In 1986, following the success of Band Aid and Live Aid in arousing interest in the problems of Sub-Saharan Africa, a small group of interested individuals set up Devon Aid as an umbrella organisation to promote Community Links between towns and villages in Devon and places in Africa. Richard King first visited Ethiopia in 1987 and was taken by World Vision to Hareto 200 miles west of Addis Ababa in Wellega Province. Individuals in that community were interested in the possibility of setting up a link so it was agreed to try and do so, working through the Mekane Yesus Church (EECMY). Although the Exeter group is not church based, it has continued working through the EECMY Central Synod, based in Nekemte, as they have a good organisation and a well established Development Department.
Initially funds were sent from England to set up a tree nursery and vegetable garden project at Hareto High School. This project collapsed when the EPRDF army came through in 1991 at the time of the overthrow of the Derg. The story told was that everyone ran away to the hills and the goats took over and ate everything up! However, when Richard King returned in 1994 he saw tree seedlings being planted in dry earth which are now 10 metre high trees. Over £2000 worth of books, carpentry tools, seeds and medical equipment weretaken to Ethiopia on that visit and delivered to Hareto after being held up in Customs for over 6 months. Because of communications difficulties with Hareto, which has no telephone or post office, it was decided to develop connections with the provincial capital of Wellega, Nekemte, and equipment was provided to two schools there.
However, the communication difficulties continued and in late 1995 the Exeter-Ethiopia group, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, were about to pass a motion to close the link, when two Ethiopian friends – Alemu Nega and Alex Berhanu - encouraged us not to give up. They said that, after 8 years, 'we had only just started'. This is an example of the difference in time frames between Africa, where 10 years is a short time, and England where, if progress has not been made in 10 months, people move on to the next idea.
Contact continued at a modest level until 1999 when a group of 5 people from Exeter, led by Peter Grainger and accompanied by our Ethiopian refugee friend, Alex Berhanu, visited Wellega to receive a very warm welcome. The group visited schools in Hareto and Nekemte, the clinic at Hareto, and the former Swedish Mission Hospital in Nekemte. There they were shocked to find that, although the hospital was reasonably staffed, and had drugs and equipment, the water supply barely functioned and the toilets were all broken. The Exeter group resolved to raise funds to renovate the plumbing to the Gynecological and Paediatric wards. Details of the work to be done were agreed between Richard King and Ato Tadewos, both of whom are experienced Civil Engineers and following receipt of a full cost build up from EECMY the Exeter group raised nearly £3000 for this Stage 1 Project which was completed in March 2001. The remainder of the renovation, including a 10,000 litre storage tank, was carried out using a £5000 grant obtained from the British Embassy the following year.
Since 2002 the Exeter-Ethiopia Link has gone from strength to strength, culminating in the award in 2006, by a UK Charitable Trust, of a £150,000 grant to set up an Eye Clinic in Nekemte - the dream of our partner, Qes Alemu Nega, and Dr Alex Taylor of the Exeter Link.
The Link continues to support other development work in Eastern Wellega, focusing on Health, Education, the Environment and Women's needs.