EthioPoint: Ethiopians Analysis | Research Articles

Cambridge vicar John Binns on the charity that transforms Ethiopian children's lives

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By EmmaHiggCN  |  Posted: March 19, 2015

Ethiopia images by Frederic Courbet
Ethiopia images by Frederic Courbet

Ahead of an exhibition of stunning photographs from Ethiopia, Rev John Binns, tells Emma Higginbotham about the charity that’s been helping the country’s poorest people for the last three decades.
Here’s one to make you feel old: it was 30 years ago that Michael Buerk, cradling a tiny, emaciated baby in his arms, reported on the “biblical famine” that was sweeping Ethiopia. Harrowing images of starvation and desperation horrified the world, and celebrities sprang into action to raise vital funds: Live Aid hit our screens in July 1985, and Comic Relief was launched later that year.
At the same time, but rather more quietly, another charity set itself up in response to the disaster, and began caring for hundreds of children who’d been badly affected by the famine.
Now known as Partners for Change Ethiopia, the small but powerful organisation is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year too, with an exhibition of stunning photographs from the country it works so hard to help.
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The charity’s chairman just so happens to be the vicar of Great St Mary’s, and I’ve come to meet him at the glorious central Cambridge church. But how does one address the ‘Reverend Canon Dr John Binns’ (and what on earth does he put in the ‘title’ box on forms)?
It’s not a problem: dog collar-free and smiling broadly, he introduces himself simply as John. You see John falls into that rather nice category of vicars: he’s affable and avuncular, but very much a ‘do-er’. In fact he’s currently on a mission to raise £100,000 in a new appeal, called All About the Child, which will give some of Ethiopia’s poorest people the basics we all take for granted: water, an education, a living.
Partners for Change, explains John, was born at the height of the famine: “It was pretty devastating, and there was clearly a huge need, so the Anglican church in Addis Ababa and a group of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians decided that they would look after a thousand orphans.”
Five orphanages were established and, now that the children have grown up, the buildings have been turned into resource centres, “and we use them as a base to go out and work with local communities,” says John. “We reckon we reached about half a million people last year.”
You may well have seen some of their work without realising it: “We get a lot of funding from Comic Relief, and we quite often have them on our projects on Red Nose Day. The funny thing is, in Ethiopia they’re not that wised up to who people are, so we’ll say ‘Surely you get some big personalities coming?’ and they’ll say: ”Ooh I don’t think so, but there was somebody who came with Comic Relief the other day – Brad somebody?’!”
John first became involved during a three-month sabbatical to Ethiopia in 1993, when visiting the orphanages was to have a profound effect on him. “I got to know the staff and the children, and it meant a lot to me. So I left thinking what do I do with this? Do I just say ‘Well that was a great holiday’, when actually these are people who invited me into their lives? So I made a mental promise that however busy I was at work, I was never going to be too busy to respond to the needs of the people and communities who I’d met there.”
True to his word, he became a trustee and then chairman of the charity, “so I do about a day a week with them, and I go out once a year to see them all.”
On his most recent visit, John spent time meeting families at the village of Gende Tesfa, which means ‘Village of Hope’. Established in 1969 as a community for lepers, it has since grown beyond measure, “so now we’ve got about 16,000 people there, and conditions are very poor – almost no water, toilets, facilities – and some of the stories we heard were just awful.”
Daily life for the orphaned and vulnerable children of Gende Tesfa is particularly tough. Some live on the streets, others with very poor families, and none have enough food to eat.
“There was one girl I was very struck with – Fayo. She’s 20, and she said ‘This is where I’m living’, and I thought ‘You can’t live here!’ It was like a builder’s hut, with nothing there; even poor people have a few things, but there was just nothing.”
Fayo lives with her mentally ill mother, two young siblings and a child of her own, “and she said that her mother would get up and wander around in the night; sometimes she’d burn the children’s clothes, and sometimes, she said, ‘We sleep fearfully’, so they just go outside when they’re frightened of the mother.
“This girl was married; the father of her child went away to get a job, but she said she’d stay. So there she was, somehow holding it together and coping with these really awful circumstances.”
How can they help people like Fayo? “We have a local group of people who are planning our development project, and they’re headed up by a really nice guy, a young bloke with an enormous smile, and a group of community workers who are local mums. They’ll give Fayo a small grant to help with school uniforms and medicine, and they’ll also give her a loan-come-grant and work with her to help set up a small income-generating business.”
This might be buying sacks of charcoal or vegetables at a market three hours’ walk away to sell locally, “so it’s not massive, but it just makes the difference between eating and not eating.”
Becasue crucially, he says, Partners for Change Ethiopia lets local people decide for themselves where the funds should go. “We don’t go in and say ‘Right, we’ve got medicines, we’ve got food, we’re going to build you a school.’ We take the time to work with people for them to come up with their own projects.
“It’s a rather different approach to other aid agencies,” he adds. “I remember I met somebody from one of the big agencies, who said: ‘The thing that we’re working towards is getting local people to take responsibility,’ and I wanted to say ‘That’s not what we’re working towards, that’s where we start from!’ We don’t do anything unless local people say ‘This is what we want to do’.”
Nor do they spend money on lavish offices with huge fundraising departments: “We’ve just got one guy in a shared office! That’s partly because we want to stay small, but also because we really don’t want to be driven by the west.”
John, who’s married with a grown-up son, has been vicar of Great St Mary’s for 20 years, “a vibrant, buzzy place to be,” he beams. It’s certainly diverse: the church also runs the Michaelhouse café and art gallery in Trinity Street, and regularly hosts concerts. “Often churches get a bit stuck in saying ‘You’ve got to come to church on Sundays’, but faith works in different ways for different people. I think concerts can be just as important as a Sunday service, because that can be a real way that people can explore what life means to them, what their values are, what faith is,” he says. “Faith is bigger than just church.”
John himself had his “not very dramatic” epiphany while reading history at St John’s College in the early 70s. Planning to become a schoolteacher, he spotted a leaflet about joining the Church of England, “and it stuck in the back of my mind.” Meanwhile, he took a holiday job in Czechoslovakia, “and somebody told me that there’s a great monastery in Trier, in Germany, and that I ought to go and stay there. I remember thinking to myself ‘I wonder if I’ve got time… If I can just go there for a few days just to think things out…’ I was hitchhiking, and just as I thought that, a car stopped and he said ‘Where are you going? I’m going to Trier – I can take you there if you like’. It’s just a little village in the middle of nowhere!
“So suddenly there I was, four hours later, thinking ‘How?!’ And so I came back, I changed my course to theology to start thinking, and I suppose that’s what I’m still doing, really.”
One thing that’s guaranteed to get anyone thinking is the wonderful images of Ethiopia that go on display at the Michaelhouse Centre on Monday. Taken by Belgian photographer Frederic Courbet, they are, says John, “very emotional. They’re pictures of joy, sadness, excitement – they’re stories of human hope, courage and determination in adverse situations.”
Intended as both a celebration of the charity’s 30 years and also to launch the All About the Child appeal, John is willing everybody to be moved enough to become involved too.
“Poverty is something which concerns all of us, and the idea is that they’re not just donors, they’re part of the team,” he says. “It’s about building up tie-ups and connections, and I’m hoping that people get as hooked as I was 22 years ago!”
::The exhibition will be launched at a reception at the Michaelhouse Centre, Trinity Street, on Monday (March 23) at 6.30pm. All are welcome, but email [email protected] today to reserve your place. It will then run until April 10.
::To learn more about the £100,000 All About the Child appeal, which will fund water points, shower and toilet blocks, and support 800 vulnerable children in Gende Tesfa, visit
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