A journey in works «prepared in advance for us to do».
As all other missionary wives, Marit Bakke at the Mekane Yesus Seminary on the outskirts of Addis Ababa, met a number of persons who came to her doorsteps to ask for help. It could be all possible things, from small wounds and other physical symptoms to listen to and be included in all the various problems that characterised the daily life of a poor mother. Many had wounds and diseases which could not be cured on the doorsteps. It was not so easy to ask them go to clinics or hospitals inside the city, many knew in fact, not where these institutions were located. The number of visitors grew, it took so much time that Marit engaged Aster, a young secondary school student, who in her freetime could help both an interpreter and who could accompany and guide patients. Aster has later completed a degree in Administration and Management and is today the administrator of My Sisters.
These were difficult years in Ethiopia. Marit received with joy donations of secondhand cloths that could be given to others. Many items, however, were almost new and of such a good quality that they could not simply be given away. Gennet, a friend of Aster, was engaged. She opened a small secondhand cloths shop in her own home. The profit from this shop was used to cover medicine and hospital bills for those who could not manage on their own.
Despite the fact that those years were very difficult, visitors from Norway and other Scandinavian countries did come, among these some who came in order to adopt Ethiopian children. Many of these observed the activities of Aster, Gennet and Marit. They must have appreciated what they saw since they on return to their homes sent money. Some collected used cloths and shipped out, and possibly most important, they conveyed their impressions to others. It is no overstatement that still today most of the funds come almost exclusively from persons who have seen the work themselves or have been informed by others.
My Sisters Women’s Welfare Association comes into existence.
Marit saw it important to form a broader basis for the work. She invited Ethiopian friends from the neighborhood to a cup of coffee. It developed into a group of 25 women, 24 Ethiopian and one Norwegian. They met weekly and discussed the problems confronting poor women in the area.
Their desire was to be like sisters to those who were in a critical situation. «My Sisters» was chosen as their name. Their idea was that those who were seeking assistance could say: «I want to go to my sisters to receive help.»
The numbers of those who asked for help grew. Some time in 1988-89 it became obvious that the doorsteps of the seminary residence had to be abandoned. A piece of land close by was rented and two houses made of four containers erected. The containers were gifts from the Norwegian Church Aid, an organization through which they received much secondhand cloths, valuable guidance and other assistance.
In her search for support, Marit met persons running a bridal shop in Norway. They were on the point of closing down the business. They donated among other items 60 dresses, long tail coats, black suits etc. There was no organized renting of bridal outfits in Addis Ababa at that time, so with the hope of profit in mind they opened a bridal outfit salon in one of the container houses. Gennet moved the secondary hand cloths shop she had started at home into the other. Through the coming years these two shops secured a good amount of money and provided work opportunities for several young women.
The one container gave room for a small office. A first-aid clinic appeared. Missionary wives with nurse training were engaged to provide simple clinical work and not least to refer those who were in need to other clinics and hospitals in the city. And in addition to this, it became necessary to assure the clients that expenses for treatment and medicine would be covered.
In the afternoons, the clinic room was converted into a library office. Some friends who left Ethiopia in order to work elsewhere had donated English books, educational books and simple novels. From a small shelf with about 60 books reading material was rented out to young persons who had the desire to read and study, but had no books.
Through these activities they became aware of another problem. From different reasons, many children and young persons had problems in following the pace of their school mates. The container houses did not fill the total space of the land they rented, there was room behind for a shack. It gave room for two «classrooms» and a small kitchen. A teacher was hired, those who came received support instruction in the most demanding subjects and in addition a nutritious meal. This so called school has made it possible for many to return to their classes and to meet the demands.
A major challenge over the years has been, «how can we assist single mothers to be self-supported?» A number of ideas have appeared. Bakery? Jam factory? Hairdressing? And so on. Some of them were tried for a while, most were abandoned. They became too ambitious.
The first Day care centre appeared
Theodros, nicknamed Teddy, caused one project which has lasted and developed. It became clear that Teddy suffered from ascaris etc. (worms/parasites of the intestines). It was so serious that he could not just be returned home after treatment. He needed care, day and night, for a longer period. It was more than the mother of Teddy could manage. In order to take care of her daily expenses, she had to carry stone and sand on a nearby building site. Something had to be organized for Teddy. This initiated the first Daycare home.
A house was rented. Some women employed. Announcement went out that mothers who needed this, could place their small children in this place before they went for work in the morning. My Sisters promised to take care of the children until the work ended. The precondition was that the mothers either had work or were able to find work.
The start was somehow slow. Some mothers were anxious for the safety of their children. In the My Sisters support group some feared that mothers might place their children in the daycare and run away. Through the years this has happened once. A distressed father who had lost his wife saw no other alternative than to disappear trusting that «My Sisters» would take of his child.
This necessitated contacts with the Ethiopian government agencies in charge of adoption. Through the years they have assisted in many adoptions of children without parents.
From a private assistance project to a publicly registered organization.
The work continued to grow. The number of employees became quite large. NORAD (Norwegian Development Aid) through the Norwegian Embassy provided funds that facilitated purchase of a villa that gave space for social office, clinic and training of health workers. It became necessary to apply for public registration.
1994 was the year when they felt that they had built a somewhat firm foundation. They understood themselves as a small organization. Some good contributions had arrived and the need of a more solid skeleton of rules was there. An acceptable accounting process with public audit was in place. A constitution was formulated and the long, time consuming process towards being registered as an NGO, a non-governmental organization had started.
It should still take some years until all formalities and negotiations with the government ministries (Ministry of Justice and Ministry of Social Affairs) were concluded but June 1994 appears as the official public birthday of My Sisters. The tenth anniversary was celebrated in June 2004 with joyful and happy memories. Quite a few strong and turbulent rivers were crossed, and many exciting challenging were visible in the future.
Association with other organizations.
The activities of «My Sisters» had not been linked to neither the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY is the church in which the work of the Lutheran missions is integrated) or to any other foreign mission or organization. This was a deliberate choice. The intention was to form a grass roots organization in which persons regardless of religious affiliation could feel free to contact. The assistance offered should not hinder neither Orthodox Christians or Muslim believers or be understood as a push or force towards a change of beliefs. Nobody should have reason to believe that they were preferred or disregarded compared to others. The identity of My Sisters, however, is not hidden. Everybody knows that both the members of the support group and the employees are either Orthodox or Evangelical Christians. This is not written anywhere. «Our work will prove our identity.»
Restrictions, however, had to be put in place in order to avoid poor people from all over the city flocking to My Sisters. So a precondition was that they had to live in one of the two kebele (a town unit) and that they by the local authorities were considered to be in need of help.
Kokeb appears and is taken care of.
Coincidence? A Sunday after service Marit greets and starts a conversation with a German couple who a few days earlier had arrived in Addis Ababa. They were invited for lunch and it appeared that they were on their way to Gondar in North-Ethiopia in order to visit an aid project for children supported by the German TV programme Sternstunden in Munich. It became natural to share information regarding the activities of Marit.
After some time, in fact a full year, Marit received a letter from the same couple. They had investigated and suggested now that My Sisters initiated a new daycare, Sternstunden was willing to fund both facilities and equipment.
A building at some distance from the other daycare was rented and renovated. This new daycare had to be given the name Kokeb – star. A Danish artist, friend of Marit, volunteered to decorate the walls. Search this homepage and you will find photos!
The running of Kokeb was a faith-project – until the owner of a Stavanger (Norway) based company appeared. He supported several Mekane Yesus Church projects and said that he wanted to see what My Sisters engaged in. Aster and Marit took him around without knowing that he had a special thought in his mind. After the first guided tour he reappeared and then he suddenly declared, I am going to Norway to night, if you during this afternoon can tell me what the running of Kokeb amounts to I may consider to support that project for a period of five years.
Change of structure and organizational matters
The number of supporters from Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Faeroe islands and other countries grew considerably. It became difficult to handle that many foreign supporters inside an Ethiopian accounting and auditing system. The time that Marit would change her main address from Ethiopia to Norway was just around the corner. These facts resulted in a splitting of My Sisters into an Ethiopian and an International part. The Ethiopian took care of the work. The international took care of the economic foundation.
Following Marits move to Norway, the international part was part was organized as an independent foundation under Norwegian law with its own board and chairperson. The work of Marit was to be daily leader.
As Marit moved to Norway June 2005, Solveig Bjoernholt Knudsen appeared. Coincidence? Solveig lived in the neighbourhood, married to the director of the Danish Evangelical Mission in Ethiopia. She proved to be a jewel. Her practical and organizational skills combined with an extraordinary commitment has proved to be a fantastic support for the My Sisters team of leaders.
The peace that characterized My Sisters when Marit left was not long lasting. The villa bought by funds obtained from NORAD was claimed by outsiders, court case was and assisted by false claims and false witnesses the outcome was defeat and they had to abandon the house. At the same time the piece of land on which the two container houses and the helping school had been built was expropriated due to the huge road building project in the area. What to do? Was this the very end of every thing?
At this time the owner of the Stavanger company reappeared. He provided funds, first to purchase Gorfu – surplus. This property gave room for the oldest daycare, the library with reading room which had taken the place of the bridal outfit shop, and the secondhand cloths shop. This shop will by the way now (2009) give way for a new job related training.
Then, from the same source, Bereket – blessing was bought. On this property you find a new, the third, daycare, a foster home for 8 young persons, the clinic and the social office. Another property, next to that of Bereket was also bought. It was not difficult to find a proper name, Misgana – praise and thanks. It houses the administration and educational facilities.
And if this was not enough, the owner did also find money to purchase Kokeb since the owner did not want to extend the contract. In addition to the original daycare this property provides rooms for the supporting school, the youth club and a small room used by the support group for HIV positive.
All buildings were in need of renovation, planning and ground work. It is not least thanks to Solveig that it is a joy and a pleasure today to visit and to invite visitors to these places.
For good and for evil Addis Ababa is a huge city. It has presently (2009) above 5 mill. citizens and it grows fast. It offers everything, but it has extreme poverty and unemployment. As a result there is a massive amount of various sicknesses, shortage of housing, alcoholism and lack of hope. We believe that «My Sisters» still has an important role to play in fighting poverty and hopeless living conditions for a few families in this quagmire.
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