top of page
  • Writer's pictureSamantha McCandless

Goederts in Ethiopia Week 7: Our Visit to Gambela

Harsh is the best word that I can think of to describe Gambela.

It is one of the more desperate areas in Ethiopia and shares a border with the troubled South Sudan. The Gambela Region is in the southwestern part of Ethiopia. A city by the same name is about 20 miles from the Akobo River that demarks South Sudan and Ethiopian border. We went to Gambela to see the work that Brad and Kim Cambell have been doing for 15 years. They didn’t start in Ethiopia but rather started in war torn South Sudan near Nasir. They started an orphanage there with about 15 children. When government and rebel forces (actually opposing government factions) decided to restart the war they displaced the entire city population. Kim, Brad and orphans were caught in the crossfire-literally. With bullets flying all around them they headed to the surrounding countryside. For the orphans, being caught by the rebels could mean enlistment as child soldiers; being caught by the government meant being shot as rebels because they were Nuer.

The Nuer people are pastoralists who herd cattle for a living. They have a special relationship with their cattle and use them predominantly for breeding to increase their wealth. Cattle are typically traded as a dowry for a bride. Nuer are the second largest ethnic group in South Sudan and you might recognize them by the markings on their forehead and face made by scarring. Tattoos are the US counterpart to these markings; the Nuer view the cutting as beauty marks. Nuers are found on both sides of the border so, when trouble came to South Sudan, they naturally headed to their cousins in Ethiopia. For the orphans that was more than 70 miles away through hostile territory. Brad and Kim could get help for themselves from the US Embassy but they couldn’t see how they could leave their children. The older boys insisted that the children would be able to escape, to travel faster and be safer without the Campbells. Reluctantly, they left the children and for four weeks heard not a word of their plight. A phone call from the eldest boy (14 years old) relieved them of their worst fears. The children had made it to Gambela and were eager to be reunited with their American mom and dad.

The Gambela region has a population of around 436,000. The South Sudanese refugees nearly double the region’s population with 402,000 living in camps and the villages in the surrounding area. For many, the camps have become permanent homes after two decades of being Ethiopian refugees. There are more than 100,000 South Sudanese expatriates living in the US. Omaha is home to 10,000 Sudanese, more than any other city in the US. The Omaha population includes Angelina Teny who is the former second lady of South Sudan. Her husband is former Vice President Reik Manchar. The new violence in 2016 ended a peacekeeping effort that had lasted over three years. While the war is political, it is fueled by ethnic rivalry. Reik Manchar is a Nuer while the president is a Dinka which is the largest ruling ethnic group in South Sudan. Omaha has become a safe haven for many South Sudanese. Martha has been working with the Omaha Refugee Resettlement Medical group for years, and while we have been gone, Elkhorn women from Peace Presbyterian Church have been helping with income generating sewing help for the refugee women. It takes a village on both sides of the Atlantic. On our arrival at the orphange compound, an elder Sudanese woman washed our feet, honoring the journey to visit them. It is a profound kindness that costs nothing, but humbles the traveler and creates wondering about when this Sudanese violence will end.

Many refugees have not been fortunate enough to relocate. Brad and Kim’s orphans are among the 3.5 million (24% of the population) who were displaced from their homes. Tens of thousands were killed; Brad and Kim took in additional children, now numbering 30. The story behind how a two-year-old brother and four-year-old brother were added to this group includes an ambush by the government forces with their mother being killed by gunfire. Their aunt, travelling with them, grabbed one under each arm and fled into the bush. Once in Gambela, she was unable to feed two additional mouths because of her own family of five. The aunt brought the two brothers to the Campbell orphanage, not to the refugee camp. The poverty and hustle of the city is quite different from the beauty in country living. Although the farming and pastoral life is difficult, the land is fertile and provides hope of peace.

The Tukul homes of Ethiopia feature a round frame dwelling capped by a domed roof made of thatch. The walls are made of tree branches and covered with mud. We met one South Sudanese refugee who had two properties. She rented one and was particularly innovative in earning and investing her money. Bundles of thatching material are gathered from the field, tied up and delivered to the market for sale. Times were not always so good for this woman who, at one point, sold her clothes to feed her children and walked the countryside and village naked until she could once again afford clothing.

We have spoken numerous times of the South Sudanese students attending Bahir Dar University under scholarships designated for them. These students typically speak their local language, which may be Nuer, and another language they learned in elementary and/or high school. If educated in South Sudan this was likely English but if in Sudan it might be Arabic. In either case, Amharic, the Ethiopia official language of elementary schools, is foreign to them. English is supposed to be the language of teaching in high school and universities in Ethiopia but it is not enforced. Teachers and local students prefer and use their native tongue. When they get to the university, the same applies to my master’s students. The Ethiopians should have been taught in English for the last eight years of their schooling, realistically some only understand a few words. The South Sudanese students, who have already overcome a lifetime of adversity, take it in stride and learn Amharic and bring pressure on the Ethiopian teachers to teach in English. Reuy is a student whose father sent him to Sudan for school, where he learned Arabic. He came to Ethiopia without any English or Amharic. He is an example of an accomplished student, now fluent in 4 languages (three alphabets), who last week received his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering after 4.5 years at BDU. He plans to have a job in South Sudan in the oil fields as an engineer. We will keep track of his progress.

After the refugee flight to Ethiopia due to the South Sudan civil war, Brad and Kim Campbell purchased 13 acres of land in the country outside of Gambela. They have a dream to develop new home-style living for 200 children. In addition, they plan to build a church for the surrounding community, a school for the orphans and create enterprises to generate sustainable income for children as they become young adults. Ruon is one of the older boys who has a sharp business mind and engaging smile. At 17 years old, he rents a motorcycle daily and charges customers for transport. He is hoping to save enough to purchase his own motorcycle or bajaj one day. There is a recurrent gas shortage at the end of each month when the price of fuel doubles for a short while. Ruon had the idea of filling containers with fuel when the price is low and then selling it when the price is at a premium. Brad and Kim encourage his entrepreneurial enthusiasm but were not keen on the idea of gasoline containers stored at the orphanage. I expect that Ruon will find a suitable solution and one day be a leader beloved by all his brothers and sisters.

I noticed that on our walks around the 13-acre site that there were tukul huts surrounding the perimeter of the land. Families who love and work alongside Brad and Kim have set up a literal, circle of safety, knowing that the expected compound will come to fruition. The Campbells’ have created a village of caring and love, attracting others from Gambela who often show up saying “I know what you are doing here; I want to be part of this”. The tukuls, are round, and set within a circular fence of sticks, woven as a protection and a demarcation for kids showing the boundary of their play. Martha took her ‘fishes and loaves’ medical suitcase along, and found the children needing malarial treatment and deworming. The mothers are accustomed to having children sick and know the children have malaria, but are unable to access care.

For both of us, during our time in Gambela we were again teaching. Martha was shadowed by a young man who wants to be a physician. “Come along and help with looking at ‘anemia, worms, malaria, skin infections in the usual see one, do one, teach one fashion’”. He was bright, eager to learn and with medications brought to refill the orphanage stores, he recited exactly the indications for use, the dosages, and the contraindications. “Professor” is what Martha called him at the end of the time. The young adults, now 14-18 years old are taking on responsibilities for care and nurture of the other children. The older girls cook for the compound, creating masterpieces of meals for 40 and a lovely ginger coffee that made us think ‘eco-tourism’ might be possible, eventually. The eventual part is after Martha suggested that first it would be necessary to eliminate the parasites swimming in the water, some impressively visible to the naked eye.

I was reviewing the architectural designs submitted by an American firm with plans for the new compound. Fortunately, our dear friend, Professor Asre Woldsenbat, came with us and was a great help as we sifted through construction priorities, discussed the creating of a community design with abilities to provide recreation for the children and community (soccer, volleyball and basketball). We reviewed the limitations of construction costs by shifting the architectural ideas into ways to save open space for community and even have multi-purpose use for the church. It was a fruitful time. Brad is gifted with being able to see exactly what the construction engineers were saying and at the same time listening to the visions that Kim has for this community of “light and hope” on the outskirts of Gabella. Currently there are two wells on the property, one open to the neighbors for their use, and the other with ‘bad taste’ according to the locals, so this is to be further evaluated as it adjoins agricultural fields.

As I shared with the mission group we see on Sunday afternoons, this trip made us forever grateful for our housing in Bahir Dar. Although we have been without power for a week, the guest house is clean; we are lucky to be here. Reflecting during these evenings with candle-light we realized the amount of reading we have gotten done, relieved of CNN access and some definite respite from the ‘loud music of local establishments’. Aww, the sounds of silence in Africa!

-Martha and James Goedert

2 views0 comments


bottom of page