Tag Archives: Ethiopia

Maychew Mike

Mike and I starting out on our hike behind the college.

More driving….got to Maychew (My-Chow), a small town, around 5 pm. Checked into a large white hotel, about 4 stories high. Brand new. Two desk clerks that looked around 15 checked us in, with much scrutiny of our VSO identification cards. The rooms were Spartan, with tile floors, double bed and a weak overhead light. We went out for dinner with CUSO-VSO volunteer Mike Bobeic – from Winnipeg! We met him at one of his favorite haunts, a little family-owned restaurant that smelled of kerosene (many Ethiopian restaurants do) and had a limited menu. Meat, meat and meat. I had their only other offering scrambled eggs. We also cracked open a bottle of Tej we had picked up on the way to Maychew. Tej is a honey wine and I was worried it would be syrupy, but the flavour was more like a sweet-ish, citrus fruit juice. Delicious! Mike has been in Maychew as an IT advisor for two years and has embraced the experience whole-heartedly. He entertained us for hours with stories about the college where he works, his Ethiopians friends, his “ferengie” pals in the Peace Corp stationed there, and mountain hiking.

We got up at 7:30 and met him for a hike. Winding up small dirt paths behind the town, we crossed a stream, giant cacti and women walking their donkeys and cattle home. A gorge, cut out by flooding waters during the wet season became our route as we made our way to waving fields of golden wheat and sorghum outside the community. Small-hold farmers were gathering the grain and many had their oxen out, stamping it down, separating out the chaff. Men with hand-hewn pitchforks made of tree branches lifted the wheat into the air repeatedly. Flying every which way, the grain slowly was being separated. Mike, a laughing, hearty soul, grabbed a pitchfork and joined them. Ethan got into the fray and snapped a million photos.

Mike is setting up a network system for the college, which will be one of the first in Ethiopia. He’s dedicated and has met many challenges along the way, such as getting budgets approved and equipment ordered, but it’s all coming together. It will be up and running by the time he leaves next year, and he’s hoping to come back on a consulting basis to help them out in the future. “Ethiopia is like Canada was in the mid-1990s. Everybody pooh-poohed the Internet then and look what happened. They have the same attitude about networks here right now, but it will explode in the next few years,” he told me. When his posting is over in a few months, he plans to come back as a consultant. “I want to be here on the ground floor when Ethiopia takes off.”

Working in Woldia

From Dessie, we drove about two hours north to Woldia, a little town with a fairly new college. We thought it was a brick works when we first drove through the gates there was so much construction going on. Shelagh Hubbard and David Kidd were waiting for us in a little corrugated metal building. Shelagh has been there a little over a year, running the English Language Improvement Center, (aka the ELIC program). The room was full of cheerful diagrams, colourful charts, desks and a couple of computers. Shelagh has started a debating club, a girl’s club and a drama and reading club and also advises teachers and other campus staff on any English questions.”Today we’re going to debate whether it is better to live in a village or a town,” she explained. I sat in with the young men who were preparing, and keen to discuss their point of view. “What do you think? Who is right?” they asked me. “It depends on who is more persuasive,” I told them.

Shelagh motioned to two students peeking curiously through the door.

Shelagh and myself in Woldia.

Listening in on preparations for the Great Debate.

“Come meet my girls,” she said with a big smile. Two young women shyly came into the room. “What do you talk about in the club?” I asked. Shelagh explained they pick different subjects each week and she directs the conversation. The upcoming discussion was going to be on what age to get married. I asked the girls their opinion and they both agreed 20 was a good age.

David was newly arrived and will be taking over from Shelagh when she leaves at the end of the year. “I really want to make sure all Shelagh’s work is sustained and that what she’s created can be continued into the future,” he said. David, from the north of England originally, explained he had volunteered with VSO in Eritrea for four years, but since VSO wasn’t sending volunteers there any more due to security, he had decided to go to Ethiopia, next door.

On the road in northern Ethiopia

Driving north from Addis, farmland and mountains stretched for eons...

We’re currently on a road trip in northern Ethiopia that will last 10 days. First stop was two hours north of Addis in Debre Behar, where we met two volunteers at the local teaching college. Maeve Keenan’s specialty is advising teacher trainers on learning programs for students with special needs. They practice in a local primary school, which accommodates children who are blind, physically disabled and mentally challenged. It was a Sunday, so we couldn’t see Maeve in action with her students, but we took a quick tour of the campus after delivering heaters to Maeve, and another freshly arrived volunteer from the UK, Fatima Jussab “It gets below freezing here in the evening, last night it was –5 C,” Maeve told us, shivering. I interviewed Maeve and Fatima about their experiences over breakfast at a restaurant called Eva’s, owned by a famous female Ethiopian runner. They had crepes with jam and I had delicious scrambled eggs and a macchiato, a sort of Ethiopian cappuccino.

Dessie was next, which we got to around 6 pm that night. Freezing! I had to put on my fleece and windbreaker jacket. Mahlet, who is accompanying us from the Addis VSO office, donned her toque. We met Raffi Matutino, an IT volunteer from the Philippines and Joe Abell, an English Language Improvement Center (ELIC) volunteer from the UK for dinner at a small café downtown. The guys all had lamb tibbs (cubed meat fried with onions) and I had vegetable soup – just not feeling that hungry. We stayed in a pension that night, a sort of 2-story motel, which luckily had double blankets. Breakfast was in a funny café with a slightly Roman feel, white columns and a mermaid statue. I went for a scrambled egg with berbere (blended chili spice) sauce and onions while the others had special foul which was eggs, beans, onions, spicy tomato sauce and some yogurt on top. Our driver Tamrat gave me a taste and it was delicious.

We met Raffi and Joe at their house and loaded a spare mattress in the truck that they wanted moved to campus. At Dessie Teachers Education College, I interviewed the dean about the school’s commitment to VSO, and then spoke to Raffi and Joe separately about their roles. Raffi, who had a 1-year placement, was told he’d have to wait five months before IT equipment he needed would arrive. In the meantime he was filling his time by giving some of the teachers basic computer training. “I just want to be of some use,” he told me, adding that he planned to look around at other colleges to see if he could help them out while he awaited his equipment delivery. Joe wasn’t sure what his role was yet. Having taught English in Cameroon for two years, he expected to have the same job here, but that wasn’t the case. The ELIC advisors I met before created guidebooks and manuals for teacher trainers to use, encouraging students to be creative and come up with engaging, active learning plans. Perhaps this is what Joe will end up doing as well.

Bethlehem’s Crusade for HIV+ Women

Bethlehem Ashebir is one of the most courageous women I have ever met.

Negem Lela Ken New's program director, Bayessa Erena, Maureen and co-founder Bethlehem Ashebir.

Modern and stylish, the Addis Ababa-based founder and director of Negem Lela Ken New (Tomorrow is Another Day) is a 39-year-old powerhouse clad in a tailored pantsuit and stilettos. She is also HIV positive and an inspiring role model for Ethiopian women who suffer severe ostracism from husbands, friends, family and employers when they disclose their status.

Of Ethiopian’s 85 million people, 1 million have HIV/AIDS. The number is likely much higher since many people refuse to be tested, or disclose their status. Going by the conservative numbers, that’s 1 in 85 people with the virus.

Although education about transmission is available throughout the country, it is not widespread and the disease is usually looked upon as a death sentence. When women are tested and found to be positive, husbands often divorce them in a fit of fear and outrage (many refusing to be tested themselves). Cast out from their families and communities, these women often become sex workers to survive…or worse, they commit suicide.

Bethlehem’s story is different. When her partner got a job offer in another country, they decided to go together. Acceptance into the country was based on HIV testing and Bethlehem’s test came up positive. She was shocked and despondent, not even knowing where she had contracted the disease. Her partner stood by her. She got medical treatment, they married and produced a beautiful, virus-free son named Binyam who is now nine years old. Determined to help not only herself, but also other women in her Addis community, she founded Negem Lela Ken New with four other HIV+ friends.

What Bethlehem and her co-founders have achieved so far is heartening. In Ethiopia 60 per cent of HIV/AIDS sufferers are women and the organization helps the most vulnerable of these – sexual workers, house servants, factory workers, street children and orphans. Their training centre offers students the opportunity for economic empowerment – more than 1,000 women have learned weaving, spinning, sewing and hair dressing skills. When they graduate they receive 2500 birr in seed money to start up their own businesses, and in the case of seamstresses, a sewing machine is also awarded.

Another aspect of the organization’s work is home care. More than 200 volunteers in three regions of the country help beneficiaries maintain their medical treatments, take them to their appointments, help fight off depression, give advice on eating properly and provide friendship.

There’s a Canadian connection, too. The Stephen Lewis Foundation is a big supporter and funded a film about the organization called Best Practices in Its Five Years that Bethlehem uses to attract new donors.

Negem Lela Ken New is a small organization that has made big changes in many women’s lives. Taking one small step at a time, Bethlehem Ashebir and her colleagues are replacing despair with hope and encouraging Ethiopian women with the virus to live positively and be dynamic members of their communities.


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.


Report From Harar

A blonde woman in a white lab coat lifts an x-ray up to the window and six similarly clad young people gather round. Below them on a small iron bed lies a motionless child. Doctor Joanna Laycock is on her morning rounds at Hiwot Fana Specialized Hospital in Harar, surrounded by her students. “What are the signs of viral pneumonia?,” she asks. A student points to a clouded area of the x-ray. “And bacterial? What about tuberculosis?” An answer is murmured as Laycock nods and flicks away a fly.

The 31-year-old, British-born volunteer is six weeks into her one-year placement at the hospital’s pediatric ward. “This is completely eye-opening for me. I’m seeing things I’d never see had home,” she says. The most common cases are rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and malnutrition. There have been two fatal cases of tetanus since she arrived — something unheard of in the western world where vaccines have all but eradicated the bacterial illness.

My teammates (photographer Ethan Baron, and Catherine Beach, CUSO-VSO recruitment) and I have been on the road for the last few days, visiting volunteers in various placements in the east of the country. After speaking with Laycock, we meet up with Susan Davies-Jones in the medical school building adjacent to the hospital. From Northern Ireland, the 31-year-old midwife has a placement as an instructor. This morning she’s excited. “My furniture has arrived,” she says triumphantly as a desk and computer are loaded into her office. Although her project is to take students into communities and assess health needs and apply her knowledge to practices such as breast feeding, she hasn’t been able to get started yet. “I’ve spent the past month sharing offices and sitting in the hall.” A big smile spreads across her face. “Now I have a home base. It feels fantastic.”



•  Ethiopia was never colonized, but Italy occupied the country during WWII

•  Pizza and pasta are on just about every menu

•  An Ethiopian red wine that isn’t too bad is Gouder, costs around 60 birr for 750 ml (around $4 US)

•  Restaurants have 2 prices – local and Ferengi.


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.



Ethiopia Today!

Just a quick note to let everyone know my CUSO-VSO posting begins today! I head to Ethiopia tonight and will get there on the 16th. Long flights and longer wait at Heathrow. Oh well. My itinerary includes visiting the Bisrat Development and Aid Organization, Hiwot Ethiopia, WeSMECO and Dawn of Hope in Addis Ababa. Later in the month we go to Dessie (400 km from Addis) to the College of Teachers Education, to Woldia (120 km from Dessie), and to Alamata (130 km from Woldia. We’ll also go to the Maychew Technical College in the Tigray Region. Below is a shot we took at CUSO-VSO headquarters in Ottawa after our training session. At the time I didn’t know where I was going to be posted, hence the ? in my hands. Now I know and I’m pretty excited. Will post once I get there!