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Waiting for water

Philip Maher, a CCFC photographer, offers a window into life in Shalla Billa, Ethiopia

By Philip Maher

Last week I visited the community of Shalla Billa, approximately 200 km south of Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. The Christian Children’s Fund of Canada (CCFC) development team in Canada asked me to go and see the community and document it before decisions are made to work in the area. A qualitative evaluation will be done, but there’s nothing like a few photos to set the scene. It was an honour to visit folks and imagine how things will likely be better for them in a few years.

Turning off tarmac, we began driving on a gravel road that didn’t exist the last time I was here; it was still a pretty rough drive. To the north, Lake Abijatta glimmered in the sun. The water is salty and unfit for drinking or to serve as a habitat for wildlife — in fact, the lake produces soda ash, which is sold in large bags along the tarmac road. The naturally-occurring alkali chemical is used in glass manufacturing, to soften water and as an ingredient in household detergents, among other uses.

We drove to a water point surrounded by approximately 200 people with some 500 bright, yellow jerry cans sitting neatly in a line; they were waiting for water to be turned on from a pipe. Low water levels from the ongoing drought slowed things down. After the water was turned on, it would have taken three to four minutes to fill each of the 500 cans. I commented to my guide that the wait must be very frustrating. “No, not at all,” he quickly responded. “They used to walk 7 km to get water, so if they have to wait, it’s OK…. They would have to pay the donkey cart to carry the water; besides, they get to visit.”

No wonder Ethiopians are so social. In the distance, teen boys played volleyball with a homemade ball the size of a softball. They used an odd shaped tree trunk, growing sideways, as a net. No phones, no electricity, no cars, no Internet. This was their chance to play.

The landscape I saw was comprised of rocks, dust and Acacia trees with branches spread out flat to gather precious moisture. The trees were full of weaver birds, which swooped down to catch insects swarming around the livestock. Along the side of the water-point a river bed, approximately 40 feet wide, circled the area. Kids played in the sand-filled river, and goats crossed without any worry of drowning. It was completely dry.

The woman in this photo typifies the folks waiting for water on my visit. They were very friendly, maybe their children feared seeing a stranger, but the adults enjoyed the diversion — I hope.

Photo by Philip Maher