Proper hand washing and basic hygiene are second nature in the United States.
But that’s not true in Ethiopia, a country in eastern Africa that’s slightly less than twice the size of Texas, with more than 96.6 million people.
In Meki, a town in east-central Ethiopia inhabited by about 46,000 people, water is scarce, electricity is unpredictable and there are no physicians.
Well, that was until the Community of St. Paul, a public association of the faithful comprised of 30 priests, laymen and women with headquarters in Racine, established a mission there in September 2013.
Community of St. Paul members María José Morales, a nurse with degrees in English philology and theology, and Gemma Regales, a physician and younger sister of Milwaukee Archdiocesan priest, Fr. Oriol Regales, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Elkhorn, began a health education program at Meki Catholic School in January.
Their program includes: giving formal, age-appropriate health education to the school’s 1,758 students ages 6 to about 18, as well as promoting healthy habits and teaching students how to incorporate them into their lives, providing health care to the students at a new school dispensary, and promoting a healthy school environment by maintaining safe and clean classrooms/school compounds, as well as providing safe drinking water to the school.
The mission was a long time coming – since 2008 — when Msgr. Abraham Desta, bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki, visited then-Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan in Milwaukee.
Archbishop Dolan invited Bishop Desta and members of the Community of St. Paul to dinner.
“In that dinner, the bishop was explaining the reality of Ethiopia, and was, since that first moment, he was saying that your community has been in contact with many, many programs in Africa; why don’t you join us in the Vicariate of Meki?” said Morales, who was in town earlier this year with Regales for the community’s annual retreat, led this year by Bishop Richard J. Sklba at the Siena Retreat Center in Racine.
The Community of St. Paul is present in Milwaukee; Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Cochabamba, Bolivia; Bogota,Colombia; Mexico City; San Juan de la Maguana, Dominican Republic; and Spain.
At the time of the Bishop Desta’s visit, community members were devoted to different programs throughout the world and the Community of St. Paul was being established in Racine.
Regales said they kept in touch with Msgr. Desta each year, and in 2010, some members of the community visited him in Ethiopia to learn about the apostolic vicariate there, and to see what they were doing and what needs existed.
Learn community’s ‘sufferings’
At the community’s general assembly two years ago, Morales and Regales, who had finished the programs in which they were involved, saw an opportunity to go to Ethiopia, and when asked, they took it.
“So, we moved to Ethiopia in 2013, after many prayers (and) support of the community,” said Morales, a member of the community for 27 years. “It was a community decision, so Gemma and myself accepted, very happy to go.”
They started learning the official language, Amharic, last year by studying with a private teacher in the capital city, Addis Ababa, and spent time learning about the people by visiting communities and congregations.
Morales said she and Regales needed to spend time with the people to see what they were already doing and to learn what their “sufferings” were, so they could be “very realistic” with what the two of them could offer.
After talking with the bishop, they learned a lack of education is at the root of many health issues, including malnutrition, the spread of infectious diseases and high infant/maternal mortality rates.
Education targets children
Regales said they decided to teach children in the school because most of the infectious diseases could be prevented with good hygiene and basic habits.
“We have to start teaching, and it’s better to start teaching the young population than the old, to change the habits. …” said Regales, part of the community for 24 years. “We were thinking to start in the school with health education, basic things like hygiene, sanitation and nutrition, very basic, and also health promotion, teaching the students how to wash their hands with soap and water, and how to brush their teeth … that they have to drink clean water.”
They organized a two-room infirmary with a bed, where Regales can conduct checkups and administer medical care, and prepared lessons for different age levels, coordinating their schedules with the other teachers.
The physician-nurse team also plans to offer medical treatment when the students are sick in school, offer an annual medical checkup, have a once-a-year deworming campaign for all of the school children, and improve the health and environment in the school to help prevent diseases.
Giving voice to women
“All these will be very important to train also local people so that they can learn how to do these,” said Morales, who is working with women in the community in small groups, teaching them about their health, helping them to establish relationships among one another and building their self-esteem – because while men have powerful roles there, many times women are “voiceless” and can’t “give their opinion.”
“It’s a very good thing to gather together,” Morales said, “to gather together only with women in a small group so that all of them can share what they are living, and then to see how many others are living in the same situation, because many times you feel that you are the only one suffering this situation, but when you gather together, little by little, you establish a group and a good relationship among themselves – it empowers them.”
They plan to expand the program to teach the women English, because many of them are at such a low level of English they aren’t prepared for further studies by the time they finish secondary school.
Regales said health and education go hand in hand, and if the program is successful at Meki Catholic School, they plan to implement it in the other Catholic schools run by the apostolic vicariate.
“The health education in the school, it also will help the families to improve little by little, their health,” Morales said. “I mean, if you are giving an education of health to the students, for sure they will go to their houses and then, little by little, they will spread what they have learned.”
Need for clean water
But they have to overcome some challenges, she added.
“One of the difficulties is that to talk about the clean water and to (talk about) drinkable water is one thing, but to have drinkable water – there are many, many populations and many families that do not have drinkable water, so this is one of the things that has to be done in Ethiopia,” Morales said, explaining that wells would have to be dug.
Tackling malnourishment is another difficult issue they face, she said.
“There is a lot of malnourishment and, of course, it’s important to have a diet that will be balanced, but the majority of the families are very poor, so they do not eat meat, for sure every week they do not eat meat,” she said. “So, there are many things, but there are vegetables and now they are growing tomatoes and many other things that before they were not cultivating, so little by little you have to teach people how to do things that they can afford.”
In need of funding
As they work in the mission, Regales and Morales continue to look for funding, because while the vicariate provides them with a house and car, they don’t receive a salary and must provide everything else for themselves and to sustain the new programs they’re running.
But they’re up for the challenges, and whatever may occur.
“The main goal is to do programs that, at the end, work by themselves,” Morales said. “We are only two. We cannot do many things only the two of us, but if more people are involved in these programs, and they are well-trained, in the future they will be the ones able to run the programs. … The most important thing is always to work with the people and for the people, not we as the people of the Community of St. Paul to work for them, but to work together and with them in order to improve in the way of living.”
Things are going well
Morales wrote, in an email to the Catholic Herald in March, that everything was going well in Ethiopia – Regales, who started the health program in the school, and Morales, who started a program working with young women, had higher participation among children and women than they expected.
“They are very happy for everything we do together with them,” Morales wrote. “So we only have words of thanks to all of them and especially to God for giving us this great opportunity to share our lives with the people of Meki.”