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Daily walk with Christ is Valerie's reason to be

Valerie Browning says her faith has been strengthened by her experiences in the remote Afar region.

Valerie Browning (right) believes education is key to improving the lives of the Afar people of Ethiopia.

PHOTO: Kate Holt/Anglican Overseas Aid

By Emma Halgren

February 7 2016The people of the remote Afar region of north-east Ethiopia live with poverty unimaginable to most Australians, but “you couldn’t get more caring, more concerned people”, says Australian-born Valerie Browning, who has lived among them for more than 25 years.

Valerie is co-founder and coordinator of the Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), which works to improve the health and well-being of the semi-nomadic pastoralist people of the Afar. APDA doesn’t have clinics or schools — rather, its teachers and community health workers go to where the people are, walking from house to house, gathering people under trees or wherever they can. Its projects include mobile health and vaccination, water provision, maternal and child health programs, and education for Afar children.

Valerie visited Australia in late 2015, and spoke at Anglican Overseas Aid’s annual general meeting. Anglican Overseas Aid has been partnering with Valerie Browning and APDA since 1997. It also works with the Barbara May Foundation, which supports a maternity hospital in the Afar.

APDA works to eradicate harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation (FGM), early marriage and gender-based violence in the Afar region. It works directly with communities, training local religious leaders to understand the dangers of FGM and to advocate against it in their communities, and showing videos which powerfully illustrate the horrors of the practice.

“I foresee a time when FGM will be stopped, for sure,” said Valerie.

“Hopefully under-18 marriage and marrying girls by force will also stop, but that’s a bit more tricky.”

Around three years ago APDA introduced a microfinance project, which is helping women in particular to start small businesses. “The women are turning the money over; they’re benefiting their households so their children go to school, they have enough food in the house,” said Valerie.

Valerie says that poverty of the kind that she witnesses, and lives amongst, is not simply “not having” — it is disempowerment. “It’s that you do not have the ability to be in the decision-making position where you can change things so that you don’t have to drink dirty water, so that you can have education.”

She says that this situation of poverty makes for a very different kind of society to the one most Australians are part of.

“When you’re living like that, the belief in God is an absolutely everyday reality,” she said. “Here [in Australia] you’re cushioned, protected, if you like mollycoddled, so that your beliefs are in just replacing whatever’s broken, you’re materially bound.

“Afar people are basically not materially bound and they’re bound to share with one another, they’re bound to communicate with one another, so you don’t have bunches of depressed people, you don’t have people who are feeling out of the society. It’s a much more caring situation than you’ve got here, where overall people tend to neglect each other and live in a way that values individuals.

“In that sense I think that they [the Afar] have a clearer vision of God the creator, God the sustainer, God the provider. As Muslims, yes, they don’t know Christ and Christ’s redemption, that’s true, but I sincerely believe that God has a plan for them and that in God’s time they will understand and be part of God’s redemption.

“If you live with death — death of children, deaths you didn’t expect; most weeks we have somebody that we are mourning, someone that we’re burying … death for us is a reality. In Australia, death is something that people are running away from, something they’re frightened of; they think they can beat it somehow.”

Valerie says her own faith has been strengthened by her experiences in the Afar. She says simply, “If I don’t walk daily with Christ, then I can’t walk at all.”

A severe drought hit Ethiopia last year, leaving around 4.5 million Ethiopians in need of food aid, and the Afar region was one of the worst-affected areas in the country.

“Things do seem very overwhelming: at the moment we have to face mass-malnutrition across the Afar, and I work with people who are on the border of dying in childbirth all the time.

“Unless I sincerely believed that the world is God’s, it’s not my world; it’s not my work, it’s God’s work; the purpose of what’s going on is God’s purpose — if I didn’t believe all that then I should give up and get out, I think, because there ain’t much else.

“We’re living in a very strange world where more and more we are polarised into positions, into looking at people through eyes of hatred. As Christians we have the hope of heaven. We should enormously stretch our hands in love all over the world and we should be brave enough to say yes, these people should be empowered so that they are self-sufficient. They should be up and running their lives.”

To support Valerie Browning, contact Anglican Overseas Aid on 1800 249 880 or https://anglicanoverseasaid.org.au