Unable to sustain their way of life using the methods passed down from their ancestors, the 23,000 members of the Hamar tribe in the southwest corner of Ethiopia have watched their animals die and their communities stricken with disease and dehydration.
Up until 20 years ago, the tribe underwent few hardships while living with little to no contact from the modern world. But in recent years, droughts have dried up crops and access to clean water is limited or unavailable.
Spinning halfway around the globe, a handful of islanders and local community members are giving the Hamar tribe a gift many in the modern world take for granted: clean water.
Bainbridge Island nonprofit, Global Teams for Local Initiatives, and the Nor’Western Rotary Club of Port Angeles, have been awarded a Global Grant from the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International to construct two wells and teach sanitation and hygiene to 1,500 people in remote Ethiopia. The grant is supplemented by donations from Rotary District 5020 of Vancouver, B.C., and Western Washington, and other rotary clubs for a total contribution of nearly $70,000.
“We are excited to be working with GTLI on this,” said Grant Meiner, lead partner for the project at Nor’Western Rotary. “This project is going to help a lot of people and will likely prevent a lot of deaths.”
GTLI, which was founded by islander Lori Sweningson, has worked with the tribe for more than two years and partnered with local rotary clubs for several projects.
Islander Robin Simons works from home and Bainbridge resident Ginni Blumenthal is contracted to do the bookkeeping. Sweningson, who still has a home for sale on the island, spends most of her time either in a tent with the Hamar tribe or in her apartment in the Ethiopian capital. The tribe lives in small clusters or communities that are spread out over a region about the size of the Olympic Peninsula.
Simons attributed GTLI’s success to its method of helping the Hamar identify their own problems and giving them an ownership stake in finding solutions.
“Many organizations just demonstrate and leave,” said Simons. “But change is a big deal for these people. They walk everywhere and they don’t have roads, access to electricity or technology. Asking them to stop doing something is a huge change. They often don’t understand that dirty water is making them sick or even understand the concept of bacteria. We promote behavior changes that percolate up from the bottom instead of imposing from the top.”
Using staff members on the ground who speak both the tribal and Ethiopian national language, GTLI works directly with community elders.
GTLI will hire an Ethiopian well-drilling company and supervise the project, provide correspondence with the Rotary clubs, and helping members of the Hamar tribe complete the preliminary well digging. Without the well, women have to walk two to four hours, sometimes twice a day, for water that isn’t guaranteed to be clean.
Simons will journey to Ethiopia in February with fellow islander and volunteer Rachel Zacharia, who developed a curriculum for a small school since many of the Hamar can no longer grow enough food and need to find ways to earn money and negotiate in a market.
Creating businesses is one way the tribe is learning to cope with limited resources. Using funds provided by Bainbridge Rotary, GTLI was able to fix a grinding mill in one community and teach several women how to grind maize. Now, the self-sustaining business generates enough profit to fund four salaries, and gives the women, who previously spent three or four hours hand-grinding maize, with enough time to go to school.
The Bainbridge Rotary will be contributing to another project in the coming year and was not asked to contribute to this project, according to Simons. Since 2001 Bainbridge Rotary has invested over $600,000 in constructing wells in nearly 100 communities throughout Uganda. Each well supplies enough clean water for 1,000 people for 100 years, according to rotarian Joanne Croghan. The local rotary club hires a contractor in Uganda to drill the well and manages and coordinates the project with occasional help from the rotary clubs in Uganda.
“Its made a huge different in the lives of these people. We’ve been doing this for quite a long time now,” said Croghan.