Mission in Mendida

by Thomas McHugh
photos by Christian Molidor, R.S.M.

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Ethiopia is becoming more and more isolated because of its civil war, which does not seem to abate despite the prospect of another serious famine. Concern has been growing over the reluctance of the government to allow relief agencies to distribute food to the four to five million people facing starvation in the northern areas of the country, areas largely controlled by rebel forces. For all their need, many of those people may have to rely on themselves.

The small town of Mendida in Ethiopia’s Northern Shoa region also fell a little farther off the map last summer. It lost its status as a civil administration center when a national assessment did away with existing districts and had localities absorbed by larger provinces. As part of the new province of Abichou and Tera, Mendida did not qualify as a “provincial town,” and the new administrative center was moved a distant 75 kilometers south on the road to Addis Ababa.

The change in status created some inconveniences, such as decreased access to government vehicles, but it more importantly raised security concerns. Mendida finds itself more isolated as anti-government rebels make further inroads into Northern Shoa and Northern and Southern Wollo.

Mendida does claim, however, the only technical training center in all 16 provinces of Northern Shoa. It is also the only Catholic technical school in the Archdiocese of Addis Ababa, which includes 10 civil administrative regions, and it is successfully turning out sorely needed skilled workers. More than anything, Ethiopia needs to be able to help itself.

Founded by Cistercian monks in 1974, the school has recently reopened, partially with the help of Catholic Near East Welfare Association, after a period of administrative difficulties. Since it was first registered with the Ministry of Education in 1982, it has conferred diplomas on 334 students, including 57 young women.

The Cistercian Monastery Technical School, as it is called, seeks to help young men and women acquire skills in house building, sanitation, water supply and reforestation. Needs are great in each field. It is estimated that as many as 50 percent of town dwellers live in slums and informal settlements without sanitation. A government rural health survey conducted several years ago in Northern Shoa found that only 1.8 percent of residents interviewed had access to latrines.

Health care workers can inoculate against epidemics and provide curative aid to the very sick, but without decent housing, good sanitation and clean water – not to mention adequate food supplies – even minimal levels of good health cannot be reached.

Reforestation is a critical need. At the beginning of this century, 40 percent of theland in Ethiopia was covered with forests, which now comprise only four percent. That represents not only a diminishing of the people’s prime source of cooking and heating fuel, but portends severe consequences for wildlife and for the land. Without foliage to hold vital soil deposits in place, the fertility of the land is severely reduced – this in a country in which most of the population is engaged in agriculture. Rain is a rare commodity, but when it falls upon bare earth it can damage as much as it replenishes.

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Tags: Ethiopia Education War Relief Catholic Schools