Susie in Ethiopia
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
I sit here at my desk at Save the Children in Addis Ababa, writing you the first instalment of my African adventures. I�ll be working here for seven months, so many more updates will ensue, but for now, here are my first impressions of life in Ethiopia.
You always know you�re going to have a warm welcome when that welcome starts on the plane over to the country in question. After meeting a fascinating mix of Ethiopians working for organisations such as VSO and the Chamber of Commerce, we stepped off the plane into the Ethiopian capital at 3 a.m., and trundled to our various abodes in an array of clapped-out taxis.
Unmasked by the light of the following day, I was able to explore the city with the aid of the Ethiopian family I live with. Even with the experience of other African metropolises behind me, the bombardment of alien sights and smells is always initially overwhelming. Most shocking of all was the extreme poverty and deprivation evident at every turn; war amputees, polio cripples, tiny orphans appealing for money in high-pitched voices ... �please madam, I am hungry, mother father dead�. Ethiopia is currently ranked as the sixth poorest country in the world, and the hardship is there for all to see.
However, Save the Children along with numerous other NGOs and benefactors are doing their best to alleviate the situation. Apart from my Argentinean boss and myself, the office is composed entirely of Ethiopian national staff, who are not only highly qualified and experienced, but utterly devoted to their work. My job is comprised of fundraising and advocacy work, and in addition I get to travel to the field on a regular basis, to see the projects for myself, through my assignment of writing reports. I can�t wait until my first visit at the end of the month up in the northern Amhara region, where I�ll visit an HIV testing clinic, Alternative Basic Education Centres, and Drop In Centres for street children.
My time here so far has not been without drama, and the widespread riots and killings of early November certainly shook the country. On one day, shooting broke out around our office, and we had to be evacuated from work. It was certainly quite a tense experience careering through streets strewn with rocks, smashed glass and burning tyres. And although peace has resumed in most parts of the country, there is now the added threat of impending war with Eritrea. The situation is severe, and a huge eye opener to witness.
On a more positive note, the people are wonderful. Although many are initially quite reserved, once approached, you get the typically warm and gregarious African reaction. Learning Amharic (an Arabic derivative that serves as the national language) helps a great deal, and it�s always entertaining to see people�s complete amazement at a �firanji� (�foreigner�) making the effort. However, I need to work on my vocabulary, as �al ga beu nyam� (�I don�t understand�) is currently my most commonly used phrase. By my next instalment, let�s hope it has improved.
Until then, deh na hunu!
Long time no update! Apologies for that.
Since I last wrote there have been all sorts of adventures, and �s gone from being a mysterious new land to a place I am much more familiar with. Not to say that I know it well � with the vastness and amazing variation of this country, I could never hope to lay that claim!
Just before Christmas, I was flown off up north to the Amhara region for a two week field trip, which was quite an experience. The region was the worst effected by the 1984 famine, and visiting the areas I�ve only seen previously on BBC news reports and Bob Geldof�s appeals for BandAid was intriguing.
After arriving at Lalibela airport and being picked up by the Save the Children car and driver, we embarked on a 5 hour long (and outrageously bumpy!) drive right up into the mountains. Finally we arrived at the tiny settlement of Muja, quite literally in the middle of nowhere. With the only guest house being the local brothel, I spent quite an uncomfortable night being eaten alive by fleas, only to emerge in the morning to find a crowd of people waiting for me to come out of my room! The conspicuousness I feel within the comparatively westernised was magnified a hundred fold in such a rural setting � Caucasian skin is truly alien here, and with rumours spreading fast that a �firanji� had arrived, people had gathered to gawp.
One of my jobs at Save the Children is to produce a publication called �Stories from the Field�, in which I interview a number of different children involved in our various projects throughout Ethiopia. Embarking on my first interview in Muja, I was lead to the local school to talk to a group of village elders who are teaching their communities about child rights. However, interviewing 12 people through a translator is easier said than done, especially considering their total bewilderment at a young white girl broaching such topics as female genital mutilation and early marriage. Overcoming their shyness and general fascination was a real hurdle, and encouraging them to elaborate on their monosyllabic answers quite a feat! However, they slowly got used to the idea, and after an hour, a raucous debate had ensued and they were competing to give their respective opinions!
After Muja, we embarked on yet another drive of a lifetime, this time east to the town of
With a brief distraction of exploring the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, it was on to Bahir Dar, a large town on the south bank of , when a child�s parent is imprisoned and there are no other relatives to look after them, they are also sentenced to prison. Therefore, within Bahir Dar alone, there are almost 30 children locked up as if they had committed crimes themselves. I talked to a thirteen year old girl called Emebet, who had been in prison since she was five months old. It was only two years ago that she left the prison gates for the first time, when Save the Children campaigned and paid for her to be allowed to go to school for 6 hours a day.
Arriving back in Ethiopia at the end of January after savouring the familiarity of the UK, I was promptly sent of to Somalia. Or more precisely Somaliland, the self-declared yet internationally unrecognised de facto state occupying northwest Somalia. Many foreigners have been murdered in the area over the past few years, mainly by armed rebels from southern Somalia attempting to disturb the relative peace. So not only was I kitted out in the traditional strict Muslim dress, and quickly became an expert at arranging my hajib, but was also accompanied everywhere I went by my own personal bodyguard! In fact, travelling a notoriously dangerous path up to the north coast, we had to be accompanied by an entire escort of soldiers travelling in a blacked-out Toyota. Given the fact that it was only four months ago that I was leading a UNA Exchange project on MountSnowdon in Wales, this was quite an experience for me! All in all, Somaliland was a fantastic and utterly fascinating place to encounter, and I relished the exotic culture and revelled in the kindness of its people � the threat, it seemed to me, was actually much lower than the abundance of security suggested.
So now I am back at my desk in Addis Ababa, writing this while watching the bustling life go by through my 10th floor window. Drama continues here as well; the political situation remains tense, and at the beginning of January there were renewed protests and violence, albeit on a smaller scale than before. My flatmate has moved to the Democratic Republic of Congo to work as a UN Peacekeeper, and so I have been deciding between various candidates to replace her. Amusingly, this has included fielding several calls from large Ethiopian families insisting that I allow all 9 family members to inhabit the one bedroom � explaining that I would prefer the one room to be occupied by one person doesn�t seem to make sense in their eyes! And once again, at least once a week on way to work I am greeted by the sight of yet another car that has crashed into the stinking river by my house. Drink driving is not a punishable offence over here, and instead appears to be normal practice, which seems entirely bizarre. All in a day�s work in Addis I guess.
Anyway, until next time, eskeziaw dires, de na hunu!
One of the main highlights of this job is having so many opportunities to go to the field. A week ago I got back from south-western Ethiopia, from the towns of Arba Minch and Awassa. As I said before, Ethiopia is so diverse � from the relatively chilly Addis Ababa we descended down into the heady heat and humidity of the lowlands. In contrast to the north, there�s an abundance of green, with banana plantations lining the road, and an array of locals transporting fruit on their backs and with the help of the odd donkey. The Ethiopian Rift Valley is spectacular � I was mesmerised by the mountains rising in every direction, enclosing a spattering of deep crater lakes. I only wish I�d had the opportunity to go further south into the OmoValley to see the Mercy and Hamer tribes, bearers of the infamous lip plates that occasionally traverse our TV screens.
The project work itself was fairly sobering. One of our projects supports children living in prison. As I wrote before after visiting the prison in Bahir Dar in the north of Ethiopia a little known fact internationally, and even to Ethiopians themselves, is that children are sentenced to prison here when their parents commit crimes. In a bizarre loophole in the law, if other caretakers cannot be found, those children are forced to accompany the offending parent(s), and usually confined with the other inmates for the entirety of the sentence. One child prisoner I met in Awassa had a particularly appalling story to tell; her mother had murdered her father, dismembering his body in front of the children. After witnessing such an incomprehensibly traumatic crime, she is now confined with her mother in the prison. Events had clearly taken their toll on her, and although our project enables her some respite by sending her to school outside the prison each day, it was evident that her psychological state would never return to what it was.
Shashemene, the spiritual home-place of Bob Marley and the central hub of Rastafarianism was my next destination. We have a project there supporting 320 orphans, and I had the opportunity to meet them as they were dispensed money by our partner organisation for school fees and equipment, and medical expenses. The stories I came across were horrendous, from a family of eight recently orphaned children whose household was now headed by their eldest brother, and a young boy who cried as he told me about both his parents dying of AIDS, and his baby brother also being gravely ill with the disease. The fact that the project could provide even basic assistance to these children to give them greater prospects in life was a small comfort. However, the harsh nature of their lives, and the dignity with which they handled themselves under such hardship, was quite something to behold.
Life in Addis Ababa has been equally as oppressive for its residents. A series of terrorist bomb blasts have rocked the capitol in the past weeks, the most recent of which happened yesterday. One of the minibuses I take to work each day was blown apart by one, and four others exploded in various parts of the city. Deciding to avoid the minibuses and take a taxi home from work, I narrowly avoided another blast by a margin of only two minutes. The Ethiopians� reaction to the bombs fascinates me; people are obviously shocked and shaken, but the speed at which everyday life returns to normal is quite something. Acceptance of such adversity is obviously something Ethiopians have come to master. The blame for the blasts has been placed on various groups, with opposition parties, the Somali radical Islamist group al-Itihaad al-Islamiya, the Eritrean government and even the Ethiopian government itself being cited.
Despite the drama, it looks like I might be staying in Ethiopia after my original contract here is up. There are a few job possibilities on the horizon at the moment which I�m very excited by, not only because they would allow me to stay in Africa (having caught �the Africa bug� long ago!), but also because I�d undoubtedly get the opportunity to learn so much more. I�ve become very settled in Addis Ababa, with various adventures to different parts of the country, horse riding in the mountains every Sunday, and the amazing nightlife, and I�m certainly not ready to leave just yet.