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Praying for rain: Sustainable strategies deliver water, hope to East Africa

How one man's faith is helping end famine with help from LDS Church

Published: Saturday, April 14 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

Abdulahi Muse, a director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, coordinates aid to 22 villages. (E.W. Ristau) Abdulahi Muse, a director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, coordinates aid to 22 villages. (E.W. Ristau)

Read Part 2: Building hope: How the LDS Church is helping thousands fleeing war and drought

Report on KSL: Famined Africans build water tanks, aided by LDS Church

Editorial: Water of life

View video at left: "Reporter's Notebook: Inside Ethiopia with staff writer Jesse Hyde"

DOLO ADO, Ethiopia — In the darkness just before dawn, Abdulahi Muse rises from the cement floor where he sleeps and slips his feet into his black plastic sandals. It is 5 a.m., just across the border from Somalia, and before long this entire city of mud huts and dusty dirt roads will begin shuddering to life.

But now it is time to pray.

There is no way to ignore the call to prayer in a place like this, where there is a mosque on nearly every corner with its own cheap loudspeaker affixed to the roof, blaring into the night. Not that Abdulahi needs any reminder. He's been waking up to pray for as long as he can remember.

The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to 22 villages, including this one, at the height of the three year drought, which ended last February. (E.W. Ristau) The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to 22 villages, including this one, at the height of the three year drought, which ended last February. (E.W. Ristau)

In the darkness, he slips through the fence of thistles and brambles that separate his compound from the mosque next door and quietly finds a place among the other men to kneel and pray. In America, these prayers are viewed with suspicion, as a preamble to violence. But Abdulahi knows Islam has nothing to do with that. His prayers are as universal and as old as the Quran itself: this morning he prays for rain.

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of its worst drought in 60 years and Abdulahi is on the front lines of fighting it. He has heard the stories of the refugees who cross the dry riverbank not far from here, leaving Somalia and entering Ethiopia, their tattered clothing shredded by desert winds, their feet raw and blistered from the long walk, which can take a week or more.

As a child of this region, he is well acquainted with drought, but he has never seen anything like this. In the past year alone, 150,000 people have fled Ethiopia from Somalia, looking for water and food. They flee not only the drought, which has turned green pastures into golden fields of dust, but also the militant terrorist group Al Shabab, which seeks to impose its own version of Islamic law through unspeakable violence and terror.

Abdulahi Muse, right, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau) Abdulahi Muse, right, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau)

He thinks of all this as he prays. He is a handsome man, careful in his speech and meticulous in his dress. He wears a gold watch and snakeskin shoes that say: "I am educated. I have money and status." But he has seen suffering in his 32 years, and he knows it first hand.

When prayers are over he leaves the mosque and slips back through the fence of sticks and twigs to the compound. As the sun begins to rise over the city, he thinks of the task before him.

His people are starving, his children are far from here, and he has left a comfortable life in the Ethiopian capital to come here to the border of Ethiopia and Somalia to see what he can do to help. At times, it seems insane and impossible. This problem is so big, the suffering so vast and deep, what difference can one man really make? And so he prays, hoping for divine intervention.

What he doesn't realize is that he is the answer to his own prayer.

Abdulahi Muse, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau) Abdulahi Muse, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau)

A plea for rain

Fifty miles to the north of Abdulahi's compound, down a crooked desert road, the land opens up into a flat plane of red dirt and scrub brush. There are no stores for miles, and other than the braying of goats and the wind whistling softly through the trees, almost no sound. This is the southern low-lands region of Ethiopia, a land virtually untouched by the modern world.

When the rain comes, the hard and rocky soil fills with grass, but it's been three years since Ahamd Issaq has seen any rain out here. When the wind blows the dust tears at his eyes.

He is the chief of a village called Sala-Jama, named for the dun-colored mountain not far from here.

When he was a boy the elders of his village named the droughts — drought X, or drought Y — because they came once every 20 years, searing themselves so deeply into memory that a simple letter sufficed to mark their passage. But now the droughts come so often they don't give them names.

Abdulahi Muse, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau) Abdulahi Muse, an in-country director for International Relief and Development in Ethiopia, has coordinated aid to 22 villages along the border with Somalia. Here he discusses in February 2012 the help the LDS Church gave to Somalia by sending medicine to hospitals. (E.W. Ristau)

Issaq doesn't read the newspapers in the capital that chronicle the deforestation of Ethiopia and he has certainly never heard of global warming. He has opinions on none of these things, or the luxury of debating them.

He is a goat herder, his frame lean and hard, his happy eyes dark and penetrating. Like his ancestors, his days are governed by the rise and fall of the sun. For him the cause of the drought is simple:

God either makes it rain, or he does not.

But he can't help but worry. There are salt mines in this region, and when the rivers get low, the water gets salty too. It makes the children of the village sick. His goats are also getting sick, and because there isn't enough water to plant corn, his livestock represent everything — milk for his children, meat for his family, currency to trade for rope or clothing in the dusty outposts along the river.

Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau) Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau)

To make matters worse, the refugees fleeing Somalia are putting added pressure on villages like his. They gather the same firewood, drink from the same rivers, and before long, they will want to graze the same pasture.

He has no time to worry about the geopolitical forces pushing their migration--the civil wars that have rocked Somalia since its government collapsed in 1991, the reign of Al Shabab, which expelled all Western aid organizations at the start of the drought. His heart breaks for the refugees because they are his people. They speak the same language, belong to the same religion and share the same culture. But he wonders how long this can last.

Hundreds of people cross every day into the Dolo region, filling sprawling refugee camps of white tents that spread across the land like small cities. The people in them have no intention of leaving, at least not anytime soon, and he can't blame them.

Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau) Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau)

Sometimes he wonders if he should move his village. The elders have made that choice before but in the long and treacherous trek for water, they may lose half their animals. Schools will close. And it will take a generation to get back what has been lost.

And so he too prays to God, hoping someone will come to help.

Help to the forgotten

When Abdulahi was eight years old, another drought hit Ethiopia. For many in the United States, it was the first time they had heard of Ethiopia, or had seen the effects of famine. The crisis had its own soundtrack — We Are the World — with an attendant telethon that changed forever the way the international community responds to famine and other disasters in forgotten corners of the globe.

Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. Broken picks are seen here. (E.W. Ristau) Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. Broken picks are seen here. (E.W. Ristau)

Today, philanthropy is a multi-billion dollar industry, propped up by the world's richest governments and celebrities, and in the fall of 2011 its representatives gather along the border of Somalia like an invading force.

They come to Dolo Ado, a ramshackle city of tin shacks and donkey carts, and as Abdulahi walks along the dusty streets, he can see their flags fluttering high above cement walled compounds: Oxfam, UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children. There must be 20 of the world's biggest and most well respected Non-Governmental Organizations here, and almost all of them are working in the camps.

Largely forgotten are the villages along the border. That's why Abdulahi is here.

He works for International Relief and Development, or IRD, which has its own small and humble compound on the outskirts of town. Its work is quiet and devoid of any flash — -no flags, no bumper stickers — and goes mostly unnoticed because it affects far fewer people.

Goat herders in the Dolo region of southern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Somalia. (E.W. Ristau) Goat herders in the Dolo region of southern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Somalia. (E.W. Ristau)

But to Abdulahi it is just as important. He grew up in a town like this, called Werder. His people were pastoral, as most Somalis are, and relatively poor, although his father owned a truck that he used to ferry animals and building equipment across town for a small fee. He dreamed of a better life for Abdulahi, his middle child, even though the odds were stacked against them as dark-skinned Muslims in a country dominated by the lighter-skinned Christians to the north.

"We felt marginalized," Abdulahi remembers. "If you had a Muslim name, you couldn't go to school, and they made no investment in this region. There were no paved roads, no schools, no way to progress."

And so his father moved the family to Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, where Abdulahi began his education until the government collapsed and civil war broke out. Forced back to Werder, Abdulahi's father sent his 14-year-old son 300 miles away to Jijiga, where he could finish his studies and enroll in college.

The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to 22 villages, including this one, at the height of the three year drought, which ended last February. (E.W. Ristau) The LDS Church paid for the trucking of water to 22 villages, including this one, at the height of the three year drought, which ended last February. (E.W. Ristau)

This is why Abdulahi sees hope here. If he can leave a village like this one, get two degrees and become a college professor anyone can.

"I don't think I am particularly smart or more talented than anyone else in my family," he says. "The one thing I do is work hard. Maybe I worked harder."

It is work that Abdulahi believes in, and it is hard, grueling work that he is here to do. The plan is to help 22 villages along the border that the Ethiopian government has identified as most in need of help. IRD also wants to find a way to get medicine in to hospitals in Somalia. Abdulahi will coordinate these efforts with a small staff of Somalis. The funding will come from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a long-time IRD partner in disaster relief efforts around the world. It is just one of 111 such projects the Mormon Church will do that year, but it may be the most important.

Goat herders in the Dolo region of southern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Somalia. (E.W. Ristau) Goat herders in the Dolo region of southern Ethiopia, not far from the border with Somalia. (E.W. Ristau)

Abdulahi has never heard of the LDS Church, but he will take help from wherever he can get it.

Bringing rain

He begins by driving out to the 22 villages he is tasked with helping. It takes two hours to get to the closest one on a bone-jarring road that cuts through dry riverbanks and little towns cloaked in dust.

When he arrives at the village of Sala-Jama, which sits at the base of the dun-colored mountain, he meets Issaq, who leads him in to a shaded hut. Together with the other village elders, they sit and talk over tea about the need for water and food.

Abdulahi knows the history of charity work in Africa, and so do the villagers. In the 80s and 90s, after the Ethiopian famine captured the world's attention, well-meaning do-gooders descended on the continent hoping to "make a difference."

Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau) Villagers in the southern region of Ethiopia, known as Dolo, spent months digging birkits, or underground cement storage tanks, to catch rain water. (E.W. Ristau)

It went something like this: dig a well, put up a plaque, take off. It brought to mind the colonial era of Africa, when the Italians started roads they didn't finish and the Soviets left their tanks to rust in the sun, a time none of these fiercely independent pastoralists recall too fondly.

Abdulahi explains that his approach is different. He is there to help, but he is also there to listen. This is the model IRD and LDS Charities use throughout the world: to partner with the locals to improve their own situation, and Abdulahi has embraced it.

Issaq reveals that he might move his village to a closer water source. While Abdulahi has ideas that will improve the life of the villagers, there is an immediate need to be met.

He returns several days later and tells Issaq that IRD and LDS Charities will begin trucking water to the villages, as well as plastic storage tanks.

Issaq is skeptical.

NGOs are known for making empty promises. But within days the water trucking begins --20,000 liters to 22 villages in the region, including Sala-Jama. It lasts for 10 weeks.

When Abdulahi returns to the village with his staff to see how things are going, the people celebrate his arrival. The water trucks are an answer to prayer.

"It rained," they tell him. "Even though the ground is not wet."

An old man approaches him. "We were all praying for you, even the birds in the sky were praying for you."

Abdulahi has a new idea. During a previous drought in Ethiopia, in another village far from here, he supervised the construction of birkits, or cement-lined storage tanks designed to catch water. The plastic tanks the villagers are using to store water are fine for now, but they won't stand up to the harsh elements of the desert. He wonders if they can do something more long-term and sustainable.

He presents his plan to the IRD office in Washington D.C., which in turn approaches the LDS Church and asks if it will pay for the building materials. Church officials agree, and construction of the birkits begins.

Not long after, the first rain in three years falls in the Horn of Africa.

Rebirth and hope

It's late February 2012, five months later. The rains weren't enough to dramatically change life in Somalia (a few hundred people are still crossing over every day), but it did make things better.

The UN has just declared an end to the drought and here in the desert there's a sense of rebirth.

Abdulahi is sitting in the passenger seat of a Land Cruiser, barreling down the dirt road that leads to Sala-Jama. The windows are open, the wind whipping through the cab, the air outside rich with the smell of the deep red soil.

Water is trickling down riverbanks that had long been dry and boys and girls are pushing herds of goats in search of pasture. As the Land Cruiser crosses a bridge, Abdulahi looks down and sees a group of children playing in muddy water. They swim to the other side and sit on the beach, spreading the white sand over their legs to get warm.

Things are getting back to normal.

When the Land Cruiser arrives in Sala-Jama, Isaaq greets Abdulahi with a warm embrace and then leads him to a gaping hole in the ground. It's about 40 feet long, 15 feet wide and nearly 10 feet deep.

This is the birkit and it's nearly done.

Men and boys work in its bowels with pick axes and shovels. As they work they sing an old Somali folk song to keep their mind off the monotony of digging and crushing rock.

Isaaq leads Abdulahi to the other side of the pit and shows him a bucket full of broken pick axes and shovels.

The ground is so hard they've had to order a jackhammer, he explains, which someone is operating down in the pit. The materials for the concrete should arrive soon, which they will use to line the birkit. They will then build a roof on top of corrugated steel and attach a pipe that functions like a rain gutter to catch the rain. When the next drought comes, the people will be ready.

That night, after Abdulahi has visited other villages, he returns to his compound, where a dinner of rice and cucumbers is waiting for him. His work will not stop at the birkits. IRD is now helping twelve villages start an irrigation project to help them cultivate fields of corn, weight and sorghum. These crops will not only provide feed for their animals, and food in times of crisis, but a new source of income and sustainability for the villages.

"It is a hard work, it is a difficult work," Abdulahi says. "This field work, you're away from your family, but it is a satisfying work to help your people. At least I can say that I am making a difference, I am bringing people water who didn't have it before."

He wishes he knew how to thank the people who made this project possible. They belong to a church he has never heard of, in a country he has never visited.

He sits on a white plastic chair in the courtyard of the compound, staring out into the blackness of night. He knows the crisis is not over. The refugees are still coming every day. The Ethiopian military is at war with Al Shabab, which has been kidnapping tourists and aid workers.

This is the story of this land, and the story of his life: drought breeds famine, which leads to civil war, which forces people to move. There will always be something to fix.

He rolls out his mattress on the concrete floor and slips off his black plastic sandals. Before long, the call to prayer will echo across the rooftops and this city will slowly shudder to life. He will kneel to pray, asking God for help, and then he will go back to work.

Coming Sunday: Helping Amina

Not far from Somalia, on a barren, windswept plain, Amina gathers firewood in the fading light of late afternoon. The wood is for home, and home for Amina is a sprawling refugee camp that sits at the base of a mountain in the Horn of Africa. From where she stands she can see the rows of white tents stretching to the horizon, a small, teeming city of some 40,000 souls. It is here that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has brought its philosophy of self-reliance to build partnerships in humanitarian aid.

Read Part 2: Building hope: How the LDS Church is helping thousands fleeing war and drought

Report on KSL: Famined Africans build water tanks, aided by LDS Church

Editorial: Water of life

View video at left: "Reporter's Notebook: Inside Ethiopia with staff writer Jesse Hyde"

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company