Common River: Connecting Communities

Common River

Common River

Deep in the Ethiopian Rift Valley, inside a bamboo hut, the air is cool and sweet. Fresh beans snap and whistle in the heat of the fire, sending out rich plumes of coffee-scented smoke. The process is peaceful, methodical. The mortar grinds the beans and water boils. Soon, from the elegant black coffee pot, lush chocolaty coffee spills into cups. Welcome to Common River, Aleta Wondo.

The collaboration of Tsegaye Bekele and Donna Sillan, Common River is a multi-faceted project that improves the lives of Aleta Wondo’s inhabitants. This once stable range has been hit hard by the falling price of coffee and the impacts of global warming. The wide range of projects reflects the diversity of Aleta Wondo’s volunteers and participants. From education to agriculture to cultural exchange, this is a place where futures are secured.

Aleto Wondo

Aleto Wondo

The school on the Common River site provides the young inhabitants to one of the most vital tools for a happy and successful life: an education. Four classrooms hold children of all ages: polite, eager to learn, attentive and dedicated, this is a teacher’s dream. A large field extends the learning space into the Ethiopian sunshine. Art, music, and sports complete a well-rounded education. Volunteers visit from all over the world, sharing their skills. The school lunch programme keeps the young learners at their best. Fresh milk from the school’s cows and produce from the fields ensures a healthy, balanced meal. The classrooms are picturesque, including a brightly painted traditional Sidama hut. When the bell rings for home time, the school doesn’t rest. Trickling from the village and fields, all bright skirts and happy laughter, come the women. The Common River Female Literacy programme is a wonder. It is said that to educate a woman is to educate a family and here educated women are formed. For two years, they return to school, receiving the basic education so many of us take for granted. When class is finished, they will go back to being mothers and wives with the dinner to cook and the children to put to bed, but for a few hours a day, they are something they thought they might never be- a pupil with their hand and head held high.

Ethiopia is well known as the birthplace of coffee. Common River and the coffee growers of Aleta Wondo have worked together to produce a single-origin coffee that is available worldwide. As small-scale producers, the amount of coffee produced each year is limited. Profits return directly to the community and it makes a wonderful – and socially conscious- souvenir. Less portable, but no less amazing, is the traditional bamboo huts that dot the sight. The locally based collective can make and design bespoke bamboo huts. Fragrantly cool, sustainable and beautiful; it’s a pity these won’t fit in a suitcase home!

School at Common River

School at Common River

Common River’s projects also include a new irrigation system, bring water to more members of the community than ever before. Having easy access to water will mean fewer trips to the communal springs. Their sanitation centres improve the health of community members, as does their provision of medical checkups, nutrition classes and first aid training. Annually, medical volunteers visit and provide care and information to the townspeople. Other projects include a bio-diversity garden that supports and showcases the area’s rich bio-diversity, rain catchment and wells, reforestation and improvement to local infrastructure.

Common River welcomes guests and volunteers to visit and assist with their range of projects. Tours, school groups, and volunteer placements are all available. Coffee can also be purchased via their website. Visit their website at to find out how you can experience this wonderful place or enjoy a taste from the comfort of your own living room.

One Love – Community, Circus, Change

“Community-led development” has become a bit of a buzzword in the NGO world, the Holy Grail, it would seem. More laudable, however, is “community-initiated,” especially when the people leading the change are children. In 1998, a group of children in the Ethiopian city of Awassa began to practice circus. They practiced with an untiring dedication and their hard work began to be recognized. First came the accolades in competitions, and then came the notice of Awassan Aster Dabels and a German friend Dr. Herman Hunzinger. The artists of Debub Nigat (Southern Dawn) may have drawn audiences in to spectacular, beautiful worlds as they performed, but the reality of their daily lives was sobering. Many were hungry and unable to afford an education. Some had lost family members to AIDS or Ethiopia’s turbulent history. Dabels and Dr Hunzinger raised the money that kept Debub Nigat’s performers in school with food in their stomachs.


Three years passed. Muscles strengthen as stunts become increasing challenging, the stack of circus toys grow and fade with use. In 2002, the troupe collaborated with American director, David Schein, to create a performance promoting HIV/AIDS awareness. It was a topic close to the hearts of the performers and the audience, and performed with uncommon insight, creativity and skill. The Awassa AIDS Education Circus was born. Recognizing its contribution to HIV/AIDS awareness, the town of Awassa donated land to build the Debub Nigat Circus and Vocational Training Center. Then came tours of Ethiopia.

Touring as One Love, the group began to spread awareness all over the country. From remote towns to the capital, from markets to schools to theatres, the group brought a unique perspective to life-saving messages. They broadened their topics, developing works on topics as diverse and challenging as FGM, land-mine awareness and khat addiction. Their skills in awareness-raising were recognized by an ever-increasing number of NGOs and IGOs, including the UN and the American Embassy.


Now One Love works under their own umbrella NGO, Action for Youth and Community Change (AYCC), which also provides a home for the Awassa Peace Dojo, an immensely popular aikido centre. As Ethiopian’s only centre for studying the peaceful martial art, the Awassa Peace Dojo is a haven of respect, hard work, and global citizenship. The AYCC Campus is alive with creativity, a meeting point for all of Awassa’s children to learn and grow. Classes in theatre, dance, music, visual arts and sports keep young minds and bodies active. Academic assistance, life skills and counseling keep them healthy. Dedication and perseverance come from the children and young people themselves.

Some rehearse for a music video, others turn endless handsprings, somewhere a child is singing, while others draw. There are cheers from the football court, the whistle from the basketball game. It’s a place of love, learning and inspiration.


Nowadays, performers have found themselves capable of competing with circus performers the world over. Casting directors came calling, offering the performers positions in circuses all over the world. Fame came for some; others found work at One Love, mentoring a new generation of performers. A true rags to riches story – although the riches found are often kind heart, a willing mind, a strong body and a bright future.

Help One Love Theater continue to produce impeccable performances that are literally changing the lives of rural Ethiopians. Visit to donate. Be sure to put One Love Theater in the note line and receive your written confirmation. If you are interesting in volunteering with this wonderful organization or any questions please contact Sintayehu Mengistu at or David Schein at