Like, I’m guessing most people here, I didn’t know much about Ethiopia before I went – beyond the Live Aid famine and Hailie Selassie and that the people were very beautiful and graceful (which they are). And like any place, or person perhaps, when you get a chance to look beneath the surface it becomes increasingly complex and contradictory. One of the things I didn’t know is that it’s the second oldest Christian country in the world. The oldest is Armenia by the way. It’s also the second most populated country in Africa. The Ethiopians are of Semitic origin – so from the Middle East rather than Africa genetically: which can make them feel a bit superior to other Africans.

Ethiopians are very proud of their Christian heritage, which has some colourful and uplifting dimensions to it, as well as some more blood-thirsty and troubling ones. It’s a land of myth where the truth can be hard to locate. The medieval legend of Prester John – the magnificent (and as it turned out imaginary) Oriental Christian Emperor who was going to be Europe’s great ally against the Turks and Mongols – was some think based on Ethiopia. The Emperor Menelik the First was the son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon, and is believed by Ethiopians to have been given the Ark of the Covenant by his father. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church claims to have the Ark still in its religious capital Aksom. Copies of the Ark, or Tabots, are kept in every church and are its most holy part. St John’s Episcopalian Church in Edinburgh, in Princes St, was given one in 1868 by a Captain Arbuthnot – grandson of a Provost of Edinburgh – who’d been part of General Napier’s expeditionary force to the country. It was only discovered again in 2001, at the back of a cupboard by the Rector, and when it was returned to Ethiopia there were wild celebrations and a national holiday given to celebrate its homecoming.

Fasting is such a normal part of people’s lives that restaurants usually have a fasting (i.e. vegetarian) menu alongside the normal one.   One hungry character you see on church frescoes, usually in some graphic detail, is Belai the Cannibal. Belai is said to have eaten 72 people, including his own family. Then he came upon a leper, who, well, was covered in leprous sores. That didn’t stop Belai from wanting to eat him. The leper was dying of thirst and begged Belai to give him a drink rather than eat him. Belai was not to be put off his rather unwholesome snack … until the leper asked him to think of the mercy Jesus’ mother Mary showed to people. So Belai, rather grudgingly, gave him a sip of water. Much later, in Heaven, when his sins were being weighed on the scales, Mary intervened on his behalf, overruling Jesus, to say that that one sip of water Belai had given the leper outweighed his sins from all that people munching.

It’s an extraordinarily picturesque but also a very tough country to live in. If you look at a map, it’s an island of comparative stability in a neighbourhood that is falling apart: Somalia, South Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both expressed their serious concerns about the government’s systematic persecution of journalists or anyone who opposes it. It’s facing huge challenges from climate change, overpopulation and tension between its different ethnic groups and regions. And yet, relative to quite a few countries it’s doing okay – it is stable and it is growing economically, which means less people are hungry and they have better access to health services, jobs and education.

Before telling you a little bit about what Mercy Corps is doing in Ethiopia I want to try to explain why I’ve given what may seem like rather a long introduction. Now, one reason (or excuse) is that I’ve been a bit ‘viral’ the past couple of weeks, with that fluey thing that starts with a nasty throat that’s doing the rounds that’s so hard to shake. It’s been making me feel slightly discombobulated. And hard, therefore, to get my thoughts straight. But what that has led me to think is that actually, maybe that kind of confusion is central to Mercy Corps’ work, and central to life too. And to the life of this community too – in a good way.

An anecdote: A colleague was working in Rwanda after the genocide committed by the Hutus. He and some other aid workers were invited to meet the Dalai Lama. On behalf of his colleagues he asked the Dalai Lama to help them with a problem they had: they were working with people trying to rebuild shattered lives and yet they knew that some of the people they were working with had committed some of the atrocities themselves. The feelings of anger and confusion this caused for them, the aid workers, in an extremely stressful environment, were hard to deal with. So they asked the Dalai Lama for guidance. He pondered for a long time and then said, ‘I don’t know. What do you think the answer is?’

The more I’ve thought about this story the more I’ve come to realise the wisdom of that response. Sometimes there is no simple answer. In fact, sometimes maybe there isn’t an answer at all, but you’ve just got to keep plugging on doing your best in a messy situation where notions of good and evil, and what it means to do good, can be hard to disentangle. This is of course is related to what the poet John Keats called ‘negative capability’: the capacity to resist the temptation to easy solutions, the ability to hold uncertainty open so that imagination and compassion and courage can have some room to show up.

The world of aid and development is fortunately becoming more confident about acknowledging that long-term solutions aren’t easy. That there are no quick fixes or silver bullets. If they were we’d have found them by now. It’s not just about a single approach, whether mosquito nets, or digging wells.   It’s about systems and complexity and finding ways to catalyse sustainable change, in partnership with government and local communities and businesses. There’s something highly technical but also ultimately mysterious about this approach because, fool ourselves as we might try, the variables are so many that it’s literally beyond our comprehension. Mercy Corps has been at the forefront of this way of working for some years (which is one of the reasons we can find it hard to explain what we do). So in Ethiopia we visited programmes working in a joined-up way in order to help communities become self-sustaining. The programmes had connected strands: nutrition; animal health; microfinance and savings clubs; education of women; starting critical businesses such as plant nurseries, efficient fuel stove factories, camel dairies or even abattoirs; identifying and coaching entrepreneurs and community leaders. And all of that somehow trying to be co-ordinated and evaluated in order to justify the effort and cost.

It’s very hard to talk about this aspect of our work without resorting to rather dry jargon, like ‘force-multiplier effect’, or ‘systemic intervention points’. The reality on the ground of course, is that it’s always about real people leading real lives as real as ours.

We visited one programme on the edge of a place called Lake Chano in the Rift Valley. Because of climate change and overpopulation nomadic herdsmen had moved into the area and had encroached on the land of the traditional farmers who have always lived and worked there. This had led to vicious fighting, with savagery committed by both sides in their desperation to protect themselves and avoid starvation. Our team there, led by a charismatic and humble man called Getahoun, had worked with both communities to achieve a solution that carefully mapped every square metre of the land and calculated its capacity to sustain crops or cattle. And then, through teaching conflict-management techniques, to help the two groups build their capacity to solve these kinds of problems for themselves in the future. Not a simple solution: painstaking, technically demanding, dangerous at times … but one that has already saved lives and means that Lake Chano’s resources have a decent chance of being sustainably and fairly managed.

Ethiopia is doing pretty well as a country compared to many of the others we work in. A rather depressing fact about the state of the world is the phrase ‘the new normal’. What this means for Mercy Corps, and other NGOs, is that there are a lot of places we’re working where we used to be hopeful that people’s lives were going to get better – and now they’re getting worse and no one knows what the answer is. Places like Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, Central Africa Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo. Objectively and logically there isn’t much to give hope really – certainly compared to how things were looking in the Middle East during the Arab Spring a few years back.

But there is always hope of course. The CEO of Mercy Corps recently asked our country teams to share their best examples of the work they’d done. One that came up that blew our minds was one that no one, not even the country director, had been aware of before. It was about the Yazidis – who you may remember are a tribal people in Kurdistan who were besieged on a mountain by Isis in Northern Iraq last summer. Among the appalling acts Isis committed was the ‘degradation’ (i.e. rape) of around 500 Yazidi women. In Yazidi society, like many traditional societies in that part of the world, if that happens to you, you are considered to have bought irredeemable shame on your family. You could become the victim of honour killing, and even if you escape that fate your life is pretty much ruined: apart from the trauma you’ve been through. A few of our Iraqi staff became aware of this and decided they needed to do something about it. They sat down with the Yazidi elders and worked with them to come up with a better solution. As a result of which 500 young Yazidi men volunteered to marry the women.

I find this an extraordinary story. Hopeful. Inspiring, despite the awfulness that surrounds it. These few staff just decided this was something that needed doing and to give it a go. They had faith. They believed that hope was possible even in the face of powerful traditions that didn’t seem to allow for a way back from shame and violation. They believed that through engaging directly with something that most people would find too painful or frightening to go near it was possible to unlock human’s capacity for love and decency.

I asked our Country Director for Ethiopia what messages he’d like me to take back. He said, ‘It’s really important that people understand the approach we’re taking is difficult. It’s a struggle. It can be dangerous. We need your patience. We need time. We believe it’s going to work but we can’t prove it yet.’

There’s a kind of sadness as well as a joy in all of this I think. A sadness that suffering and the fear that leads to suffering will never go away. And the joy that knows that there is always something that can be done and always people who believe that. That moment by moment, in community with people, with God’s grace, the capacity inside us for the resurrection that allows us to act rather than sit on the sidelines, is possible.   And that that’s just as relevant in our daily lives here, being with each other now, with our friends and families, at home and work, as it is for the few who are called to the kind of skilful heroism that Mercy Corps’ field staff demonstrate – and all other people of course who put their lives on the line for others. And from whom we can find inspiration for our own struggle towards the light.

By Jock Encombe

Originally posted at