“In order to fight against poverty, you have to attack it from many different directions and then pluck it out, ” said Marta, co-founder of Project Mercy, as she described their Community Development Model. “We cannot educate children if the only outcome is to make them discontented with the limited job opportunities currently available.”
Back in June, when I was in Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project I spent my last full day there visiting Project Mercy. Project Mercy is a special not-for-profit organization as it was created in 1993 by two Ethiopian exiles, husband and wife team Demeke (Deme) Tekle-Wold and Marta Gabre-Tsadick. Deme and Marta left Ethiopia and repatriated to the United States during the heart of Ethiopia’s repressive government. Wanting to help their fellow countrymen at home, they established Project Mercy as a way to help Ethiopians rebuild and lift themselves out of poverty.
Today, Project Mercy is run by Desalegne “Lali” Demeke , Marta and Deme’s son who manages the 52- acre compound that houses a school, a home for orphans, volunteer housing, a hospital, a new Health Science College and agricultural, cattle breeding and handicraft training services, to help empower the local community and improve their lives. Project Mercy is an incredible organization and I was excited to visit it in person.
Getting to Project Mercy was half the fun and required a land cruiser, a driver and a full day of adventure. We left Addis Ababa early in the morning heading for about three hours south into the heart of the Yetebon to arrive at the bumpy, gravel road that brought us to Project Mercy.
Our driver told us that before the road was built, it used to take a day and a half to reach Project Mercy because in the 1990s there was no road, only donkey paths. Since Project Mercy began working here in 1993, the ride down the gravel road that connects Yetebon with the outside world takes only 15 minutes.
As we drove through the gorgeous, lush countryside surrounding Yetebon, a remote, rural community of about 70,000, I couldn’t help but feel a little hopeful. It was so beautiful and green. Farmers were working in the fields and the normally busy roadways were empty of children herding cattle and gathering water instead of being in school.
We arrived at the compound and were greeted by Lali, the General Manager of Project Mercy, and his lovely wife Wanda. Both Americans, Lali and Wanda along with their children are living at Project Mercy to manage the operations. We were surprised to also see at least a couple dozen volunteers and their families, mostly Americans, who were living and volunteering at Project Mercy as teachers, nurses and doctors, both for short and long-term positions.
Lali greeted us warmly and proceeded to give us a very in-depth tour of Project Mercy’s facilities. Before Project Mercy began operations in Yetebon, the community was severely impoverished and illiterate. Maternal, newborn and child mortality rates were exceptionally high, and most people lived a very difficult life fighting for survival each and every day.
Project Mercy arrived with the belief in implementing a community-based model that would help tackle some of the critical issues facing the community such as lack of education, sustainable farming and cattle breeding, skills training for sustainable employment, health care services and hospitals. The community immediately asked for a clinic to fight high child and maternal mortality rates and a school to provide education. It took time and funding to get the necessary infrastructure built, and today Project Mercy is a beautiful example of how not-for-profit organizations can partner with local communities to alleviate poverty and build success.
Project Mercy serves around 70,000 people living within a two-hour radius on foot. Many of the residents live in the distant, rugged mountains that surround Project Mercy. The luckier ones live closer to Project Mercy making it easier for them and their families to access Project Mercy’s services. On foot, a pregnant mother may still have to walk almost two hours on rough terrain to reach the hospital to deliver.
The first thing we saw was Project Mercy’s Garden. It was no ordinary garden but a world-class teaching, training and testing area helping the local farmers learn to farm effectively and test out new, sustainable crops.
The garden was enormous and had all different varieties of crops and teaching areas. Each community member of Yetebon must donate time every month to keep the garden growing and tended. It is a way to not only train the farmers how to farm more effectively and sustainably, but to get them committed in helping Project Mercy succeed.
Lali showed us a sample “demonstration” garden that they have made to show the farmers how you can grow a mixture of different fruits and vegetables in one small plot. This way farmers can diversify their farming and have a variety of food to eat and sell. Lali also showed us samples of how farmers can use local materials like sticks and scrubs to make fencing. We also viewed new variations of crops that were being tested and grown in the garden to see how they fared.
After viewing the garden, we learned about Project Mercy’s school. Lali told us that there is a much greater demand for education than they can handle. There currently have only 250 slots for kindergarten however every year on the first day of school over 500 children show up. Tragically, Project Mercy has to send them away. Each village has a quota and it is up to the elder to make the difficult decision: Which kids can go to school and which must stay home.
In 2013, the Medhane-Alem School had a total of 1,416 students in their K-12 program. Although the class sizes are large, there are thankfully many volunteer teachers each year who come to help Project Mercy. In 2013, Project Mercy hosted 234 volunteers who worked in the schools, the hospital and other positions at Yetebon.
“The staple here is education. Education is everything. Knowledge is where the golden nugget is” says Lali when discussing Project Mercy’s school.
Project Mercy has also implemented different kinds of sustainable job training for both men and women within the community. For the women, Project Mercy has a basket-weaving area where the women can gather together and make baskets which are sold to raise money for Project Mercy and the women. Most of these women are illiterate however making their beautiful baskets has given them a sense of income, community and dignity that they didn’t have before. I loved photographing the women and their lovely work.
At the other end of the building housed a furniture crafting area where men could learn to help make bed frames and other metal products for Project Mercy. We also visited the jewelry making store where some of the younger women worked making bracelets that are also for sale.
Although Project Mercy is a faith-based Christian organization, they work in a community that is over 95% Muslim. Once again, it amazed me how despite religious differences, Ethiopians can come together and work to build a better community and transform their lives. Lali was proud of the fact that the people of Yetebon built everything there themselves while gaining valuable knowledge, skills and commitment from the process. Nothing was handed to them. They made Project Mercy what it is themselves. This is a successful way to build community development programs.
After a delicious Ethiopian lunch with the Project Mercy staff and volunteers, we drove a few minutes away to see Project Mercy’s new hospital and its “Lie and Wait” house for expectant mothers. I had written about the Lie and Wait house earlier (click here to read) as it was there that we witnessed the real challenges that remain for organizations like Project Mercy and Ethiopia as a whole.
Despite the progress, many challenges remain in improving the lives of rural Ethiopians. Child marriage, inaccessibility to health care, cultural beliefs in birthing at home, lack of education, and more. But little by little, organizations like Project Mercy are making a huge difference. But change will take time.
Stay tuned….next post on Project Mercy will show the new hospital and Health Sciences Center that will train new midwives, doctors and nurses and help save more lives.
Also, please note that the hand-woven baskets shown above and the bracelets can be purchased online here. All proceeds go to help fund and support Project Mercy’s work.