education services, and everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of an organization that tries to do the best it can to achieve its goals despite being on a shoestring budget. Most importantly, the children I was lucky enough to interact with were as well-cared-for as one could expect, and obviously happy to be under the care of Strong Hearts. The teachers I met (although admittedly only two this time) were well-trained and enjoyed their work - I was able to get a refresher lesson in the differences between proper nouns, pronouns, and other nouns while I was in their English class! The care-givers too, clearly cared deeply for their charges, and seemed themselves appreciative of their careers with the organization.

This wonderful lady has managed to build a relatively "middle class" quality of life for herself and her two children, by weaving baskets from recycled plastic strips and selling them at a nearby market near the Kore slum. This family are not clients of Strong Hearts, but still grateful for the work that the organization does for other members of their community. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Through hard work and perseverance, this strong lady has forged a (relatively) middle class existence for her two children in the slums of Kore. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

I have to admit that it was an emotionally disorienting experience. My time with the children, especially the infants and pre-schoolers, was extremely joyful and uplifting - except for a few tearful moments when I was "swarmed" by a number of them clinging on to me, asking to be lifted up, and calling me "abat" (Amharic for father) - as many of them were from single-mother families perhaps they found a male parental figure to be an entertaining novelty. Their happiness in having an opportunity to interact with someone as "unusual" as myself (I was possibly the first Asian person most of them had ever met) was infectious - I could have spent days just playing with them. On the other hand, my visits with some of their parents at their homes in the slums (some of whom also receive hospice services from Strong Hearts) and witnessing first-hand their many challenges, were often emotionally very draining. Having said that, with the physical, spiritual, and financial assistance provided by Getinet and his team, and together with the economic progress of Ethiopia, their futures look much more hopeful than before.

Feeding the Future. Lunch time at Strong Foundation's Day Care Center, which provides for the children of the very poor or of very sick or dying parents living in the community, the poorest slum in the city. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Strong Care. One of the dedicated care-givers at Strong Heart's Day Care Center. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

A Strong Education. The Strong Hearts Foundation primary school, where children from the adjacent Koshe slums receive education from passionate teachers. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

Next Steps

God willing, I hope to continue to assist Strong Hearts to enable them to continue to provide for their community. While my short visit cannot of course be interpreted as a full due-diligence effort (e.g. with regard to their management or funding efficiencies), I can unequivocally state that I came away with ample evidence that Getinet and his team are doing some very good work, in a small but important corner of Ethiopia that might otherwise go overlooked. They are making a significant, positive difference, in the lives of dozens of families and hundreds of children every year, and who I am confident will one day contribute to building a brighter future for this amazing country.

Amare Terferi of Strong Hearts with some of "his children" - these from a special needs tuition class they conduct during the summer school break months. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.

I would encourage any reasonable support you or your own organizations can give to Strong Hearts. Please feel free to contact them directly, or if you have any questions I could help with, send me an email (jon.she@icloud.com).  As always, you can follow my future updates on Instagram (jon.she).

Lastly I would like to again express my gratitude to Getinet and Amare Terferi and the rest of their wonderful colleagues at Strong Hearts, for their kind invitation to me to visit and work with them, and for the warm hospitality extended to me during my stay with them. I am also grateful to the children at their education and day care centers, and their families, who made me feel so welcome in Kore. I look forward to my next visit there!

Jon She. August, 2017.

A Strong church. The outside view of the church in the Kore slum operated by the Strong Hearts Foundation. Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. © Jon She 2017.