Why Giac Nguyen is Running for WEEMA in the Falmouth Road Race

18-year-old patient and his mother soon after surgery

18-year-old patient and his mother soon after surgery

Giac Nguyen cannot shake the image of seeing hundreds of blind Ethiopians get their eyesight restored.

One of the patients he saw in February was a tall 18-year-old boy who had developed cataracts from his diabetes.

“He’d just gone blind 3 or 4 months before (I met him.) It was sad to see him walking in with help from his mom, who he towered over,” Giac recalled. 

Twelve hours later, moments after removing the bandages following cataract surgery, the boy’s life was transformed. He could see again, and he no longer needed his mom’s help. “The next morning, he walked his mom out,” Giac said. 

Nguyen saw 954 such transformations during a five-day stint helping the Cataract Campaign, organized every year in Ethiopia by WEEMA and the Himalayan Cataract Project. Cataracts are the leading cause of preventable blindness in Ethiopia, affecting an estimated 2.4 percent of rural populations.

This year’s effort was held in Hosanna, an area six hours southwest of the capital, Addis Ababa. Ethiopians of all ages were helped, most of them older.

“It’s beautiful to see the immediate change in people when they remove the bandages,” said Giac, who assisted the doctors by trimming patients’ eyelashes before surgery and removing bandages. “People were singing, praying and bowing to God in joy and celebration.”

Giac, a 54-year-old refugee from Vietnam, is a big supporter of WEEMA’s work. He raised money running for WEEMA at last summer’s Falmouth Road Race. In fact, he attracted more donations than any of WEEMA’s non-staff runners, qualifying him for a free roundtrip to Ethiopia (compliments of Ethiopian Airlines).

His five-week trip – a week with the Cataract Campaign, three weeks working with WEEMA’s Ethiopia staff and a side visit to ancient Christian churches in Lalibela – was eye-opening both personally and professionally.

It rekindled powerful memories of Vietnam, his childhood home until he was age 10, when his family made their escape – on a boat - after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. Visiting Ethiopia reminded him of his first return to Vietnam in the mid 1990s.

“I was delightedly surprised by the similarities between Ethiopia and Vietnam,” said Giac, a Health Unit Coordinator who now lives in Oregon. “How Ethiopia is emerging as a developing country just as Vietnam was 25 years ago. The way they treat each other, the nuclear family, reminded me of my people.”

He was also impressed by the work WEEMA’s Ethiopia staff is doing in rural communities – so impressed that he’s flying back to Massachusetts this week so he can run for WEEMA in this year’s Falmouth Road Race on Sunday.

“Being able to see it firsthand and meeting the WEEMA team really brought it home that I want to continue to help,” he said.

To support Giac and/or any of  the other WEEMA runners, click here



18-year-old patient delighted with the results of his surgery

18-year-old patient delighted with the results of his surgery

The Difference a Book Can Make

Students study, read, and access the Internet at The Degale Public Library.

Students study, read, and access the Internet at The Degale Public Library.

 “A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life.”

- Henry Ward Beecher

In Europe and the United States, we take libraries for granted. They’re in our schools.  They’re in our cities. They’re in our neighborhoods.

Not in Ethiopia. Libraries are rare, especially in isolated rural areas where schools are poorly equipped and students have little or no access to updated textbooks, quiet study space and the Internet.

One result of these barriers can be low enrollment levels and high dropout rates in densely-populated rural areas, especially among secondary school-age students who are critical drivers of Ethiopia’s future.

Just as libraries are a mainstay in American life, WEEMA is trying to do the same in the rural Kembata-Tembaro Zone, which has nearly one million people, roughly half of them children.

Last month, we finished construction on the Adilo Public Library and Computer Center, a key cog in our goal of building and equipping a public library network for the entire Kembata-Tembaro region. Another library, the fourth in the district, will be built in Hadero next year.

When it opens later this year, the Adilo Library will have hundreds of new books, 20 computers, Internet access and a generator to keep everything running. It will be run by the government using locally-trained staff.

The public libraries are open to everyone, but primary and secondary school-age students are a top priority. The Adilo Library includes a study space specifically geared for secondary school students needing to pass the national exams. It also includes a reading room for younger children.

We expect lots of activity. The expanded Degale Library is reaching more students of all ages, many of them drawn to mobile library services linking four of the district’s five high schools. More than 2,500 students used the mobile library service in 2018 alone. The full library network, once the Hadero Library is up and running, is expected to have over 4,000 users every month.

Most importantly, students are getting better opportunities to learn.

Betelehim Aleka, 16, struggled academically when she was a younger student in Mudula. “When I was in grade 8, I didn’t score well. I was an average student,” she recalled.

Then she began spending more time at the Degale Library, where she could access textbook and updated materials on the Internet. Her grades quickly improved, and by the 9th grade, she ranked second in her class. Now she dreams of going to medical school.

Of course, there are other factors at play that keep students, especially girls, out of school and libraries, such as the need to help support families and the lack of funds for books. The free libraries are designed to catalyze opportunities and realize the transformational power education can bring not only to individuals - boys and girls - but also their communities.

The new Adilo Public Library and Computer Center

The new Adilo Public Library and Computer Center

Celebrating Ethiopia's Trees

WEEMA’s Ethiopian team made global history this week.

Team members and community members in the Tembaro woreda planted hundreds of trees on Monday – part of a record shattering 353 million tree seedlings planted across the country in just 12 hours. This week’s effort crushed the previous world record for trees planted in a single day: 50 million trees were planted in India in 2016.

And Ethiopia is just getting started. The country’s Green Legacy campaign aims to plant 4 billion trees this year in an effort to protect soil conditions and help mitigate climate change.

The issue is an urgent one. Rapid population growth, livestock grazing and widespread use of firewood for cooking have contributed to vast losses in forestland across the country in recent decades. Research from a few years ago showed that less than 4 percent of Ethiopia’s land was covered with forest compared to 35 percent just over a century ago.

For arid, agriculture-dependent regions like Tembaro, where WEEMA works, the issue is especially important. Forests play a key role in protecting healthy soil that farmers rely on for nutrients. Trees also keep water in the soil instead of being washed away during rainstorms, which are becoming more intense due to climate change. Tree planting also helps mitigate climate change since they absorb carbon dioxide, which is heating the atmosphere.

Monday’s tree planting effort in Farsuma, one of the hottest areas of Tembaro, was one of more than 1,000 tree planting sites across the country. WEEMA staff and dozens of community members, many of them school children, planted nearly 500 trees, many of them indigenous dryland acacia tree seedlings. A total of 450,000 trees were planted in Tembaro.

 

The effort garnered worldwide praise.

“Ethiopia is one of only a few countries that are very invested in getting trees back in the landscape,” Fred Stolle, deputy director of the nonprofit World Resources Institute, told Fast Company. “They’ve gotten to a very bad place. And so they really see the value.”

Of course, planting trees isn’t a final solution. The local government has set up a community system for watering and protecting the seedlings now that they are in the ground. Nurturing the trees for the next couple of years is especially critical. This summer’s planting was purposely timed to coincide with Ethiopia’s rainy season, which runs from May to October.

How a mobile app is improving childhood health

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Despite a sharp decline in child mortality rates during the past few decades, nearly 200,000 Ethiopian children under age 5 still die each year from preventable illnesses. Ethiopia has ambitious plans to lower child mortality rates using local health extension workers (HEWs) and mobile phones that can serve as virtual medical guidebooks. But how do you ensure health workers in isolated rural areas are trained and have the appropriate, easy-to-access information on their phones?

WEEMA and a healthcare nonprofit, D-Tree International, jumped in to fill this void. They designed a user-friendly mobile application with easy-to-use information, including videos, for diagnosing and treating pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria and other common childhood illnesses. Now, with additional funding from the IZUMI Foundation, we are training and supporting HEWs and supervisors to use these mobile tools in clinics across the Tembaro and Hadero Woredas in southwestern Ethiopia.

All 100 of the HEWs in the two Woredas are now using the technology and more than 4,000 young children have been assessed and treated using the tool.

The result is healthier children – and happier healthcare workers.

At a meeting earlier this month, health worker Mimmi Wolde cringed as she recalled using thick log books and chart books every time she met with a young patient. “We were using a log book which was the size of a table,” said Wolde, who works in the Hadero Woreda.

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With the mobile tool, she works more efficiently and effectively. “This tool guides me to not make a mistake,” she said. “The application gives the disease classification and the appropriate treatment. I am only expected to correctly check the symptoms that a child has, like a cough and diarrhea.”

HEWs in the Tembaro Woreda tell similar stories. Ababa Gisaw recalled avoiding a mistake in treating a 30-month-old child with a 102.7-degree temperature. “The mobile tool guided me to give paracetamol, but (without the application), I would have prescribed Coartum (used for malaria),” she said.

Preventable illnesses such as diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria cause 35 percent of deaths in children under five in Ethiopia. Research shows that appropriately trained, supervised and supported healthcare workers can avert more than 60 percent of these preventable deaths.

WEEMA is now expanding this mobile health program to three additional districts. The Ethiopian government has also asked us to share our experiences and advice to improve their rollout of the digital tool to health extension workers across Ethiopia.

Congratulations to our youngest graduates!

Delivering Early Education to 800 Ethiopian Children

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Berhanu was beaming with pride as he rushed onto the stage with everyone in the room clapping. With the yellow tassel on his graduation cap bouncing in the air, he grabbed the microphone and launched into his 20-second speech. It was a big day last month: he and 272 other children – 135 boys, 138 girls – were graduating from Kindergarten to Primary One.


Early childhood education in the Tembaro Woreda, where Berhanu lives, is a rarity. For children living in remote rural areas, kindergarten facilities are simply too far away to get to.
 
As a result, they are missing out on critical early education that can make them more successful later in life. As recently as 2012-13, less than 5 percent of children ages 4 to 6 in the Southern Nations, Nationality and People’s Region (where Tembaro is located) were attending kindergarten. Research shows that Ethiopian children with a preschool education consistently score higher on vocabulary tests and other key cognitive skills than those who don’t attend preschool.
    
For the past few years, WEEMA has been working closely with communities – Mudula, Keleta and Ferzano – and the Woreda Education Office to close this education gap. With additional facilities, equipment, and supplies – as well as food to feed the children – we have enabled thousands of young children to advance through Kindergarten 1, 2, and 3, thus giving them a better chance to thrive at primary school.
    
Last month, at three ceremonies, we saw 268 children graduate from KG1, 283 from KG2 and 273 from KG3. This year’s events were especially gratifying because the local government is now taking over the three kindergartens built by WEEMA and will deploy the required number of teachers and principals as well. An important moment, in other words, in WEEMA and the Ethiopian government’s shared goal of ensuring early education for all Ethiopians. A local government representative, Mr. Woldemichael, underscored this point in his remarks.
 
The government has made enormous gains on this issue – the national enrollment rate for children 4-6 is over 33 percent, up from 4 percent a decade ago – but nonprofit groups like WEEMA will continue to have a key role in accelerating progress, especially in underserved rural regions like the Tembaro Woreda.
    
WEEMA’s commitment to equitable and quality education continues with the network of libraries, inclusive education, and menstrual health education.