Five years ago my team, Pick a Pocket and I made a decision that not only would impact the lives of 13 teenage girls, but lives of hundreds of people around the world: we started the Koshe project.
This month as we have closed down the project and are beginning to tackle sending thank you cards to those people, I am trying my self to process the past 5 years of this project. I wanted to take opportunity to actually tell the story from how I saw it. So this might be a long one, but I promise you, it's good. Not because I wrote it. But because God oh so clearly wrote this story and we were the lucky ones that got to be part of it.
THE KOSHE PROJECT
I remember driving down the streets of Addis Ababa in 2009 looking out the window towards the biggest trash dump I’ve ever seen. Blocked in by 12 ft high wire fences. Dump trucks and mountains of trash that never seemed to end. Vultures swarming around the faint shadows of workers digging their way through the trash. My eyes widely opened with curiosity that went from: “what’s going on in there?” to “who's going on in there?"
It was Uli who got us all into this adventure in the first place. The day before I had come back to Addis Ababa from Kenya where my friend Josh and I took a small team for a week to do some work at an orphanage. Uli came up to me and greeted me with a big smile on his face and that look in his eyes he always gets right before he gets us into something mischievous. He told me the story about how earlier that week he was traveling through Addis and saw big trash dump and the people inside it working. He asked his taxi driver who those people were and what they were doing.
“They are monsters” he said. They live and eat in the trash. They have tattoos and drink poison and they DON’T DIE! You want nothing to do with these animals. Trust me. Nothing”.
As Uli was telling me this story I knew what he was about to say right as he said “come on, lets go in and see these so called monsters!” So we did. The next day we walked right into the trash place. The workers paused for about 5 seconds to stare at us “ ferenge” (Amharic for foreigners) before going back to their work. We stood there watching them pluck through the trash with gigantic spears they used to quickly pick up trash and place it in the trash bags which they carried on their backs. The bags were two times the size of the works, filled with metals and recyclable “treasures” they could sell. This was not an ordinary job in which we were used to.
Moments later we saw that in the distance there was a small, cement pavilion that looked like it had been abandoned. Inside was a small fire burning and people gathered around it. Our curiosity continued as we walked over to check it out. There we did not find men and women taking a lunch break, we found the home of children and teenagers who lived in this trash dump. And there we were finally able to introduced ourselves to the so called “Monsters.”
We asked them to show us around their homes and to tell us a little bit about how their lives they are living here in the trash dump. Apprehensive at first, they eventually they warmed up to us. They showed us the mounds of trash they dove into at night to keep warm and safe from the many hyenas that roamed the premises at night. The water that they boil over the fire, which came from filthy streams that flowed through the trash. The pink sugar packets from the Hilton hotel dumpster trucks that came every week as their treasured and desserts. The hurd of Pigs they raised and sold as their livelihood. And the swarms of flea infested puppies and dogs that slept with them every night as their loyal companions.
This was not just a group of abandoned kids. It was a family. A community. You could tell from the moment you met them that they were tough. But they were loving. They all had a very fashionable sense of style. The boys with their pants ripped and warn in a specific matter. Hair died and styled in similar ways. The girls with their heads wrapped and long skirts. And most exciting to us, they all had their own, self done, tattoos. We marveled at their tattoos and showed them ours. We heard their stories of how some of them were born in the trash dumps or parents abandoning them and left them there. How some still had homes outside the dumps but worked there during the day in order to provide for their families. We listened. We heard their stories. We made friends.
Over time we continued to come back to what we started to call “garbage city.” We hung out with them. Drank and eat their food. Slept there with them amongst the pigs, hyenas and puppies. We even brought all our music equipment and a generator and played a concert in the trash for them…. but they totally showed us up with their self made instruments they created out of metals and jars found in the trash.
We started investing our time. We went back and forth hearing their stories and trying to figure out some way we could serve our new friends in order to help them start a new life. And eventually… we just decided to stop talking and start doing.
In 2010 we started the "Koshe Project." A program that helped our friends have an alternative to working in the trash dump and better platform for them to succeed in life. The program started as a two part program: One for the girls, one for the boys.None of the girls actually lived in the trash dump. They all lived with their families and came every day to collect trash in order to provide basic needs for the home. The boys were more of the “gang” living in the trash dump. So we needed to create two similar but separate programs, both catered to both of the groups in order to serve them the best.
However after two years of trying to help the boys get back on track to a life outside the trash dump, we had to accept that helping is everything but easy and does not always work and lead to the desired outcome. So we made the difficult decision to close down the boys project. I’d personally like to take a moment right here and give a huge shout out to Corey Hart for running this program. Corey worked his ass off down there with these boys. We tried about 5 different projects and programs to help the guys but challenge after challenge occurred and we as a team felt we should call Corey back because it just wasn’t working. I believe this guy made some of the most impactful impressions on these guys, even if they might not all see it yet, I hope one day they do. Thank you Corey for your servanthood.
After closing down the guys project we then had to make the difficult decision of deciding whether or not we were going to stick with the girls project. And we are glad to say after 5 years, we are so thankful we did. For the past 5 years we have committed ourselves to serving the girls. We’ve had a few different people working with the girls directly in the project. They worked with the girls by creating an after school program for them to come to instead of going and working in the trash. While the girls committed to go to school every day, coming to our center after to work on homework, english, bible studies and some times small jobs like T-shirt making, we committed to supporting them and their families.
So, how did a group of 20 year olds not only support 13 girls and families but also an entire center to run it?
Our Pick a Pocket team back in Germany went wild with figuring out ways how we could use our art to raise awareness and support these girls out of poverty and into brighter futures. We took photos of the girls, made videos, painted their portraits and wrote down their stories and put them into a books, brochures, magazines and more. We took their story on tour. Our band Liz and the Lions wrote songs about them, and sold albums with the proceeds going towards them. We exhibited our photographs in exhibitions, blogs, magazines and newspapers. We made hand made items that first were sold on tour and then in a shop we opened. We used our venue wildness to promote and financially support the project. We took the story to the church, to the bar, to the TV stations, newspaper, friends, family, anyone who would listen. We used any form of art and any form of venue to share these girls stories…. and then, the unthinkable happened... YOU DID IT.
Artist started hearing about what we were doing and they joined in on the fun. They started doing their own benefit concerts for the girls. Selling their artwork to provide books and schools supplies. Telling the girls story through their own art and their own expression. Churches started donating money left and right in order to be part of this program. People even sacrificed the right to buying their own food for 30 days in order to give the money they would have used on themselves, for the girls to be able to eat in a campaign we started called "30 Days"! We created a movement. A movement I like to call People Not Poverty.
PEOPLE NOT POVERTY
People got past the idea of poverty being this big huge unstoppable thing. A “monster” if you will. “that lives in the trash and WON’T DIE.” People started seeing People. Not Poverty. And at that moment humanity became connected through this movement. Salem was no long some poor girl from Africa, she was a teenager who needed the same amount of love and attention we desire to give our teenagers in our culture. She was a person. With a real story. And a real right to live the best life she could.
So as people started grasping onto this movemnet, supporting this project became something that was actually doable. For 5 years we used this method of using the arts to raise awareness and financially support this project. We used it to bring in support for the girls education, food, family needs and more. But we didn't only bring in money through this movement, we brought in hundreds of people around the world to stand together in believing for a better future for these girls. Man, I wish I was that lucky at 13 to have that many people fighting for me!
This past week, after 5 years, the project has come to a final close. We could not be more excited or proud of these girls and how far they have come. We as a team traveled down to Addis to officially close the project with our long term teammate and field works Melody and Lidi at the end of last month. After many long talks and processing we realized that this project was actually closing down as an incredible triumph and not a defeat. And what a breath of fresh air it was to close something down because it’s finished, and not because it didn’t work! Hallelujah!
We met with the girls for a few hours and properly explained to them why the project was closing down. The point of the project was to help them not only have an alternative to working in the trash dump, but to have a platform in order to reach higher goals and purpose for their lives. And by golly it worked! None of the girls have gone back to working in the trash dump. In fact every single one of them is either in school or working in a job and providing not only for themselves but their families. When we ask them what their dreams are for the future, they no longer tell us “to survive” like they did 5 years ago. But they respond with things like “going to college” "becoming a hair dresser", or our favorite “helping young girls like you guys helped us.”
We closed out the project by telling the girls how proud we are of them and allowed them to share how they were feeling. We had no idea what the girls were going to say. But one by one they spoke. And what came out of their mouths brought us all to tears. They not only thanked our team and all of you who have supported them over the years for investing into them, believing in them and fighting for them, but they thanked God. They told us that they not only have a good future ahead of them full of education and opportunity because of this program, but they have a strong relationship with God, and that is something they could not be more grateful for.
These girls made it. They took a chance on us crazy 20 some year olds with their lives. With their families. Their futures. Their hope. To be honest 90% of the time we faced overwhelming challenges that seemed to big for us to manage and left us in a place, where we didn´t know what the best way was to help. We never ran a project like this before and were no experts in the life of Ethiopian teenage girls. …
As I sit here and try to process the past 5 years I honestly get a little overwhelmed with thinking about everything that went into make this project run. Let me be clear when I say that fighting poverty is by no means an easy task. It took us about 6 months to get the girls out of the physical poverty and about 4 1/2 years of getting them out of the mental, emotional and spiritual side effect of living in poverty. And to be honest, we can not guarantee that they are all 100% out of it.
We still are so humbled by the fact that God allowed us to not only meet His beautiful children, but work with Him in a plan that would bring them out of trash and into victorious bright futures. But He did not just partner with us, He partnered with every single one of you as well.
Yes You. The faithful missionary who spent years working with this project on the field or back in Germany. You. The devoted prayer warrior who has been praying for this project the past 5 years. You. The church who decided to give money at one of our event nights. You. the 19 year old who thought that your 10 euros wasn’t a lot… well it was, it paid for Salem’s food for a week. You. The artist that painted portraits of the girls and exhibited them on tour. You. The one who bought that piece of artwork. You. The bands who used your music to raise awareness and finances for this project. You. The moms and dads out there that allowed your kids to go to Ethiopia and serve and supported them all the way. You. YWAM Herrnhut who championed us to start this ministry. You. Every Pocketeer who carried this in your hearts and in your work over the years. You. The ones who believed in us and these girls. Thank YOU.
Thank for being part of this victory. For believing in us, in the girls in God’s hand in all of this. Thank for fighting with us, and often times for us. We could not have done this without you. A special thanks to Anna, Nathan, Menna, Corey, and Ulla for directly serving this project on the field. Lid for sticking with our crazy team until the end and giving everything you had to this project: may God continue to use you in huge ways in Ethiopia!
And to Melody. A modern day superhero. You walked into this team 6 years ago as a little girl, with big eyes and an even bigger heart to change the world. And 6 years later. You did. You stuck it out. You invested. You gave everything you had, and because of you, these girl's lives are forever changed. If the world was made up of Melodys I think we'd have a much better world. A little crazy... but a lot better. Thank you my darling. You may rest now : )
So now it's over. It will forever be a story we continue to share. But it will be a story of triumph. If you have been part of the project in a small or big way, please share your story. Either here in the "comments", or in any other way you'd like to share it. This project matters. And you matter to it. It would not have existed, ran, survived and finished had not everyone of us pulled together to make it happen. So TELL YOUR STORY. I wanna hear it!
It’s been a wild ride. I know this is not the end of these girls stories. It is just the beginning.