01/08/2012 08:44 am ET Updated Mar 09, 2012

Traveling to Ethiopia

I started The Abyssinian fund 18 months ago out of my deep love for Africa and its people. The Abyssinian Fund is an organization committed to reducing poverty and creating programs for Ethiopians to better their lives. This past trip to Ethiopia helped to open my eyes to a world very different from my own as I connected with men, women and children who are directly benefiting from the work that we are doing in their village. I am also very grateful for my connection to The Abyssinian Baptist Church whose ministry continues to extend its helping hand beyond Harlem.

Traveling is one of the best ways to experience different cultures and learn new things about the world and yourself. During my 5th trip to Ethiopia, I discovered some insightful new things about my brothers and sisters in Chaffee Jenette. Usually these trips are filled with business meetings and tight schedules but this time I had some free time to get to know the people of Chaffee Jenette. Here is what I learned:

What did the children do during the day? The women?

Children go to school from 8 A.M. - 12noon, Monday through Friday. In the small classrooms there are 60 students per teacher, each leading lessons covering math, English and Earth-science. Most teachers have only a high school education. It's hard to imagine 60 students crowded into one classroom but even harder to believe they attend school for only half-days; this is because there is not enough money to afford teachers for full days. Most school children are male since the majority of young girls spend the day with their mothers making four-hour trips to fetch drinking water. When they do attend class, girls often miss over a week at a time during their menstrual cycle each month since there are no clean bathrooms and adequate sanitation. So the education gap continues between men and women starting from young boys and girls.

What is the process of retrieving water?

In order to get around Chaffee Jenette, you walk. There is no running water. In order to bathe, cook and drink, women and young girls walk for four hours to the nearest spring. They trek through narrow, rocky, un-paved roads and carry yellow, heavy water buckets, called jerrycans, atop their heads. This journey consumes so much of their day that the women don't have much time to do anything else.

Based on a photo of three women sitting around and drinking coffee, do they normally take coffee breaks?

It is very common to see groups of people sitting around and drinking coffee throughout the day. This is similar to our modern coffee breaks except men and women meet separately. Men usually break from their work and women, from their cooking and cleaning. Gossip is shared and coffee is sipped, dark and without sweetener.

What material are the houses made of? What was the temperature like? What did you sleep on? What time do they wake up to work?

Sleeping there is uncomfortable. At night, I slept on a 6-inch thick mattress, purchased from the corner store, which was placed on the floor. Adjusting to the schedule is even more difficult. Everything revolves around the sun. Because there is no electricity throughout the village all tasks are based around daylight hours, between dawn and dusk. I was the only one stumbling since everyone else was accustomed to getting around using pocket flashlights as their guide.

What, besides farming, are other forms of work?

Besides coffee farming, which is the main profession in Chaffee Jenette, there are also many carpenters, mechanics, barbers and government officers. Auto mechanics are very valuable because with all the rocks and debris on the roads, anyone with a car is sure to accumulate a lot of damage. Many professionals attain their positions without any formal training or schooling; instead, they work as apprentices and learn their skills from elders.
-What was something interesting you learned while in the fields with Demeke and the farmers?
I've been to Ethiopia several times and we have been training farmers for almost a whole year, however this was the first time I saw so many farmers who were my age participating in our training program. It was really satisfying to see young men and women, just like me, who are gaining skills to make their lives better. These young famers have the ability, energy and longevity to pass on their knowledge to friends and family.

Though the quality of life is poor, what was the mood like within the neighborhood?

Most people I met don't consider themselves poor. To some degree, poverty is a matter of perspective. Ethiopians are hardworking and are making the best quality of life for themselves given what they have. No, there isn't modern technology and materials but that's why I am here and The Abyssinian Fund is involved. We help the farmers use what they have, their knowledge of coffee and the land on which to grow it, to make a change

What was dinner like? What time was it served? Did the whole family gather around to prepare and eat together?

Almost all families eat dinner together. The meal consists of some sort of meat stew with injera bread and hot chili powder. To drink, there is water, Coca-Cola or coffee. Coca-Cola is cheaper than water in Chaffee Jenette and is delivered to each home much like milk bottles were delivered to American doorsteps more than 50 years ago. Meals are prepared by the women after the men have gone off to work and the children to school. Like most things, cooking takes a long time. With just one hot plate, each dish must be prepared individually, one at a time. During this process, stories are shared so it is an important time for bringing the family and community together.