To my surprise the journey had only taken 20 minutes – I’d allowed an hour more than that. It’s 8am, I’ve just driven off the ring road and I’m parked between a mountain of huge sewer pipes and a local pharmacy. People, goats and dogs are milling around my vehicle as I wait for Andy to come and guide me to the ACT (“AIDS Care and Treatment”) Project compound in the middle of the expanse of slums in front of me.
I’m at the entrance to Suki – an area on the south-west edge of Addis Ababa that’s pretty much as poor as it gets. In the last few years Suki has sprung up on old farmland out of sheer necessity and has spread up the hill facing me - people just needed somewhere to live. There are now around 72,000 people in this area, eking out a living in whatever way they can. Tiny mud and tin dwellings have been constructed and rented out by people who don’t officially own the land, and they’re inhabited by tenants who can barely afford to live here. Sanitation is sparse; taps are communal; power cuts are frequent and chaos is everywhere. In the shadow of the huge smoking chimney of a local glass factory lives are played out in an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty. What little healthcare and education that’s available is provided from government institutions in the areas around, sometimes quite a distance away.
Andy drives past, waving. I follow. We dodge people, horse-drawn carts, animals and huge areas of mud and stagnant water. Then we make our way down a muddy track between walls of corrugated iron to the Project compound. On arrival there’s a throng of people who are part of the Project waiting quietly and patiently. They receive food, shoes, school fees and uniforms, water filters and medication, and spiritual help and support. Andy and I are joined by Danny and Alemu who are going to accompany us on visits to several local homes. We set off through the mud and puddles, and I gradually become aware that a little way ahead we are being led by a small, sprightly Ethiopian woman called Genet. She’s one of the Project’s “Expert Patients” – someone the Project has helped over a few years who is now able to help others rise out of the same extremes as they were in. I’ll learn more about Genet later.
Living in a single mud and metal room no more than 3 metres square we met Burke (“Berr-kay”). In her fifties (although like many people her age she has no idea when she was born). Burke has epilepsy and has been having fits for 22 years. 15 years ago, because of the fits, her husband left her alone with her two children, now teenagers. She showed us the scars and damaged skin on her legs from falling when fitting. Burke is an Orthodox Christian and joined the Project very recently. A trip to hospital resulted in some new medication two weeks ago (phenytoin) and she thinks her fits are decreasing. She keeps the medicine under her bed – the only piece of furniture she owns. Surrounded by typically orthodox wall decorations Burke’s delight at receiving some new shoes for her family was palpable. With her permission Alemu gently laid his hand on Burke’s shoulder and we prayed for her. A glimmer of hope for the future has shone into Burke’s desperate life, as the Project helps her with her rent and living expenses. After exchanging many thanks and praises to God, we bade Burke farewell and made our way past her numerous plastic bowls and buckets and a braying donkey back to the track outside her small compound, on our way to meet Senait.
Alemu led us into another compound and along a water logged muddy track to reach the entrance to two rooms Senait calls home. Five people live here, on two beds. Senait cleared a space on a bed for us to sit, and then squatted in the corner cuddling Mekdelawit, her 5-year-old daughter. Senait is HIV positive and on treatment; thankfully Mekdelawit is negative. Senait’s husband was killed in a road traffic accident three years ago leaving her destitute and alone with two children. The older boy lives far out of Addis with grandparents, but Mekdelawit is here in Suki with her mum, receiving help with rent and school expenses. With eyes like saucers and a huge smile to match Mekdelawit proudly showed us her school shoes - perhaps the newest and best quality possession she has ever had. There’s hope that mum and daughter, along with three other relatives bedding down in these two rooms, will be able to move to a larger dwelling soon, more appropriate for their needs. Again we prayed and said our goodbyes, and made our way back down the sodden track to a neighbouring home – Genet’s.
Having visited the homes of two relatively new beneficiaries, the difference in Genet’s home was immediately obvious. She has been with the Project for several years. Her room is larger with space for a bed and a mattress, a dresser, an old TV, and some equipment for water purification. A small cholera epidemic is stalking the boggy streets of Suki at present, and the equipment in Genet’s house can be a life saver. She has water purification tablets and a barrel with a filter so she and her 13-year-old son can drink without fear. Genet knows how to manage it, and she will help others in Suki do the same; sharing her knowledge and experience. With no husband on the scene and both of them HIV positive Genet’s eyes filled with tears as she told us her story. “Where do you think you would be if the Project hadn’t stepped in?” I asked. Her reply was immediate. “Dead.” she said.
After more prayer with Genet and discussing the Gospel with her and her son, she stayed at home while we made our way back to the Project compound, Danny leading the way. Trudging through the dirt Alemu, a nurse by profession, explained to me the impact good HIV treatment has had on the Project’s beneficiaries since its inception 13 years ago. Back then, he told me, they were basically doing terminal care. Deaths were a daily experience. Adults; children – it seemed unstoppable. But freely available drugs correctly administered and taken along with medical, social and spiritual support have turned the situation right around. Now the deaths have diminished; complications are fewer; families are surviving and despite being in desperate poverty hope flickers on the horizon. And the light of the Gospel suffuses through everything the Project does. As I drove back out of Suki through the mud and the grime and back to the relative luxury of our little flat at Bingham I had much to reflect on.
Above all, what I saw that day, was the love of Jesus in action.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
(There is a gallery of pictures to accompany this report - click here. When you arrive at the gallery, click one of the pictures and use the controls or your arrow keys to view them all.there are 30 pictures.)