Relief Specialists--Long Hours, Little Pay and No Glory

Times Staff Writer

Many of them are veterans of Biafra, Bangladesh and Cambodia, people who have spent much of their lives following disasters.

Now, the world has a new calamity, the Ethiopian famine, and they are drawn to it like soldiers to a war. For this is where the battle for survival is being fought.

They used to be known as disaster groupies; now they are called relief specialists, or developmental technicians. They work long hours for little pay and no individual glory. They are saving thousands upon thousands of Ethiopian lives.

There is Dr. Peter Jordons, who has temporarily left his medical practice in Holland to care for the sick and the starving in Alamater.


There is Sister Bertilla of India, a member of Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity, who has worked with refugees throughout Africa. “It is my place to help,” she said.

And there is Carolyn Kippenberger, a nurse on leave for three months from a hospital in New Zealand. She looks after malnourished infants in Ibnet and considers herself privileged to be here.

Bob Gibson, 45, a cardiologist from Portland, Ore., who is working here as a pediatrician for World Vision International, said the other day: “For me, this is an opportunity to fulfill all the things I thought about when I started medical school. In the United States, you find in a sense that you’re working as a cog in the system. Here, you really feel useful. What you do makes a difference, a tremendous difference.”

No one knows how many relief workers are in Ethiopia helping the estimated 7 million famine victims, but with 45 private agencies providing emergency supplies, the number certainly runs well into the hundreds.


Most are hard pressed to explain exactly what attracted them to Ethiopia, though what creeps into most conversations is a disdain for the routine and a hint of idealism, often with a Christian overlay.

Steve Reynolds, 26, of Monrovia, Calif., said: “After working in Ethiopia, I don’t think I could be happy going home and sitting behind a desk eight hours a day writing memos that no one reads, or trying to think up ways to make money so I could live better.”

Kippenberger, the New Zealander, said: “Even if you’re surrounded by children who are going to die, you can share kindness, water, food, medical care. In a way, we’re doing what the Lord would do if he was here. He has given me a very special love for these people.”

Nurse Patricia O’Gorman of the Irish agency Concern, said: “I guess I’m just a traveler at heart. The first time you come out, you come for all the good reasons. The second time, you’re wiser. It’s a difficult life--rewarding, but difficult.”


For the relief specialists, there are few amenities. They work from dawn to dusk in isolated feeding centers throughout the country. They sleep in tents or sheds, eat injara, a pancake made from grain, and find that the sorrow and brutality of the famine would be overwhelming if it were not for the beauty of the land and the people.

Relief officials say the young men and women attracted to disasters today are different from the long-haired idealists of the 1960s, who were out to change the world.

Today’s generation would be at home on an Ivy League campus, and most have specific skills to offer. They don’t proselytize, and they don’t have any illusions that their contribution will affect more than a relative handful of people.

“These people are so straight that I don’t even dare let anyone know I’ve got a bottle of whiskey in my bag,” said an older American volunteer in Ibnet. “When they have tea in the afternoon, I put a shot in my cup and drink it in my tent. I feel a little silly doing that at my age, but those are the game rules.”


The senior U.N. official here, Kurt Janssen, lauds the present generation of relief workers in Ethiopia as a “high-quality group.”

Their efforts, he said, have been directly responsible for saving countless thousands of lives, but few seem to have any personal sense of importance and none are concerned with money or comfort.

“It’s hard to figure out the reasons for coming,” said Jim Kinsella, an Irish agriculturist in Ibnet who has volunteered his services to Concern for two years. “I guess I just wanted a touch of adventure and a chance to see something different and do something that helped someone else.”