Tag Archives: Addis Ababa

Last Day in Addis

Mahlet (L) and Tamrat (R), two VSO "miracle workers."

My work on the ground in Ethiopia wraps up today and I’m already missing many aspects of this country that I’ve come to know in the past two months. Here are just a few samples:

• Waking up to the bleating of sheep outside my hotel window in downtown Addis.

• The sweet smell of frankincense that comes from traditional “bunna” cafes – Ethiopian coffee houses where beans are roasted, coffee is brewed and then served with popcorn. The coffee is always accompanied by a charcoal burner topped with fragrant incense. Heavenly!

• Steaming double macchiato made with rich Ethiopian coffee beans and perfectly foamed milk. Starbucks can’t come close. Especially at 12 birr a cup (under a dollar). The great thing is that these delicious cuppas are available everywhere, from tiny roadside cafes to posh hotels and the quality is superb!

• Berberé spice – a red chili spice concoction used in just about every dish. I love it with eggs.

• Special foul for breakfast, a sort of huevos rancheros, Ethiopian-style.

• Warm smiles.

• Clocks that run 6 hours ahead, Ethiopian time.

• A calendar that runs seven years behind ours. It’s 2004 in Ethiopia right now. (Alexandrian versus Gregorian. Sept. 11 is the Ethiopian New Year’s Day.)

• Cool Ambo mineral water. Love the tree of life logo.

• 1 birr coins that look like toonies and are reportedly made in Canada.

• Stumbling along with a few Amharic words and having people understand me.

• A climate that goes from the hottest on earth (the Danakil Depression gets to around 50 degrees C) to very chilly (in Dessie we were wearing parkas).

• Animals everywhere…donkeys, camels, cattle, goats. They own the road, especially in rural areas.

Morning wake-up call. Bahhhhhh.....

Most of all, I’m going to miss the people. The staff at the VSO Ethiopia office was kind, considerate and extremely helpful on this assignment. Logistics ran smoothly and I felt truly taken care of. In particular, Mahlet Mebrate and Tamrat Mulugeta made my road trips journeys of a lifetime (the first to the southeast was 2292 km. To the north was 2173 km). Tamrat’s name means “full of miracles” and that was particularly true when he got us safely to Lalibela after driving 300 km on gravel roads, up and down mountains with no guard rails – and the last 40 km in the dark! Spending time with volunteers, seeing the astounding historical sights, and gaining an appreciation for the geographical wonders of this ancient land was an absolute joy.

Like anywhere, Ethiopia has its problems. That’s why so much development work is being done here. But it is also a country that is emerging and determined to cure its ills. I know things are going to change very quickly. Even in my time here, I’ve seen sparkling high-rise buildings sprout up overnight, experienced excellent roads and seen mobile technology embraced by farmers and bankers alike.

I’m just hoping that in the future when I return, I’ll still be able to recognize the Ethiopia I’ve come to love.

Construction like this is going on all over Ethiopia -- mostly hotels, government buildings and shopping centres.

This building was finished in the time I was here.

Driving Back to Addis

Our tireless driver Tamrat gave us wonderful insight into Ethiopian culture.

I'll scratch your back, you scratch mine!

The final day of our trip was spent driving the six hours back to Addis. Goats, sheep and donkeys shared the road. Streams of people clad in white traditional garb headed to church. Others carrying bundles of firewood on their backs, or produce on their heads, filed to local markets. Car ownership is not common and the majority of people walk. It’s a slower, more determined pace of life in the rural areas. Addis is fun, with all its choices of restaurants and “ferengie” food options, but I’ll miss the clear air and rolling vistas of Ethiopia’s northern regions. I’m astounded to say we clocked more than 4,000 km on our road trips to the east, south and north!



Butcher shop delivery on a non fasting day!

Addis Ababa is a diplomatic hub, swimming with white UN vehicles and trucks emblazoned with NGO emblems. The home of the Organization of African Unity and the headquarters of the UN Economic Commission for Africa,  Addis is also one quirky town. Here are a few things I’ve noticed so far…

• Only a few streets have names, and most people don’t know them. You have to give cab drivers landmarks to get where you need to go.

• Open sewers are everywhere, so is the fragrance. Sidewalks (where there are some) have stone slabs covering the sewers, and sometimes a slab is missing. It’s a 4 foot drop. You don’t want to fall in.

• Wednesdays and Fridays are fasting days. That means no animal products available on the menu. These are great days for vegetarians – the shared platter known as ye som megeb, or fasting beyainatu, is a portion of injera (a flat spongy pancake made from teff) covered with helpings of lentils, chickpea mash, cooked spinach and whole vegetables like beans, carrots and potatoes. You eat with your right hand. Restaurants are all equipped with sinks to wash after you’ve eaten.

• Beef/goat/lamb is super popular (on non-fast days). The city is filled with Christian butcher shops, identified by the red cross on the outside.

• The population is about 60/40 Christian/Muslim.

• The beer is delicious. I love two brands, St. George’s and Harar. Cost is 12-15 birr (80 cents). Only Christians drink alcohol. Muslim cafes are good for juice, chai and coffee. Some places serve a drink that is a mixture of chai and coffee.

• Average salary for a middle class person is around 1500 birr per month (a little under $100). Lowest wage is around 30 birr per day (the average for a shoe shiner, and there are lots of them).

• Many diplomats live in an area called Washington. The large houses rent for around 40,000 birr per month.

• Elevation is 2,408 meters – thin air mixed with dust and diesel fumes makes breathing difficult. I walked up Entoto Mountain, which looks over the city and has an elevation of 3,000 meters. Gasp!

• Call to prayer – Christian and Muslim — starts around 5 am. Sleeping in is not an option.

•  Cabbies all drive blue and white Ladas. You have to negotiate a price before getting in. The ferengi price is always double. State of repair varies. Push start? Hanging wires? Door won’t close? Teddy bear in the back? You never know.

• Main traumas in hospitals are from traffic accidents. Ethiopia has the 2nd highest traffic accident fatality rate in Africa.

• When Manchester United plays, most of the city shuts down and TV cafes are packed. Bring on the St. George’s!

• St. George is the patron saint of Ethiopia.


A midwife’s story

The VSO and CUSO-VSO volunteers I’ve met in the past two days have been amazing. Jacqueline McAuley is a nurse and midwife in her early 30s. She’s been here for a little more than a year, most of that time at Gondar University as an instructor and lecturer. Originally from Northern Ireland, she studied in Edinburgh and then went to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Longing to work overseas, she signed up with VSO in order to get experience in Africa. After 10 days in-country training, including a cultural overview, basic Amharic language training and gender issue awareness, she headed to Gondar, north of Addis Ababa.

Being a white woman in a traditional culture has been challenging. Her gender training instructor had warned her not to go out after dark and not to wear revealing clothes. “Attitudes towards women are little different here than at home,” she explained. As evidence, she noted she had two marriage proposals in her first week. “One was strictly business, visas etc.

With Jacqueline at the VSO office

The other, well….” She blushed and let me figure it out. Let’s say it wasn’t exactly romantic.

During her work as a lecturer, McAuley found she was more effective when she teamed up with a male pediatrician VSO volunteer. “Men are seen to have a lot more power. As a team we were able to accomplish a lot,” she explained.

In her year‘s placement, she developed a workshop for nurses and clinical midwives covering professional ethics, rights of patients, and standards. Accessing a small grant, she replaced rusted equipment with new delivery sets and brought in two neonatal resuscitation kits.

McAuley also educated her students on the importance of hygiene. “There was massive overcrowding in the ward. Forty women shared 20 beds, plus we had mattresses on the floor with three women sharing. Deliveries were done in the corridors and running water was infrequent. My students went ahead and cleaned the maternity ward on their own. This really helped the morale of the delivery staff. It’s a tough job. The women giving birth and their families were very appreciative.”

What has the experience taught her so far? “Everything takes time. You have to be diplomatic and you have to wait.”


• Don’t pat the dogs, they have fleas.

• Don’t eat kitfo, a popular, raw minced beef dish, because you’re sure to get sick.

• If you do eat kitfo, make sure you take de-worming medicine later.



first blog from ethiopia!

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.