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On May 19, 2008, Dean Carolyn Woo and her son Justin Bartkus began a two-week trip traveling through Ethiopia and Kenya with representatives of Catholic Relief Services (CRS). From meeting with heads of state to touring remote villages, the group’s mission is to see firsthand how CRS partners with communities and the local Catholic Church to improve food security, water access and health, particularly regarding HIV and AIDS.

CRS representatives include board members Dean Woo, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee and Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville; CRS Foundation board member Art Wigchers; and Sean Callahan, executive vice president of CRS Overseas Operations.

In the following blog posts, Dean Woo and Justin describe their experiences.
Jun 3, 2008

Carolyn writes: The last leg of our Africa trip was the most overwhelming for me.


In Kenya, we got a more detailed grassroots look at the violence that resulted after the election at the end of December 2007.  While the trigger was mass reaction to election irregularities, the seething anger was stoked by ethnic divisions tied to unresolved tensions about rights to land.  These differences, played up by politicians to create voter support, erupted in ways that took the average Kenyan by surprise.  Approximately 1,000 people died while 600,000 (estimates varied) were displaced when neighbors turned on each other along ethnic lines to claim homes, livestock and land. People who have worked, lived and worshipped together all of a sudden looked upon each other with suspicion and, in some cases, with hostility.  While the situation has calmed down and the Church is doing extraordinary work in peacebuilding, the underlying factors remain.  In addition, there are now new grievances, unclear accountability for those who incited the violence, displaced citizens, an infrastructure for violence in the neighborhoods, and the "trophies" of what violence can gain.


In one of Mombasa’s slums, we walked with Emma who works for the local diocese on peacebuilding in this neighborhood.  This is home for her and her 9-year old son.  Emma is one of the few employed but worries about being mugged on a daily basis.  She showed us the effort of a neighbor to build a stone side for his house to replace the straw that currently upholds the dwelling.  He puts a few stones on when he has the money.  But the stones do not stay as these are taken away almost as soon as he puts them up.  Emma tries to be home before sundown.  I wondered what a challenge it must have been for her to get home the night the diocese held a celebration for us until 10 pm.  There are no lights, no roads (just paths made muddy by rain) and little sense of safety.


In a meeting with Cardinal Njue of the Archdiocese of Nairobi, it was clear to me that the diocese must reach out to business – not for philanthropy but as a partner for development.  60 percent unemployment cannot be solved without engaging the business sector and left alone will breed more violence.  My advocacy for Peace through Commerce went from a rather intellectual level to the gut level.  Perhaps this is the most important gift for my own education.  I don't know where I found the voice to advise the Cardinal but I emphasized to him how the Catholic Church has successfully reached across many boundaries: from relief to economic development and from Christian brothers and sisters to partners of other faiths.  The Church must now use its influence and highly sophisticated education of her leaders to convene business in addressing these issues. While business and Church will have different primary focuses, there also is a common ground and  common interests.  Much depends on our recognizing and forging these common elements.


Finally, in a session at an AIDS clinic, we met with approximately 20 discordant couples, where one spouse is living with HIV and the other is not.  Three women spoke about their hopelessness when they found out they were HIV positive.  One, in her early or mid-20s, felt like both her marriage and her life would be over.  They talked about the care that they received from the clinic and the restoration of their lives and livelihoods.  I could not help but imagine for each couple the trauma to their marriage and what it took for the couple to stay together and care for each other. It was a much needed reminder to me that forgiveness, healing and new hope are possible despite our own frailties and limitations.


I need to believe this because it is the only counter-force to violence.  When I think pragmatically, I can’t help but note how easy it is to resort to violence and the Herculean efforts it takes to create peace.  It is in such moments that I turn to God who is not pragmatic and fortunately gives us love and grace beyond what we think is humanly possible.


I am convinced: Divide and we will be conquered.


But with God’s grace, we can instead try a little harder to come together, suspending one grievance, one suspicion, one self-interest at a time.


The alternative fills me with dread.



Jun 2, 2008

June 1, 2008

Justin writes: I actually am writing this from home in South Bend, but only because we were without Internet access for our last three or four days in Kenya!  We did and saw so many things that it would be impossible to describe them all.

Two of our days in Kenya were spent at Mombasa, a hot and humid (and very poor) city in the southeast of the country, on the coast of the Indian Ocean.  Here we visited an AIDS clinic, witnessed a support group meeting for married couples living with HIV and ventured into an urban slum.  We also spent time in Nairobi visiting with the papal nuncio to Kenya and the local cardinal.  I’d like to comment on two of our experiences in particular, as they both left a deep impression on me.

1) While in Mombasa, our CRS delegation had the opportunity to visit the home of a recipient of HIV treatment supplied through the local Catholic Church in partnership with CRS.  The woman whom Archbishop Kurtz, Kenya country director Ken MacLean and I met with was named Selena, and she was an incredibly inspiring woman.  Her husband had died in 2002 and she has five children.  Last year, she received the news that she had tested positive for HIV.  She is a tenant in a small mud house with corrugated steel roofing.  She pays 400 Kenya shillings a month (about $6.50 – not cheap for her) to rent a mere two rooms of the house.  It is hard to imagine how agonizing it is to learn that one has the virus; she knew that her life would never be the same.  Yet she faithfully takes her anti-retroviral (ART) drugs and has had the courage to head up a support group for other women living with HIV in the neighborhood – not an easy task considering how people with HIV, especially women, are often stigmatized and belittled in this culture.  Selena also is an active participant in a local savings and internal lending community (SILC), which helps empower disenfranchised women to assert economic independence.  She was not only courageous, but also very funny, pleasant and good-willed.  You could tell that she had a huge heart, and even though her life must have flashed before her eyes when she learned of her HIV status, she has remained strong (and her youngest son is really cute!  see the picture!)  To see someone who lives life with such fullness in spite of such difficult circumstances illustrates what true hope looks like – and how it translates to action.

2) Another of our stops in Mombasa was the office of the CICC – the Coastal Interfaith Council of Clerics.  In response to the political violence in Kenya, which in some cases manifested itself in religious bigotry and acts of terror, a group of local Muslim, Catholic, Protestant and Hindu religious leaders banned together to research the roots of these conflicts and to preach messages of peace to their congregations.  Undoubtedly, many of these men met resistance from their flock; in such times of upheaval, cooperation and solidarity are often trampled by division and vengeance.  In the Mombasa region, the work of the CICC was certainly felt in dissolving the religious tensions which followed the controversial elections.  The ironic thing was that the conflicts between Muslims and Christians on the coast were really not about religion at all.  When resources are scarce and land is contested, opposing groups will latch onto religious differences as a justification for prejudice and violence toward each other, even though this is not the real problem.

We heard one story about how Catholic Archbishop Lele of Mombasa stood in front of the doors of a mosque which was about to be burned by a mob of angry young Christians.  He told them that in order to burn the mosque, they’d have to kill him first.  At that, the mob laid their torches down.  What tremendous courage.

I also was impressed by the fact that the clerics of the CICC admitted that there did exist tension among them several months ago when they first met, and to an extent, there still does.  Fortunately, theological differences did not prevail over the urgent need for collaboration in resisting the post-election religious violence.  I thought it tremendously wise that they have postponed theological debate, so as not to let those differences get in the way of the work they have to do.  The CICC is a shining example of leaders of various religions coming together in effective collaboration without reducing their respective faiths to a watered down, “least common denominator” belief system.


May 26, 2008

 May 26, 2008 – Nairobi, Kenya

 Justin writes: After having been under the weather for the last couple of days, I mustered up the energy to fly out with my mom and Archbishop Kurtz to our journey’s next stop: Kenya.  At present we are staying in Nairobi, although tomorrow we will depart by plane for Mombasa.  We are sleeping tonight at the serene and very peaceful guest house of the Mary Knoll fathers, two of which are avid Notre Dame football fans – another reminder that the world is indeed very small.

During the day today, we were briefed by the CRS staff stationed in Kenya.  If you’ll recall, there were several months of very frightening ethnic violence after the Kenyan elections of last December.  Over 1,000 Kenyans were killed and more then half a million internally displaced by the conflicts.  The situation in Kenya was set aflame in January and February of this year after the election of the new ruling administration was perceived by many to be doctored.  CRS was among the first international NGOs to arrive on the scene, and worked with both the Kenyan Catholic Church and the government of Kenya in helping to spearhead the post-violence peace-building effort.

These events were by and large a shock to the international community, and it seems that even those who are knowledgeable about Kenyan politics failed to foresee such a drastic escalation.  Kenya has long been considered to be one of the most stable and most prosperous nations on the continent.  Fortunately, one of our drivers (I’ve named him Peter the Less, as opposed to our other driver, Peter the Greater) tells me that things have settled down and are back to normal.  Even still, Kenya has no single ruling administration, but patched together a coalition government as a temporary response to the conflicts.

Nairobi itself seems to be quite a bustling place, and one can sense a greater western presence here than in Addis Ababa, which had never been colonized by any European power.  The signage reads exclusively in English and many Western companies have invested here.

Over the next few days, we’ll explore the several operations which CRS is diligently and effectively carrying out in Kenya.  We’ll check out the tremendously effective HIV/AIDS treatment and education programs in Kenya as well as visit schools and attend peace-building discussions.  For a country emerging from such a frightening period of violence and where half of its citizens live below the poverty line, these CRS programs offer Kenyans a new start.  The work of CRS is both impressive and exemplary, because the organization’s goal is ultimately to hand over the responsibility for maintaining these health care programs and schools to the Kenyan people themselves, so that they will be empowered to create their own promising futures.

On a concluding note, I would like to say that today I saw a giraffe in its natural habitat for the first time in my life.  Not that I dislike our beloved Notre Dame squirrels, but a few giraffes would really liven up the ND eco-experience!

May 25, 2008

Carolyn writes: Roses, Bees, Sheep and Ox


Roses: I love roses and am often delighted how I can pick up a couple of dozens of roses for less than $20 at the Big Box Retailers.  In the country side of Ethiopia, I saw the endless stretches of rose farms, financed by European growers and given tax breaks by the Ethiopian government.  Our local guides are upset about these farms as these drain the river and use pesticides which have caused cancer to the workers.  Ethiopia has attracted such investments as Kenya imposed stricter regulations.  Come to think of it, I don’t need low-priced roses after all.


Bees: Bees are indigenous to Ethiopia but the traditional method sets a drum 20 feet up in the tree.  The yield and quality are not optimal.  CRS worked with individual communities to identify the poorest of the poor.  It would provide these individuals with the type of  bee hives we commonly see (boxes with horizontal shelves set about 3 -4 feet off the ground) and  training.  Compared to the traditional hives, the new setup generates a quality of honey that fetches price per unit at a multiple of 2.5 times the original and quantity three times the original.  The farmer with the hives shared with us from his tubs of honey a spoonful of raw sugar.  It is the custom that the community all eat from the same spoons. 


Sheep and Ox

CRS pioneered livelihood fairs where the poorest farmers are provided coupons to buy seed or  livestock to re-generate their living.  The setup is designed to prevent the misuse of resources and the development of black markets.  That would take another entry to explain.  A farmer left with one ox used his coupon to buy three sheep.  Within a year, he had 12 sheep.  He traded 4 sheep for a cart and an ox.  He needs 2 oxen to plow the field.  He used another 4 sheep to buy a donkey.  He now has a cell phone to call relatives.  His life changed.  Each sheep is worth around $40 (a princely sum for an economy with average income of $150). Another farmer traded 9 sheep for 20 sheets of tin with which he built his home. 


Yet famine remains in certain areas where the rains did not come.  About 4 million individuals are affected in a pocket to which sustainable interventions (of the kind we have been describing) have not been made and people, livestock, crops remain completely dependent on rain.  It will be another 5 months before the problem can be alleviated IF the next round of rain comes.  On this Feast of Corpus Christi, around the breakfast table at Bishop Abraham’s guest house, we heard reports and looked at wrenching pictures of starvation.  My breakfast of coffee and bun with marmalade is an unimaginable feast to so many.

May 23, 2008

Carolyn writes: I went to the Missionaries of Charity (MOC), the order founded by Mother Teresa.  The sisters all wore the white saris with blue trim and smiles that just didn’t quit.  The facility serves about 1,200 adults and children in residence.  They are all very ill with deformities and illnesses which make them outcasts of society.  Quite a number are near death.  Another nearby facility houses 450 HIV positive orphans.  When we arrived, I saw a small sculpture of Mother Teresa and then scores of boys and girls dressed in their festive best (white dresses and colorful saris). They sang and danced for mass that was joy unlimited!!! They looked happy and “jolly.”  The sisters and volunteers came from all over the world: Philippines, Italy, Denmark, India, a Jewish doctor from Brooklyn, England, Ireland, Spain, etc.

It was heartbreaking to see the adults but the children just made me laugh. They performed tricks for us which they learned in lessons given by children from a circus who had sought assistance from the sisters.  The kids were good. The little ones love to be held and they are BEAUTIFUL children.  We went into the “newborn” wing (about 1-3 months).  These are babies who have been abandoned: dropped in garbage bins, etc.  They are like dolls.  There are 350 adoptions per year.

The sisters are simply wonderful.  Sister Benedicta, a German sister who is also an MD and a joyful soul, runs the place.  Later in the afternoon, at a big ceremony to honor the 50th anniversary of CRS in Ethiopia, she spoke in the way that I imagined Mother Teresa would have spoken.  She talked about how each person is God in disguise; that we will all end up in the same place and God will ask us whether we turned HIM down when we ignored our brothers and sisters in suffering.  She quoted Mother Teresa, “ We can’t do what you do, you can’t do what we do; but together we can bring about something beautiful.”

 It was poignant because by this time next year, due to a projected reduction in USAID allocations, high food prices and low dollar value, Missionaries of Charity food rations would be cut to half. The gathering included the U.S. Ambassador, the director of U.S. AID in Ethiopia, and other dignitaries.   We were all choked up. It was a moment when we all recognize what is at stake: the wellbeing of those we just visited and our own humanity. It was a wonderful moment—there was no question that the Holy Spirit was with Sr. Benedicta.

At the ceremony, a painting was unveiled depicting CRS’ work in Ethiopia. It included a sister of the Missionaries of Charity, a handshake in acknowledgment of work made possible only because of our local partners, a scale and a dove: justice and peace. 

Now for those who are really into sustainability practice: ECO-SANITATION. Disposal of waste is a MAJOR problem and the source of much illness and death in developing countries.  The existing solution, which collects all waste into a central location is NOT sustainable and has horrible collateral effects. (Actually, the centralization of waste follows the approach we use in the west).  How does one talk about this without grossing everyone out!!

Needless to say, a new solution is needed.  CRS pioneered a simple, sustainable solution.  It is a new paradigm: decentralized approach.  Each household digs a hole (about 1 meter in diameter, and 2 meters deep).  On top of hole, a family would place a  concrete slab (1 meter x 1 meter).  The concrete slab can be made with $5.00 and takes one hour.  Privacy is provided by a  fence of branches, rocks or whatever materials are available.  At the end of each use, ash (from cooking) is poured into the hole – it is highly absorptive; creates good compost, and dispels the smell.  At the end of 6 months, the family would move the fence and concrete slab to another location and plant a fruit tree in the hole. This innovation, by CRS, is featured in a a BBC documentary.  24,000 holes have been dug in the last 2 years!!!

As it always happen on these trips, whenever I see the bags of grains marked “USA,” I am deeply moved.  I am so glad that we send these grains – they are the only bridge between starvation and a chance at another day for so many people.

May 23, 2008

Carolyn writes: Hello from Addis Ababa. It’s our third day in Addis and the first quiet moment to sit down and share a few experiences. By way of background, Ethiopia’s GDP is about $6 billion.  85% of the population are engaged in agriculture.  Of these, less than 15% and 8% have access to water and sanitation respectively.  In the rural areas, the work of fetching water falls to girls and women, often taking 4-5 hours a day just for this task. They can carry up to 45 pounds of water on their shoulders and heads.  As a result, many girls do not go to school.

When visiting Archbishop of Addis, we passed by an adjoining school.  Girls in the 11th grade were having recess and playing sports.  I chatted with 4 of them.  They spoke perfect English and all told me they wanted to go to college. Of the four, three want business and one sees journalism in her future.  This is in a land where the probability  of girls finishing 6th grade is less than the probability of  girls dying in childbirth. The school is split into am and pm sessions and serve 5,000 students! Viva Catholic Schools!!
The water flowing through this irrigated canal is the lifeblood of local farmers
In an outlying village, we saw the marvels of irrigation: CRS assisted in developing an irrigation system for growing vegetables.  A farmer now can get more revenues from 1/8 hectacres than what he used to get for 2.25 hectacres. Dear business professors: please calculate the multiple!!!!  I worry about the impact of such sudden wealth!

The technology used is very simple but there are significant government, social and market innovations.  (A) In Ethiopia, the land is owned by the government. In this case, negotiations led to the deeding of the land to the association of 40 families which will farm this land. The farmer who owns this field credits the newly-installed irrigation system(B) The farmers will grow what is out of season (thus earning a premium) because it is no longer dependent on rain.  (C) The farmers now have cell phones so that they can check prices and go for the highest bidder, (D) the profits will go to the association and not to individual families; and the most incredible, (E) half of the proceeds will go to a fund for adolescent girls – the money is theirs to manage!!!  This is empowerment with teeth!!!

Improving life for women requires multi-faceted actions.  It’s more than not having to carry water so that a girl can go to school.  It’s not just giving her a fund to learn how to manage money or have some independence.  Another action is the re-training of older women in the village whose source of income in the village is genital mutilation – a practice which is really performed by older women on younger women because of both tradition and livelihood.

May 22, 2008

Justin writes: Today’s activities were tremendous, exhausting and incredibly moving all at once. We spent the day in and around the town of Meki, about two hours from Addis Ababa. Meki and the surrounding areas are part of the Rift Valley, which is where “Lucy,” the oldest hominid every discovered, was unearthed. The Valley is called the “cradle of humanity,” as the emergence of the human species is generally believed to have occurred there.

Girls like these would ordinarily have to endure a ten kilometer We rumbled across miles and miles of bumpy, unnamed, dirt roads to see the fruits of CRS projects, including internal lending communities, newly installed irrigation systems and schools.

Most touching of all, however, was our stop at the village of Koye Jejaba, an area suffering severely from water shortages. In this village, women (and women only) are made to walk ten kilometers back and forth to fetch water for their families – water, I might add, that is muddy and contaminated by disease-laden human waste. The archbishops turn on the water spigots for the first time CRS and its partners just recently placed the finishing touches on a brand new water supply system for the village, and today, the new system was inaugurated. Archbishops Dolan and Kurtz, along with Bishop Abraham Desta of Meki, had the honor of being the first to release water from the spigots, a phenomenon which very few members of the community had ever witnessed.

The celebration which went up from the villagers was joyous; rhythmic clapping of hands by the men and hooting and hollering by the women. As two elderly women watched their livestock drink clean water for perhaps the first time ever, they raised their arms to heaven, thanking God in their native tongue for the precious gift which they had received. One of the elders at Koye Jejeba singing a song of blessing

The elders of the community sang to us a song of blessing, recounting the untold suffering of previous years, expressing gratitude to us for CRS’ work, and reminding us that “water is life.” No more water-related disease; no more ten kilometer hikes; no more decimated livestock.As our van departed Koye Jejeba, villagers smiled, waved and clapped I feel blessed to have witnessed such a concrete instance of Christian love truly bridging the gap between cultures and peoples.


One of the classic moments of this ceremony was when the elders informed us that they had slaughtered a bull in our honor, and that we were all invited to partake of it with them. I have to admit that the offer did not strike me as appetizing (the natives weren’t upset, because it meant more for them!). Instead we settled for some orange soda, Pepsi and teff injera, a large thin and spongy pancake set out with dollops of grilled meat stew. The fare was a touch too spicy for our inexperienced and uncultured American palates. Even still, our meeting with the villagers was very cordial, and it was an experience that I will keep with me for a very long time.These livestock were the first to drink from the new trough

May 21, 2008

Justin writes: Greetings from Ethiopia! Our Catholic Relief Services (CRS) delegation arrived last evening at around 7:30. Upon arrival we were met with several surprises. First was the realization that the Ethiopian calendar is seven years behind our Gregorian calendar. Millennium banners and Christmas light-like decorations adorned the city streets as our CRS van delivered us from the airport to our hotel. Apparently the folks here celebrated the turning of the millennium just last September. I should also add that all the people whom we’ve encountered here have been very kind and hospitable.

The second unexpected surprise regarding our arrival was much more ominous. At around 8:45 local time, a car bomb was detonated within a block or two of our hotel. Our driver had a tough time reaching our hotel, as many of the roads leading there had been cordoned off by police due to the explosion. We only learned about the blast as we were checking into our hotel. I’m glad that we only found at that point, otherwise our ride to would have been much more intense! Initial reports stated that only a few had been injured and no one killed, but we’ve now been informed that three people died. Such incidents, we are told, are extremely rare in this country, and the government quickly processed and handled the situation. Nevertheless, this incident is a sobering reminder of the tense conditions which subsist in the Horn of Africa.

I should say that we do feel secure here, and that the CRS staff has done an extraordinary job in welcoming us here and getting us settled. It’s already clear that they are both incredibly knowledgeable and tremendously skilled. From the experiences of our first evening here and the discussions we’ve had with country manager David Orth-Moore and executive vice president of overseas operations Sean Callahan, it is plain to see that the political situation here in Ethiopia is complex, and that the crises of poverty, food shortage and health which plague the nation are not simple problems to solve. Despite these realities, CRS is undaunted in the persistence with which it engages multiple channels for change: politics, both national and international, the Catholic Church, and the people of Ethiopia themselves, whom CRS empowers to break the cycle of suffering.

Here in Addis, we are nearly 8000 feet above sea level, which contributes to very pleasant temperatures in the 60s and 70s. Addis is really the only major city in Ethiopia, with a population of around five million. It’s located in central Ethiopia, a country which is historically Christian, but is now witnessing the rise of Islam in social, economic and political circles. The poverty figures of Ethiopia are staggering: during “normal” times, the number of Ethiopians suffering malnutrition ranges from five to eight million. Ethiopia has just now passed through a failed rainy season, and with the international food crisis acutely affecting the country, the proportion of citizens suffering malnutrition is more than ten percent. These circumstances make the work of CRS that much more important to the livelihood of the Ethiopian people.

Today we visited several Ethiopian VIPs, including the President of this country (who, by the way, is an avid fan of Thomas Jefferson). Later my mom will provide her own thoughts about the day’s events. Tomorrow we go into the field to CRS project sites, which will assuredly be an eye-opening experience.