Finding Lake Michigan in Ethiopia

In the August 2015 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine six writers who grew up near the Northern Michigan water reflect on how freshwater continues to shape their lives today. While on assignment in Ethiopia, Traverse City native Anders Kelto finds himself thinking about his connection to Lake Michigan, despite being a continent away. Read on for the entire essay.


I opened my eyes and didn’t know where I was.

A white net hung above me, suspended from four towering bedposts. My mud-caked hiking shoes sat in the corner, and a suitcase lay open on the bare wooden floor. Outside, a gray-blue lake shimmered.

Then, everything came rushing back. I was in Ethiopia. And I needed to get moving.

I had traveled to the northern part of the country on a reporting assignment. My story was about a government program that supplied birth control to every single village in the country. Men and women were counseled on how to plan their families and space out their pregnancies. As a result, fewer women were dying during childbirth, and more children were surviving their first year of life. It was a global health success story, and I was here to figure out why it worked.

Together with a local journalist, I left the hotel early that morning. The sun was still coming up. We drove up into the mountains, to a small village called Addis Zemen.

It was the kind of place where life hasn’t changed much in the past 500 years. Thatch roof huts. Farmers tilling the soil with cow-pulled plows. Women sorting fava beans on hand-woven plates and cooking veggie stew over open flames. The only clue that this was the 21st century was the plastic jerrycans—used for hauling water—atop girls’ heads.

I spent the day walking around the village and interviewing women. And I asked them some very intimate questions. How old were you when you got married? Who decided how many children to have—you or your husband? If a health worker tells you one thing and a priest tells you something else, whose advice will you follow?

I listened to their answers for hours. And I tried to navigate some difficult mental terrain. How do these women think about life and death; children and marriage? Was anything being lost in translation? Were they telling me the truth or just saying what they thought I wanted to hear?

And, as is often the case, I heard some heavy stories. One woman said she had receded from village life because she had no husband and only one child, and she was ashamed. Another woman described how she lost two infants to diarrhea and another to malaria. A third woman retold the story of a brutal accident that left her leg badly damaged—and then she showed me the wound.

By the end of the day, I was heartbroken, exhausted, and disoriented. I wondered if I had accomplished what I had set out to do. I wondered if I could ever really understand what these women’s lives were like, and could ever really get to the truth.

Later that night, I walked out to the edge of the lake near our lodge. A wooden pier extended 50 feet out. I strolled to the end and gazed across the water.

On the far shore, the tree line cut a familiar shape. The rolling green hills spanning the horizon, somehow reminded me of Northern Michigan.

And then, in a strange moment, I was transported home. Or rather, home was transported to me. The sound of a rowboat became a lone fisherman at the mouth of the Boardman River. Children splashing on shore became kids leaping into the water near the Open Space park.

I blinked and looked again. And, of course, I saw Ethiopia.

Maybe it was some sort of protection mechanism. Maybe my mind—unable to process everything I had seen and heard that day—needed to go somewhere more familiar, somewhere safer. Maybe it needed to go back to the world that, to me, was reality.

I walked back to my room and took out my notebook. I looked over some ideas I had jotted down, thought about the day.

I still wondered if I had truly understood these women. I still had doubts about what my story would say.

But one thing felt different. This place around me no longer felt so foreign. Somehow, my sense of disorientation had subsided, and had been replaced by a feeling of kinship. I sensed that what I felt standing by that lake must be what anyone standing there would feel, and what people who live here must feel: a calmness, lightness, and feeling of being home.

Anders Kelto is a reporter for National Public Radio, based in Washington, D.C. He spent four years reporting in Africa, and traveled to West Africa in 2014 to cover the Ebola outbreak. He graduated from Traverse City Central.

Article Comments

  • Ethiopian_one

    We humans named the lakes and make them distinct they are all related and are part of the blue planet….