Sun pouring down like honey, dust swirling, and a nip in the air. These were my first impressions as I emerged from the airport and shook off more than 40 hours travel (delays, missed planes, you name it).
Addis Ababa is a city full of government officials, NGOs and people trying to eke out a living. Population is anywhere from 3-5 million, depending on who you talk to, and one-quarter is under 14. Driving to my hotel, I saw a donkey running down the street with no visible owner, sheep grazing by the side of the road and well dressed throngs marching off to work. Little rag-tag boys pulled on the sleeves of “ferengi” (foreigners) buying bottled water at roadside stands. Wafts of charcoal smoke and fresh baked bread curled through the window. I liked it already.
My first day at the VSO office, I learned that their main sectors were health and education and they had more than 90 volunteers in country. Most of these were from the UK and Europe, but there were a few Canadians as well. CUSO partnered with VSO a few years ago and one of their goals is to recruit Ethiopian Diaspora volunteers from Canada. I’ll be speaking to one in the next couple of days who is here on a 2-year placement.
Gender mainstreaming, secure livelihoods, and the plight of rural women, girls and people with disabilities, I was told, were also areas of concern for VSO.
In the office-meeting hall, I met a group of volunteers who were getting ready to start two-year placements throughout the country. Experts in teacher training and IT, they were learning how to use a kerosene stove, say “hello” in Amharic (the official national language), and tell the time, Ethiopian-style. The day begins at sunrise and so our 7 am is 1 am Ethiopian time. The calendar is a bit different as well. Seven years and eight months different. Oct. 18, 2011 is October 7, 2004 according to the Ethiopian calendar. Confusing but helpful when you want to fudge your age.
Interesting facts emerged. Volunteers in areas that are generally hotter than 37 degrees C get a small refrigerator. If you’re in a place like Addis, where the average temperature is around 17-20 degrees C you’re not entitled to a fridge. If you are 5 km or more from your placement, you get a bicycle. Allowances for guards (if you live in an area with security risks) are higher in Addis, where it is more expensive to live.
Pumped with excitement about their upcoming adventures, the volunteers vowed to keep in touch via e-mail using their newly purchased “dongals.” This little gadget connects to your laptop and allows you to get online no matter where you are. Handy, but not cheap.