In my last two posts, I wrote about a young man named Atsbha Abraha and his determination to get an education. I met him in Ethiopia, on a field visit to an Oxfam America-funded project in Tigray where he helped translate the stories women told about the hardships of living in a place where water is scarce.
We were snaking through the mountains of Tigray in a truck when Abraha told his tale, my questions carrying him back through the decades to the resettlement he endured in Gambella in the mid 1980s when the government was forcing families to move as drought and famine hit their communities. Sitting in front listening carefully—and so quietly—was my colleague, Girma Legesse.
At the end of the day, our field work complete, Legesse turned to us in the back seat and revealed that he, too, had been there in Gambella during that difficult time.
Unlike Abraha—who was just a boy when his family was shipped off to the hot and wet western region—Legesse was a second-year student at Alemaya University pressed by the government into spending more than two months constructing huts for the new arrivals.
“We were in a very terrible situation,” recalled Legesse. “Most of us were infected by malaria and diarrhea.”
It was the rainy season, and poured so hard sometimes that a mud-walled hut Legesse’s team built one day would be gone the next—melted away by the rain or destroyed by wild animals.
When his stint was up, Legesse came home barefoot (his shoes long lost in the mud) and emaciated.
“Nobody recognized me,” he said. “When I saw a mirror after two and a half months on my way back from Gambella, I was shocked.”
Abraha, quiet himself now, nodded solemnly.
“He built for me,” he said, and then smiled at Legesse—a new bond formed between men, strangers until that week, who have endured the same struggle.