Children sit in their new desks at the Gish Abay pre-school in Bahir Dar

Victoria senior provides 53 desks to Ethiopia school

It’s a country that’s the size of B.C., but has a population close to 100 million people scattered throughout a landscape.

It’s a country that’s the size of B.C., but has a population close to 100 million people scattered throughout a landscape that’s wild and untamed.

Sharing borders with Eritrea, Sudan and Somalia, tensions are often running high in Ethiopia, but it’s also a country that’s incredibly strong, according to Victoria resident Jeremy Hespeler-Boultbee.

The 80-year-old and his Ethiopian-born wife Alemie Atanaw recently returned from the northwestern city of Bahir Dar, where he had made and delivered 53 desks to the Gish Abay pre-school.

The school is located in an extremely low-income area of the city and is in need of a number of basic things. Previously, the children had been sitting on a concrete floor in one of the school’s three classrooms.

“It was incredible. They (150 kids) ran up to us and were hugging our knees,” said Hespeler-Boultbee about the moment the desks were delivered to the school. “The staff were ecstatic. Now they’ve got a school.”

A former journalist for several Canadian publications, including Maclean’s Magazine during the Portuguese revolution, Hespeler-Boultbee wound up living in Bahir Dar for two years, studying Portugal’s influence on the culture and architecture in the highlands.

The country had a big impact on the North Park resident, calling him back more than 10 times to continue work in his field. But it’s not only the work that called Hespeler-Boultbee back to Ethiopia, it’s the need to help its citizens.

Throughout the years, Hespeler-Boultbee has helped put several children there though school and the couple managed to raise about $6,000 from generous Victorians to build and deliver the desks.

The gesture went a long way in a country that has a crying need for everything. Just days prior to his arrival, South Sudanese gunman crossed the border and carried out attacks on more than 20 villages in the western region of Gambella, killing more than 200 people. About 100 children were abducted and livestock was snatched as well.

The attack rocked the country, but posed no threat to the region Hespeler-Boultbee was staying. The country is also dealing with one of its worst droughts in decades, creating a shortage of food, but international aid has come to the rescue.

Despite its ongoing troubles, Hespeler-Boultbee has seen much progress with Ethiopia’s economy, which boasted the highest GDP in Africa a few years ago. He’s not sure whether he’ll return for another visit, but is happy to see Victorians step up to lend a helping hand to a part of the world that’s often forgotten in B.C.

“I do love the place,” he said, noting the country has one of the biggest armies in Africa. “It’ll be a while before people mess with Ethiopia I think. It’s a strong country.”