A Lansing native is set to return home from Ethiopia next week, where she’s been volunteering at a school for homeless women and children for the past two months.
It’s not Glory Rognstad’s first time living and working in the country of 96.6 million, located on the Horn of Africa and sandwiched between the war ravaged countries of Somalia, Sudan and South Sudan.
Rognstad first traveled to Ethiopia in 2010 as a requirement for her Baha’i Year of Service.
According to the official website of the Baha’is of the United States (www.bahai.us), the Baha’i Faith is a monotheistic religion “focused on building a just, peaceful and sustainable world — one neighborhood at a time.” Baha’is are committed to “creating a foundation of worship and prayer, nurturing the beauty and potential of all children, inviting everyone to build an open community and unlocking the power and capacity of youth.”
“In the Baha’i Faith, youth are encouraged to go outside of their comfort zone and experience different cultures,” Rognstad said. “I applied to volunteer at different places all over India and Africa.”
Rognstad’s choices were eventually narrowed down to Ethiopia and Ghana. Ethiopia was the first to respond, which Rognstad took as a sign that it was the right choice.
“My first trip here (Ethiopia), I lived here for one and a half years,” Rognstad said. “I returned to the U.S. in 2012 to continue my studies.”
Rognstad, a graduate of Ashe County High School, was attending Caldwell Community College, but recently transferred to Appalachian State University where she plans to major in special education when classes start next semester.
Two months ago, Rognstad returned to Ethiopia to visit with friends and volunteer at Fresh and Green Academy - a school for homeless women and children that was founded 13 years ago by Muday Mitiku.
“Since I was going to be here for two months, I decided to volunteer at a school that I had heard about when I was here before,” Rognstad said. “I really liked the project and contacted Muday.”
Mitiku, who was born and raised in Ethiopia, was “struck with sadness,” according to Rognstad, by the staggering amount of women and children who were homeless and without education and job opportunities in the capital city of Addis Ababa. She started Fresh and Green and a non-profit, the Muday Association, to help fund the school so that students could attend free of charge. She also saw to it that the childrens’ mothers were employed.
“The Muday Association is a non-profit that Muday started to fund Fresh and Green and it has provided nine looms for the mothers to weave scarves,” Rognstad said. “They also make homemade clay pots, candle holders and jewelry on the campus of the school.”
Mothers who don’t work in the school have found employment elsewhere through the help of Mitiku.
Ethiopia is a far cry from the U.S. in more ways than just distance. While it’s the 18th largest largest country in the world, it severely lacks in infrastructure and healthcare. The average Ethiopian can expect to live until he or she is 61 years old, while the average U.S. citizen can expect to live to be 80, according to the CIA World Factbook. An estimated 42,200 Ethiopians died from complications resulting from HIV/AIDS, in 2012, whereas only 17,000 Americans did. Another striking figure is that 44 percent, nearly half, of the population is comprised of children ages 0-14, compared to 19 percent in the U.S.
Still, life for those living in Ethiopia is far better than those living in neighboring countries.
“The average rent for a one room, mud house is around 500ETB, which amounts to about $26,” Rognstad said. “These rooms are 10 by 10 feet with mud walls, dirt floor and a slab of tin as a roof.”
“There is no running water, fridge or stove,” Rognstad said. “Women hike about 10 gallons of water up-hill daily and cook over coal.”
Rognstad said Fresh and Green and the Muday Association supports 350 women and children. At least four or five mothers come to the school daily to ask for support, however, the school lacks the necessary space to admit more students and their families.
“Even now, she (Mitiku) is constantly fighting to pay bills and feed everyone,” Rognstad said. “It is a constant struggle.”
“These kids and mothers are the inspiration of my life,” Rognstad said. “The stories they have told me are crippling, the hardships they have overcome is absolutely astounding.”
“Most of them (the women) have HIV/AIDS, which is a result of living on the streets and being raped regularly or working in prostitution,” Rognstad said. “Some of the children have also contracted the disease as well, through birth.”
An estimated 758,600 men, women and children are currently living with HIV/AIDS in Ethiopia.
“The gratitude and love they have for their lives is the most beautiful thing a human can witness,” Rognstad said of the people she’s grown to love.
“I’m blessed and eternally grateful that I have been able to break bread and share so much laughter with them,” Rognstad said. “The dedication of everyone that is working here is amazing and gives me courage, and of course, the energy and love Muday pours into the lives of each and every person here is true and pure.”
Rognstad is scheduled to arrive back in the U.S. on Monday, April 28, but it’s clear her heart remains in Ethiopia with Mitiku and the mothers and children at Fresh and Green Academy.
“I’m enrolled in school next semester and plan to continue with that,” Rognstad said. “I have two years left, then my plan is to move back to Ethiopia indefinitely.”
Still, no matter what she does or where she goes, Rognstad will always be able to call Ashe County “home,” even if she’s living some 7,000-8,000 miles, and ocean and a few deserts away in Ethiopia.
For more information about Fresh and Green visit their website at www.friendsoffreshandgreen.com. More information on the Muday Association and options for donating to the non-profit is available at www.mudayassociation.com.
Alan Bulluck can be reached at (336) 846-7164 or on Twitter @albulluck.