Feature: Christian Aid marks 70th anniversary

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Christian Aid, formed in the smouldering ashes of the Second World War, has chalked up an impressive list of victories. Neil Hudson reports on its 70th anniversary

IN a remote corner of Ethiopia, not far from the Kenyan border, Leeds aid worker Ruth Hindmarsh is travelling in a jeep between villages and as she nears one of the settlements, her car is surrounded by a mob of young children.

They are dishevelled, their clothes ragged and torn and some have rotten teeth. They eagerly thrust their hands through the open window, desparate for anything but mostly for water, which they usually have to walk miles each day to collect.

It was a humbling moment for the 22-year-old trainee teacher, who has just spent two weeks in the Yabelo region working with Christian Aid and a local charity called Hundee, which is trying to improve the lives of impoverished people.

Christian Aid is marking its 70th anniversary this week and the work undertaken by Ruth is typical of that which its staff and volunteers carry out.

The memory of the homeless children is one of many which sticks in her mind following her return to the UK. She went there as part of a placement living and working with the Borana people.

Ruth said: “They are an ethnic group who living completely pastorally and they rely on cows for most of their needs, subsisting on milk and boiled maize.

“Girls there are traditionally married at 12 or 13 to a much older male, in exchange for maize and other goods and it’s a society where women do all the work and the men do very little. One of the problems is if the man dies, all of the family wealth goes back to the husband’s side of the family, so a woman with five or six children can literally be left with nothing.

“While her husband is alive, she has a standing in the community, she even has a voice and will be heard but once he is gone, she has nothing, she becomes almost an outcast.

“During my visit, I met women who work 18 hours a day and they have to do everything from feeding the children to collecting firewood and often walking hours to collect water. It’s a very hand to mouth existence where many of the people do not know what tomorrow will bring and they have no chance of planning for the future.

“Domestic violence is also a big problem. Christian Aid has been working with the Hundee charity, who are trying to change attitudes. It’s a very grass roots, bottom-up approach.

“So, they have done a lot of work around trying to change people’s opinions of women and rather than seeing them as a kitchen utensil, which is often how they are treated, to get the men to see how valuable they are in terms of the family. The women of that community are very good at saving money, so we have encouraged this and in some cases, women who have found themselves with nothing have been given a cow and some goats, which is totally life changing for them in that it means they can provide for their children.

“One women I met was Bokiyo, she was 49 but her husband was 90 and she walked 15km a day to collect frankincense to sell. Another woman, Loco, was 29, had six children and walked six hours a day to collect water. The family had one cow but it was ill. The work was back breaking but it’s the only way they can survive.”

Ruth continued: “It was difficult to go there and not have preconceptions, especially about how the women are treated and how they live. It certainly made me feel grateful about the kind of life I have here. One of the things the charities are trying to do there is to change attitudes by empowering women but also empowering men and showing them what an asset a strong woman can be in their culture.

“One of the worst things for me was when we travelled anywhere in the jeep and we’d see these children at the side of the road, they were all dirty with ragged clothes, some with rotten teeth and they would come up to the car and put their hands through wanting water. I think it’s the sheer scale of people’s suffering which is quite humbling. When you come back home, you have such a renewed appreciation of life and you also feel very grateful.”

For most people in Britain and Ireland, Christian Aid is probably best known for the red envelopes of Christian Aid Week each May, and for the book sales and soup lunches through which it has raised funds for seven decades.

Christian Aid was formed in the wake of the Second World War, a response to the chaos which reigned amid the bombed-out ruins of cities and towns across Europe, where millions had been dispossessed.

Europe was in chaos, a devastated continent. Peace had come, but at such cost: ruined cities, bombed-out buildings, massive food shortages and everywhere refugees, uprooted people, millions on the move.

The war was the catalyst which led to the creation of a church-led organisation which would eventually become Christian Aid. Church leaders were of one mind: ‘the world mustn’t be like this any more.’

They called their agency Christian Reconstruction in Europe. It later became the Inter-Church Aid and Refugee Service department of the British Council of Churches and, later still, they named it Christian Aid after the Christian Aid Week they created to raise funds and awareness.

Jack Arthey, project manager for the 70th anniversary, said: “I have been a member of Christian Aid’s staff since 1972 and, before that, was a VSO volunteer in Papua New Guinea.

“We have always been an organisation that’s sought to work in partnership with others who share our vision and values rather than to be operational. We are not an organisation that says ‘this is what you need.’ Instead we are an organisation that listens to those in poverty and responds in ways that help poor people choose their way out of poverty. We have always believed that if people understand the causes of poverty (we believe that people are made poor rather than accidentally poor) they are much more likely to give and to give in a spirit of solidarity.

“Some of the really important things for me personally have been receiving a political education through our work. I was able to visit South Africa in 1976 and was hosted by Steve Biko who at that time was banned. I learnt something then about what it takes to stand up for what you believe and the consequences of all of that.

“Another important date was 1984 when Michael Buerk’s reports on Ethiopia were broadcast. For the previous two years we had been drawing attention to food shortages throughout the whole of East Africa and had raised more than £1m to meet the crisis.

“Another question has been around what makes us different to other agencies. Are you Oxfam with hymns? If someone were to ask me what makes us distinctive and why I am proud to work for Christian Aid I’d say we are prepared to ‘speak truth to power’, even at the risk of losing popularity.”