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Not content to retire, Bainbridge woman starts African relief nonprofit

Islander Lori Sweningson with members of the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia. - Courtesy of Lori Sweningson
Islander Lori Sweningson with members of the Hamar tribe in Ethiopia.
— image credit: Courtesy of Lori Sweningson

After selling her software company, islander Lori Sweningson tried retirement. She tried golf and traveling. But not until she found herself in the African desert doing relief work did she settle on a new direction.

She was watching as a group of starving children swatted flies from their faces. The immediacy of their plight, uncovered in a place very far from home, struck a chord.

“It occurred to me that those children could have been my grandchildren,” she said. “I did nothing special to be born an American. They’re as human as I am. If I can do something to help them experience a more healthy life then it’s my responsibility to do that.”

Since that trip last summer, Sweningson has been applying her business acumen – gleaned through the building of her former company JobBOSS – to relief efforts in Ethiopia. She created nonprofit Global Team for Local Initiatives, and is a little over a third of the way to reaching her $58,000 fund-raising goal. She held a fund-raising event on Bainbridge last month, and one yesterday in her native Minneapolis. In September she’ll return to the remote reaches of Ethiopia to offer relief to a small tribe decimated by disease, drought and famine.

Though she’d traveled extensively in Africa before, Sweningson’s first exposure to Ethiopia came last summer during a medical volunteer trip. The experience stirred mixed emotions.

“To be frank, I felt like an ugly American,” she said. “The need for these people was very obvious and here I was throwing a couple of vitamins at them – they needed so much more.”

So Sweningson decided to go back. She spent two months this winter living among the Hamar, a tribe of about 23,000 people near a place that “very well could be the birthplace of mankind.”

There, modern conveniences like electricity and cell phones are figments of another world.

Disease and drought – which has gotten worse of late – are more immediate concerns.

Because the soil is poor, farming is difficult. Drinking water is scarce, with women having to walk two to four hours, sometimes twice a day, to retrieve it.

Tribe members live in stick huts with grass roofs. Because they burn cooking fires inside, many suffer from respiratory problems.

Blindness, malaria and diarrhea – which Sweningson has targeted, along with education, nutrition, water development and leadership structures as issues to address during her next trip – also are widespread.

Her hope is to provide the Hamar not only with relief, but with education and leadership skills that will be sustainable. Teaching the Hamar how to combat diarrhea, which for them can be fatal, is a good start, she said.

“What better way to gain a mother’s trust than for the first time to stop her daughter’s diarrhea,” Sweningson said.

During her time with the Hamar, Sweningson lived alone in a tent, with only hired interpreters to help her communicate.

Despite language barriers, she formed strong bonds.

She learned about 100 words in the Hamar’s native language, which is limited to mostly nouns and verbs, and is utterly devoid of abstractions.

Communication breakdowns sometimes transcended language, Sweningson said, recalling a conversation with a young Hamar woman:

“She said ‘Why do we have snakes in our stomachs? We’re doing everything our ancestors taught us and we’re still dying.’

“And I know that it’s due to overpopulation, to global warming, to things that are happening in other parts of the world,” Sweningson continued. “But how do you explain that to someone who doesn’t even know they live in the country of Ethiopia? There’s no frame of reference.”

Sweningson and her husband moved to Bainbridge from Minneapolis in 1999 after selling JobBOSS, which she started as a single mother in the early 1980s.

She said she’s received a great deal of support from islanders. Part of her goal is to ensure people their donations are being well spent; 90 cents of every dollar will go directly toward aid, she said.

“This whole effort has been truly magical,” she said. “Bainbridge is really unique in that so many people really care about what’s going on in other parts of the world.

“I’m just glad I can use my business skills in a way that really helps people.” 

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Global Team for Local Initiatives will host its next island event July 26 at 7 p.m. at a private residence. To attend the event, or to donate or get involved with GTLI, email robin@gtli.us or call 780-4353. Website: www.gtli.us.

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