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A new century for Ethiopia
MIHS graduates, friends work together in Africa
By Elizabeth Celms
Mercer Island Reporter
Almost 10 years have passed since the Mercer Island High School Class of 1999 graduated. Today, the former Islanders are scattered — studying, working, loafing about — across the country and the world. I know, I am one of them. And so is Alex Baron and Ross Laing.
It’s a funny thing, coming back to the Island. You run into familiar faces. You hear stories about your class. You catch up with old friends. You wonder about others.
Ross and Alex were best friends the day we graduated, that much I knew. And like many Mercer Island High School graduates, they kept in touch over the years. That wouldn’t have surprised me. But when I heard that, come September, the two would be dancing in the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, bidding farewell (once again) to the year 1999 and welcoming the Ethiopian millennium with thousands of others, well, I would have never imagined.
Behind the camera
True, every one of us — the Class of ’99 — has a story. Our biographies have grown. And so have our resumes: Bullet after bullet of B.A.s, M.A.s, honors and awards. Some LL.Ds, the odd Ph.D., internships and fellowships.
But the bullets on Ross Laing’s resume read differently.
“In high school, Ross and I were really into film,” said Baron. “After we graduated, we even moved to California to pursue it. But the difference was, Ross always stuck with it. I sort of gave it up. He went on and actually did something.”
In 2003, Laing’s passion for filmmaking brought him to France, where he worked as an assistant teacher in a high school film studies class in Vannes, a small coastal town in Brittany.
“France is the birthplace of film. I think I ended up learning more there than my students,” he said.
Returning from Europe with a new breadth of experience, Laing took on more ambitious projects in Seattle, editing for ESPN, the Discovery Channel, Microsoft, the Food Network and Boeing.
The assignment he’s most proud of was editing a promotional video for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The piece was shown at their annual fundraising luncheon in 2007.
“I realized that what I was assembling was going to be seen by many influential people who are going to be donating to the largest philanthropic organization in the world,” the freelancer said. “There was a lot of pressure, but it was a great experience for me.”
Now, the MIHS graduate feels he’s ready take on more creative responsibility. After six years of working with various production companies, Laing is ready to make a film of his own.
Alex Baron, like most of our graduating class, went on to college. In traditional MIHS fashion, he set off to pursue a bachelor’s degree, and then a master’s. But unlike the rest of us, Baron also set off to Africa.
While working as a valet at the Claremont Hotel in downtown Seattle, Baron befriended an Ethiopian man named Tesfaye Belay. Idling away their long shifts at Claremont, the two valets discussed everything from Ethiopian food to politics. Belay did the talking. Baron, mostly, listened.
“It was really Tesfaye and my interest in his culture that pushed me to study Ethiopia in school. I wanted to eventually visit the country in a constructive way,” Baron explained. “It took me a couple of years before I did.”
As a student at the University of Washington, Baron spent most of his time running between the African studies and geography departments, all the while thinking of Ethiopia.
“These [subjects] were both indirect ways for me to get to Ethiopia and do work,” he confessed.
Baron’s academic planning paid off. In 2003, he received a Mary Gates Leadership Grant to work for the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa.
When Westerners hear the name Ethiopia, few think of a fertile oasis. Most conjure up images of drought, impoverished crops and starvation. Yet in actuality, Ethiopia — located in the eastern horn of Africa and landlocked by Somalia, Djibouti and Eritrea — has regions steeped with rivers and vegetation.
While working with the ILRI, Baron turned his focus to the Ghibe Valley, a fertile region in southwestern Ethiopia. He spent the rainy season interviewing farmers, asking about their water sources, the health of their animals and changes within the forest ecology.
“Water-born disease was the major problem in Ghibe. But deforestation has been a major issue as well, not only in Ghibe, but throughout Ethiopia. It’s been exacerbated by war and major changes in land tenure policy. That’s why the government is making a big push now with its ‘Two Trees for 2000’ campaign [see story on B2],” said Baron, who speaks conversational Amharic, Ethiopia’s national language.
In 2004, Baron graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in geography. That same year he received the Undergraduate Research Award, which he used to continue his work in Ghibe.
Baron is back in the United States now, completing a master’s in water resources management with a focus on hydrology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He hopes to finish his thesis this fall.
As for his work in the Ghibe Valley, it’s far from finished.
“I’m not especially interested in the science of water, I just wanted to return to Ghibe with skills I could contribute and put into place,” he said. “But even this commitment can only take you so far.”
And so the hydrologist went back to thinking film.
The beginnings of a documentary
Laing has never been to Africa, yet he’s spent countless hours listening to Baron’s stories and socializing with his Ethiopian friends. You see when Baron wasn’t in Ethiopia-proper, he was often in Ethiopia-Seattle.
“I fell in love with Ethiopia - the country and the culture - the first time I went. Ever since, I’ve been talking about it nonstop to friends back home and dragging them to the Ethiopian community, which is pretty big in Seattle,” the MIHS graduate said.
Laing was one of those friends.
“There’s a lot of things people don’t know about Ethiopia - how diverse the culture is, how incredibly beautiful the terrain is,” he said.
For years, the two had talked about making a documentary on Ethiopia. They just needed an angle. A pivotal focus. An appropriate time. And then last summer, the idea came to them.
Next month Ethiopia, which follows the Ge’ez calendar, will mark the year 2000. On Sept. 11, diaspora from across the world will convene in Addis Ababa for what could be the biggest party the capital ever sees.
“One night and it occurred to me that this New Year’s was coming up, so we started talking about the documentary again,” Baron said. “Ross had become technically proficient at film and I’d found the story I wanted to tell. It was just the right time.”
This year, while much of the world commemorates 9/11, Baron and Laing will be celebrating the Ethiopian millennium on the jubilant streets of Addis Ababa; camera in hand.
Focusing on stories from the Ghibe Valley (and possibly elsewhere) with New Year’s as a unifying backdrop, the two hope to paint a picture of today’s Ethiopia; the people, the culture, the land.
“The stories of the Ghibe Valley are about the balance between human society and the natural environment, about what compels people to leave their homes and go looking for new ones, and how they settle themselves into a landscape that is new in both ecological and cultural terms,” Baron said. “The [people of Ghibe] come from distant corners of the country and speak different languages. Some are Muslim, some are Christian. Some have a farming background, others raise livestock.”
Over the past few months, discussion has turned into reality. Equipment has been purchased. Lodging in Addis Ababa has been arranged. The documentarians have Ethiopian contacts, willing sources, a team.
“We hope to get a PBS premier, but if [the documentary] premiers at a Seattle International film festival that would be a really good thing too,” Laing said.
The only obstacle so far, he added, is funding.
“Neither one of us has a paycheck waiting when we come home,” Laing said. “But we’re goingto start editing right away, and continue until we get the film out.”
Financial concerns aside, Baron and Laing are ready for Ethiopia.
“We’re going no matter what,” Laing said. “We’re very passionate about making this film to dispel misconceptions and to educate people about this virtually unknown part of the world. It’s just such a critical time in their history.”
For more information on the documentary, go to: www.furnaceroommedia.com.