Sunday, May 8, 2011

Tim & Kim

I wasn't looking for Tim & Kim.  But it's not the first time during my trip that a very fortunate circumstance materialized out of the ether.  Once again, one seemingly meaningless decision, one small turn of luck, led to a series of events that drastically changed the course of a few days for the better.  This time I happened to decide to go off to the little visited village of Gorgora, a small community on the northern end of Lake Tana.  I happened to meet up with Yosef and his five students, who were in the process of hiring a boat to visit the island monasteries of the lake.  Because Yosef happened to be Dutch, the boat operator happened to mention to him that there was a Dutch couple – Tim & Kim - that ran a community-based resort nearby.  Yosef happened to decide to visit the resort rather than the monastery that was supposed to be the final stop on the lake tour.

And so it was that I arrived at Tim & Kim’s Village, which sits seven hundred and fifty meters off the dirt road that is the main drag of Gorgora.  The scene is picturesque.  Eight or so stone cabanas – rooms built almost exclusively by Tim’s own hands – dot the hillside that tumbles down towards the lake.  Tim shows me which room is mine and advises that I need not use the en suite showers, as a more suitable bathing option might be to hop into the blue waters of Lake Tana.  Taking his advice, I walk the dirt path down to my very own three thousand square kilometer bathtub, take off my clothes, and go in for a dip.  As the sun begins to set over the surrounding mountains, I wrap myself in my towel and return to my room to get ready for dinner, a meal I share with Tim and Kim alone, as today I am the only guests staying at their little slice of paradise.

Turning this piece of Ethiopian dirt into this beautiful resort did not come easy for Tim and Kim.  As Tim put it, he and his wife are "survivors".  Literally.  Tim has had malaria nine times.  Kim three, once to the point of being so ill that she had to be admitted to the nearest hospital's intensive care unit (two hours away).  Tim's been stung by a scorpion, which he likens to having his arm on a barbecue for twenty-four straight hours.  They've dealt with hyenas, rabid dogs and thieving employees.  They've slept with chickens and cows and spiders and rats.  But mostly, they've learned what to me seemed like a painfully frustrating lesson on working with the local Ethiopian community.  Nearly every item in their resort - the lamps, the windows, the tables, the light switches, the beer, the sugar - came with a different story of disappointment or incompetency, of things being built incorrectly or not delivered as ordered or being overpriced due to senseless government price caps.

Beside a bonfire, Tim and Kim tell me these stories insisting they are not frustrated, that they have survived by adjusting their expectations.  But their tone tells a different story.  They seem genuinely disappointed to reveal that they no longer harbor any hope - as they once did - that someday they will turn over the resort that is the fruit of their hard labor to a local Ethiopian.  Instead, they say without a hint of embarrassment, they are quite sure that their replacement will have to be a faranji, a foreigner.

And no wonder.  The local schools are hardly able to provide the type of education we in the west are accustomed to, the type of education we would like to think is a right - not a privilege -  for any child.  Before Tim and Kim there were few school supplies.  There was no kindergarten.  But thanks to their effort there is now.  And someday soon, thanks to their organization's sponsorship, there may even be foreign educated teachers to pass on the knowledge that those in the local community have never before had the opportunity of obtaining.

What Tim and Kim have accomplished is amazing and inspiring.  They have installed a water tank, drastically improving the health and lives of nearly all of Gorgora's five thousand residents.  They sponsor a local swim team, giving the Gorgoran youths a sense of purpose.  They employ seventeen people from the local community, providing a steady source of income and self-esteem.  They even administer a very haphazard kind of health-insurance for their workers, pooling all tips from guests into an emergency fund.  On the day I left their resort, Tim was accompanying one of his worker's to southern Ethiopia, as the couple's non-profit organization had raised enough money (around $800) to perform a life-saving cleft-palate repair operation on an employee's child

Sitting under the Ethiopian stars, I listen to Tim and Kim in awe and admiration.  But I am worried, and I share my concerns.  What happens when one of the workers gets too ill and their insurance fund cannot cover the treatment?  What happens when their seventy-two year old worker is no longer able to work?  Will they not feel a sense of responsibility?  Will they not be stuck paying out of their own pocket for these people who have come to rely so heavily on their help?

The couple ponders my point in silence.  Finally, Tim speaks up.  If their modest insurance fund cannot cover a sickness, the worker will die.  If the seventy-two year old former beggar can no longer work, he will go back to his life on the street.  "This is Africa", Tim says.  "We don't have the luxury of planning for contingencies.  If an emergency comes up, we deal with it if we can.  If we can't....  well, this is their reality."

Maybe it is because they recognize the limits of what they can do that Tim and Kim tell me about their various projects without a hint of pride.  To them, they are only doing what anyone would do if confronted with the reality they face everyday.  And they know that in the end they are merely plugging holes in a dam that is gushing with leaks.  They tell me that more important than the individual projects is that they are able to establish a self-sustaining business that can benefit the community for years to come.  Tim and Kim's biggest hope is that one day the locals will be able to stand on their own.

My hope is that they don't lose hope.

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