'It's hard not to be moved by it' - Irish donations enable operations that 'literally save people's lives' in Ethiopia
-'Life affirming' trip to see Irish donations do 'amazing' work in Ethiopia
More than 400 Ethiopian schoolchildren stand at the gate of their school to see a handful of Irish volunteers.
A chorus of ‘welcome’ resonates across the yard as they come forward to give as many high fives as they can.
These children’s lives could have been very different. Their parents and generations before had little to no knowledge of sanitation and eye care and as a result, the agonising eye infection trachoma is rampant across the area. Trachoma spreads very fast in crowded and unhygienic conditions. The agonising infection clouds the vision and eyelashes turn inward and scratch at the eye surface.
This condition was eliminated in Ireland 60 years ago, while Ethiopia currently has more people affected by trachoma than any other country in the world.
The effects are clear to be seen for the 45 volunteers who have travelled from Ireland to see how Irish donations is changing all this. Although some children are left permanently scarred by alternative and traditional methods or banishing the condition, positive change is visible.
In this school in Bonke, Southern Ethiopia, the Irish cohort are thrilled to see some positive change in attitudes and hygiene. Among those who travelled from Dublin is broadcaster Aidan Power, who says this was the highlight of his week-long trip.
"Being at that school and meeting the kids was amazing. The warmth and the natural curiosity of them come say hello was so beautiful and friendly. It was definitely very special,” he said.
For many Ethiopians, it’s too late for a preventative measure. In a small and basic hospital, a young woman queues up for a cheap and fast suergery that will give her a new lease of life.
She has been suffering from trachoma for some time now and today’s the day she finally can be rid of the dreaded condition. While the hospital’s surgeon works to bring her eyes to better health, Aidan and a handful of other volunteers watch on.
“I guess in one sense it’s a routine and short surgery, but it literally saves people's lives. Within 15 to 20 minutes, she had the successful operation. Within a couple of days, she gets back to having a chance of a full life,” the radio presenter said.
“It couldn't not affect you. It's hard to put it into words. It's one thing having the remove of watching it at home on the television, but when you come here and see it first hand, it's hard not to be moved by it. Definitely in a really good way though.”
Great Ethiopian Run
It was not just the eye-opening experience in Southern Ethiopia that attracts Irish visitors. The volunteers’ journey starts in the country’s capital Addis Ababa. The eclectic mix of 45 volunteers have fundraised more than €100,000 altogether to get here and take part in the legendary Great Ethiopian Run.
The 10 kilometre run meanders through the Addis streets and is famous for its festival-like atmosphere. The run is no small affair, with around 40,000 people joining in on the celebrations. According to Aidan, it was one of the most colourful experiences imaginable.
"I think it was a bit like school. You had the good people running up the front and the messers down the back. There were 40,000 of us and I think there were more messers than elite. It was incredible,” he said.
"It's one of the most incredible, vibrant cities I've ever been in in my life. I guess the overriding thing of it was everyone was having fun. There was even people stopping having beers. We didn’t though.”
Since 2008 Orbis has taken 300 people to the Great Ethiopian Run and raised more than €500,000 for its sight saving project in southern Ethiopia, according to charity head Diane Weatherup.
"It's fantastic to have so many people travelling with Orbis to take part in this phenomenal race. The group has raised in excess of €100,000 for our projects in southern Ethiopia," she said.
"This is a unique opportunity for our team to not only take part in a vibrant 10 kilometre race, but also witness firsthand the impact their fundraising has on the people of Ethiopia."
When applying to visit Ethiopia with Orbis, wannabee volunteers have the option of just going to the capital for the Great Ethiopian Run, or experiencing the full Ethiopian adventure.
One punter was set to go home after her time in Addis Ababa, but after witnessing the colour and atmosphere in the capital, Sarah Jane Kirwan said there was no way she could say no to visiting the projects of Southern Ethiopia.
“I was so taken by the beautiful country and the amazing people of Ethiopia in only one day there was no way I was going home without visiting the South of Ethiopia. I could not let this amazing experience pass me by,” the Dubliner said.
“Every single part of my Ethiopian trip will stay with me forever, Orbis is an amazing charity and the work they do is fantastic. Ethiopian people are to be admired they have nothing but yet are so happy and so gracious.
“I am forever grateful for my experience.”
This sentiment is definitely echoed by Aidan, who recently started presenting a new breakfast show on iRadio.
“To see the work of Orbis Ireland here and to see how effective it is has been wonderful,” he said.
“It's been quite life-affirming and amazing.”
Photos by Mel Maclaine.