I want to begin by thanking everyone who made this trip possible.  Thank you to the countless, and many nameless, people who generously contributed to the Matthew Courtright Memorial School in late 2013.  Thank you to our friends and family who supported Brett and I financially to make the almost 2 week trip to commemorate and see the school in person.  And a big thank you to my sister and brother in law who expanded their party of 5 and fostered our 2 kiddos in Michigan for the 2 weeks we were gone, and thank you to the friends and family that supported them with meals and with a helping hand while we were gone.  Each and every person who had a hand in this trip, big or small, were in our thoughts throughout our trip.


This trip was all about my brother Matt.  He and some friends went on a similar trip in May 2013.  They are all architecture grads from Savannah College of Art and Design, and friends with Scott and Stephanie Jackson, the Directors of GoDesign, Inc, an organization out of Savannah that develops solutions for architectural needs and teaches local tradesmen these techniques.  Matt and his friends designed and built a sustainable housing unit in Dilla, Ethiopia and the experience truly changed his life.  Just a few months later, in August of that year, Matt died in a work related accident.  At the time it became evident to my family and I that we wanted to support GoDesign in Matthew’s memory, and none of us would have imagined the impact that decision would have.  Scott and Stephanie offered right away to utilize the funds raised to go towards building a school in Matthew’s memory, and very quickly the school was completely funded.  So, Brett and I knew when it came time that we would want to Go.
Matt, May 2013. Photo credit: Lisa Gallant.
Dan, Brett, Carolyn, Rosanne, Tracy, Siobhan and Joel (left to right)

Travel, Day One

Enjoying the hospitality on board Lufthansa

Enjoying the hospitality on board Lufthansa

Brett and I were joined on this trip by my parents and Matt’s friends Joel, Tracy, and Siobhan. We all left out of Detroit for Addis Ababa, Ethiopia through Frankfurt, Germany and Jetta, Saudi Arabia. In Germany we met up with Stephanie, Will, and Jen of GoDesign, as well as Jen’s fiancé Jeff, all whom were joining us on this trip, and later met up with Scott at the airport when we arrived in Addis late Friday evening. The trip proved challenging for us at the start. When we first set our sights on taking this trip, I was newly pregnant with Wyatt. We didn’t know what that meant for the trip, if he would come with us, or if I would be able to leave him at home, but we were pretty confident that having a 6 month old in the equation was not going to be a deterrent from taking this trip one way or another. The second challenge came later…about 7 days before we were scheduled to leave for Ethiopia. The US Embassy in Addis put out a warning that there was a possible terrorist threat to Americans traveling in Addis from a group outside of Ethiopia. This came as disturbing news for many reasons, and in the 3 years that Scott had been traveling to Ethiopia, he had never come up against this before. After some deliberation between myself and Brett, and amongst our group, it was decided that we would all continue with our plan to go to Ethiopia. On our flight to Addis, Brett and Joel were sporting some Stone Brewing memorabilia which sparked a conversation with a guy sitting near us on the plane. He and his family live in Addis, and he works at the US Embassy in Ethiopia. Apparently Stone beer is one of the very few beers available in the Embassy, but it is one of his favorites. We asked him about the terrorist threat and he confirmed that while the eminent threat was real, he felt more threatened or fearful walking in certain areas of DC or various other places in the States. And, as we had come to understand from him, as well as our friends Joe and Ashley who took this trip in May 2014, the people and the country had a very friendly and peaceful feeling. That, coupled with our very limited stay in Addis, and the low profile travelers with GoDesign always keep in the city, we continued to feel at ease which further solidified the decision we had made to continue the trip. And, our experience in the country definitely exceed the expectation of friendliness and safety that we had. So, we arrived in Addis late Friday evening and were greeted by Scott. We all arrived safe and sound, and with all of our luggage, which was a plus! We got checked into our hotel, and quickly went to sleep, since all other sleep in the previous 24 hours was on a plane.

Trip to Dilla, Day Two

Hotel La Lobelia

Dad and Scott enjoying the view during breakfast at the Hotel La Lobelia in Addis

The next morning we met 2 other ladies that would be an important part of our trip, our translators and fast friends, Kal and Yordi. During breakfast that morning we experienced another first: a traditional coffee ceremony, before heading south out of Addis for Dilla. Coffee is an event in Ethiopia, something treasured and shared among friends. During the ceremony beans are roasted, ground, and coffee is brewed, often served with a light snack like popcorn. The coffee is strong and delicious, served in appropriately small cups. We ended up traveling all day to Dilla, nearly 10 hours on the road. We stopped along the way at Haile Resort on Lake Awassa for a traditional Ethiopian lunch buffet. We were hesitant at first, but the food was delicious. Brett and I enjoyed the food throughout the trip, as you will see in some of the photos.

Dilla, Day Three

Sunday morning in Dilla we woke up to the the sound of worship being “broadcast” on loud speakers throughout the town. There was a slight haze in the air, and the smell of incense. It really was quite amazing! We enjoyed another Ethiopian meal and our new favorite beverage, the macchiato, before heading out to the job site in Dilla. Dilla was was the sole location that Matt and his friends visited and worked at during their trip to Ethiopia in 2013. It was a late add to our itinerary, as a means of more quickly getting out of Addis due to the possible danger in the city. While we travelled long to get there and were only there for one day, it was so worth the trip and we were all grateful that we were able to go there.
Dilla, Ethiopia at sunrise
Jen and Jeff

Dilla from the hotel

We only spent one full day with the people at the church and job site in Dilla, but it felt like much longer, just due to the connection we felt with the children and adults that we spent time with. When we got back to the hotel that evening, worship was beginning again and could be heard throughout the town. Back at the hotel we had dinner as a group with the pastors from the church. The people in their village were so grateful for our visit that they gifted each person in our group a shirt that they made of hand woven fabric. The color and design of the shirt are indicative of that particular group of people. We were all touched and treasure their gift.

People of Dilla

Back to Addis, Day Four On to Shewa Robit, Day Five

After spending one whole day in Dilla, we were back on the road Monday morning for the long drive back to Addis. Even though we spent many hours in the car throughout our trip, the time passed fairly quickly due to the beautiful landscape and conversation with our new friends Jen and Jeff. On the return to Addis we stopped at another resort, Sabana, for lunch before making it back to Addis by the end of the day. Once again we checked into our hotel for a quick night’s rest before leaving again in the morning, this time headed north for Shewa Robit. This would be our home base for the next 4 days that we would spend working in the village where Matt’s school is located. Beletew joined our trip at this point. He is from Ahmara, very near where we would be each day in Afar. He is a local partner with GoDesign, and heads his own organization, VWDO, that also constructs buildings and schools that are needed in developing villages. Beletew’s story is an incredible one, but I’ll save that for a little bit later.

Matt’s School, Day Six

Wednesday morning we made our first trip from Shewa Robit to the village in Afar where Matt’s school is located. It is a 90 minute drive, one way, on a rugged dirt road from the hotel to the village. That first morning, one of the cars in our caravan broke down which caused a delay, and not much later our car got a flat. So, the excitement was really building by the time we arrived in the village, a little late. We knew there was going to be a ceremony at the school with the local government officials and some of the local people, but I certainly did not expect what we arrived to. There was a banner welcoming us, a crowd of people, and a very heart felt ceremony. I wish I had been prepared to record the speech that Hussein, the local leader, had to share. It was of extreme gratitude and thanks, explaining the impact the school would make, and the promise that because of the school Matthew would always be remembered. It was pretty intense! The Ceremony moved from outside on the school’s front steps to inside one of the classrooms. This is where each member of our group was presented with a gift of the traditional fabric/wraps that are worn in that area. In addition, my parents and Scott and Stephanie, the Directors of GoDesign, were each gifted a goat. The goats were then slaughtered, prepared, and served to us for lunch.

Afar, Days Seven, Eight, and Nine

We spent the next few days in the village, commuting back and forth everyday.  Since Matt’s school was complete, with the exception of a few minor details, we were beginning a new project with Beletew’s organization VWDO, building a dining hall.  In addition to the construction, we were able to spend a little time in the classroom with the children.  Here are some photos from the rest of our week there.

Feteerah, breakfast of champions. (Light and flaky pastry that somehow has an egg center, drizzled with honey ontop.)….(sigh).

Invitation into Hussein’s home

On our last day we had the special honor and invitation to join Hussein for a tour of his home, something that no other group, or even Beletew himself, had ever experienced previously. For as special of an occasion as this was, I have a serious lack of photos. We hiked from the edge of the the village up and over a few hills where it began to be very remote, and the views kept getting better and better. You can start to see his home in the photo on the left, just past Tracy in the light blue shirt, nestled near a tree.
These types of homes are built by the women before their wedding day. They are oval/oblong shape, a wooden frame wrapped in woven thatch. They are quite intricate. Hussein lives there with his 2 children and his wife who was pregnant and expecting their 3rd child any day. When the children are a little older they could then build a second hut adjacent to have separate sleeping quarters, but as their children are still young, all 4, almost 5, of them sleep in one family bed. Upon leaving his home we kept walking further to see some of the surrounding area, homes, and where they cook, before arriving back down at Matt’s school. Having stood in front of the school a few times already, I had not imagined people living in the hills up and behind it.

Women’s Dormitory

Across the road from the high school is a woman’s dormitory. This visit was interesting to me as well. There was a small group of young women living here, attending school in the village. They were sent from their villages where there is no opportunity for them to receive an education, to this village dormitory to attend school. They can be sent at a young age and receive all of their schooling here as there are now elementary through high school classrooms. Before we left the village, I was able to go back one more time to meet the woman, and was honored that they let me photograph them.

People of Afar

Return to Addis, Day 10 Final Day in Addis, Day 11

On Sunday we made our return to Addis, but not before having one more flat tire, and seeing a few more sights along the way. We passed through a beautiful view point at a high elevation that makes you feel like you are in the Alps. No photo could do this place justice, it was incredible. Monday was our final day in Addis. We began the day with some shopping. I was too busy haggling over scarves, knives, and soccer jerseys to have gotten any photos of the shops, with the exception of the all important stop to load up on coffee to bring home. We had one final meal of Tibs in a restaurant in Addis, and spent the rest of the day relaxing at the hotel, awaiting our late night flight home, again through Jetta and Frankfurt.


Ok so, so far I have kind of under explained what an amazing individual Beletew is.  He is a warm spirit, with a loving smile, and a super fast driver (which I can really appreciate!).  His story is too good to try to explain, so luckily there is a video of him telling it in his own words.  I’m not going to give it away, so you’re going to have to spend the 5 minutes listening to it :)
So, this was a pretty incredible journey.  I remember when Matt came home from his trip to Ethiopia, he was changed.  I don’t know fully what or why, but he was.  It wasn’t just those two weeks in May it was that whole year, and the trip was a big and important part of his life.  Brett and I talked about wanting to do a mission trip for years, and Matt said he wanted to go back, and I remember thinking that maybe Brett and I would be able to go with him.  While we weren’t given that opportunity, he still made sure we took the trip anyways. Matt firmly believed that God had a plan for him.  If you knew him you heard him say this.  Alot.  …And all the way up until his time here was through.  He didn’t know what it was he just knew it, and I believed in it too.  It’s hard to say, it’s hard to understand how or why, but I believe that this was God’s plan for Matt’s life.  While he was here, he touched and impacted countless people’s lives, people he knew, be it only for a few hours or days, or whether it was for many years.  He had a gift for gab and knew no stranger.  And even now, after his passing, he continues to impact and touch countless people’s lives.  There is now a 3 room high school in a very remote village in Afar, Ethiopia, where hundreds of children, children that will become that region’s future leaders, will receive an education for many generations to come. And so I think about Beletew and his story, and the path of peace and plan for service that God has for him.  And I think about Scott and Stephanie, and God’s plan for them to make a difference in the lives of those in need.  And then I think about God’s plan for Matt.  He had no clue that God’s plan for him would stretch across the continents, and who else’s path it would coincide with to create all of this.  And it continues; it lives and breathes in each of us who knew him, and continues with every student that attends that high school.  I am amazed and proud of how God used Matt, and I can’t wait until the day we meet again.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” – Jeremiah 29:11

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