What mothers want for our children: It’s all the same. Until it’s different.

I need to go back to Tuesday. Wait, was it Tuesday? It’s now early Friday here, but it’s getting hard to keep track of days and events as each day feels like a month. So many people, so many stories, so many emotions. So many gorgeous, warm people. So many holes in the ground to pee into. And such maddening little Wifi to keep up with it all.

Tuesday we visited the Mojo Primary and Secondary school, and if that’s not the best name for a school ever, I don’t know what is.

Christine Koh accepts flowers from a “special girl” – one of the top honor roll students.

What’s amazing about here–about everywhere, from government officials to farmer children–is just how warmly we are greeted. And it’s not just because it’s ONE. It’s because it’s a culture of incredible graciousness and respect, especially for foreigners. We drive down streets that are barely streets in our rickety bus (bless you, Sea Bands and Saltines) and children just run out into the road, taking a break from herding cattle or carrying grain on their heads. They wave, they smile, they jump up and down.
And all we are is some big bus filled with women, passing through on our way from somewhere to somewhere else, tossing up dirt dust into the air.

So imagine when we’re actually invited guests, as we were at the school.

Ethiopia ONEmoms trip/ C Liz Gumbinner

There’s this remarkable and strange formality of  presentations, as we’ve learned. One administrator will introduce “his excellency the director” and proceed to tell is in great detail complete with 68 PowerPoint slides, five years worth of quantifiable improvements  since receiving a $33,000 foreign aid grant.


Do you know how far that would go in a NYC school? Not that we can’t use it. But it’s hardly years worth of unbelievable successes.

Here at Mojo, over a five year period, it meant a library, computers, private latrines for the girls and teachers (evidently a shared latrine is one of the biggest reasons girls skip school, especially during their periods). It means significantly more teachers, more programs, and expansion of the school from 600 to 4,000 students. It means a science lab that the teacher was so proud of, he kept rushing out the door after we left to show us more experiments. Look, this one is solar power! Here is a circuit board!

One Moms Ethiopia Trip / c Liz Gumbinner

One Moms Ethiopia Trip/ c Liz Gumbinner

Most of all, the grant it means improvement for which they are very accountable; a change from 60% of seniors passing the exit exams, to a full 90%. In just 5 years. You can’t even imagine how that delivers on thousands of parents’ dreams for their children that many never thought possible.

Some of the library books are very familiar.  Although we have visions of updating those 1991 encyclopedias.

While the statistics are, with good reason, what the administrators are proud of, it’s the children–the joyful, amazing, energetic children–that demonstrated to us in the most basic way, that things are going well thanks to grants from the US.

These are kids who may walk miles to get to school each day. Even the five-year-olds. By themselves. (Hear that, helicopter moms?) They spend their days their happily and eager to learn. The sounds of kids repeating after teachers or singing from inside their classrooms, joyous voices echoing through the walkways between buildings put a lump in all of our throats. It’s the same sound–here, in the US, everywhere.

I found myself missing my own girls terribly. I kept thinking, “oh this one in the green dress and Thalia would totally be friends…I know Sage would love playing with that boy the Spiderman shirt.”

We heard kindergarteners sing a song about the five senses, and watched high school kids take on (and sometimes miss) geometry questions. If you closed your eyes (and had the lessons not been taught with strong Amharic accents) you wouldn’t have seen the peeling paint or the rickety desks or the flies swarming around the windowsills. You’d have just heard something that sounded a lot like home.

“Amma, do you know the answer to this equation?”
“A over B times C squared?”
“Is your name Amma?”

Of all of it however, I think the image burnt in my mind forever is saying goodbye. Literally hundreds of small children swarmed us, grabbing our hands to shake them or kiss them, stroking our hair, stroking our arms, shouting CIAO! Or THANK YOU! Or even I LOVE YOU!

So many children, I couldn’t see my way out of the crowd. So many children the who wanted a touch or a word or some acknowledgment from these visitors, the teachers had to physically push us through the throngs of outstretched palms and small wiggling fingers or we might never be able to leave.

These are the healthy ones. These are the 4,000 kids who are going to make it. But there should be more.

Asha (one of the most beautiful souls on the planet) asked one aid worker today on a different visit what all these children knew of us. He said, they just think you are visitors from America and perhaps you have some money which means good is coming to the community. Whatever it. is.

You can imagine why the tissues always come out the second we all step on the bus to head to our next site visit.

Some of the staff of USAID in Ethiopia were kind enough to have a drink with us this week. It was remarkably enlightening. pointed out that there’s this misperception that foreign aid is some sort of frivolous handout. I learned that it’s really not.

It’s not.

It doesn’t just mean solving some short-time crisis to save people from starving, noble and essential though that is; it means education. Which means skills. Productivity. Exports. Trade partners. Which means stability and security of our fellow UN nations. Which means fewer military investments later.

I’m personally all for that last one.

Also, as they said, it means humanity. We all have it. We don’t want to see people suffer. We are overjoyed to see them thrive and succeed even halfway across the globe. We are overjoyed to see it in their children.

ethiopia trip with the ONE moms / c Liz Gumbinner

Now think for a minute: if someone were to ask you, “what do are your dreams for your own children?” what would you answer?

We’ve asked many mothers here what they hope for their children. The answer tends to be the same everywhere: food, an education, a position of some stature in the community. As Asha pointed out, no one says, “I want them to be happy.” “I want them to pursue their passions.”

First, they just want them to live past five.

It puts a lot in perspective, doesn’t it.

I’m in Ethiopia this week on behalf of ONE, a non-profit advocacy organization that helps those most in need. They never ask for your money, only your voices. Learn more and please (please!) sign up at ONE Moms. You won’t regret it.

[photos: Karen Walrond, Liz Gumbinner. Mouse over for specific credits]


43 thoughts on “What mothers want for our children: It’s all the same. Until it’s different.”

  1. I love this post so much, and it touched me so much, and YOU touch me so much, I had to leave a comment. And I’m a few hotel rooms away from you! Can I just say again and again how grateful I am that you are on this trip, telling stories and relating these experiences as only you can?

    1. You can but only because I keep saying it to you. I hope everyone who reads this post finds your blog, and your beautiful spirit and voice. I’ve been so enlightened all week just hearing the questions you ask, hearing your observations, enjoying the way you connect with people.

  2. Going to Africa touches people in the most indescribably way, but the next best thing is reading this blog! I think you put your finger on it, those who are cynical about the value of foreign aid need only take a journey like yours, in real life or on their computer, to see the immense life altering good that can be done.

    1. I think what people don’t quite connect (nor did I) is how much it alters our own lives as well. We’re all part of the same world. We need each other.

      Thanks for your always supportive comments!

  3. Indeed, “We’re all part of the same world.” We are our sister’s keepers whether it’s in Ehtiopia, the South Bronx, or Syria. To deny that is to fail to recognize what your posts this week have so powerfully demonstrated: What we do in one part of the word has an equal and opposite reaction in every other part of the world. Physics 101.

    1. It’s funny how we don’t always think of it that way. I know I don’t connect those dots so easily; but I will now.

  4. “Also, as they said, it means humanity. We all have it. We don’t want to see people suffer. We are overjoyed to see them thrive and succeed even halfway across the globe. We are overjoyed to see it in their children.”

    You paint a vivid picture with your words. You’ve brightened up a dark New England fall morning with your hope and passion. Thanks.

  5. 33,000 wowza!! It puts things into perspective doesn’t it. Such a small amount goes such a lOOONG WAY.
    I loved your post and your thoughts on your experience. Looking forward to what happens next after the blog team comes back. Maybe raising 33,000 for more schools and more programs?

    Love keeping up with you online.

    1. Thanks so much Maria. They are incredibly resourceful. Not a thing here goes to waste. Torn books are still books. Old computers are still computers. The “aquarium” in the science lab is a plastic sheet taped inside a cardboard box to keep the water in. The artwork created by students is comprised of diagrams and anatomical charts that can be used as teaching materials.

      It’s unreal.

  6. Yes. This. This is what development and progress, and the future should all be about. Thank you for sharing your perspective and experience with us so powerfully!

  7. These posts tug at my heart in diametrically opposed ways. As I have mentioned, my two children are adopted from Ethiopia and Ethiopia is the most amazing country I have been too–beautiful, yes…but the people of Ethiopia are loving and kind and generous–everyone we met.

    I read these posts and I think of my children’s birth mothers. And I know that my son’s birth mom only wanted the best for her son when she made the excruciating choice to allow someone else to parent him. She just wanted to ensure him a future. She wanted to ensure him a life past age 5. My daughter’s birth mother was sick and knew she would not be able to feed her baby. All she wanted was the best for her daughter.

    I am so blessed to be my kids mother, but I am also heartbroken that these women are not able to be raise them. A parent should not have to make the choice to parent because of where they live. When I think that for $300 a year I could help a family keep their child and allow them to send their child to school–I do that to appease my guilt that my kids’ birth mothers didn’t have that choice.

    All a mother wants is for their children to be able to follow their dreams.

    1. I can’t tell you what to feel Dawn (and I can’t even imagine what this brings up in you), but so many mothers simply abandon their children to abusive situations because they had no other choice. Your kids are lucky to have two mothers who love them.

  8. I am truly touched by your post(s). When you return, you will have to tell us what we can do to help and contribute. It is amazing that, while impoverished, the people you have met seem genuinely happy and loving. With each post you have written, I have tears in my eyes. And I am so proud of you and what you are doing.

    1. That means the world, thank you. There are so many things everyone can do. The hard thing will be figuring out where to start.

  9. I want to thank you for laying out a complicated issue like foreign aid and making it relateable to everyone. Your post was, (as alway) heartwarming and most of all motivating. I signed up for ONE Moms this very second and am truly excited about learning more about their efforts. Thank you for sharing your adventures!

    1. THANK YOU JULIE! That right there is one of the best things you can do. And I adored your post about Fashionable (linked in your comment love) – your support is amazing.

  10. The imagery of the outstretched arms, peeling paint, smiley faces sing-songing their way through school, and wiggly fingers has me in absolute tears.

    Thank you for all that you are doing there, and for sharing their story.

  11. Liz, I’m so moved by your post – by your descriptions of the people you are meeting, the kids in their classrooms and the teachers and administrators, and how aid is working hard to improve people’s lives and give the next generation better opportunities. I can only imagine how incredible it is for you all to be sharing in the experience together. Sending love and hugs to you and all the incredible ONEMoms!!!

  12. I am so loving reading your posts. We are so blessed here in America and we often forget that so much of our world is like where you are. As the name of the organization suggests we are all ONE. Thank you (all of you).

  13. You’ve illustrated beautifully why organizations like ONE are essential to the progress of developing countries. Working with governments to identify programs that are the best candidates for investment and facilitating the process to ensure accountability and results — that’s invaluable in terms of getting the most benefit from aid. Your example — the quantifiable results of a $33K investment over 5 years — is huge, made all the more powerful by your personal observations.

    I love your posts. I know you must be exhausted, emotionally and physically, and a little under the weather too. It means a lot that you’re taking the time to document as you travel.

  14. The words are swirling around in my head, just as so many of your visuals are swirling around in my heart. I’m having a hard time separating any cognizant thought but I wanted to tell you that my kids have been following this ONE Moms journey and your words, along with Asha’s and Kelly’s and Christine’s, are all doing so much more to impact two Canadian teens than I ever could manage on my own. And that’s important. Because they need to know the world exists beyond their own borders and limitations. So thank you. For the work you are doing. xo

    1. Oh Tanis, wow. Just wow. I’d love you to post their thoughts sometime. That would be really special.

  15. What an unbelievable experience for everyone involved. Thank you for taking us on this trip with you. It is doubly making me aware of how blessed my existence is and helping me think about what we are or could be doing individually or collectively to help more.

  16. So very powerful Liz—-it’s so hard to understand what’s going on so many miles away. And when I just send a check or buy a product, it’s hard to feel like it’s “doing” anything. But it’s heartening to see the faces and read the stories of the people who are on the receiving end of all of this.

    1. What I’ve learned is that if even $10 from your purchase goes to a program like the ones I’ve been seeing this week, that’s a decent week’s pay for someone. Hard to believe, I know.

      Thanks Christina.

  17. What a fabulous illustration of just how far a little bit of support goes, and just how human – really human – the situation is. Building capacity in a sustainable way – that’s not a matter of dollars and cents, it’s a matter of lives.
    Beautiful. Thank you for articulating this so clearly and evocatively.

  18. Whew, Liz. All these posts are doing me in! Love reading them, love knowing you’re there, love the joy in all these photos.

    Going to buy some scarves now, just so I feel like I’m supporting some of the folks you’ve met in a small but measurable way.


  19. Clearly they picked the right woman to tell these stories. You posts are filling my eyes with tears and my heart with resolve to continue to focus on change. Thanks for taking me along on the journey.

  20. Your experiences here have been amazing and I’ve loved every word. To use this medium as a voice for the silenced in this world is a dream of mine. Thank you for letting me live through you this week.

  21. Foreign aid given to people is great, I don’t think anyone is arguing that but foreign aid given directly to corrupt governments is bad and enables them to continue to crush their people.

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