Interview

Wateraid: Lemn Sissay creates inspiring poem highlighting impact of Ethiopia climate change

“I think it’s important to note that Ethiopia has made a lot of progress over the past 20 years, achieving the Millennium Development Goal target to halve the number of people without clean water. So, change is possible and is happening”. Lemn Sissay

Author and broadcaster Lemn Sissay MBE has collaborated with WaterAid to create a new thought-provoking poem telling the story of communities like Frat in his maternal homeland of Ethiopia, where people’s lives and livelihoods are threatened by the changing climate.

The poem, Hope Spring Eternal, is at the heart of a short film created by the international development organisation to launch its fundraising appeal, Future on Tap, which aims to raise £3 million to help transform lives with clean water in Frat and other villages around the world.

During the appeal, which runs from 5 November 2020 to 4 February 2021, the UK government will match public donations up to £2 million to help even more people in Ethiopia. The match funding will bring clean water and decent sanitation to poor families, schools and health centres in drought-prone areas in Berbere. Alt caught with him to ask why it was such an important venture.

Why did you think it important to work with WaterAid? Water is life. It sustains us, it makes things grow, it keeps us clean. This year has highlighted the importance of washing our hands to stop the spread of diseases, but how can you maintain good hygiene without clean water? Without clean water at home, women and children waste hours each day collecting water from unsafe sources, risking sickness and keeping them from school and from earning a living. WaterAid works with communities to make sure they have clean water, decent toilets and good hygiene and campaigns globally as it works towards a world where everyone has these essentials. This enables people to break free from poverty and build a better future. As part of its Future on Tap appeal, the first £2 million of donations will be matched by the UK government making double the difference in communities, so now is a great time to support them.

How is it possible that in 2020 “nearly two thirds of Ethiopians do not have clean water close to home”, what has gone wrong? 

I think it’s important to note that Ethiopia has made a lot of progress over the past 20 years, achieving the Millennium Development Goal target to halve the number of people without clean water. So, change is possible and is happening, but with nearly two thirds of people still lacking clean water, there is still has a long way to go to ensure everyone has this basic human right. In many sub-Saharan countries, the economy is too poor to create the water and toilet infrastructure required to reach everyone, or governments are focusing on other priorities, like roads, schools and hospitals. Often, communities are in remote hard-to-reach areas where they can be forgotten, or the landscape is challenging and there are not enough experts to find long-term solutions. In Frat, the community lives at the top of a hill while clean water can be found underground at the bottom of the hill, and so an innovative solution is required. WaterAid will help dig a borehole and then use solar power to pump the water up the hill to a reservoir to provide water to the villages.

What has been the most profound effect that the recent events Covid-19, the BLM conversation, have had on you during this time?

I think the recent events have had a profound effect on everyone. The Black Lives Matter movement has united people from different backgrounds and in different parts of the world. Similarly, although we have been separated due to Covid-19, the fact is it has brought us all closer together.

One thing is for sure; that Black Lives Matter has shown us that the world needs to listen; and people are trying to listen. At our time of greatest need during the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter has not been eclipsed; it has proved that this is not a side issue. With the Duchess of Cambridge, I judged a photography competition called Hold Still – it was all about Covid-19, and together the pictures created a unique collective portrait of the UK during lockdown. But at least one of the photos included was of the Black Lives Matter march; it shows how important the issue is.

How has lock down been like for you do you feel more inspired to create?

It’s been a learning curve, and I’ve been inspired in many ways to create via the work I do, particularly with WaterAid, which has meant I could write about lives that matter in Frat in Ethiopia. I’ve also judged the Booker Prize, and we had the most diverse shortlist, including writers from Africa; there was Tsitsi Dangarembga from Zimbabwe and also Maaza Mengiste from Ethiopia. So, I’m proud of that, and the work I’ve done for WaterAid.

Are you convinced that the digital space is a game-changer for artist if so why or why not?

The digital space is very important for artists, and also for political movements like Me Too and Black Lives Matter. It’s as important as the printing press was when it was introduced. We can communicate quicker than ever before. There are more words passing between more people than since the beginning of time. It’s a very exciting time for humanity, and that includes the arts.

You have never been afraid of talking about racism: are we having a watershed moment?

I think there’s more of an understanding that racism plays a central part in the world. It’s an exciting time to be alive, it’s an exciting time to make change, it’s an exciting time to be aware. I think that we are experiencing a more revolutionary time than even the 1960s gave us. A farmer in Ethiopia can know the cost of coffee in the market New York. A poet can send their words around the world. An art gallery can have a presence online and spread around the world too, like the Addis Fine Art Gallery from Addis Ababa, which is now opening a new gallery in London. It’s a good time.

Where do you call home?

I don’t think home has to be one place. For me, home is London, it’s Manchester, and it’s Addis Ababa. I can have all of those places as my home.

Take part in Future-on-Tap HERE

%d bloggers like this: