Saving lives, a world away: Snoqualmie’s Nancy Whitaker tours Ethiopia on vaccination mission

It’s not so much a pillow as it is a tiny wooden stool, but the hand-carved block of wood is not only a pillow where Nancy Whitaker visited, it’s also a luxury item. “The men make these little stools, and they use them, when they sleep at night to rest their heads on,” said Whitaker, showing off her prized souvenir from a trip to Ethiopia. “And only the men have them.” This one used to belong to an elder of the Hamar Tribe village she visited in south Ethiopia, the part of her three-week trip to Africa that most profoundly touched her.

Administering an oral polio vaccine to a child

It’s not so much a pillow as it is a tiny wooden stool, but the hand-carved block of wood is not only a pillow where Nancy Whitaker visited, it’s also a luxury item.

“The men make these little stools, and they use them, when they sleep at night to rest their heads on,” said Whitaker, showing off her prized souvenir from a trip to Ethiopia. “And only the men have them.”

This one used to belong to an elder of the Hamar Tribe village she visited in south Ethiopia, the part of her three-week trip to Africa that most profoundly touched her.

“This was the highlight of my trip. I feel very privileged to have spent time with the people living in this remote part of the world, living in the most primitive of ways,” she said.

Whitaker, past president of Snoqualmie Valley Rotary, travelled to Ethiopia in October 2010 as part of a Rotary group volunteering to help vaccinate children against polio. Rotary International has partnered with the World Health Organization, World Vision, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to eradicate the polio virus, and recruits members to go on these humanitarian trips.

“I just decided I wanted to go, I wanted to get involved,” she said.

Whitaker and the group of about 40 Rotarians from the northwestern U.S. and Canada spent a week in and around the capital, Addis Ababba, and then visited villages to administer the oral polio vaccine to children.

In her second week, she went to visit a camp  of the Global Team for Local Initiatives (GTLI), which the Snoqualmie Rotary Club also supports. Whitaker wanted to visit ever since hearing from the founder, Lori Pappas of Bremerton, at a Rotary meeting in Snoqualmie years ago.

The Hamar tribe lives in a remote part of southwest Ethiopia, about two days’ travel from the capital on the unpaved roads. “It’s way beyond where the tourists go,” Whitaker said.

GTLI is helping the tribe to get clean water and medical care, teaching them about hygiene and sanitation, and helping them to become self-sufficient and move away from their farming culture, since the country is steadily becoming more arid and they are no longer able to grow enough food for themselves.

“Their people are dying out,” said Whitaker.

While there, she helped administer vaccinations for the eye disease trachoma, and soaked in the culture, which included a roast goat feast.

Her final week in Africa was all fun—a trip to Kenya for a five-day safari trip. After the extreme poverty she’d seen in previous weeks, it seemed very indulgent.

“I didn’t know what I was getting into,” she said, in retrospect.

After seeing the deep love of parents for children, and the respect for elders in the villages, though, Whitaker said, “It made me realize that even though we’re so different, we’re a lot the same.”

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