I have just returned from my first trip to Ethiopia. I went with an Ethiopian colleague from the Department of Preventive Medicine at Keck, Dr. Kiros Berhane, to discuss ways in which USC could partner with the Ministry of Health and agencies in the northern state of Tigrei to improve heath outcomes. Don Sheppard, President of the Los Angeles Futbol Club, joined us to explore launching a holistic community-based program that harnesses the power of soccer to promote health. The trip was inspiring and thought provoking and reminded me once again why it is that I work in the field of global health, and who it is that we are trying to help. Above all, I fell in love with the Ethiopian people.
My interaction with Ethiopian youth began already in Los Angeles when I was asked by Mending Kids International to bring a little girl who they had brought to LA for heart surgery home to Addis Abba. Meserat was
simply amazing. She was brought to the US for 5 months to under go heart valve surgery, but upon going home I had the feeling that for her, the medical care was simply an after thought. For Meserat, her host family and friends defined her stay. Her host parents had not only taken care of her, but loved her as their own child and
sent her home to a new life full of opportunity and support. Originally from a poor rural community in Southern Ethiopia, Meserat will now be attending one of the top private boarding schools in Addis with the financial support from her US host parents. Throughout the 24-hour trip, she clutched a book that her classmates in her 3rd grade class in Palmdale had given her as a going away present. She made me read and re-read the messages that they had written to her and told me funny stories about each of them and why she was going to miss her new best friends. We chatted across half the world in English – a language that she did not speak only 5 months before. Meserat’s humor, beauty, and resilience gave me a quick introduction to core qualities of the Ethiopian people before I even landed in Addis.
Addis, like much of Ethiopia, is a city in transition. Construction sites are everywhere you look. New modern buildings – in fact entire new communities – are springing up at every turn. The Ministry of Health (our first visit only hours after landing) is no exception, having just moved out of a dilapidated old building into a new high rise in the last few weeks. We met with the Minister of Health to discuss the country’s health priorities and how USC could help. Ethiopia’s health priorities are somewhat typical of other Sub-Saharan African countries; maternal and child mortality, HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, sanitation, and nutrition. The country has recently implemented an innovative new Health Extension Program involving thousands of trained community health workers in health clinics established in very district (approx. 25,000 people). These health workers are collecting critical vital statistics from their populace and reporting apparent disease outbreaks to the Ministry. We discussed how USC could potentially help to digitalize the data collection and make it more useful as a national surveillance system.
From Addis we traveled to Mekelle in the state of Tigrei. Tigrei is probably most well known to the US public as the site of the 1985 famine that resulted in the ‘We are the World’ campaign. It has also endured decades of conflict during the country’s civil war and wars with Eritrea, which it borders to the north. Drought, deforestation, and conflict have played a large role in destroying the state’s natural environment. However, after a few hours in Tigrei I forget these historical notes and instead was forced by my Tigrian guides and the reality I saw on the ground to define the state instead by resilience, community and development.
I was impressed by how the Tigreian people are working together to develop their country. Every Tigreian gives 60 days a year to civil service. During this time they plant trees and build terraces on the hills to reduce soil erosion. According to our guide, 800 million trees have been planted in Ethiopia in the last year. In every community we visited we saw new schools and health clinics. The Tigrei Development Agency (TDA) has built over 400 schools in the last five years as part of their campaign to turn makeshift schools into schools with walls. The schools have been built with support from the local communities and donations from Ethiopians living abroad. (There is a school that has been built with the support of the Ethiopian community here in LA.) We also saw the new health clinics built as part of the Health Extension program. They were not hard to locate, as they were beautiful large new facilities. The problem lies in what is inside the new buildings – not much. Everywhere we went (schools and clinics) the locals outlined their needs for books, reference materials, laboratory supplies, computers, and WATER. Water access is clearly a major challenge and one that I hope USC engineers can help with. From an outsiders perspective, the lack of quality computers and internet access also seemed to be a major barrier to providing the youth with a first class education. I hope that in the months and years to come USC can play a significant role in helping our Ethiopian colleagues get these critical resources.
I left Ethiopia convinced that we have committed partners that are dedicated to improving education and health care in their country. I am also committed to working with them to do whatever I can to help provide the amazing children I met with a first class education and endless opportunity. Fight on Ethiopia!