Derek Cochrane is one of the co-ordinators of The Ababa Project, whose connections with the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady are long-established and fruitful. The example of these lay missionaries from St Teresa’s in Dumfries and its environs is inspiring and, as a result, Missio Scotland this year is using these established channels to support a project in Ethiopia that will positively affect children’s lives.
Give us a little insight into your background please Derek?
I was born in November 1967 in the Lochside area of Dumfries, which is served by St Teresa’s parish, but I was not born into the Catholic Faith. I am the third child of four. I left school in 1984 and started work as an apprentice at Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station, where I work to this day more than 37 years later as a Project Manager. I consider myself a child of the 1980s since it’s when I really did my growing up and one of my abiding memories of the decade is October 1984 and the pictures of Michael Buerk on the BBC news breaking the news of the famine in Ethiopia, which as we know led to Band Aid and Live Aid and highlighted to the world the inequalities of the world we live in.
Tell us then about your faith journey?
My faith journey started after I married Paula in 1993 and our daughter Rebecca was born a year later. I remember joining Paula at church with Rebecca shortly after she was born for two reasons. Firstly, I guess I wanted to show my daughter off and secondly Paula asked me to support her in helping to bring Rebecca up in her faith. Our son Ryan was born in 1997. By this time I was going to church with the family probably most weeks.
My interest in the Church increased when Canon John Walls became the parish priest in 1998/99. I remember listening to his homilies on a Sunday morning and I was intrigued by the way he explained the teachings of Christ in a way that I understood. For a few years, I really enjoyed the whole experience. I remember Canon John Walls once remarked to Paula that on finding out I wasn’t a Catholic that he was surprised as he just thought I was one of those people who regularly attend Mass, but didn’t take Holy Communion for whatever reason. Having been a Catholic for 17 years, I guess I now have an idea what he meant by that.
In 2004 I made the decision to enroll in the RCIA programme and I became a full member of the church at the Easter Vigil in April 2005. A few years later, I started reading in the church. That started one snowy Sunday morning when only about 10 people made it to Mass. Everybody got a job that day and in true Catholic style if you have done a job once it becomes a contract for life!
Tell me a bit about your first involvement with the project and how that has grown and developed?
One of the things that I remember from the early days of attending church with Paula and Rebecca in the 1990s was the tradition of having an Ethiopia box every first Sunday of the month. It evoked memories of 1984 for me.
In 2010, when Fr Jim Hayes became parish priest—following the death of Canon Walls—he started to sow the seeds of a parish mission visit to Ethiopia. He started sowing the seeds initially with Rebecca, who was one of the senior altar servers by this time, and Paula who was chair of the parish council when Fr Jim first arrived. It was in the summer of 2011 that plans for a mission ramped up. However, Paula was insistent that if Rebecca went I should accompany her and I was only too happy to agree.
What has the support been like from the various parish priests, and also the neighbouring parishes?
I think in the last 10 years we have been able to increase the awareness of the project, for a number of reasons. In 2011, it was mainly within the parish and the friends and families of those going on the Project 2012 mission. After that it started to become more personal as we had witnessed so much and had been able to meet some of the wonderful sisters and instead of talking about a name suddenly we were talking about a real person. This was further cemented with the 2013 mission with Rebecca, Beatrice and myself. By this time we were giving monthly updates on those Sunday mornings and every time we related a story from Ethiopia the response from the parish was amazing and I don’t just mean financially. It was also around the time of the 2013 mission that Fr Jim took on Lockerbie and Moffat and we were asked by Fr Jim to give them some information relating to The Ababa Project and over the years their support for the project has grown.
Who are some of the key people both in Scotland and Ethiopia with regards to the Ababa Project and what makes them important?
The most important individual has to be Sister Colette Ellis of the Franciscan Missionaries of Our Lady (FMOL) who was based in Langholm at the time of the famine and had spent several years in Ethiopia prior to that. When the news of the famine broke, I believe she contacted parishes in the diocese to garner support for the plight of the people in Ethiopia. Unfortunately, I never had the honour of meeting Sister Colette in person. I always remember that in Ethiopia if you mentioned her name to any of the older sisters, the reaction was always one of love and admiration. She was obviously a great inspiration to them in their formative years.
That was when a group of parishioners—including Eileen Woodman and my mother-in-law Elizabeth Robertson—organised the first fundraiser. At the time of the first mission project, Eileen was the co-ordinator for the project and she did all of the communication with the sisters in Ethiopia. Because of the information Eileen had, we were aware of the names of some of the regional superiors such as Sisters Margaret, Getu and Abebeche. In 2012, Sister Margaret was our constant guide, we met up with Sister Getu, as she had returned from Paris where the FMOL HQ is located, and we first met Sister Abebeche who was the Regional Superior at that time.
Then, on arrival in Ethiopia, we were able to meet so many of the sisters that it’s impossible to remember all of their names. What made all of them so important was the passion they had for the people. It was also when we met Sister Haimmanot and she is one special person whose name will never be forgotten. There are no words I can think of to do justice to the work she does up in the hills of Buccamma.
What have been some of the major successes of the project in your opinion?
Without a doubt it has to be the TEACh ([St] Teresa Educating A Child) programme that is supporting 117 children this year. We hatched the idea before we returned in 2012. In the first year, we supported 54 children. This has grown steadily over the years and has seen us support more than 100 children per year. We have also supported at least one young person through university, which demonstrates that TEACh is sustainable and successful.
Also the amount of money raised by our parishes is consistently around £35,000 to £40,000 per year, including TEACh. I think that demonstrates the generosity of the parishioners in a positive way that we don’t always shout about.
Tell us about your travels to Ethiopia, to see the projects and meet the people?
I have had the honour of taking part in two missions, 2012 as part of the large group led by Fr Jim and in 2013 with Beatrice and Rebecca. There is nothing that could prepare you for the first mission even though Fr Jim was on hand with personal and spiritual advice before, during and after. When I came home, I couldn’t wait to make a return mission trip. The second mission was easier for myself purely because I had the experience of the mission trip the year before to draw down on.
The 2012 mission trip was relatively short. We were in Ethiopia for 10 days and it was more of a fact finding mission. However we daily went through the whole spectrum of emotions. In 2013, we were in Ethiopia for three weeks so we were able to spend more time in each of the locations and get more involved. However, I would say it still wasn’t long enough to allow us to fully appreciate the work of the sisters, so we are still learning. I am sure Beatrice will have more to say on this from her mission trip in 2019.
Whatever way I look at it, I will always say that I am pleased I was able to make the journey and it has been the most exciting experience of my life.
What are some of your standout memories about Ethiopia?
There are too many to be able to do justice to the question. The country is beautiful. However, I have always thought having travelled there that it is a land of contradictions. Buccamma is my favourite place. When you are being guided around the hills by Sister Haimmanot, the first thing that springs to mind is the lush green landscape. It gives the impression of being fruitful land with thriving crops. However, when you look at the ground and see the thick red clay like soil, you begin to understand why it is very difficult to grow anything and their crops regularly fail as a result. Ethiopia is tropical so it rains frequently in those hills, hence the lushness. However, it’s tropical rain. If you think it rains hard in Scotland, then you need to experience Buccamma rain.
On the long drive to Buccamma, you pass an area where it seems most of the world’s flowers are grown. Miles and miles of polytunnels at the side of the road growing flowers to be exported to the developed world when it could be used to grow crops to feed the population. At the side of the road, there was a stall selling the freshest strawberries you ever tasted.
Metahara is in the desert. It sits on a massive lake which you would think was an oasis in that desert. However the lake is formed in what used to be a volcano so the water has a high sulphur content, which is not good for drinking or for supporting crops. The lake was also rising when we were there, so it was causing flooding of houses and the main road near its shore. In 2013, we spent one night in Metahara and the intensity of the heat gave us just a glimpse of what it must be like to live in that climate.
Nazreth (Adama) is a place name that has long been talked about in St Teresa’s in relation to Ethiopia. In 2012, we had the impression that it was only a small town. As you approach on the main road from Addis Ababa, you turn a corner at the top of a hill where the regional government building is and you witness this sprawling city of over half a million people. It helped to visualise the scale of the support required.
Debre Zeit is where the sisters have a retreat. It is a small town and the retreat is on the side of a small lake. It is perfect for a retreat. It is tranquil and ideal as a place to reflect.
How has Covid-19 affected your efforts and the efforts of those in Ethiopia. Have you had much feedback in that regard?
Covid-19 meant that we weren’t able to take up our regular monthly collection. However, it has not impacted on TEACh numbers, which are as strong as always. Beatrice is always creative in finding new ways to raise funds. The production of face masks has been really successful. We have also had some parishioners do sponsorships in the last year. I am constantly finding myself at church with a parishioner handing me money, which they have kept saving up. I suppose it shows that the mission has not been forgotten.
What are some of the main issues facing people living in Ethiopia?
I think the three main issues are education, health and food. It would be easy to try and generalise why that is, but I think the reality is that it is different for individual families and far more complex than can be easily explained. It’s one of the reasons that I like being able to send money direct to the sisters and allow them to prioritise how they best support their communities. What is obvious though is that the scale of support required is far greater than the support they are able to give, which underlines the need to sustain our support for as long as we are able.
What are some of the future plans for the Ababa Project?
Since the third mission trip in 2019, I would hope that sometime in the not too distant future there will be an opportunity for a fourth mission and for that to continue. In 2019, Fr Jim and Beatrice were accompanied by Chelsea—a young parishioner—and I would like to see that tradition of youth participation in these mission trips. It is something that the parish likes to see and it helps to keep The Ababa Project alive in the parish.
Personally I would like to go back, I’m just not sure if I ever will, for what reason I don’t know, but even if I don’t I will always do as much as I can to help and support the sisters in whatever way I can.
In the short term, I hope we can start to think about arranging a fundraising evening in the parish hall—probably another quiz night. They are always good fun and we haven’t been able to be in each other’s company for so long I think we need to be together as a community.
I have got this far and not mentioned the cakes. The sisters in Ethiopia make some of the best cakes you will ever taste.
What are your thoughts on Missio Scotland supporting some of the people you work with in Ethiopia?
It’s exciting. It actually feels as if the Holy Father himself is supporting our parish project. It feels as if it is recognition from the wider Church that we have actually done some good from our parishes here in the southwest of Scotland. We always try to spread the word to the parishioners that what has been achieved is because of them. It is not about what individuals have done.
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