Friday, April 16, 2010

Guest Voices: A Conversation with Abraham – Concern Office Huambo, Angola

As a part of series of posts from Concern International, Aoife Gleeson draws inspiration from the story of African field worker Abraham.

A Conversation with Abraham – Concern Office Huambo, Angola

It’s nearly eight o’clock in the evening and I can’t believe I am still in the office. The working day here in Angola starts at 7.30am, so it feels longer than a typical day. I finished working a while ago but have been chatting with Abraham, the livelihood program manager for Concern in Angola.

His story is so compelling and he tells it in such an open and engaging way that I’ve found myself completely hooked.
Abraham was born in a small village in western Ethiopia. He is shy about revealing his age and could confirm only that he is over 50. Growing up, he led a simple village life and encouraged by his parents, who were both illiterate, attended the local missionary school.

Being a natural student he worked hard, and in time went on to win a coveted government scholarship to attend university – the first in his village to do so. His interest in development and in helping people – as he put it: “improve their circumstances” was something that has always been in him. Abraham joined Concern five years ago and has been living and working in Angola ever since.

Our conversation moves to the program here. Earlier today he visited a village to see the progress of Concern’s agricultural project there. His animated way of telling stories has me rolling around with laughter:
“I am exhausted Aoife” he exclaims, “today I was looking at one villager’s field when another saw me and insisted I come to look at his, then another came and did the same, and then another. They were all so proud of what they had achieved and wanted to show me. I was proud too – but Aoife there were many fields and now my feet are killing me!”

We talk about when he first came to Angola and he tells me that he remembers being really struck by the scars of war that were still so visible: “There were abandoned tanks by the side of the road and in the middle of the town there was a building that was leaning sideways – like the leaning tower of Pisa – one half of it was blown up and people were still living in the other half.

Honestly, I tell you, I used to worry every day that the building would fall down on top of me when I walked past,” he says.
For me, the healing in Angola that Abraham speaks of is very evident. Old buildings are being torn down, new roads have been laid and modern shops and offices have been built. I have been moved by the beauty of this country – the magnificent endless sky and the wide open fields that seem to hold so much promise. But what is not easy to see are the deeper issues that take much longer to resolve.

Alessandro, Concern’s Country Director in Angola, joins the conversation: “Because the war went on for so long a lot of the knowledge of agricultural practices was lost. Many rural families lost all of their livestock, and with it, their main income generating resource.”

Concern has responded in many different ways. One program has been to distribute goats to rural communities.
Abraham tells me about a widow in one of these communities who was given two goats, two years ago: “Now she has 6 goats and has been able to send her kids to school,” he explains. “She is currently replacing the grass roof of her home with metal sheeting – these goats really made a big difference to her life.”

Like a proud father, he tells me about some of the community groups that Concern has been working with: “It took a while for these community groups to form and really start working together – but now they are so impressive. They are confident and extremely in touch with the needs of their communities. At meetings with various authorities they are now the ones doing the talking—not us—and advocating for services and support.”

It’s getting late and we all need to go home, particularly Abraham, who is anxious to catch every bit of the Manchester United game tonight! As we walk outside into the cool night air, he reminds me how development takes time and patience: “It hasn’t been easy, but I never lost hope Aoife and that is what got me through the difficult times,” he says. “But let me tell you, if Man U lose tonight I will be depressed for the rest of the week!” and with that unmistakable delivery of his, I have no option but to laugh, and say goodnight!

Aoife Gleeson joined Concern as Finance Director in the New York office in 2007. She has played a critical role in the management of Concern Worldwide US, and overseen finances for humanitarian field operations in Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Angola and Haiti, among others. Aoife is currently working with Concern’s emergency team in Haiti.

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