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A slice of heaven amid squalor.


Alexia Saoulli

THIS SUMMER I travelled to Africa with Habitat for Humanity Northern Ireland (HFHNI) as part of a Global Village (GV) volunteer team to help build affordable homes for the people of Ethiopia.

The purpose of the trip was to work alongside members of an Ethiopian host community in Debre Berhan, while simultaneously raising awareness regarding poverty housing in the developing world.

HFHNI is an independent, international affiliate of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI). Founded in Georgia in the United States in 1976, HFHI is a non-governmental, non-profit, non-denominational Christian movement. Its sole purpose: "Eliminating poverty housing and making adequate, affordable shelter a matter of conscience and action".

With five area offices located across the globe, and in excess of 1,500 affiliates within the US and 550 international affiliates, HFH has built more than 500,000 houses, sheltering over 2.5 million people in more than five continents and 3,000 communities worldwide.

Habitat homes are built using volunteer labour, and donations of money and materials. The homes are built alongside homeowner families who purchase the properties from Habitat at no profit and are financed with affordable loans. In addition to a downpayment and monthly mortgage payments, Habitat homeowners must commit to investing hundreds of hours of their own labour into building their own home and the houses of others.

In order to secure a Habitat home, families in need of decent shelter must apply to their local Habitat affiliate. A selection committee chooses homeowners based on their level of need, their willingness to become partners in the programme and their ability to repay the loan. A nondiscriminatory policy of family selection is in place at all affiliates, and neither race nor religion is a factor in the selection process.

The problem is there are often many more eligible families than there are homes available. In Debre Berhan, for example, there are 85,000 residents. Of this number 60 per cent live in inadequate housing. Of that 60 per cent, 40 per cent are homeless. Therefore it comes as no surprise to learn from Kinfe, the community leader for Habitat in Debre Berhan, that the waiting list for a Habitat home is already heavily oversubscribed to.

Nestled 2,800m above sea level, Debre Berhan is some 130km north of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, and is currently home to a large-scale Habitat for Humanity Ethiopia (HFHE) housing project consisting of 700 homes, of which 500 have already been built.

During the two and a half weeks I spent on site with 14 other volunteers, my emotional, mental and physical faculties were put to the test, as I pushed my personal boundaries and lived outside my comfort zone to give something back to the people of Debre Berhan after a life of Western privilege and luxury. Daily I battled to fathom the hardships of these peoples' existence, from their lack of clean water and heating facilities, to their inaccessibility to common painkillers and clean clothes. Daily I reminded myself that I had a hot shower, good food and warm bed to return to as I struggled to get out of bed at 6.30am to face another day building on site. By the end of trip I realised that I had gotten so much more back from the people of Debre Berhan than I could ever have hoped to come close to giving, as they opened up their arms and hearts to us, and welcomed us into their lives as family.

During my time there I kept a diary. On Saturday, August 4 we had our first visit to the homes of some of the families selected to participate in the Habitat programme. On that day I wrote this article and promised I would have it published to create more awareness about the work Habitat carries out.

Today was a difficult day for the team. I feel a bit insensitive myself as I didn't cry. I think having been a journalist for 10 years I've learned to detach from the horrors of the world. Don't get me wrong, I feel compassion and outrage that people could be allowed to live this way, but instead of sobbing I want to tell the world. I want to raise awareness. I want the voices of these forgotten people to be heard and if necessary, that their voices be heard through me.

We visited some of the families this afternoon. Families who will live in a Habitat home in the coming months.

Asrat is a deacon at a local Orthodox Church. He is physically disabled and so has been fast tracked on the Habitat waiting list. He lives in an airless, windowless 3X3 metre box. He calls this place home. I can call it nothing else but a hovel. He lives here with his wife and three children. They have a small colour TV in the corner, a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling and a small stove in the corner by the door where they cook their meals. The walls are covered in newspaper and there is a picture of St George on the wall. The room is oddly warm, likely body heat as there are nine of us in there.

The family has lived here six years and currently pay 90 Ethiopian Birr (ETB) a month in rent or just under e1/44. They share a communal toilet with 10 other families. Asrat has been accepted into the Habitat scheme because he earns 500 ETB (e1/422.50) a month.

Currently a Habitat house costs approximately 23,000 ETB (e1/4991). An amount each family must pay in order to secure the title deeds to their home. Each family must pay a downpayment of 5,000 ETB (e1/4215) before being handed their new property. Over the next 10 years they must pay monthly instalments. Once fully paid off they will receive a certificate from Habitat. They can then go to the municipality to get their title deeds. After that the home is their own, to do what they wish with it, including sell it. Each plot of land is 160 square metres and includes a house with two spacious rooms and a toilet outside. Each home has at least two doors and two windows. Compared to where these families have been living, it's paradise. A little slice of heaven on earth after years of living in squalor.

What strikes me the most is the smell and smoke in each of the homes these people live in. There is no ventilation and I find it hard to breath. I thank God I don't live here and wonder how anyone can. As we leave the first house it starts to pour. I groan. I'm in my flip flops, not work boots. I blame Elias -- our guide, translator and a Habitat employee who also designed the charity's homes in Ethiopia -- for he told us work boots were not necessary. The rain pelts down on the muddy ground and a rose bush with dead flowers stands miserably in a corner of a communal garden-cum-clothes line area.

We move on to the next house. Here the girls in the team breakdown. I don't blame them but the tears don't come to me. I want to record everything in my mind's eye. I want to remember every detail, every second, every smell. The home is filled with smoke coming from the coal fire in the corner of the shack. I cannot call this a home. It's worse than a cave. The walls are black with soot and I can hardly catch my breath. The 70-year-old female occupant has lived here with her 17-year-old granddaughter for 13 years. The latter is deaf.

The elderly woman's face is blackened with soot and her eyes have been damaged due to the smoke. She starts to weep; the tears spilling down her cheeks effortlessly. She asks for no pity. She asks for nothing. All she wants is a clean home to call her own. A place where the sunlight shines on her weathered face and where she can rest easy. The woman currently pays 1 ETB (e1/40.04) a month for this place as it is government owned. To get to it you have to pass through a muddy walk way that feels as if it's leading to hell. The stench of donkey manure is pungent in the air. The animals are tied to trees in ankle deep mud in a yard, just metres from the two women's 'home'. Elias is unable to hold back his tears and I see him wiping his eyes with the back of his hand as he tries to compose himself. He has been working for Habitat for 17 years and still he can't get used to the poverty and living nightmare his people continue to be forced to endure daily. I find it hard to understand why more Westerners don't know about Ethiopia and the surreal existence these people live in.

The 70-year-old woman collects wood from the forest and sells it. She is below the poverty threshold and so is eligible for a charity donation. Elias thinks the money to pay for her house will come from the Northern Ireland fund as she has no income to pay for a Habitat home. The woman's gratitude as she bows to shake our team leader Raymond's hand is humbling. How to comprehend these people's existence? Words cannot describe what I saw today. I am at a complete loss and feel frustrated that my experience has to be lived to be felt, and even then it doesn't come close to what these people experience.

I have never seen so many dirty, poor, malnourished people in one place in all my life. When people think of Ethiopia they think of babies with swollen bellies living in the desert. Instead there is a whole different side. A side where there are cars, street vendors, cold and rain. Yet the poverty and hunger is the same, if not worse. These people live in communities which are filthy and surely riddled with disease. Why have no photo journalists been here to capture these people's misery?

We are waved off as we leave in our bus to return to our hotel for a hot shower and cooked meal. I'm now glad I wore flip flops. My feet are dirty and disgusting, and although I did my best not to slip in the mud, I remind myself that these people wade through this muck every day just to get to their house and then have nowhere to clean up. I'm glad to feel the sludge slipping through my toes and to feel myself choking on the smoke and looking to a team member for chewing gum so that I can get rid of the bad taste in my mouth. I'm glad, because although I have no idea how these people feel, I know how it makes me feel.

Imagine if that were your life, every second, of every minute, of every hour, of every day, year after year. Imagine that. I cannot imagine it. I do not want to. My soul cannot bear it and it angers me that more is not done to raise awareness about Ethiopia and its people.

This evening we are going to a club. The experience will be surreal I'm sure. People live under such destitute conditions and yet they continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing is amiss. This is all they know I guess. I wonder, however, if they dream of a better future. If they dream of a world where they feel safe and warm and clean and have food in their bellies. I guess they must...

For more information regarding HFHI and HFHE visit

For more information regarding HFHNI visit

Asrat and his family in desperate need of a new home

The house which Asrat shares with his wife and three children

Nearly complete Habitat for Humanity homes

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Publication:Cyprus Mail (Cyprus)
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Oct 7, 2012
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