The Horse Can’t Fight

I saw something today that I never thought I would see, or, at least, necessarily thought I wanted to see: blind men working in a wood shop. Just picture that for a moment. See what I’m talking about – on first thought that’s a dangerous setting. I know plenty of men with perfect eye sight that have nevertheless lost fingers in woodworking.

Now before going into detail about the blind men working in a woodshop, or other activities I witnessed this morning, let me tell you a bit about how I ended-up in the woodshop with blind men. Tuesday, while in a meeting, I received a call from a man I will call Ato (Mr.) Berhan. When my phone rang, I saw the number was already stored, and therefore was more confident in taking the call even though I could not recall how I knew the name flashing on my phone’s screen. I answered anyway, hoping I would soon remember. Even as we talked, I continued to draw blanks on when or why I may have given my number to Ato Berhan– even now I cannot recall, but I’m glad I did.

Ato Berhan requested that I meet him later this week to discuss volunteer opportunities. We have already placed all of our summer volunteers with our current grassroot NGO partners, but because I had a little time this week, I decided to meet him late Wednesday afternoon. We arranged to meet at 5pm at a hotel I like to work from because it offers consistent power and internet. I was working on a newsletter when he showed-up a little early, but I was glad to see him (needing a break from the computer) and he seemed a genuine, good hearted man. Ato Berhan is older, but his English is superb.  He told me that was due mainly to a Peace Corps volunteer who taught him English over 40 years ago, and whom he remains in-touch with today.

I quickly learned he was passionate about empowering those with disabilities. Moreover, he had been imprisoned during the Derg regime for over 6 years for no apparent reason (I am not certain, but I’m guessing maybe he was political in his younger years – a hobby that does not pay in this country). When the Derg was overthrown by the current regime, his hopes soared, figuring he would be released. That was not to be the case, however, and he remained behind bars for another 5 ½ years before being released. You could tell what he was most disappointed about was that 12 years of his life had been wasted – of no use to the disabled, his family or his country.

Ato Berhan went on to tell me that he had initially begun his work with the leper community some 35-40 years ago at ALERT – a community and hospital for lepers. At first, he said, he was afraid but God gave him the strength to continue to learn and help the leper community. Eventually, he wrote one of the first books published in Amharic that details how to treat and care for lepers. Unfortunately, demand for the book was low – and it was impossible to convince the government’s Ministry of Health to purchase the book, even as many of the people suffering from leprosy continued to deteriorate and be neglected. People in Ethiopia were, and to an extent remain, afraid of leprosy and those who are burdened with this awful disease. Lepers are therefore ostracized by a large percentage of the population – which at times includes their own family members.

After hearing Ato Berhan’s story I told him that all I could offer, maybe, were some volunteers if any had extra time to spare this summer. He said that was great, and that he would love to show me some of the projects dear to his heart if I had the time. By this point, I had become intrigued, so we scheduled to meet first thing Thursday morning and visit a few of the projects he had referenced. The first was Hulegeb Blind and Disabled People Training and Rehab Association.

I picked Ato Berhan up on my motorcycle just after 8am and we made our way to Hulegeb. I quickly realized it was the blind association near my own home. I must admit, I was ashamed for never having visited it previously, as it is nearly next door to my house. I knew it was there, but just had never taken the time to see exactly what was going on. I could offer various excuses for not doing so, but the point is I should have.

As we made our way into the aging, slightly neglected, compound I did not know what to expect. I knew the association focused on income-generating activities, but I had not a clue what those activities were. The first shop we entered, to my astonishment, was a woodworking shop. I could hardly believe what I was seeing – blind men turning logs into brooms. There was a shop master to lead the men in their activities, but it was obvious that these men had been working at their trade so long that they scarcely needed assistance. They were splitting the logs, then further cutting them into oblong rectangular pieces, before passing them through a router that rounded the piece of lumber into a broom handle. In another area of the workshop, a man was operating a punch machine that drilled holes in the broom-head, which yet another man then inserted the bristles into.

I was impressed, though slightly in disbelief. The sad part was, however, that even though these men were overcoming enormous odds to master a sometimes hazardous trade, and thus become productive members of society, they were working with ancient machines. Many of these machines were in desperate need of a tune-up, and some were in outright disrepair. As I stood in the workshop I wished I knew more of mechanical engineering and could restore these antiques to their former glory, to the benefit of these master craftsmen.

Woodworking and broom making was not the only income generating activity underway at Hulegeb. Others were cleaning sheep’s wool, winding it into thread and hand weaving rugs and doormats. Still others were producing cement blocks and hollow blocks, but again, their press machines were ancient and not nearly as efficient as they could or should be. Moreover, all the raw material inputs required for making blocks – such as red ash and cement, have increased in price. Increased raw material costs are preventing Hulegeb from meeting demand. Ato Berhan kept repeating an old Ethiopian proverb that goes something like this, ‘The horse can take you to the fight, but it can’t fight.’ I was slowly discovering what he meant.  

After leaving Hulegeb, inspired at the work being undertaken but troubled over the fact that it seemed closer to a shuttered old mill – ever present across my home state of North Carolina – than a promising start-up, I then visited a leper colony cooperative with Ato Berhan. Again, I was to experience the same sense of inspiration and despair. The leper association was created to provide the lepers with an income generating opportunity, dignity and community – rights so basic, and yet so far from everyday life for so many in Ethiopia, especially those with disabilities.

At the leper cooperative they were selling cereals to local residents who could then pay a few birr to have their teff, maize, pepper or whatever it may be, milled onsite. I had never visited a milling operation before, but it was interesting and the pepper aroma that pervaded was attractive – until both Ato Berhan and I inhaled the pepper dust a little too deeply and were coughing up a storm.

Outside there were areas for the public to pay to hand-wash their clothes or use the shower facilities. Because the cooperative had drilled their own well, they were able to sell the water to the public. Once again, but even to a greater degree, I had the feeling that good work was being done there, but that their ‘glory’ days were behind them. For example, a large workshop at the back of the lot had been shuttered and an enormous lock held the shop doors securely fastened. Ato Berhan explained that in this workshop there was a manual candle making machine that had been donated by the ‘Germans’ – whether this was the German government or simply a German organization, was unclear. What was clear, according to Ato Berhan, was that the operation had been shuttered due to unbearably high taxes. My initial thought was, why not simply pass those costs on to the customer? But, it was obvious the operation had been shuttered, and delving too deeply into the matter seemed beside the point.

That’s the long-winded story of how I came to witness, among other things, blind men who were master craftsmen in a woodworking shop. Inspired by these income generating projects? Of course I was – men and women with disabilities were learning and mastering trades that enable them to earn an honest living with a sense of dignity and respect.  What I cannot help but simultaneously see, however, is the enormous uncaptured potential. Both associations were doing great, necessary work against all odds. But what both need most – as Ato Berhan was attempting to point out through the proverb about the horse – is a champion for their cause who can capitalize on the opportunity to bring their services and products to a wider market, make use of all available resources, and inspire the association members to work ardently and creatively towards long-term goals and potential.


Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


This is not his actual name. As he has already spent a considerable portion of his life in prison, I did not want to cause further troubles for him.

In case you do not know, I work for Cherokee Gives Back and one of our main projects here in Ethiopia is to place volunteers – mainly US college students – with grassroot NGO partners. The volunteers live at Cherokee House and generally volunteer for a period of between 1 – 4 months

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