Saving the World in Ethiopia: One Child at a Time Independent producer Jake Warga visits a friend who is doing health-relief work in Ethiopia. The woman makes sacrifices and finds herself in odd situations. To Warga, she is a real –- flawed — hero.
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Saving the World in Ethiopia: One Child at a Time

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Saving the World in Ethiopia: One Child at a Time

Saving the World in Ethiopia: One Child at a Time

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We have heard quite a bit on this program over the past few weeks about the conditions in which many people live in Ethiopia. We've heard about young women forced to marry as children and how complications during childbirth kill many women. We also heard how some people are trying to bring about change.

Well, today we're going to hear about another person who's trying to make a difference. She's a friend of independent producer Jake Warga.

(Soundbite of cat)

JENNIFER (Research Coordinator, Proctor Foundation): I'm worried about the kitties outside. They remind me of my cat at home.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAKE WARGA: This is the person I admire the most, my best friend, Jennifer.

JENNIFER: And every night, they come over here, and every day, actually now, they come over to my room and they cry and cry for food.

WARGA: I admire her because, well, she's trying to save the world.

JENNIFER: Right now, they're out there sniffing around, looking for something to eat. The Ethiopian staff comes by. They shoo them away, but you know, I'm an incurable American, so all I can think about is feeding them.

WARGA: I visited her in Ethiopia, where she's working. Early on the first morning, I found her picking up garbage bags. Stray cats had torn them apart overnight, looking for food.

You're not about to feed them a banana?

JENNIFER: Well unfortunately, it's fasting season right now in Ethiopia. It's Lent, and so there's no meat to be found anywhere. That one is Little One, actually. Little One, do you want some banana?

(Soundbite of cat)

JENNIFER: Banana, Little One, banana? No, that's not going to work.

(Soundbite of cats)

WARGA: Jen is the research coordinator for the Proctor Foundation based out of UC San Francisco. They're in Ethiopia helping to get rid of trachoma, an eye disease that causes blindness if it's not caught early on. She's leading a research team of ophthalmology med students.

When we arrive in a village, Jen coordinates everyone to rope off an exam area, readies the swaps, tubes and such. The entire village gathers around to watch us.

Local health care workers and nurses start to take roll, re-testing kids from the last time they were out to see if the disease is decreasing at all. The kids are in a daze, clutching older siblings or mothers, knowing that the Ferengis, the foreigners, are here to lay them with their heads sandwiched between the researchers' legs while their eyelids are flipped back to be swapped for testing. As you can imagine, they don't like this part.

(Soundbite of child crying)

WARGA: When one starts to cry, they all do. It's kind of like an evil Santa Land Village. Kids have on ratty T-shirts or pants but never both. Clothes are mere scraps, what we would have thrown away, and actually they are. When you drop clothes off at Goodwill back home that are deemed un-sellable, they get shipped to Africa.

A child with a crowd of flies around her face comes up to be swabbed. I try to make out the print on what's left of her T-shirt. B-H-S-C, Beverly Hills Social Club. In one village, an elder emerges from his thatched hut and stands behind the rope listening to us. His eyes are hazed over with a bluish cranial opacity, completely blind, a reminder to all of us what happens if trachoma isn't caught.

About mid-day, I seek refuge from the flies, screams and curious children and hide in the Land Rover. Melissa, one of the med students, sneaks in after me.

MELISSA: So this is one of the guilty moments of this job, where you're exhausted and you're hungry and you're in a village and you decide to hide in the car and have a couple bites of sandwich. And I know that if the kids saw me, they'd all be out asking for food. I just feel guilty that I have food whenever I want. I have more food than I could ever need, and sometimes I eat when I'm not even hungry.

I think some of it is just from me growing up always hearing about the starving children in Ethiopia. And fortunately, the kids that we're taking care of, most of them don't look starving and are reasonably well-fed, but there are a bunch of kids here who probably don't get quite enough.

Unidentified Children: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language)

WARGA: So we don't leave behind a village of tears, Jen usually gets all the kids to start singing and dancing. I admire my friend Jennifer because even after a full day, she keeps working. Late that night, I find her huddled in a corner of her room.

JENNIFER: Basically, I'm organizing little tubes that represent one Ethiopian child each. Did I ever think I'd be in a hotel in Ethiopia counting little tubes and arranging them with gloves on so I don't give Trachoma to myself?

No, not really.

WARGA: One day, during a visit to the capital to get supplies, Jen had her camera stolen, pick-pocketed. Another reason I admire my friend Jennifer is that when bad things happen to her, she's somehow okay with it, puts it into perspective.

JENNIFER: I guess I just look at it like people have hard lives sometimes, you know? Why do I know why people steal or why they hurt other people, why they can't have compassion and end up taking everything as the dictators of their country? Why do I - I don't know. So there's imbalance in this country. There's imbalance in this world.

WARGA: I admire Jennifer because of her efforts to save the world.

JENNIFER: I don't feel like I'm saving the world. I'm just doing what I can to stay connected to the way the world really is.

WARGA: The person I admire the most is still in Ethiopia, my best friend, Jennifer.

BLOCK: A profile of an American health worker in Ethiopia by her friend, producer Jake Warga.

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