A Notre Dame Student Visits Ethiopia

Justin Bartkus, a sophomore at the University of Notre Dame, is currently touring CRS projects in Ethiopia and Kenya with his mother, CRS Board Member Dr. Carolyn Woo. Here, Justin shares his first impressions from the field.

View from hotel in Addis Ababa.

View from the hotel in Addis Ababa. Photo by Justin Bartkus

Greetings from Ethiopia! Our Catholic Relief Services delegation arrived in the capital of Addis Ababa Tuesday evening at around 7:30 pm. 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 p.m. 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 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 that 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 representative 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 shortages and health that 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 8,000 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 that 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 from malnutrition ranges from five million to eight million people. 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 from malnutrition is more than 10 percent. These circumstances make the work of CRS that much more important to the wellbeing 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). Tomorrow we go into the field to CRS project sites, which will assuredly be an eye-opening experience.

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