During “UN Week”, Tom Dobbins finds hope in Africa

Tom Dobbins in Africa

During travels to Ethiopia and Tanzania with Catholic Relief Services, the Millennium Development Goals become more than an abstraction

October 5, 2010

By Tom Dobbins, Peace and Justice Coordinator, Dept of Social and Community Development

This year, the UN dedicated its opening session to evaluating the world’s progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals: eight 15-year goals dedicated to alleviating the suffering of the poor – including reducing hunger and cutting poverty in half; reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria;  providing universal primary education to all; and providing safe drinking water. 2010 was the 10-year “report card” on the progress of these goals.

As someone who works in his professional life to encourage the living out of Catholic social teaching (including a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable), I can hardly imagine more important work, all the more so because I have recently seen how policy vehicles like the Millennium Development Goals can impact our brothers and sisters in the developing world. Last week, I returned home from a 10-day visit to Africa with Catholic Relief Services to observe the work they do in Ethiopia and Tanzania.

The trip was extraordinary – not just for the breathtaking physical beauty of both the African flora and fauna (although they are beautiful!) – but for the people we encountered there. The fact that we were traveling with CRS gave us unprecedented access to the individuals in the villages and centers where CRS and its local partners do their work.

Everywhere, I found embodiments of dignity, whether we were visiting Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity at the homes for the destitute and dying in Addis Ababa and Dire Dawa, Ethiopia, meeting with villagers at a Maasai Boma in the Diocese of Same, Tanzania, or speaking with healthcare providers at an AIDS relief project in the Babati region.  What I witnessed wasn’t just “a lot of talk” as those who assemble in that building in Turtle Bay near our offices are sometimes accused of. Through the hard work of CRS staff, their local partners and the people they help, I saw the Millennium Development Goals become more than just an abstraction – particularly the need for safe drinking water, which was overwhelmingly the most significant problem confronting the parts of Africa I visited and the most requested type of aid, and assistance for those suffering from HIV/AIDS.

One of the most striking things we encountered in our travels was the overwhelming friendliness and welcoming spirit of the African people. Whether we were traveling in the big cities of Arusha or Addis Ababa, or the rural villages of Dire Dawa or Same, as you traveled down the road and waved at those that you passed, your gesture would be returned with a broad smile and hearty wave.

It was for me one of the most beautiful images I took away from my trip, perhaps because I hail from a place where everyone walks very quickly and avoids eye contact at all costs. So deep was this impression of welcome that when our hosts at CRS asked us on our last day to sum up our impressions of Africa, a picture of a group of smiling children waving heartily formed in my mind and remains with me still, putting not only a smile on my face – but on my soul as well.