WO Design: Creating Change for Widows and Orphans in Ethiopia

“There are 4.5 million orphans in Ethiopia. What if we each helped them in a small, tangible way? The total effort would be substantial.” – Josh Allen, founder of WO Design.

It was during a life-changing service trip to Ethiopia in the fall of 2012 that Josh Allen, a young dad from Bozeman, Montana, was exposed firsthand to the hardship faced by widows and orphans in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Josh went to Ethiopia as a delegate with the Global Leadership Summit and was introduced to various non-profit organizations around Addis Ababa, the nation’s capital.  He spent a day with Bring Love In, a non-profit organization that helps to provide orphans and widows with a loving, stable home. Josh was instantly moved by the program and the amazing success they had in giving both unwanted orphans and widows a second chance at life and love.

He returned home to Montana driven to make a difference and help support the orphans and widows he met at Bring Love In. Already a successful retailer Dee-O-Gee and developer of dog toys, Josh found a way to bring his expertise and desire to help orphans and widows together by the creation of his company, WO Design (which stands for Widows and Orphans Design).

In the fall of 2014, Josh launched WO Design with his first product, the WO Bone, that is made in his hometown of Bozeman, Montana. For each dog toy purchased, two meals are provided to widows and orphans at Bring Love In in Ethiopia. Nine months later, he added another product, the WO Disc and by the end of 2015, over 5,000 meals have been provided to widows and orphans at Bring Love In. 

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Mosebo Village Ethiopia

Three Girls from Ethiopia

Good things come in three’s.

Mosebo Village Ethiopia

Girls in rural Ethiopia

In June 2014, I had the honor of traveling to Ethiopia for two weeks with the International Reporting Project (IRP), a program based at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of The Johns Hopkins University that provides opportunities to US journalists to go overseas to do international reporting on critical issues that are under covered in the U.S. news media. The focus of the fellowship was newborn and maternal health as Ethiopia has made great strides in saving the lives of mothers and children under five.

One of the highlights of our trip was visiting Mosebo Village, a remote village located about 42 kilometers outside of Bahir Dar in rural Ethiopia. Reaching the village is not for the faint at heart. It requires a land cruiser, patience, and a bit of adventure to cover the hour and a half drive on bumpy, muddy roads to reach Mosebo and see how over 90% of Ethiopians live. If it starts to rain as it frequently does during Ethiopia’s three month rainy season, the road becomes dangerous and impassable.

My visit to this village opened my eyes to the dichotomy of struggles and progress being made for millions around the world, and has instilled a passion for doing whatever I can to raise awareness of the world’s challenges in regards to global health, nutrition, inequality, women’s rights and empowerment and more. I read books on religion, politics and culture. I watch documentaries and listen to the latest podcasts to educate myself on what is going on. I seek out alternative media sources as opposed to mainstream media to get a better understanding of terrorism, poverty, education and child marriage.

Far away from Africa, in my home in Minneapolis I often wonder about this trio of children I photographed in Mosebo Village. Are they still healthy? Are they in school? How is their family doing and the community around them? What will their future be?


Too Young to Wed launches Girls Empowerment Campaign in rural Ethiopia

Too Young to Wed, a non-profit organization, that employs visual media, photography exhibits and campaigns to educate and engage the global community to demand an end to the practice of child marriage, has launched a new Girls’ Empowerment Campaign in rural Ethiopia. I wrote at length about Too Young to Wed in a must-read post last week and wanted to introduce their new campaign today in honor of Giving Tuesday (Giving Tuesday is a day that asks people to consider giving back to their favorite charities and always falls on the Tuesday following Thanksgiving in the United States).

By partnering with local nonprofits, Too Young to Wed supports income-generating projects, literacy classes and girl engagement groups where the girls in their stories live. One such project is in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia, a place that I actually had the pleasure of visiting myself this past June as a fellow with the International Reporting Project.

Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world. It is estimated that around 80-90% of Ethiopia’s population live in rural, remote regions and over 30% of the population lives under the international poverty line of $1.25 per day (1) and the majority live under $2 a day. Child and maternal mortality health rates are falling yet still remain quite high, while life expectancy and education rates are low.

Two young girls near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair

Two young girls near Bahir Dar, Ethiopia. Photo credit: Stephanie Sinclair

The status of women is also low and Ethiopia has one of the most severe crises of child marriage in the world today. Although the legal age of marriage is 18 for both males and females it is widely ignored.

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New Vision Partners with 3M to Deliver Solar Lights to Ethiopia

Sometimes life has a funny way of connecting people in rather random ways. The more I blog and use my voice on social media, the more amazing connections I continue to make and it always astounds me. One connection I made recently was with Pamela O’Brien, Director of Business Development and Communications of New Vision Renewable Energy. Through Twitter, Pam saw the work I was doing, contacted me and eventually our relationship has led to partnership where I share the amazing work that New Vision is doing to provide solar lights around the world.

Last week, I had the honor of learning even more about New Vision’s work by a face to face meeting with Abdujabar (Abdul) Dire, a senior technical service engineer who works at Minnesota-based diversified technology company 3M and is part of the 3Mgives Team Africa. Over lunch at a local Ethiopian restaurant, Abdul shared his story of how he came to America as a teenager from Ethiopia and how years later he is working to give back to his village by bringing the children light. It is an amazing, inspiring story that I am excited to share.

A big part of Africa lacks electricity. In Ethiopia alone, it is estimated that over 80% of the population live off the grid without electricity and there are many negative consequences*. First of all, without electricity children are not able to study at night and are kept further behind in their education. Families are forced to cook inside their homes usually with unsafe cookstoves creating enough smoke inside the home to cause health problems and dangerous conditions.

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Project Mercy’s Community Development Model is Improving Lives in Rural Ethiopia

“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.”

Project Mercy Yetebon Ethiopia

A beautiful flower within the gardens at Project Mercy

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.

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Women carrying water in rural Ethiopia

WaterAid: Providing Safe Water and Sanitation in Ethiopia

Water is essential to life. Without water, humans and our world would not survive. Yet, 11% of the world’s population –  783 million people –  do not have access to safe water. Although many people living in the western world including myself often take water, sanitation and hygiene (collectively known as “WASH”) for granted, there are millions of people around the world who do not.

In fact, the figures are shocking:

  • 2.5 billion people – almost 35% of the world’s population – do not have access to adequate sanitation. (WHO/UNICEF)
  • More than 500,000 children die every year from diarrhea caused by unsafe water and poor sanitation – that’s almost 1,400 children a day. (WaterAid 2012/WHO 2008/The Lancet 2012*)
  • The weight of water that women in Africa and Asia carry on their heads is commonly 40 pounds, the same as an airport luggage allowance.
  • Providing water, sanitation and hygiene together reduces the number of deaths caused by waterborne diseases by an average of 65%. (WHO)

When I was in Ethiopia this past June, I witnessed firsthand the drastic unavailability of water and sanitation services. It could be seen every time I left the nation’s capital, Addis Ababa, and headed out along the roads leading to the rural population which make up 90% of Ethiopia’s 90 million people. Woman walking for hours with yellow jerricans on their backs. Mule carts loaded with empty and full jerricans. Even children carrying jerricans and walking miles in search of safe water.

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Yetebon community Ethiopia

The Long Walk to Deliver

On one of my last days in Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project we visited Project Mercy, a not-for-profit relief and development agency that provides services to help alleviate human suffering and overcome systemic poverty in Southern Ethiopia. The visit ended up being one of the most enlightening moments of our entire trip.

In order to combat Ethiopia’s high maternal and newborn mortality rates, Project Mercy opened a “Lie and Wait” home for rural woman to come to stay before delivering their child at a nearby hospital. In a country in which an estimated 90% of women deliver at home with little or no trained birth assistance, a Lie and Wait house ensures women from the far away, remote villages will come to wait to stay and deliver at a hospital with a trained midwife or doctor. Lie and Wait houses have saved many lives of both mother and child.

Many of these expectant mothers walk miles on foot on various terrains and topographies to reach a Lie and Wait house. At Project Mercy in the Yetebon community of Southern Ethiopia, pregnant women can walk hours through rugged, mountainous terrain to reach the Lie and Wait home. It is a true test of endurance to walk on foot carrying almost a full term baby.

Yetebon community Ethiopia

Reaching the Yetebon community on rough gravel roads that end when they hit the mountains where most of the population live.

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Levi Resort, Lake Hawassa Ethiopi

Pesky Monkeys and Lake Awasa

We arrived in Hawassa (also known as Awasa), a city located 270 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, around late afternoon to beautiful weather. Our hotel was located right on Lake Awasa, a beautiful, pristine lake set against the mountainous backdrop of the Great Rift Valley. Our group of journalists were staying two nights in Hawassa where we would visit the Regional Hospital, a Health Center and a Health Sciences College to learn about their maternal and newborn care in the region. It was our first visit to Southern Ethiopia and I was excited for the meetings and interviews ahead.

I had been warned about the monkeys from our Program Director who told me stories about their bravery at jumping from the trees and snatching your breakfast right out of your hands. Although they were rather pesky I still enjoyed watching them play with their humanlike fingers and features. They were a fun photo subject while I passed away a free Sunday afternoon.

Hawassa, Ethiopia

The monkeys greeted us as we arrived at our hotel. This one enjoyed watching us from atop a parked car.

I was thankful to have a room with a beautiful view of Lake Awasa where I could get some writing done and relax a bit after a rather exhausting trip. It was my first two-week journalism trip away from home and although it was incredibly exciting and fascinating sleep was something that was lagging. I had to admit I was exhausted.

Rural Ethiopia

Out of Africa: A Drive through Ethiopia’s Rift Valley

There is nothing like driving through rural Africa. It was something I dreamed about ever since watching the 1980s film “Out of Africa” with Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. Call me a romantic but there is something utterly nostalgic and breathtaking about the countryside. Perhaps even more so in Africa where you take a step back in time to how things used to be.

In much of Africa, including Ethiopia where over 90% live outside of cities, rural life is life. Men, women and children tend to farms and herd livestock. Markets, business and life happens along the roadside. Modernity seems to have not yet reached this part of the world where water jerricans, mule carts, and manual labor are common. Electricity and running water is a luxury that few have. Bathing happens in the creeks. It is a world so unlike my own that everything I saw surprised me.

For this reason, I was always fascinating with our ventures into the rural parts of Ethiopia and sat glued to the window watching in awe and admiration. Instead of napping, I took photos from our moving Land Rover, trying to capture the heart and soul of rural Ethiopia. There was no way I could do its beauty justice especially since we did not have time to stop. Yet our drive from Addis Ababa, south through the Great Rift Valley to Hawassa had to be documented. The raw, aching beauty of Ethiopia spoke to me.


The Great Rift Valley splits the Ethiopian landscape apart leaving behind many circular crater lakes that are awash with hippos, crocodiles and lovely views like this hotel above.

African flowers

African flowers


AHOPE for Children: Providing Love and Hope for HIV Positive Children in Ethiopia

Before I travel to a new place, I make it a habit to read a couple of books on the country I’m visiting in order to get an overview of a country’s history, culture, politics and other pertinent issues. When I was selected to go to Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project where I’d be learning about newborn, child and maternal health I found several fabulous books highlighting these issues.

photo-2One of the most powerful non-fiction books I read before I left for Ethiopia this past June was “There is No Me Without You” by award-wining journalist Melissa Fay Greene.

Greene’s moving book chronicles the life of one woman’s fight to save Ethiopia’s AIDS orphans during the height of the AIDS epidemic in Africa. Before reading the book, I honestly had no idea that Ethiopia was the second most impacted country in Africa by HIV/AIDS. Greene herself was unaware of the severity of the AIDS epidemic until she came across a New York Times Article in the summer of 2000.

On page 20 in her book, Greene writes:

Per the United Nations, in 2000 Africa was “a continent of orphans.”  HIV and acquired AIDS had killed more than 21 million people, including 4 million children. More than 13 million children had been orphaned, 12 million of them in Sub-Saharan Africa.  25% of those lived in 2 countries: Nigeria and Ethiopia. In Ethiopia, 11% of the children were orphans.

Greene realized she could not turn a blind eye to this horrible tragedy and spent the next several years researching the origin and history of the HIV/AIDS, the development of antiretrovirals, the impact of AIDS in Africa and the plight of an entire generation of AIDS orphans. Her research resulted in her powerful book “There is No Me Without You” which is all shown through the eyes of one woman, Haregewoin Teferra, who dared to rescue these children, deemed untouchable and tragically left behind in the aftermath.

A book written on Amelezewd's life.

A book written on Amelezewd’s life.

It was within this mesmerizing, heart-breaking true story that I learned about Amelezewd and AHOPE for Children.  Amelezewd Girma and her two younger brothers were AIDS orphans living with Haregewoin when it was discovered Amelezewd and one of her brothers were HIV positive and too sick for her to care for.

At the time, Ethiopia was overwhelmed with HIV/AIDS orphans (there were over 1.5 million in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2005) and Haregewoin searched desperately for a place that she could send Amelezewd and her brother to be properly cared for. Through Haregewoin’s search, she found Enat House for HIV-positive children which later was renamed AHOPE for Children, and Amelezewd and her brother Michael were placed there.

Sadly, it was too late for young Amelezewd who as a young teenager dreamed of getting an education and becoming a professor someday. Life-saving anti-retrovirals (ARV) that were widely available in the western world were still unaccessible in Sub-Saharan Africa where they needed them most. ARVs were not available in Ethiopia until 2005. Amelezewd passed away leaving behind a legacy of heartbreak and hope while her younger brother Michael survived thanks to the availability of ARV treatment. AHOPE meant that there was finally a hope for HIV positive children and they were no longer being sent to a place to be cared for before they died.

It was against this backdrop that I contacted AHOPE for Children and scheduled a site visit to meet with the director Mengesha Shibru during my reporting fellowship in Ethiopia this past June.

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Rural Ethiopian Girl

Frayed Clothes and the Blue Sweater

When I arrived in Ethiopia, it was impossible not to notice the frayed clothing worn by most rural Ethiopians. As an avid reader on global issues and extreme poverty, I couldn’t seem to get the fabulous non-fiction book “The Blue Sweater” by Jacqueline Novogratz out of my head. One of the unforgettable moments in Jacqueline’s life was when she was living in Rwanda and saw a young boy wearing her blue sweater that she had donated eleven years ago to a local American charity. Somehow that sweater with her initials still written clearly inside, made it all the way to Africa and was still being worn despite being tattered and frayed. It made Norogratz, a successful investment banker, think about how our world is interconnected, and it steered her life towards philanthropy.

Driving throughout the rural countryside of Ethiopia where over 90% of Ethiopia’s 90 million people live, frayed clothing is an omnipresent reminder of the high level of poverty in this part of the world. I saw toddlers wearing no bottoms, little boys wearing pink jackets, girls and women in a pell-mell of skirts, tops and dresses, and men wearing worn-out, patched up trousers. Shoes were rarely present especially on children. If shoes were worn, they were either too big, too small or torn.

I thought about my own children, comfortably back at home in Minnesota with more clothing in their closets and drawers than they could possibly wear to the point of wearing them out. The fact that twice a year I make the annual trip to Goodwill or Salvation Army where I unload all the unnecessary clothing that is supposed to go to the local community but like Norogratz’ blue sweater, most likely ends up somewhere in Africa.

Was some little girl out there wearing my daughter’s favorite dress? I am certain she is.

Rural Ethiopian Girl

Rural Ethiopian Boy

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Ellilta Products Ethiopia

Ellilta Products: Helping women off the streets

You cannot change the world, but you can change someone’s world.”  -Mother Teresa

One night in 1992, Serawit “Cherry” Teketel, a young Ethiopian college graduate was driving home from dinner with her family when they came upon a moment that would change Cherry’s life forever. As their car pulled to a stop at a street corner in Addis Ababa, they saw a young woman flash them. The sight of this desperate prostitute who had no other way of earning a living, started a debate and made Cherry question her own circumstances in life. Although she was a recent university graduate, she had been unable to find a job for over a year but thankfully she had her family to fall back on. What if she didn’t have that luck? What if she was uneducated, poor and a single mother with no job? What would she do?  Cherry’s questioning and compassion inspired her lifelong quest to get women off the streets and into a productive life away from prostitution.

After spending time on the streets, talking with girls and learning more about their issues, Cherry founded Women at Riska one-year rehabilitation program that aims to get girls and women out of prostitution and into a sustainable, self-reliant job and lifestyle. Women at Risk works on many different levels of rehabilitation. For the first six months, the women go through an extensive mental, physical and spiritual rehabilitation program that deals with addiction problems, health issues and psychological healing. The next six months involves skill training. Since Ethiopia has an extremely high unemployment rate and most of these women lack an education and come from severe poverty, vocational training is not an option. Cherry and her team realized that the women would need to have skills that would require little education and minimial training yet would provide them a livable income. After much brainstorming, Women at Risk implemented training courses in weaving, cooking and hairdressing.

During the year rehabilitation program, a woman must desire and commit to changing her life. In addition to the rehabilitation and skill training services, she will receive health care, day care, pocket money and groceries each week. Once she successfully completes the program, Women at Risk helps her gain employment or start her own small businesses a viable alternative to prostitution. Today, Cherry’s program has been a wonderful success. Women at Risk has helped over 360 women and over 90% of them have continued to live lives away from prostitution.

Addis Ababa poverty

Ethiopia has one of the highest levels of poverty in the world. Many women are forced to work or live on the streets to support their family.

Close to the end of my two-week trip in Ethiopia as fellow with the International Reporting Project, my friend Elizabeth Ataley and I went to visit one of Women at Risk‘s partners Ellilta Products. We had heard about their gorgeous scarves through our social good blogging and work with ONE and fashionABLE. Both Elizabeth and I are proud owners and supporters of the Ellilta scarves sold in the US through fashionABLE so we wanted to meet with the women behind the scenes.

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