The Story of STONE SOUP

In April, I asked the female literacy students what they wanted to learn.  As a public health educator, I am always ready to give our women health training.  This time, unanimously, all three classrooms of students requested training in NUTRITION.  That was definitely on my mind, since I had just completed conducting 2 week Positive Deviance Nutrition training in Wolayta, a town also in SNNPR.

When planning the lesson, I decided to purchase locally available inexpensive food for demonstration purposes.  I would have the participants divide the various food items and place them in different baskets representing the three food groups and we would prepare a pot of mixed vegetable porridge:

  1. Vitamins and Minerals:  fruits and vegetables
  2. Proteins:  beans, eggs, lentils
  3. Carbohydrates:  potatoes, wheat, enset

On the training day, the pavilion filled up with 100 women.  After explaining the 3 food groups, the women divided the food appropriately.  I explained the 3-color test is a simple way to see if the meal is mixed and balanced.  Normally, across the world, white food is the standard and you don’t mix other items with items, out of cultural norms and convenience, not particularly poverty.

After the food was divided up, the women’s task was to make a big “Stone Soup” where we would prepare the various foods on the table.  We gathered all the knives and basins and the women set off to make a meal.  Groups of women were chopping 2 kgs of onions, others were peeling 2 kgs of garlic, others cleaned 5 kgs of potatoes (and NOT peeling them as I instructed…all the vitamins are in the skin!), a group was chopping 2 kgs of ginger, another group was chopping the tomatoes, kale and carrots.  Pots were brought out of our school kitchen and soon there were 3 fires started in the yard, using 3 stones for the pot and wood as fuel.  One pot was boiling lentils, one pot was boiling potatoes and one pot had a mix of oil and garlic, ginger and onions, along with 2 kgs of berberi, their local red chili powder.

When the meal was ready there was a HUGE pot of the vegetable stew, and another big pot of lentils.  There wasn’t a pot large enough to combine them together.  It looked like we could feed the entire Ethiopian army as it was grew to become a voluminous amount of food.  We started the feast and each woman got a plate with a mountain of the veggie mash along with a hill of lentils.  We had freshly baked bread from our new cob oven, so everyone got a few pieces of bread.  After the first round, the pot hardly had a dent in it.  Then a second round was served and the women consumed as much as their first helping.  They finished off the entire pot of food which was absolutely delicious!

Lessons learned:

  • Too many cooks doesn’t always spoil the broth.  Combined effort makes cooking so much fun and fast!
  • If I had prepared the meal or our staff, the women would be reluctant to try it, much less like it.  Traditional palates as a rule are not adventurous.  But, when the participants invested in it and knew what was in it, they loved it.
  • Creating a balanced, high protein diet is not expensive.  It cost under $50 to feed 120 people (our staff included) and they all ate tons.
  • Proteins can be inexpensive…no meat necessary.  Usually, we have a feast with a goat or a cow, which is a few hundred dollars.  This was purely vegetarian, as many of the women were fasting.
  • The recipe can be tried at home.  Women said they would do it at home as they have kitchen gardens and love the new recipe.
  • Our female students are hungry.  We have a school lunch program and we feed our primary students.  We do not feed our female students.  We need to do this type of feast more often!
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The Power of a Signature: Kate Mecca’s Women’s Education Center

We are very proud to have the female literacy students enthusiastically write their names for Kate Mecca, who helps support the Women’s Education Center.  It is a way to thank her and share their new found pride in their literacy skills.  This marks a major milestone for them.  When asked why they want to learn to read and write, one woman answered “I need to be able to read the statement written by the police when I’m thrown in jail.”  Another woman said “I want to be able to sign my name at church rather than give my thumbprint. I feel so much better about myself.”  One of Common River’s kitchen staff signed her name for the first time at one of our meetings.  The minutes are passed around for those present to sign.  She was absolutely thrilled to be accounted for as a person.  She felt validated and equal with the others now, just by the fact that she signed for herself.

Who would have thought that the ability to read and write would be so important?  Do we ever have to worry about reading the reason for incarceration or be embarrassed to have to ink on our thumb at church?  We take for granted our education and the freedom it avails us.

The students are also learning numeracy and even wrote a number before their name.  To be able to add and read numbers empowers a woman who otherwise would not know if she is been treated fairly in the market place.  It is a tribute to the donations provided by a true educator, Kate, who realizes that a “one shot” contribution will not be as meaningful, as a consistent gifting to see a program grow.  Education is a long-term process requiring a continued investment.  Our female students want to continue to learn.  They are graduating from the 1st grade to the 2nd grade.  We want to grow with our students and offer them an education, which was not offered to them when they were girls.  It is never too late for an education. To witness the empowerment that accompanies a signature is beyond comprehension for most Americans.  It has erased shame and emboldened a new found inner pride that can never be taken away.

Thanks to Kate Mecca for her compassion and understanding of the importance of educating women.  When you educate a woman, you educate a whole family.  She stands as the shining light to bring women in Ethiopia out of the dark shadow of illiteracy. The women are forever grateful to Kate for her support of the literacy program and send their blessings every day to her.

Written by Donna Sillan, Program Director

Signing their name for Kate


The Sidama Rain-Making Ceremony

After a long dry summer in 2009, the community of Aleta Wondo was worried.  When would the next rain come?  Would their crops survive the dry spell?  Would they have the food they had counted on for survival?  What would happen to the coffee crop?  The elders of Aleta Wondo approached Common River staff and requested support for a Sidama ceremony to bring rain after months of drought. They requested a cow, which is the main part of the Sidama rain-making ceremony.

Working to revive Sidama culture and re-ignite respect among tribal elders, Tsegaye and I were hesitant to support the ceremony.  What would happen if the ritual did not work?  Would this further the general feeling amongst the youth and middle aged that Sidama culture is unworthy of respect and not to be believed?  It could be disparaging to the elders if it didn’t work or it could be a powerful affirmation if it did. We took a leap of faith and decided to honor their request and support their tradition. We took a chance and bought them a cow.

On the special day chosen by the tribal elders, they arrived, dressed in traditional garb, and sat under a huge ancient tree in town.  Townspeople gathered to watch and get fresh meat. The ceremony started with incantations and prayers…bowing to touch the earth with one’s forehead, taking sips of honey wine and spitting it over people as a blessing, etc.  When the cow was sacrificed, its blood was smeared on the foreheads and chests of various people (I was one of them). They cooked the fresh meat over an open fire, and skillfully cut it up into equal portions, placing on large enset leaves.  Meat was shared with everyone attending.

The elders then sat with the important task of reading the “future” in the cleaned lining of the cow’s stomach. It is like a piece of fine, white lace, which held messages for the Sidama who knew how to read it.  At one point, a group of 5-6 elders could not agree on the meaning of their reading.  Hence, the lining was rolled up and put inside a cylinder of bamboo, to be delivered to another elder who lived over the next mountain.  He would be able to make the final the decision of the reading.

Later that day, word got back that the coming year would be fruitful and that the rains would come to save the crops and it would start within the day. We waited till dusk. Then we waited till after dinner. Then we waited until just literally a minute before midnight, when the hut suddenly was shaken by a large clap of thunder clap.  Within seconds the skies opened up and the rain poured down like a monsoon.  We were jubilant and relieved!

We did it two years later in July 2011 and it worked again. In fact, it would not stop raining and it started to flood the town. We asked the elders if they could perform a “Rain-stopping” ceremony, but they said they did not know how to do that. We are convinced in the wisdom of the Sidama tribal elders, who are the stewards of a cultural heritage that is both potent and still very much alive.

Written by Donna Sillan



The sacrifical cow.


Reading the cow’s stomach lining to portend the future.

Child Marriage in Ethiopia

Common River opened a primary school for orphaned children in 2008 in a rural community in southern Ethiopia. It started with 3 grades and enrolled 150 students in grades 1st through 3rd. In 2011, Donna and Tsegaye (co-founders) were following up on the 3 “drop-outs.” Two children had moved and one child got married. They were shocked that one of their 2nd graders, a 12 year old, had married a 13 year old boy and moved away to the next town. Knowing that the marriage laws in Ethiopia prohibit marriage to under-18 year olds, they took the grandmother, who is a Common River staff member and has custody of the child, to the file a case in court. In hopes of enforcing the law of the land and freeing the child, they sat in court for a whole day. In the end, the lawyer said that the grandmother would have to sign a paper to press charges against the boy. The grandmother told them that she did not want to do that. Donna and Tsegaye were again quite surprised.
They learned that this was her granddaughter’s second marriage and so she felt that it would not do any good. Women become enablers and acquiesce as they feel just as disempowered by their culture, just as the children who get robbed of their childhood. They asked the grandmother why she backed down. She said, “It is our culture. Yes, Sidama culture can be cruel to females, but it is our culture.”

Common River honors cultural heritage and programmatically, focuses on reviving Sidama culture. However, they realize that aspects of culture, which are harmful and unhealthy, are not necessary to support and promote. Cultural mores do evolve and change, adapting according to its relevancy, in order to sustain the continuation of the people and help them thrive. Who is to be the judge of those choices?

Common River supports female empowerment and education in order for a girl or a woman to make informed decisions in her life, which honor her and evolve her culture.

Written by Donna Sillan
Co-founder of Common River, 2011

The Surprising PROCESS of Sidama Cuisine

After 5 years of documenting the Sidama tribe’s food ways, Donna Sillan, MPH has completed the first “Sidama Cookbook” ever written to capture the traditional art of this ancient and unique cuisine.  It is an anthropological document to preserve the dying art of enset, the staple of the Sidama.  She spent time planting, processing and preparing enset in Ethiopia before attempted to capture what has only been transmitted orally to date and is on the verge of extinction.

Sidama Sustenance

A blurb from Donna on her shocking process

Sidama food takes the prize for being the most complicated, intricate, ancient food processed on the planet.   What strikes me as most amazing is the fact that an ancient people discovered “enset” and found out how to make it edible and determine its utility as a staple.  How did they figure it out hundreds of years ago?

I wrote this book for two reasons. First of all, I admit, I’m obsessed with food and particularly exotic, ethnic food.   It is no wonder that I spent the last 30 years as an international public health practitioner specializing in nutrition.  It was by design.  I have cooked with developing world women in huts and under trees, balancing pots on three stones in over 35 countries, through my nutrition work with NGOs. I am particularly interested in the diets, food ways and the cultural meaning of foods.  Tell me what a people eats and I will understand them more.  We are what we eat.  Secondly, I wanted to preserve this ancient art for the tribe.  It had not be recorded in history and needed to be written down for posterity before it is forgotten.

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“A woman feels her power when she hears herself being heard.”

Common River’s Female Literacy Program started by accident.  After facilitating a training on nutrition for our kitchen staff, I was surprised that none of the six women participants had taken any notes during the training, although I had given them paper and pens to do just that.  When I asked why they hadn’t, they said that they didn’t know how to read or write.  Asking if they wanted to learn to, they replied in unison “Please, yes!”  They had learned to write their names from our primary students after they served them lunch on campus. They were always embarrassed to have to sign documents with a thumb print and then be seen in town with the stigma of purple ink lingering on their thumb and following them around.

After hiring one teacher for our six female staff, within a month the classroom was filled with 40 women.  The next month, two more teachers were hired to accommodate 100 women on the waitlist. There are now 150 women attending literacy classes five days a week and another 200 on the waitlist. Fifty women fill each of our three classrooms from 3-5 pm, after the children finish their day.

It continually surprises me how well the classes are attended considering we work in a subsistence farming community that requires an inordinate amount of time to maintain one’s survival.   Ethiopia is also a country that has denied girls access to education with a literacy rate of 33% of females 15-24 years old.  In most countries I have worked throughout Africa and Asia, women’s attendance is typically low due to husbands’ resistance.  Husbands won’t allow women to leave their house for many reasons.  They need to do their chores (cook, clean, care for children, cultivate, carry water, etc…), remain confined to the house for protection and control by their husbands, and certainly do not receive a higher education than them.  In some Asian countries in which I have worked, a woman is beaten if she even attempts to attend school.  Basically, men are afraid of the change that will occur if a woman receives an education.  And they are absolutely right, there will be change.

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Will Scott Award

Will Scott is an organic farmer, horticulture student, and bike enthusiast. His expertise is in practice and promotion of healthy sustainable living and community improvement. He has abundant appreciation and enthusiasm for life and community well-being.

Will Scott volunteered in Ethiopia at Common River for 2 months in 2008.  He had never been to Africa, but had always wanted to go there and farm.  He did just that, cultivating a large demonstration garden and engaging the community and Common River students in the process.  He also taught the children and community about healthy habits, the importance of biodiversity, and good farming practices. The entire community loves Will and awaits his return someday.  They continue to enjoy the fruits of his labor by eating the vegetables he planted.  Upon return to the US he helped organize the “Salaam Triathlon” in August 2009 and raised $5,000 for Common River. Now working at Fresh Run Farm, he has provided the Common River with large varieties of seeds for planting in Aleta Wondo.

Common River has created the WILL SCOTT AWARD since 2008 for volunteers who live up to his exemplary contribution as a volunteer. He is the first recipient of this award and we are honored to name it after him. It is presented annually to the next recipient.

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July 2012 Newsletter

Dear Friends,

We would like to keep you abreast of recent developments in 2012 in Aleta Wondo.


  • The University of Texas Medical School sent 8 first-year medical students and two doctor professors to Common River for a global health practicum.  This is our 4th year of receiving students through our established relationship with the Center of Medical Humanities and Ethics, thanks to the dynamic head, Dr. Ruth Berggren (the daughter of Donna’s Public Health mentors, Drs. Warren and Gretchen Berggren).
  • The students treated over 700 clinical patients in 10 days and conducted a water and sanitation community survey. They distributed $10,000 of donated medicines

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Boot Coffee

Greetings from Aleta Wondo. I just wrote my blog from this beautiful site where my friends Tsegaye Bekele and Donna Sillan established a school for 120 coffee kids and for 110 coffee women. In the background I hear the kids singing a beautiful Sidama song.  ~ Willem Boot
Read Willem’s blog: