Three Days in Afar

Our supporter Sara, kindly allowed us to share some of her thoughts from her visit to our partner APDA (Afar Pastoralists Development Association) with its founder Valerie Browning.

Day 1

8.00am: Alex Chapman (Ethiopiaid’s Chair of Trustees) and I are halfway between the Afar towns of Semera and Logiya ready for the arrival of Valerie Browning who will be showing us APDA’s work. We’re already sweating in the heat. This Biblical, parched land is possibly most people’s idea of Ethiopia. We are at the southern end of the Danakil Depression known as the hottest place on earth. Here the dusty air scrapes your lungs and, if there was ever a place where an ice-cold beer was needed at the end of the day, this is it.

2.00pm: Lunch. With our 5 fellow travellers – all part of APDA’s team: 3 Health Extension Workers, the driver and Valerie Browning.

It’s been just a few short hours since Alex and I met this inspirational Australian nurse and I can honestly say I have never met anyone like her! Energy, compassion, humanity, courage and humour wrapped up under the traditional dress of the Afar women. Valerie has lived among the Afar nomads for almost 30 years since marrying Ishmael Ali Gardo, an Afar Clan Elder. Known as the Angel of Afar and Maalika (Queen), Valerie has worked tirelessly to improve maternal and child health, improve literacy and eradicate harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation(FGM) through the organisation that she and her husband began in 1989: APDA. This is her home.

6.00pm: Manda. We have dropped off one of the Health Extension Workers who set off on foot towards the horizon clutching her paperwork.

Valerie tells us that they now have 224 Health Extension workers, grown from 20, and that they are well accepted and respected – educating remote communities about FGM and promoting change.

The Clan Elder appears at supper time and, after formal greetings, Valerie begins business. She discusses births, teenage marriage, education standards and FGM. The Ethiopian Government has banned the practice but Valerie is keen to find out if this law is understood and upheld. It appears that the Government’s ban has reached even here but Valerie wants to check and she’ll need daylight for that.

We shall sleep well under the shooting stars. I have never been anywhere as silent as this.

Day 2

6.00am: Manda. The following morning we walk over to the other side of the village to meet other beneficiaries and Valerie asks to see the youngest baby girl. She’s a few weeks old. Alex and I step back and try not to meet anyone’s gaze. Valerie inspects the infant and falls silent. She has been cut. Her clitoris has been removed using a razor and pulled out with a spike. The concession to the lawmakers in Addis Adaba is that the labia remains and she has not been stitched. It is hard to see this as advancement but I suppose it is. The traditional birth attendant and cutter tells us that she bled a lot. I can’t hold back the tears.

Day 3

11.00am: Buure. This is where Mohammed, one of Valerie’s most trusted and respected associates comes from. We stop for a Coke (yes, even here) before heading out to meet another group of pastoralists and beneficiaries. They have also been displaced because of drought but look healthier than the people we spent the night with. Again, Valerie is able to mix social chat with health and welfare information before inspecting the youngest baby girl. She discovers that the same abuse has been inflicted on this baby girl. The clitoris has been removed but the labia remains and there is no stitching. She tells them all why this is still wrong.

They listen politely and offer no counter-argument.

We are amazed at Valerie’s courage.

By Sara Loxton

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