Love, Ethiopia

Since mid-August, I have been living and working in Ethiopia. The INGO I work for, CRS, is leading a Development Food Security Activity (DFSA), funded by USAID Office of Food for Peace. Our partners are Mercy Corps and the Ethiopian Catholic Church Social & Development Commissions of Harar and Meki. The DFSA supports the Government of Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) which aims to improve and sustain food, nutrition and livelihoods security of vulnerable households and communities.

Lucky for me, I spent some time visiting project participants, to document how DFSA interventions were making a difference in their lives. Below are brief accounts from those visits.



Among the core objectives of the CRS-led DFSA is to:

  1. Support the construction and rehabilitation of structures that strengthen community watersheds, and
  2. Promote water and soil conservation practices which farmers can utilize on their own land to increase productivity

Umer Mohamed, age 45, is a resident of Kurtu Kebele in the Dire Dawa Administrative Council. He lives with his wife and five children. Umer’s community previously suffered from heavy flooding, loss of fertile land and lack of water. Over the years, the community contributed to constructing check dams, hillside terraces, soil bunds and other conservation structures to address these issues. In April 2017, residents of Kurtu Kebele began the construction of the sediment storage dam in the Gara Lekole sub-watershed. The dam slowed the flow of runoff, increased silt deposits upstream, improved infiltration of water into the ground, raised the water table and increased groundwater discharge.

The sediment storage dam allowed for springs to develop and increased groundwater discharge even when the river runs dry.

“Getting water in this sandy river bed was very difficult, especially during the dry season. After constructing the dam there is now more water and I am using it for irrigation. I am also growing different crops such as tomatoes, sugarcane, coffee, papaya and orange to conserve soil quality. Because of the dam I now have enough water to irrigate all my crops.”

-Umer Mohamed, age 45, Kurtu Kebele, Dire Dawa

Papaya grown with irrigated water

Umer Mohamed shows me how he is intercropping papaya trees among his staple crops to sustain the soil quality and improve his income. Umer’s farm is fed by water captured from the sediment storage dam.


Shunkaa Calii ALP 3

Shunkaa demonstrates her literacy skills by writing down a neighbor’s phone number.

Shunkaa Calii, age 50 from Arsi Negele Woreda (Gubeta Arjo Kebele), is the primary caretaker of her family, including five children and her husband. Shunkaa, an uneducated farmer, struggles from drought, degraded land and limited access to agricultural inputs, tools and trainings for improved production and income.

One of the DFSA’s objectives is to organize farmers into livelihood groups and train them to run their own savings-and-lending program where members contribute money into a fund from which they can borrow. With access to funds, farmers can invest in things like improved seeds, technologies and livestock to raise their income.

Shunkaa is a livelihood group member, but felt she lacked the skills to take part in discussions. At the start of the program, she could not read room numbers at the clinic, signs on the road, write down phone numbers, her own name, or record her weekly savings in livelihood group meetings. To ensure that people like Shunkaa get the support they need, DFSA provides financial, material and capacity building support to government-run adult literacy classes.

Shunkaa successfully completed the six-month adult literacy class in June 2018. It has served as a confident booster and encouraged active participation, including in savings-and-lending activities. Shunkaa explained that before the adult literacy class, there were at least two barriers for her in the livelihood group. One was that she was illiterate, and the second, a woman. Taking part in the class made her realize how important it was for women to know basic reading and writing.

“Before, I would go to meetings to present myself and never talk, because as an illiterate person I did not have the confidence. I felt I had nothing to contribute. Now, I even state my opinion in front of male members. Illiterate women always struggle for their rights and are excluded in decision-making. Education is important for all community members, but for women, it is like an eye.”

-Shunkaa Calii, age 50, Gubeta Arjo Kebele

Amina Shankur, age 26, Wahil Kebele

Amina Shankur (age 26), leads the class in reciting the alphabet.

The literacy class is taught by facilitators from the same or neighboring community, and are familiar with the people, language and culture. Bedri Kedir, age 22, is a facilitator from Dire Dawa, Wahil Kebele, and is helping her elders learn basic math, reading and writing.

Bedri has observed significant improvements. In a six-month period, she saw her students go from having no knowledge on how to count, tell time, add and subtract, to now being able to count their family’s earnings, note contributions to savings-and-lending groups and record savings. Their ability to budget not only improved participation in groups and increased confidence, but their husbands now entrust them with money and record-keeping.

According to Bedri, for a community like Wahil Kebele, that is a big deal. All her students can now write their names, the alphabet, read short messages and make purchases independently. For example, when purchasing shoes for their children, her students would measure the size using a string and take it to the shopkeeper who would then use it to determine the size. They had no understanding of shoe size numbers. Now, they can be told a number, understand what it means, and read the number on a shoe themselves. Something as simple as that has been life-changing for her students.

Graduation Day Wahil Kebele

Bedri with her students on graduation day.

“These community members raised me. Now, I must help them improve their skills in basic math, reading and writing, so that they can do simple tasks independently. I can see that they are happy. They are even more respected now in the community and in the home.”

-Bedri Kedir, age 22, Adult Literacy Class Facilitator, Wahil Kebele


Kelil Safina TFH 1

Safina explains the lack of trust in discussing finances prior to the training and improvements since completing the Faithful House Program.

Safina Worja and Kelil Mohamed were married seven years ago when they were just 15 and 18 years old, respectively. From Arsi Negele Woreda (district), Boku Wolda Kebele, they have two children and are participants of USAID’s Office of Food for Peace funded Development Food Security Activity (DFSA) led by Catholic Relief Services/Ethiopia (CRS) – a program that seeks to improve and sustain food, nutrition and livelihoods security.

The DFSA uses CRS’ Faithful House Program (also known as Islamic Family House) to provide a safe environment for couples to discuss their relationship and enhance joint decision making. Since January 2018, 889 couples and 154 religious and opinion leaders have participated in the program, and through improved communication, women have increased their ability to make meaningful decisions for the household.

When asked to introduce themselves, Kelil began first, not by introducing himself, but his wife. He mentioned her shoe size and waist size, that she likes potatoes and cabbage with injera, and loves meat and milk.

Before participating in the training, their relationship was stressed and Kelil spent very little time at home. However, as he observed the rise of divorce in his community and its negative impacts, he was hesitant but willing to participate in the training. Previously, village elders and friends intervened when there were problems. Now, he and Safina use the communication tools learned to resolve issues among themselves.

Initially, elders were slow to approve, as it is a big cultural change. For instance, one can see in the body language that couples are more affectionate- sitting close while talking, and at times, comforting and embracing one another. According to the Kebele Manager, however, religious leaders have communicated their interest and observed that trainings are in line with Islamic teaching.

“By talking to my wife, I realized how much work she had at home. I started to share more of the responsibilities with her, bringing water, cleaning the home. I even began to leave the mosque early and my friends teased me. I told them I needed to support my wife at home.”

– Kelil Mohamed, 25, Boku Wolda Kebele

Husna Shebrahim, age 27, and Gamedi Dhabi, age 35, are an example of a couple whose marriage was saved by Faithful House. Before the training, they were on the verge of divorce and Gamedi was planning to take a second wife. Married for 12 years and with six children, a divorce would have been devastating for their family.

“We were fighting all the time, yelling at each other, sometimes even using our fists. Our eldest son would cry, would have trouble sleeping. I did not know what to do. After the training I see that my wife loves me very much. We discuss our problems peacefully now, and I like to spend more time at home taking care of the children, even cooking. I do not want a divorce, and I definitely do not want a second wife.”

-Gamedi Dhabi, age 35, Boku Wolda Kebele

With more couples improving their communication through the Faithful House Program, DFSA hopes that they can work together in joint decision making to improve their food and livelihoods security.

Husna Gamadi TFH 1

The Faithful House Program has saved marriages, including the marriage of Gamedi Dhabi and Husna Shebrahim, now very happy and committed to the well-being of the family.

Improved and Transparent Water Services for Rural Tanzanians


I was posted in Tanzania for about 10 months. CRS, the NGO I work for, had a project that was in its final stages called the Revolutionizing Remittance Recovery in Water project, or R3W. It was funded by UKAID Human Development Innovation Fund (HDIF). I had the privilege of visiting the project site in Karatu, Arusha, in the northern part of country to document results and prepare some final reports for the donor. We were also in the process of developing a business model to attract private sector investors for scale-up.

What was exciting about R3W was that it was the first project of its type in Tanzania, as is typical of many HDIF projects. In partnership with the Diocese of Mbulu Development Department and Grundfos LIFELINK A/S, CRS changed the game of rural water supply with R3W, by introducing an innovative technology to improve revenue collection for community-owned water supply organizations (COWSOs).

Before R3W, all water points looked something like this:

post water point

People would fill up their buckets and then pay the water vendor hired by the COWSO. There was no formal method of record keeping, so sometimes vendors would hike up the price to pocket some extra cash. For communities paying on a monthly basis, sometimes the water user’s records would not match with the vendor’s, resulting in arguments and creating a situation that was difficult for the COWSO to manage.  Any water spilled meant water that was unpaid for. For operation and maintenance, COWSOs rely on revenues collected, so losses in revenue meant that when there was a technical issue, they sometimes didn’t have the money to pay for it, leaving customers without service, sometimes for as long as weeks. Additionally, since the water source was from a river, the supply would significantly decrease during the drier parts of the year. COWSOs would ration the supply, allowing collection for just a few hours, from morning to midday. This created long waiting lines, tension among community members in a struggle to get the water, and in general, water shortage. Women, primarily responsible for fetching water, suffered most.

R3W was designed for better management through the introduction of the AQtap, which is designed by a water technology company, Grundfos.

The AQtap is a dispenser that supplies water using a prepaid smartcard (like an ATM machine) and records all transactions using an online Water Management System (WMS). It also tracks any malfunctions in the system and send alerts directly to the COWSO’s WMS Administrator via SMS. There are several benefits to this system, some of which include a) there is a set price that cannot be altered by using a card, b) users can track their spending, c) COWSOs can track how much water is collected and the amount owed d) improved revenue collection, meaning that there was money for the COWSO to use for repairs, e) instant notifications of any malfunctions improved service delivery. In short, it was a much more efficient and transparent system.

To ensure there was a reliable supply of water, CRS used private funds to construct a borehole to ensure that water would be available throughout the year, including during the dry season.

One beneficiary said, “There is a huge difference from the postpaid system used before R3W. Before, I had access to water only until 10am, and there would be fights among community members because of the long queues. Now, water is available all day and there is no jam. We have come up with a rotation system whereby each person can only fill up six buckets at a time. There are less fights because we are no longer concerned that the supply will cut off or that vendors are pocketing our money”


Getting people to buy into the technology was not easy though. That’s where our local partner, the Diocese of Mbulu Development Department came in. They have a great relationship and respect within the community and were able to help CRS sell the idea. People told me that at first they thought it was weird to use a card to collect water, that it was impossible, a sort of magic. With training and sensitization, it changed people’s perspective. It was now cool to be a cardholder and cool to be part of this new, innovative approach. Other communities who didn’t have the system are now demanding it.


A lot of hard work went into this project from all partners involved. My colleague and R3W Project Manager Ephraim Tonya, had long discussions with me about the many challenges and lessons learnt. He is especially happy that it has helped the women in the community.


With a loan from banks or the government, the COWSOs that were trained in R3W now have the capacity to install and operate more AQtaps on their own, and can pay back the loan within 5 years. CRS hopes to provide support to more COWSOs in rural areas where the AQtap can be a durable solution to better water management.


Ephraim (far right) and I with COWSO members. Yes, I am tiny. 

secondary water vendor

This man uses his prepaid card to fill up buckets of water and then sells the water to neighbors at more than double the price. Same with the guy below. 



Disclaimer: This blog and its contents is the personal view of the owner and is not an official publication of CRS.

My World This Week: Early Childhood Development in Tanzania


Not only are these kids ridiculously cute, but they were my world this week. In Tanzania, 270 children under 5 years old die every day. The major causes of death are pneumonia, malaria and diarrhoea. These deaths could be easily prevented if mothers and caregivers were equipped with the knowledge for proper infant and young child feeding, and sanitation and hygiene practices. Furthermore, in a society where going to the doctor is not common practice, the illnesses go untreated, or are treated too late.

The parents/caretakers of these children have received education in early childhood development for the past one to three years. Like them, I learned so much this week about the critical actions parents must take in the first 1,000 days of a child’s life to ensure that they grow up healthy and ready to succeed in life. My job was to document the changes we’ve seen in the community as a result of the educational programs and write what we (the development community) call “Success Stories.”

This post is NOT a success story, but instead a personal account of three things I saw and learnt along the way so you guys can rest assured that I don’t spend all my time in Tanzania laying on the beach. The “success stories” I’ve written will be published later on, after formal review.

Growing up in the United States where healthcare (for the most part) is above average, services are available anywhere at any time and there is universal access to education, there are several practices that seem “common sense” when it comes to taking care of an infant. It’s so commonplace that it’s easy to forget that in a different environment, these same practices could be novel ideas.

In the Mwanza region of northern Tanzania these include, but are not limited to:

  1. Hand-washing after handling or coming into contact with animal and baby faeces.

In tight spaces, it is common to find animals in the same space where children play, dishes are washed, water is kept etc. Basically, there are no physical barriers. In an environment such as this, mothers genuinely do not know the connection between exposure to animal faeces and diarrhoea. Furthermore, baby faeces are not considered to be dirty. When I asked why, I was told it was something they’d never thought about. They were used to the children “going” wherever, and then cleaning up after them. They washed their hands yes, but not as thoroughly as they should have and didn’t think twice about it. It was interesting for me to hear, because something that seemed so obvious (as a function of the environment I was raised in and education I received), was not at all obvious to them. It also reminded me that to solve development problems, you really have to step out of your head, forget about everything you know, and see the world through someone else’s perspective.

For this reason, the education they receive includes hand-washing at critical times to prevent illnesses.


Let the animals roam free…or not. Also…those rocks are pretty cool right? Mwanza is known as the “rock” city because of them. 

2. The importance of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life.

This was a difficult one to get mothers to do. It was extremely hard for them to accept that their baby needed nothing else but breast milk, and that even giving them water was not a good idea as it could cause diarrhoea and reduce the amount of milk the baby drank. As someone who is not in the medical field and who has not birthed a child, I didn’t know the why behind exclusive breastfeeding. After consulting the World Health Organisation (WHO) website, I learned many important facts about exclusive breastfeeding that is also part of the curriculum these women receive:

  • Exclusive (not inclusive) breastfeeding for 6 months is the optimal way of feeding infants. It provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life
  • Breast milk promotes sensory and cognitive development, and protects the infant against infectious and chronic diseases.
  • Exclusive breastfeeding reduces infant mortality due to common childhood illnesses such as diarrhoea or pneumonia, and helps for a quicker recovery during illness

Remember I said the leading causes of death was diarrhoea and pneumonia? Exclusive breastfeeding is the single best thing women can do to protect their baby. Exclusive breastfeeding has literally saved lives in these communities, and the people will tell you so. Below is a photo of a couple I spoke to who have two other children. They said they had never undergone exclusive breastfeeding before, but with the newborn they agreed to try it and noticed a clear difference. The newborn does not fall sick and seems much stronger and healthier compared to his brothers when they were infants. They regret not exclusively breastfeeding their other two children.


3. Children need to play.

Duh right? Not really. You won’t find toys in most homes and most people do not think it essential that their child have play time. In an environment where people struggle to buy soap for hand-washing, play materials are considered a luxury. However, after learning about how play helps with brain development, the women in the community committed to creating toys out of local resources. When speaking to community health workers, I was told that before they would not see even one play toy in the home. But now, at least for women who are participating in the educational sessions, they always carry at least one toy in their purse for their child, and have others at home.


Toys made by women in the community from local resources. 


This is the first time kids in the community have an official playground. 

For my Gainesville people, imagine growing up without a Westside Park, or a Kids Space. Imagine a world where kids are discouraged to play. Watching these kids play was the highlight of my week, and made me reflect on the injustice that millions of kids face when they are robbed of their childhood rights.

So there you have it, a quick snapshot of some of the things I’ve been working on and experiencing in Tanzania. Stay tuned for the Success Stories as you’ll be introduced to some great people, including the community leaders who have helped change their neighbours’ lives for the better.


You’ll hear more about these ladies soon.