The Founding Partner by Art Zaratsyan

The day we are to meet John Baigent, the founder of Partners In The Horn of Africa (partnersinthehorn.org), is no different from any other Saturday in the Okanagan: sunny, warm, a pleasant change from the often wet weather in Vancouver. The drive was long but we managed to arrive early and grab a bite at a nice cafe run by an older Korean couple in downtown Enderby, B.C.

I snap a few pictures as we wait for John to arrive, and as the clock hits two o'clock he drives up in a grey Honda CR-V, right on time. "You must be Art!" he says extending his hand. Firm handshake, we exchange pleasantries. "Let me show you our old office," he says and leads the way. We walk for about a block and he points to an old one-level semi-attached structure. "We ran Partners from here for a decade, we just moved out this February. We threw many of our local fundraisers right here on this parking lot." He points to a patch of unpaved land beside the building.

We walk back to the new office of Partners In The Horn of Africa, which is located in a two-level municipality-owned building. Definitely a nicer location, although still quite modest as far as offices go. As soon as we enter John offers to make some coffee. "Ethiopian beans, best coffee in the world," he smiles. The coffee tastes good indeed. We get a brief tour of the office and sit down for a chat.

Although I have made some notes and done some research in preparation for the meeting, I end up not needing them at all. John tells us about how his humanitarian journey began in Ghana, volunteering with CUSO back in the early 1960s. After coming back, he went on to practice law and became a partner in a Vancouver law firm, but in 1988 he decided to take a sabbatical in Ethiopia and work for the World University Service of Canada. That was when he fell in love with Ethiopia and the Ethiopian people. Eventually, John made Ethiopia his second home, going on to start Partners In The Horn of Africa in 2001, an aid organization with an innovative model:

"Partners only undertake projects with local volunteer groups who are prepared to contribute 15-20% of the cost of any particular project. If funds are not available, our partners contribute their percentage of costs in labour or material. Whether they contribute cash or labour, they share in the selection, implementation and supervision of each project. The foundation for each project is a contract between our organization and our overseas partner. We avoid any suggestion of donor and recipient; we see our relationship with our African partners as one of shared responsibilities. Another premise of Partners relates to administrative costs. Partners’ approach is unique: it incurs no administrative costs… period. Partners has no paid staff and relies on the voluntary work of directors in Canada and a parallel group of African nationals abroad. Canadian directors donate their time to fundraising, planning and administration. Out-of-pocket expenses are picked up personally, an effective method of keeping them to a minimum."

When I tell John how Nicole Rustad, director of the Corporate Citizenship program at The Walt Disney Company, referred him to me as "the world's biggest feminist", he laughs. "Improve a life of a woman and you will improve the whole community," he says, explaining how women in the world are often neglected in matters of education, employment. He goes on to tell us stories about orphaned girls in Ethiopia: having provided them with a safe and nurturing environment when they were little, the organization had to establish more ways to support and guide them in life as they grew older, doing everything to encourage them to study and move up in life. He tells of Ayelnesh, to whom he promised a "pretty new dress if she graduated at the top of her class", without even realizing how it would encourage the little girl to study and earn that dress. Now Ayelnesh has grown up into a beautiful young woman and has been accepted to medical school, having received 4 points out of maximum 4 in state-run exams that determine which schools a potential student is eligible for. The medical school is the hardest to get into.

He tells us more about Partner projects, completed and under way: bridges built across rivers that flood in rain season cutting off entire communities and killing many who dare to cross, pit latrines in an Ethiopian prison that reuse bio-gas from human waste to light up kitchen stoves, school houses, flour mills, micro-financing projects for local farmers. All things that remote Ethiopian communities desperately need to survive. The list goes on: the organization has spent over $1 million on such projects last year.

"Would you like to come to our house? Woinshet will throw a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony," he asks and we head to our cars. After a 15 minute drive through Okanagan back-country, we turn onto an unpaved driveway leading to his house on the riverbank. Woinshet, his beautiful wife from Ethiopia, greets us at the door, dressed in a traditional Ethiopian dress. A black Labrador retriever jumps out from behind her, wagging its tail. "And this is Thai!" We're introduced and ushered to the living room.

As I snap some pictures of the interior of John and Woinshet's beautiful house, she begins to set up for the ceremony. John uncorks a bottle of local wine and we carry on discussing aid organizations, NGOs, Ethiopia, and the contrast of life in Canada and the developing world. Woinshet brings in some flowers and greens, lays them on the floor around a small stove and lights up some incense which fills up the room with aromatic smoke. She starts to roast the green coffee beans and we watch her stir as the beans gradually turn dark brown. Once the coffee is roasted, she puts a few spoonfuls into a tall and narrow clay kettle and fills it with hot water, gently moving it around and stirring the coffee brew inside. I watch mesmerized, as she pours the coffee into a cup and hands it to me. The coffee tastes strong and rich.

The evening goes on as we sip the coffee and talk: about how John and Woinshet met, about Agarfa Improvement Association, an organization started by Woinshet to help develop her home town, Agarfa. I pause taking pictures to change the memory card, realizing that I must have snapped more than a thousand photographs by now.

The evening winds down. We thank John and Woinshet for the amazing day, for their hospitality, and hit the road. I feel full of positive energy and smile as I watch the sunset cover the hilltops of Okanagan with gold. As we drive away I turn back to see the television set light up in the window: the football game is on.