Valerie Browning

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 July, 2012, 12:00am


AFAR FAR AWAY I live in an isolated part of the world - the Afar region of northeast Ethiopia. The Afar are a nationality within Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti; a relatively small population of pastoralists - nomadic people. I'm Australian and was trained as a nurse and midwife. I first came to Ethiopia when I was 22, with a friend who wanted to help with the famine between 1973-74. Now I'm an old woman of 62. As a nurse in Sydney, I never thought about Africa. But 10 days after hearing about the famine we were on a plane to Ethiopia. I had no mental preparation and when I got here we had to run a medical team for the Afar people affected by the famine. I had children die on my knees from starvation. That really shocked me. From then on, I was driven by the gross injustices that were happening. It was horrible and frightening. People here are powerless. I've been married to an Afar person for 23 years. I was one of these crazy Western women; I didn't plan for marriage or children. I'm a Christian and my husband's a Muslim. My Christian belief is what guides me.

LEARNING DIFFICULTIES I'm the programme co-ordinator for the Afar Pastoralist Development Association. When we started, the Afar society in Ethiopia had nothing: no education, no health care, and their language wasn't used. They were living a nomadic life without clean water and were dying of malaria, tuberculosis and during childbirth. They were not vaccinated. That was not long ago. When we started our organisation, in 1994, the Afar were only 2 per cent literate. There was no language in the written form. We started writing and printing books, and since 1996 we've taught more than 100,000 people to read and write. We set up primary education for Afar children; the education equipment was put on a camel and the teacher moved with the community.

BREAKING WITH TRADITION Genital mutilation was practised among 100 per cent of women, now it is much less. Genital mutilation is carried out on babies and young girls. It's an ancient practice that is supposed to keep girls virgins, but all it does is cause difficulties: difficulty passing urine, menstruating and having babies. We make films about the practice. We take a generator and a laser projector into the bush and show the pastoralists, to help them understand that it is against Islam, their religion. There are other harmful practices against women and we educate people about these. A woman can't own property; she is forced to marry. We've employed our first pastoralist women. We've got 280 women who are literate, who we've trained in life skills, and they are teaching other women about safe motherhood, hygiene, sanitation and good nutrition. We are mobilising women to be leaders and that's making a huge difference. The Afar live in remote areas - there are no roads and they're always moving with their animals. We've worked out a mobile system of vaccinations. First we take a big refrigerator with a generator deep into the bush and put the refrigerator under a tree. Then we take out the vaccinations, put them in long cold boxes we got through Unicef, load them onto camels, then go from house to house vaccinating children.

THE CHOSEN ONE I was recently in Hong Kong [to accept The One award, an international humanitarian award founded by Rotary International] and it was a fantastic event. I was in the city for two days. It was my first visit there and I want to thank everyone I met. [Hong Kong] was like a dream world. I can't describe what my office here [in Ethiopia] looks like, or how I feel right now, or what I saw walking from my house to the office. But my world is entirely different from Hong Kong. I was born in Britain and raised in Australia. I was raised with plenty of food, plenty of everything. But just this morning I had a young woman with a small baby visit me saying her family could no longer cope. Individuals like her come to us daily. Here in Ethiopia there is no protection for anyone. Here everyone lives in the raw, in the open, without assistance. When I returned to Ethiopia, our organisation had its own celebration. Lots of Afar gathered and celebrated with dancing and singing. It is their award, their celebration, and it gives us energy to move forward. It [shows] that people at least know about the Afar. We didn't know we would receive [US$100,000 in prize money] but we will use it towards safe motherhood because women are dying, new-born babies are dying. It's horrible if a baby or mother dies during childbirth. It's a huge tragedy for the family and for the community.

THEY CALL THIS GLOBALISATION Things are now more challenging. This year there has been a lot of countries looking for mining possibilities in the Afar region. People are rushing in from Canada, Sweden, Australia and India, but the money doesn't flow down to the people. They call this globalisation, but globalisation for us has been very damaging. We've made some progress, but there's a lot more to do. But we're going in the right direction. We think we've got the system that can take the Afar ahead: [making changes] through the culture, through the religion, using the language, using the strategy of mobility and working with the people on the ground. Through our organisation's work, people have opened their eyes to the world of information, to the world of education. We've got a young Afar guy who began his education as a literacy student under a tree. This year he finished his degree and became a doctor. He said to me: 'I'd like to be a gynaecologist; I'd like to help women.' I'd like to help him, too.