The Anglo-Ethiopian Society
Lecture - Tuesday 16th April 2013
Water, water everywhere - But can anything be done about it by well meaning feranji?
Given by - Jean and John Broadbent
Reviewed by - Elizabeth Blunt
Society members John and Jean Broadbent were like so many of the thousands of tourists who visit Ethiopia; they saw the contrast between the poverty in the countryside and their own wealth, and vaguely felt they ought to do something about it. But unlike most of those tourists, the Broadbents turned the feeling that they wanted to 'put something back' into action. In April they came to tell a well-attended meeting about the pitfalls, but also the satisfactions, of getting involved with a village development project.
Three and half years ago they found a focus thanks to their local tour operator, when they discovered that he was working on a plan to bring water to his own home village - Adi Eblal, not far from Adwa. It is not a particularly remote village, but its fifty families had no source of water except the local river. 'It was already almost dry in December when we visited, just puddles in a dried up bed. There were leeches and it was being fouled by animals - not at all savoury.'
What made it particularly cruel, says Jean Broadbent, was that Adi Eblal was surrounded by modern water infrastructure. Just above the village was a reservoir which supplied water to Adwa, and to a nearby barracks. 'There was even a spring water bottling factory! But truly not a drop of clean, safe water for the 200 people in our village.' They organised a whip round among the tour operator's customers, which produced £640. Then they went home to raise the rest of the money needed: £1,500.
'We were impressed that they had already got things moving. There was an architect involved and they already had the necessary permissions. We told them 'you sort it out; we'll try to finance it.' We wanted to keep it simple, so we thought we would put in £500 and ask a hundred people we knew to give £10 each.' The Broadbents sent out a hundred letters starting, 'This is an unsolicited begging letter,' then opened a bank account and waited to see what happened. 'In the first 14 days we had £1,837. In the next 14 days we had £2,262. The generosity of people in the UK has been enormous.'
So the pipes were laid, the villagers did the work, and the sixteen new taps have transformed daily life in Adi Eblal. The children no longer have to make a forty five minute trip to get water from the river before school. At the other end of the age range, Ato Berhe told them he had been waiting for a water supply since the time of Haile Selassie. 'Now,' said Berhe, 'I no longer have to wait so long for my dinner!'
But there was money still left in the bank. 'So then we had to deal with the surplus. Were we going to send people's cheques back? Of course not!' Jean and John began to get invitations to speak about their project, and relished the chance to overturn some of people's preconceptions about Ethiopia. They showed their photographs, taken after the rainy season, of a lush green landscape, rushing torrents, and waterfalls. And the money kept coming in.
Once Adi Eblal had a water supply, it wanted electricity. This was harder to arrange, largely because the necessary equipment is in short supply in Ethiopia and they were competing with official projects for everything they needed. They had to import a transformer from India, but in the end the power was connected and the first lights were switched on on Christmas Day.
But still, as Jean put it, their charity was 'plagued by surpluses!' For their third project, and the last, they say, for the time being, they have embarked on building a flour mill. This brings new challenges, because the local authorities have adopted the power and water supplies, so any issues of billing and maintenance are not their problem. But no one is going to 'adopt' the flour mill and it will have to be run as a business. 'How the villagers will get on running the mill, we don't know,' says Jean. 'They are going to have to deal with things like replacement costs and pricing, and we are not confident about how they are going to get on with it.'
Some of the challenges so far have been about business issues - not any kind of dishonesty, but accepting that water and electricity have to be paid for, difficulties in sticking to a budget, and a tendency to dip into funds allocated for other purposes rather than dare ask for more money. Trust, say the Broadbents, is essential: 'they have to trust us and we have to trust them.'
Their greatest reward has been to see what had been a dying village come back to life. 'There was a real depopulation problem. Children used to go off to secondary school in Adwa, and they rarely came back'. Young people want to stay on the land, but they also want to be able 'to watch Manchester United.' But two new houses have recently been built and even an elderly widow, who had gone to Adwa because life in the village had got too hard, has now come back. 'We will only feel we have been successful if this is still a vibrant village in ten years' time.'