Do Roses Cause AIDS?

IMG_4282.JPGThere are reasons why we work with our long-term partner Meserete Kristos Church (MKC, the Mennonite Church in Ethiopia) in the trucking town of Ziway on HIV/AIDS prevention, care and support. One reason has to do with the commercial flower farms surrounding the lake town, which collectively employ 20,000 people–mostly young, mostly female. Sher farms, which we toured, has its own school and hospital. To give you a sense of the scale of the place, we started walking down one of the greenhouses, listening to the HR manager talk about how often the buds were picked (3 times a day) and how long it took to get them from plant-to-plane in Addis (12 hours, including 6 to 8 hours in the cold room) when the manager said, “Do you want to keep going? The greenhouse is 2 kilometers long.” On Google maps, the flower farm is as large as the town itself!

Ziway town is also on the road to Kenya. Commodities come in through the ports in Djibouti or Kenya; more recently, following the historic peace agreement, Eritrea is now a third option for importing goods into land-locked Ethiopia. Despite a new standard gauge railway between Djibouti and Ethiopia, trucking remains a huge part of the Ethiopian economy. Small towns such as Ziway that grow up along the trucking routes experience benefits and problems from the increased traffic.

According to the 90-90-90 UNAIDS targets, the top three at-risk populations for HIV/AIDS are Commercial Sex Workers (CSWs), long-distance truck drivers, and daily laborers. Because of the flower farms and the trucking industry, Ziway town has higher than average numbers of each.

Women packing flowers to be shipped to the auctions in The Netherlands. To avoid paying taxes on their modest income (a starting wage is about $54 a month plus medical benefits) the workers will change jobs about every four months. They often live in group settings, with 10 people to a room.

MCC has been working through the relief and development arm of the Meserete Kristos Church (MKC-RDA) since it became a recognized organization in 1991, and with the church since its beginning in the 1950’s. They offer interventions on a number of levels.

IMG_4222Here a peer educator uses materials provided by USAID to train a group of men working at the flower farm about HIV/AIDS.

IMG_3967Bruce looks over a similar training manual written in the Oromifa language, which would be the most common language in Ziway.

In addition to reaching the flower farm workers, peer-to-peer training is offered to high school students to educate others in Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STDs). Here, students chosen for their leadership and academic qualities are educated about STDs and trained in the daunting task of engaging their peers and persuading them to delay sexual activity and/or opt for safe sex practices. Project Manager Endale Wubeshet (right) oversees the training. In a culture that is typically reserved about sexuality, the candid nature of the training session was refreshing.

For the truly brave, there was peer-to-peer work with commercial sex workers. “Tigist,” preparing coffee for us in her home, was a CSW in Ziway for 10 years. She is HIV positive. She met Endale Wubeshet, the project manager, and through business training, education, and support she was able to leave prostitution and now meets weekly with CSWs as a peer trainer. In the photo on the right, she arranged for us to meet with the current group of women she is working with. [The CSW’s face is blurred for privacy. The rest of the people in the photo are MCC or MKC workers or volunteers.]

IMG_4169Education is an important component of the project. The women above graduated from a technical school in hairdressing. We were able to visit on graduation Day!

Graduates from the hairdressing program: Tigist Tesfaye, Genet Ashanga, Yerus Fanta, Layla Keder, Hanah Amaro, Rachel Awash (with her son Aman Suliman), Merit Shemeles, and Shoshana Shefero.

Income Generating Activities provide CSWs and people living with HIV/AIDS critical assistance in setting up alternatives that can give them options and keep them and their families healthy. We visited three courageous women working to set up their own small businesses.

Alamayat Addis rents two rooms for a small restaurant and coffee shop. She benefited from training three years ago and has been independent ever since. She works seven days a week in her restaurant.

The project has local government support, and this small shop is provided by the kebele.  Helena Tesfaye, 25 years old, sells soap, snacks, baking supplies and other incidentals from the front while her 65 year old mother, Tewabech Taye bakes injera over two stoves in the back. They sell 200 pieces of injera a day.

Almaz Shenkutey  raises sheep in a corner of the community compound, and makes and sells injera, coffee, and talla, a mildly alcoholic barley beer.

This weekend, October 5 and 6, will be the 52 annual Virginia Mennonite Relief Sale. Our partners and projects in Ethiopia are on the receiving end of the money raised at this and other events across the US and Canada. We get to see firsthand how the money raised for MCC changes the lives of courageous women like Shoshana Shefero, 36, and and her daughter Merit Shemeles, 15, who aspire to own a hair salon together with the business training they received through MCC’s programming.IMG_4209If you are reading this post and you live in Virginia, please go support the sale. Good food (donuts!!) and beautiful quilts, all for a good cause! And if you don’t live in Virginia, please consider other ways you can be involved.

Image result for va mennonite relief sale


One thought on “Do Roses Cause AIDS?

  1. So helpful to understand all that’s happening in Ziway, our pitstop on the way to Hawassa. Always, always, more than meets the eye…including the work-for-good behind the scenes. Thank you.


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