Marta Gabre-Tsadick: Determination and development in Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s top model Liya Kebede says we all have a little something to learn about community spirit from Marta Gabre-Tsadick.


Carmel Wroth | Jan/Feb 2009 issue
 

Marta Gabre-Tsadick, Founder, Project Mercy. Yetebon, Ethiopia

Photo: Getty

In 32 years spent running an aid organization in Africa, Marta Gabre-Tsadick, 76, says she never faced a problem that couldn’t be solved with determination. “I can call just one person, and the problem is completely wiped out. Miracles can happen when a committed person moves.”
It’s this faith in human will that fuels her efforts to develop a locally driven and economically viable community in rural Ethiopia. In 1991, on returning to her homeland after a 16-year political exile, she retooled her emergency aid organization, Project Mercy, to work at a deeper level with the Gurage people, her father’s native tribe. She focused on the village of Yetebon, about two hours south of the capital of Addis Ababa. By investing in infrastructure, education, microloans and agricultural innovation, the program is working to free this farming community of 74,000 from a cycle of famine, poverty and dependence on aid.
Despite recent economic growth, 39 percent of Ethiopians still live below the World Bank’s poverty line. Some 85 percent are farmers; the country is one of the world’s leading recipients of foreign aid, and is suffering from a devastating famine. Before Project Mercy arrived, people in Yetebon were living with rampant disease and hunger, without clean water, hospitals or schools.
Gabre-Tsadick’s passion for helping her country started when she served as Ethiopia’s first female senator under Emperor Haile Selassie. When that regime fell in 1974, she and her husband, Demeke Tekle-Wold, fled to the U.S. They lived in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where Tekle-Wold supported the family—the couple has 12 children, seven of whom were adopted—while his wife ran Project Mercy. Project Mercy’s strategy of emphasizing ­education and skills training seems to be paying off. The farms and settlements of Yetebon are connected by an all-weather road. A spring-fed system provides clean water. Farmers are learning to grow a diverse crop of vegetables, and raise a more productive breed of cows that can feed them even in a drought. When the organization built the area’s first hospital and school, they trained local men to do the construction. Now some of the men are getting similar work in a nearby town, while others have started taxi services delivering people to the hospital.
The K-12 school serves 1,500 students, with as many on the waiting list. Educated children, in turn, train adults in basic literacy, arithmetic and disease prevention. Thirty-two graduates have gone on to college, and Project Mercy is in talks with three companies considering bringing manufacturing jobs to the area.
In fact, Gabre-Tsadick thinks the community will soon reach the point that it doesn’t need her. That thought makes her happy. “Every day the elders tell me, ‘We are reborn. We just came alive.’ To me, that just hits the bottom of my heart and ­humbles me.”
“Marta Gabre-Tsadick is a remarkable woman who moved back to Yetebon, Ethiopia, with her husband to help create a holistic community-development model. They’ve built a school and hospital as well as establishing agricultural development programs and clean-water delivery systems. Marta is a person everyone should know about and from whom we can all learn.” -Liya Kebede, Ethiopia’s top model
and founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, which aims to reduce maternal, newborn
and child mortality

“Marta Gabre-Tsadick is a remarkable woman who moved back to Yetebon, Ethiopia, with her husband to help create a holistic community-development model. They’ve built a school and hospital as well as establishing agricultural development programs and clean-water delivery systems. Marta is a person everyone should know about and from whom we can all learn.”
Liya Kebede, Ethiopia’s top model and founder of the Liya Kebede Foundation, which aims to reduce maternal, newborn and child mortality

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