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Bishop Toal in Ethiopia with SCIAF

Recently, Bishop Toal visited Ethiopia with SCIAF to see the projects and work carried out by the charity. Bishop Toal has written the following reflection on his visit:

As I return from Ethiopia having spent a week visiting projects which SCIAF supports in Northern Ethiopia, I record some thoughts on what has been a fascinating few days. I have experienced something about this large and complex country and the outstanding work undertaken by SCIAF and our partners through the local Diocese of Adigrat, supporting rural communities as they seek to improve their lives in a challenging natural environment.

Many of us remember Ethiopia from the terrible famine experienced there in the 1980s and how Bob Geldof and Band Aid encouraged us to respond generously to people in such extreme need. When told that our trip would be to Northern Ethiopia and take in the Province of Tigray I remembered that this was the region affected by the drought and famine over 30 years ago and was aware before travelling that life remains precarious today as water is scarce and the annual rainfall is even more unpredictable today as the consequences of climate change affect this part of the world as elsewhere. It is true though that Ethiopia has developed in many areas through these 30 years and the people, like all of us, aspire to continue this progress by using the means now available to humanity.

The landscape of Northern Ethiopia is spectacular, especially when you travel into the mountains but it looks and feels extremely dry and can be very hot. The fundamental struggle to find sufficient sources of water, and to store the water that does fall during the rainy season, has always been part of the challenge of living in such areas. Traditionally many of rural population are pastoralists, which means they keep goats and sheep and move around seeking pasture for them and hoping to sustain themselves through their animals. Those living closer to reliable water sources are able to grow crops and keep larger animals particularly oxen who assist with the ploughing and other heavy farming tasks. Donkeys also greatly assist the transport of goods through areas where roads are very rough and transport by motor vehicles restricted. The group from SCIAF visited a number of communities whose lives have been greatly assisted by the resources we have provided to help access water, to store water, to circulate the collected water to a wider area, and to slow the flow of water when the rain does fall in torrents. The work supported by us, but undertaken by the local people, includes making bore-holes to access water deeper underground, providing solar-panels to power the pumps to lift the water to ground-level and then taking it to higher ground, from there providing the cement to construct the canals which allows the water to circulate and irrigate the crops in areas not previously cultivated. With regular supply of water for the fields three harvests are now possible rather than the single one previously possible after the rains fell.

Water collection points for humans and animals are now situated at different points within the communities and more water is available for human consumption, cooking and washing. It was tremendous to see what has been achieved and to appreciate how much our contributions make to the long-term transformation of people’s lives in these sometimes quite isolated communities. The provision of solar panels to power the water pumps has guaranteed a regular water supply for a community twice the size of Motherwell. It is a great blessing for them and they deeply appreciate the support of the Adigrat Diocese and her partners (including SCIAF) - and that community are all Muslims.

Another feature of the water projects is the construction of check-dams at strategic points on a river which allows water to be pumped from the river and channelled into the surrounding fields. When the heavy rainfalls come the dams slow the speed of water and give time for it to seep into the ground thus replenishing the deeper water reserves. Another feature of this work is the construction of dams at higher levels to slow the flow of water on the hill-sides so preventing the soil being washed away. This is particularly important where too many trees have been cut down for firewood and other needs. Once again great work is being done by the local people and their growing awareness of how they can better their traditional way of farming with the help of modern technology which we have assisted in providing for them.

As mentioned earlier our hosts in Tigray were Bishop Tesfaselassie of Adigrat and his Social and Development Commission. They gave us a great welcome and emphasised the great bond between us in the Universal Church and how the sharing of our resources with them is a powerful sign of our union in Christ. For me this is a strong part of SCIAF’s mission - through our Aid Agency the Catholics of Scotland reach out to the Church in poorer countries and we share what we can with them. It is uplifting to see this working and as a Scottish Bishop to hear the gratitude expressed by the local Bishop for the generosity of Scottish Catholics. So I bring back a very positive message to Scotland about SCIAF’s work in Ethiopia and in other countries from the people of the Church - they love us very much and greatly appreciate our help.

In visiting the Church in other places I also expect to learn something about Christian faith and living. The Church in Ethiopia is very ancient, going back to the 4th century, and is predominantly Orthodox. Since coming to Ethiopia through the 19th century missionaries, the Catholic Church, although small, has been active in health, education, and social provision, but remains close to the orthodox tradition in many ways. One part of Christian life which has a lot of prominence is fasting. Wednesday and Friday each week are days of fasting, along with Lent and some other extended periods through the year. On these days people abstain from meat, fish, and all food produced from animals - basically a vegan diet. We are not used to fasting to this extent in the Western Church but we are challenged about it sometimes, not least by Pope Francis. Certainly during Lent we do take seriously the disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and having visited the Church in Ethiopia, I will be thinking about what I should do in regard to them.

Since Lent is also the time we make a special effort for SCIAF I will certainly want to encourage a generous response from the Catholics of Scotland having seen that we support such beneficial work in Ethiopia. We are not the only ones who do so but the fact that we do so in the name of the Catholic Church in Scotland makes what we do very special in our Church’s life and mission.

+ Joseph Toal


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