Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Postcripts: good news and bad news.

We have had good news and bad news following on from our time in Ethiopia. The good news is the setting up and initiation of the partnership between Wollega University and the University of Utrecht. Already the first four undergraduates from Wollega, two boys and two girls are in Holland and we hear they are settling in well. We played a small part in helping to get this partnership going, giving advice to both the Ethiopian as well as the Dutch parties to the agreement.

The bad news is that a much hoped-for arrangement for a colleague of ours at Wollega to get a PhD place at Leiden University in Holland has fallen through for the strangest of reasons. Emilie's elder sister works in the administration in the Psychology Dept at Leiden University, Emilie's alma mater. She heard that that department was sponsoring a number of Africans to do PhDs, in their own countries but supervised from Leiden and with an annual visit there. She told Emilie about this and Emilie asked around among the Psychology lecturers at Wollega, most of whom we knew quite well as they came under the Education Faculty as did we. One, who seemed to us the keenest and most worthy, expressed great interest and Emilie contacted Leiden about him to ask if he could be considered for one of their scholarships. The answer was a provisional 'yes', but they wanted him to help them with some research they were conducting worldwide on mother-child relationships in different cultures. He was asked to survey three tribes in the west of Ethiopia and was given expenses money for the purpose. When we left Ethiopia and were in Leiden, Emilie went to see the relevant professor to promote the case of our colleague and was told that they were inviting him to Holland to present his results and discuss the PhD place. We were in Holland for Christmas but couldn't stay on until he arrived at the end of January. We did, however, hunt for a resident Ethiopian PhD student and invited him and his wife for dinner in order to ask them to look after our former colleague when he came. They were a lovely couple and promised to do so. Emilie worried herself to death making sure that all the arrangements were in place, that he had booked his flights, that he had a visa from the Dutch Embassy, that the university had booked accommodation for him in Leiden etc and when he arrived we phoned him from Spain to his hotel. It was early in the week he was there and he said he had spoken to the professor about his research but that there were some problems that had to be resolved later in the week. We phoned later in the week and heard that he had been sent packing by the university and would not be considered for a PhD. The garbled story we got from him was that he had had a research assistant who was supposed to have conducted the interviews but that he had not done so and had made up the answers. Our friend therefore implied that it wasn’t really his fault. Emilie emailed the Leiden professor and she confirmed that he had not carried out the research, had falsified the results, was guilty of academic fraud and that his superiors in Wollega would be informed. She told us not to feel responsible as it was in no way our fault as we had sponsored him in good faith. As you can imagine, we were horrified. He had seemed the loveliest of people, a hard-working, responsible man who, besides his academic duties, voluntarily came to classes Emilie ran for lecturers to improve their English and we knew him quite well. How could he have been so naive and/or stupid? We feel terrible towards Leiden University which paid for all his expenses, flight, accommodation etc all for nothing. We feel deceived ourselves, too. Is it due to a personality defect of this person or is it because he comes from a culture where dishonesty and corruption are deep-seated? How will he rationalise it back in Nekemte? Will he just blame his research assistant (if there really was one)? Even if he had used a research assistant, wouldn’t he have checked the work done before handing it in? Did he just take the money for the research and think he could get away with not even going at all to the regions he was supposed to cover? It all reminds me of what I wrote in my newsletter of February, 2010: “There is a fear of corruption. Indeed, it is assumed that everyone who can be, is corrupt. They tell us frankly: ¨We Ethiopians will always cheat or use deceit if we can, it’s the way we think¨ “. I went on to say that I didn’t believe this was true as we encountered much disinterested honesty, but we have been shaken by this recent event.

Friday, 3 February 2012

October 20th 2009

I never finished the saga of the passports.  We were due to set off to London from Málaga on Friday, 11th September.  Our passports, which we had had to send to London for them to get us Ethiopian entry visas, had been sent off by VSO to the courier company on the previous Monday with “next day delivery guaranteed”.  I looked at the tracking number on the company website and noticed that on Tuesday it still said “Heathrow hub”.  Throughout Tuesday and Wednesday I was phoning VSO and the courier company in London and still was told that they were “looking into it”;  always comforting words, aren´t they?  By Thursday morning, VSO was telling me that they were looking into alternative flights for us, which would have meant us missing the London-Addis flight, on which all our VSO colleagues were heading out, and arriving late the in-country training course as well as missing Rebecca, who was flying into London from Dubai on the Friday to see us for the day.  We were determined that this would not happen, so I asked the courier company in London to give us the phone number of their Spanish counterpart, which turned out to be DHL.  We’d booked a taxi to leave Estepona at 8.30 am the next day to get us to the airport in good time.  The DHL office finally informed us that our passports had been sent to Alicante to the address where another volunteer was having her passport sent.  They insisted that they had only one address for all the passports, though the girl at VSO similarly insisted that they had been in separate packets with separate addresses, which I am inclined to believe as the London courier’s website did give our correct address.  Anyway, DHL said they could not get the passports to us, even at the airport to pick up there, before 12 o’clock on Friday, with our flight leaving at 11.30!  We were now desperate and it was 5 pm on Thursday with disaster looming.  I toyed with driving to Alicante myself through the night (it’s at least a 5-hour drive) or of hiring a taxi from Alicante to bring them (which would cost a fortune), but finally I sprinted down to a courier company in Estepona which takes my boxes of exam papers to Cambridge after every exam session.  They said they could get the package to us by 8.30 am the next morning when their vans arrived at the Estepona office if their man in Alicante could make it to the DHL office by 5.30 this afternoon, within a few minutes.  Almost saved, but fearing the man would not get there in time or that the van would be late the next morning.  So, at 8.20 am with the taxi waiting outside we were at the Nacex office, biting our fingernails as if anticipating our exam results.  The van arrived on the dot and they began the long process of off-loading and identifying boxes and packages of all shapes and sizes.  Finally, (why did it have to be the last one?), the boss gave us a small envelope and we shrieked with relief and elation, thanked him profusely and leapt into the taxi.  The moral of this tale:  think globally, act locally.

There was another drama in that last week which we had not wanted to talk about at the time.  On the Tuesday, Emilie went to the doctor a little concerned by a lump on her collar bone.  The doctor, saying that as a long-time friend he wanted to be even more cautious than usual and knowing that we were going to a place where getting skilled medical attention (or any) would be difficult, recommended its immediate removal.  He personally phoned the surgeon in Marbella to arrange it (something a doctor in Spain wouldn’t normally do) and the surgeon phoned back to say he would fit Emilie in the next day.  So, she had the trauma and physical after-effects of that to cope with as well as that of our impending trip and the passport saga.  Emilie didn´t feel up to going to a farewell dinner friends had arranged for us, but insisted that Richard went.  We only got the emailed result, another medical favour, saying that it was benign once we’d arrived in Addis.  Luckily, too, there was a medical volunteer who could take out the stitches at the in-country training there.

That all seems a very long time ago now.  It’s typical of expats to moan about the lacks and hardships of their overseas lives and to make fun of the places they have chosen to go and live in and I’ve indulged in a bit of that, but let’s talk about the many positive features of our life here.  We went for a long walk on our first sunny Sunday morning (it poured in the afternoon, but I wasn’t going to be negative!) and ended up visiting an Ethiopian Orthodox church.  This is a form of Christianity, older than any in Europe, dating back to the 4th century.  There was a wedding in progress and the celebrants were just leaving the church, the bride and groom dressed in white robes with crowns on their heads.  Many others were dressed in the traditional white robes, too, and there were drums and singing as they milled around the couple who were then seated on thrones, chairs covered with multicoloured cloths.  To their right sat four young women all dressed alike in white embroidery-decorated robes and to their left sat four men similarly attired.  We were standing at a respectful distance taking photos when a man approached us to say that the couple had asked if we could participate in their wedding by sitting next to them on the “best men’s” bench.  Emilie was given a white shawl to wrap around her.  Food was being served to be eaten plate in hand and we felt obliged to participate in that, too.  A crowd of beggars gathered nearby were fed the same as the guests, obviously a tradition at these events.  Can you imagine anything similar in your countries?

We attended a service another Sunday at the Roman Catholic church in Nekemte.  The region has a new bishop whom we had read about in the Dutch press before coming.  You can imagine how the word ‘Nekemte’ jumped out of the paper at us.  The new bishop is Dutch and originally comes from a town near Leiden, where we were at the time.  We though we would have a chat with him at the church, but he wasn’t there that day.  It was interesting to us to see how the service, though entirely familiar in its structure and rituals (though not a believer of any kind, I have attended many services over the years out of obligation or curiosity), had adapted to the African context, with the choir using drums, and swaying and singing in a purely Ethiopian way.  Also, the sexes were segregated, men on one side, women on the other.  A woman from the congregation declaimed for several minutes at one point with an amazingly powerful, bewitching voice;  we would love to have been able to understand what she was saying.  Generally speaking, there does seem to be a high degree of religious tolerance in this country, though there was news that there had been a punch-up between Protestants and Orthodox believers elsewhere in the country recently; it would have had more significance, I think, if it had been between Christians and Muslims as there must be some risk of the encroachment of the fundamentalist, intolerant Islamic beliefs common in the neighbouring Sudan and Somalia.  I suspect that the Protestant-Orthodox rivalry will be the main one in the near future as the latter seem to be losing adherents to the former.  Here in Nekemte we have mosques and Christian churches of every stripe, with the Evangelical Protestants becoming a major force.  Muslims have time off work on Fridays for their celebrations and Sundays are a parade of well-dressed Christians, bibles in hand, going back and forth to their various rituals, all of which involve a great deal of singing and chanting.  The main Muslim festivals of Aid el Adha and Aid el Fitr are also national holidays for all, just as Christmas and Easter are.  Muslim girls at the university do cover their heads and wear full-length garb, but it’s rare to see anyone with her face covered and the degree to which the head is covered, whether fully or only flimsily, and the clothes cling or not varies.  I’ve read that overt Islamic forms of dress are increasing in the country, but we must hope it’s not to the detriment of the tolerance between religious groups.

Men and women, boys and girls, mingle quite freely here, notwithstanding what I said about segregation in the Catholic church, and the youngsters certainly copy western styles in their dress, if not entirely in their behaviour.  In general, people of all ages are curious, courteous and ready to smile and speak to us.  Girls certainly care about their appearance and their straightened hair or elaborate braided styles testify to many hours spent in front of a mirror.  There are many very attractive people and I haven’t seen a bad set of teeth yet, or hardly a fat person.  Maybe there’s a health advantage to having less than the West, up to a point.  Both teenage girls and boys favour jeans and T-shirts of worldwide provenance.  The slogans they bear give the names of towns and regions in the West (“Saffron Walden Bee Keepers’ Association”,  “Sol’s Bar Mitzvah”) that make us think there must be a market for clothes donated or sold from there.  This is not at all to say that they are scruffy;  except for the obviously extremely poor, everyone takes great care with his or her appearance.  Older men often wear suits and ties while women totter around the uneven stony streets in skirts and high-heels with the agility of mountain goats, though women carrying huge bundles of firewood or charcoal go barefooted.  There must be quite a lot of sex going on judging by the high birthrate and the condom packets often to be found lying on the road sides.  We’ve heard that some groups of university students share the rental on a house in town where they can have their assignations. The main brands of condoms, Sensation and Trust, are widely advertised and available.  At least someone is listening to the anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns in a country that has suffered considerably.

(I’m very much aware of the danger of facile, hasty opinions about a strange country.  It is said that after a week you can write a book, after a year an article and after that you don’t know what to say as things have become too complicated!)

Another lovely feature of Nekemte is the countryside and the views of it that we get from our hilltop perch, up at 2,000 metres.  At this time of the year, after months of rain, there is greenery everywhere and some effort is made to grow gardens and even to trim neat hedges in the most unpromising of locations such as the forecourt of a petrol station. Amid the mud bath or the dust bowl of the university campus, a little garden has been created with a heart shape picked out in different coloured flowers. 

There is wildlife, or not so wild, everywhere, a town obviously offering rich pickings.  Apart from the domesticated cows and goats that wander around, there are packs of wild dogs that mostly sleep during the day but take over the streets at night, howling and fighting as well as presenting a threat to humans who dare to be out.  We had a couple, perhaps in the marital sense too, of black and white colobus monkeys jumping on the noisy tin roof of our house recently.  There is a variety of multicoloured birds, including little red or blue ones which seem to be of the same breed and which sip delicately from the puddles on the streets and don’t seem to worry about being trodden on.  Others are humming bird like, with long beaks for getting the nectar out of trumpet-like blooms on a tree in our yard.  Another one has an enormous long, heavy tail which you would think would unbalance it.  We saw what we took to be its mating dance.  What we assumed to be the female, which lacks the tail, sat insouciantly on an electrical wire while the male, with his heavy tail, had to use all his energy flapping like mad to stay in front of her to try to make an impression and demonstrate his virility.  The things we males have to do to win our females over. Vultures and hideous black birds with beaks curved like Arab daggers hover threateningly over the university, though I don’t know what that is telling us about the state of decay and potential for death.  One thing it tells us is that we’re not far from wild nature.

This is not the area that produces the great Ethiopian runners, but along all the flat road sides there are ping pong tables and boys, never girls, play fiercely and enthusiastically, if not expertly.  These are rented out by adjoining bars or shops.  On the same Sunday morning that we went to the Catholic church we found the athletics track, an earthen one, with a well-attended meeting in progress.  As one might expect, the standard of the long-distance running seemed quite high.  There must be a martial arts club somewhere in town, too, as we saw an exhibition in the town hall soon after we had arrived.  I’ve not seen anyone jogging yet and I don’t think I would dare to be the first.  Our attempts to introduce beach tennis, to a country that hasn’t even got a beach, got off to a good start the other day as another volunteer, Frits, and I started playing on a patch of grass and soon a crowd gathered to see the weird foreigners and their bizarre sport.  We offered to let some play and soon everyone wanted a go.  We’ll have to bring more bats and balls next time.  Maybe it should be an Olympic sport.

It’s heartening to see how education is valued.  There is a poster in town that reads: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance!”  Mind you, it is just outside a private, fee-paying college which has an interest in the matter.  There are several well-attended private primary and secondary schools charging about 100 birr (5 UK pounds) a month which offer better facilities than the state schools and private so-called universities (what we would call further education or vocational colleges) teaching courses such as Food Handling, Nursing, Hotel Management, Accounting, IT and so on.  Equipment is terribly lacking (the university hasn’t even got one CD player we can use for the Listening Comprehension CDs we brought with us from Spain, so almost all teaching is highly theoretical.  Even the shops here still only sell tape recorders;  the CD revolution hasn’t arrived yet.  Only the university lecturers can be seen, occasionally, carrying books; their students don’t possess any and just walk around clutching notebooks into which to copy the teachers’ notes gleaned from the book he or she may get hold of.  Most of the books in the library seem to be out of date rejects from the West.  In spite of these difficulties, education is truly seen as the route to both individual as well as national progress and there is an investment in it, again at both levels, that is wonderful to see.  My Ethiopian counterpart is the child of peasant farmers, as are most people in the country, who had already lost one child at birth.  He does not know his exact age because it used not to be recorded, though now it is.  He has a Masters degree and lectures in Psychology.  His big ambition is to get a scholarship to do a PhD.  He says that infant deaths have been drastically reduced because of the network of rural clinics, though this is causing the population boom until people realize that their newborns will survive and they do not need to have so many to ensure that some will live long enough to work and to look after them.  Curiously, Marie Stopes is a household name here, albeit spelt Marriee Stooppes or some variant in the local Oromifa language, because of the reproductive health clinics which are seen in all the towns.

Finally, I really have to commend the postal service.  Three items of mail, one a package, arrived from Holland in 6 days.  This should be an inspiration to you all to write us an old-fashioned letter; we’d probably see it more quickly than if you email us.  Snail mail takes on an opposite meaning here.

Finally, I have to admire the way decisions are spontaneously made and acted upon.  The 3,200 new students haven’t even started yet, at the end of October; they are waiting at home to be summoned.  Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education has decided that their level of English is too low so the English Department here at the university has been told to write and organize a course of 48 hours, 3 hours a week for all of them in order to raise their level.  The 15 English teachers here have just been told to get on with it.  Such a lack of foresight and imposition of extra work would be met with riots anywhere else, but the teachers obediently go away and get started.  Is such passivity a vice or a virtue?  Am I guilty of the kind of mocking tone I condemned earlier?

December 2009

Internet has arrived on campus!  There are few pens, little paper, still no CD player for Emilie to do listening activities, only out-of-date books in the library, no running water except for a couple of standpipes, donkeys, goats and cows roam about, but we have forty new computers with internet connection for staff to be able to look for scholarship opportunities to further their careers.  It worked perfectly for the first three days, but is out of action now. 

It doesn’t make much difference to our jobs one way or the other.  Richard is teaching  university lecturers a course designed by volunteers and Ethiopians at the Ministry of Education  what are known as ‘active learning methods’, classroom management, lesson planning and so on leading to a diploma which eventually all university and further education college teachers will be obliged to hold.  Besides teaching the four two-hour sessions per week to two groups totaling 37 people, unfortunately all men this year, Richard has to observe them teach and make comments, mark their obligatory assignments and train an Ethiopian counterpart.

Emilie has to run what is called the English Language Improvement Programme.  She also has to train a counterpart, this time a female, who, ostensibly, will take over when Emilie leaves.  ‘Ostensibly’ because no staff stay here long before trying to go off to do a Masters or Doctorate, which are the only ways that promotion comes about.  She runs classes for 2nd and 3rd year English language major students, for English department teachers as well as a class for teachers of other subjects.  All subjects are taught through the medium of English, but there is recognition that the standards are low.  Emilie suffers from a complete lack of resources so she has to use the ELT books we brought with us, the Guardian Weekly, to which we subscribe, and her imagination and experience.  There is no such thing as class sets of text books.  She has also organized a weekly class just for female students as they are a shy minority and need ‘consciousness raising’ as well as English improvement to give them more confidence to speak up in class.  Her latest idea is the setting up of an English Club where students can decide their own activities, such as watching and discussing films, having debates and so on.

Apart from our official VSO-designated university commitments, we also help to run an English language session on Saturday afternoons for orphans, of whom there are a lot mostly due to AIDS and the fact that people do die young here, aged 50 or so on average.  The intention is to make it fun, teaching through songs and games.  We are planning to set up a Saturday morning workshop once a month or so for primary school English teachers, to improve both their knowledge of the language as well as their methodology of teaching it.

Life for students at the university is hard and boring.  There are few activities for them to take part in at weekend and the campus is forty or fifty minutes’ walk out of town.  Even the communal ‘line taxis’ don’t go that far and you have to walk for about fifteen minutes to where they turn round to go back to town.  There is no running water in their dormitories and they have to collect water from the couple of standpipes on the campus, even sometimes washing themselves and shampooing their hair, in the case of boys, under these taps, when there is water which is not always.  Instead of the four to a room there are supposed to be, there are six or eight.  The food they are given is very poor with no fruit or vegetables and meat only once a week.  The few richer students eat out in neighbouring shacks which serve food with a little more nourishment and variety.  According to one of Richard’s students, who teaches Health and Disaster Management, there are very serious health risks on the campus because of the poor quality of the food and lack of sanitation.  Students even go to the river fifteen minutes away to wash their clothes.  The fact that it’s still a building site creates other dangers, though not from machinery of which there is little as most work is done by hand, by both men and women with no gloves or hard hats for protection.  The dangers, besides to the workers are also to the staff and students as there are cracks, crevices and holes in the ground and wires dangling everywhere. You need the agility of a mountain goat to successfully negotiate the campus.  In general it can be said that the patience and endurance of discomfort of people here is amazing to us spoilt Westerners, though for them it’s normal.  A seriously handicapped student who uses a wheelchair finds it impossible to use on this campus with its undulations and rocky terrain, so he crawls.  A female student who needed an urgent colonoscopy couldn’t afford it and a collection was made among staff and students to raise the fifty pounds, or sixty euros necessary.  That’s a lot of money here.  There were to be other collections taken up for sick staff or students as people realize that poor families otherwise could not afford the cost of treatment.

The students have no books and the books in the library, often donated by the West, are often out of date or inappropriate.  So, the students totally depend on their teachers’ lecture notes, creating a situation in which “the teachers’ notes become the students’ notes without passing through the brains of either, according to one educationalist’s view of the standard lecture method.  There is very little equipment in the laboratories so most work is purely theoretical with very little opportunity to practice.  Nursing students do, however, go to the local hospital to watch or help out.

There is an enormous programme of university building in Ethiopia with thirteen new universities, like ours, undergoing construction at the moment.  The priority has been to put up the buildings rather than build the roads or install the water supply, causing appalling dust or mud and poor hygiene.  In general, there has been a massive effort to expand education.  School attendance has gone like this:  1975: 900,000;  1986: 2,900,000;  2000: 3,900,000; 2006: 14,100,000.  Unfortunately, such is the shortage of teachers that teachers may be youngsters who have only just finished high school themselves and have received no training. There is also a big problem of female dropouts owing to the lack of toilet facilities, early marriage, child-bearing and, for boys as well, the need for labour on the farms, which occupy 85% of Ethiopian working population and which are labour-intensive with little use of machinery.   Children look after the animals, fetch water and firewood, and sell produce at the roadside, if there is a road nearby.  University teachers are generally very young and inexperienced, too, usually just having finished their Bachelors degrees.  Richard is the oldest person on the campus and Emilie the second oldest!

Religion and political activities are banned from the campus, though Richard was talking to two teachers about wealth not bringing happiness and giving as an example the problem of youth in Saudi Arabia who are drawn to religious extremism and even terrorism;  one of the teachers said it was because they were not Christians.  Another man in the street told us that he admires Britain and America because they are fighting for Christianity.  I’ll write about religion another time.  There are national elections in May next year and we have been warned that there may be political agitation here, especially as Nekemte is something of a hotbed of activity for the Oromo independence movement, which argues that the Oromo people get a bad deal, despite being numerically the majority, in an Amhara-dominated country.

January, 7th 2010

Today is the Ethiopian Christmas Day, so ‘Ayana killi gari’ to you all in the local Oromo language or ‘Mery Chiritmars’ as a local coffee bar has it.  Everything to do with dates and times is different here as Ethiopia didn´t adopt the Gregorian calendar in 1582 when the rest of the Christian world did, so it´s 7 years and 8 months behind and each year has 12 months of 30 days and one month of just 5 days or 6 in leap years!  The time is different, too, each day starting at 6 am, so when they say 7 o´clock, it´s our 1 o´clock and vice versa!  Today is a major meat-eating day for people for whom meat is a luxury.  The butchers’ shops are about the only shops open this morning and they have long queues.  Many people get together with neighbours, family or friends to buy a whole sheep or cow and have it slaughtered to share out.  Western Christmas decorations are making a timid appearance in a few shops and cafes, but, apart from that, there is no atmosphere that we would regard as typical of Christmas: no shops packed with special goodies or children´s toys, no shopping sprees, no wrapping paper for presents.  As far as we can see, no presents are given at this time.

It seems an appropriate day (7th January in our calendar) to write something about religion in Ethiopia.  To say it´s a religious country would be an understatement as people often mention it and everyone practises it, if by religious we refer to membership of organised churches.  In the country as a whole, Christians and Muslims are about evenly-balanced in numbers, though the east is predominantly Muslim and the North and West mainly Christian. In fact, Ethiopia has the second-largest Muslim minority in the world, after India. Everywhere, however, they are intermingled, though rarely intermarried.  There are also animists among the 45 different ethno-linguistic groups which live in the south.  Religion is not always coterminous with ethnic group as the largest, the Oromo, can be either Christian or Muslim.  We´ve been told that ethnicity is a far more significant rallying idea politically than religion and this is why the country is now a federation of ethno-linguistic regions. The same person also said that ethnic rivalry was Africa’s biggest problem. Historically, the  Amhara were the dominant people and their language was imposed on the other regions as and when they fell under Amhara control.  This causes resentment even now, particularly among the more numerous Oromo, who feel they don’t get their share of the power and wealth of the country.  These days children are taught in their local language until English is used in secondary school as a common, neutral language.  Amharic is still, though, for other purposes, the official national language.  The Amhara are usually Orthodox Christians, Christianity having arrived here as early as the 4th Century, subsequently being strongly influenced by Judaism. The Orthodox faith and the Amhara language were, under Haile Selassie´s feudalistic regime, seen as the official church and the national language, as the Catholic Church and Castilian Spanish language were for Franco´s Spain, all other beliefs or languages being suppressed.  I’ve heard an Oromo nationalist complain about the noise emanating from an Orthodox church, saying that it´s the Amhara flaunting their dominance!

I find it pleasing that there may be a historical link between two of my VSO stints; there has long been a mystery about how Jewish people, or at least their rituals, found their way to Ethiopia.  There is strong evidence to suggest that that there was a Jewish temple  on Elephantine Island in Aswan, Egypt (where I was a volunteer in 1973-4) which was destroyed by the Egyptians around 410 BC.  Nobody knows where the Jewish community went but one recent historian has attempted to show that they were the founders of the Falasha (Bet Israel) community who lived in the Amhara region of Ethiopia until the last of them were airlifted to Israel in 1991, having been recognised as true Jews by the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem in 1973.  (The only way I can see the faintest link to my other VSO experience is if Thor Heyerdal was correct with his ‘Ra’ theory – another religious connection as Ra was the Egyptian sun god - that the ancient Egyptians colonised South America, which he tried to prove by sailing a reed boat such as those seen on the walls of the tombs of the nobles in Luxor and which are very similar to those still sailed today on Lake Titicaca between Peru and Bolivia.  He only got as far as the Caribbean islands, thus making the slight link to my time in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 1968-9!)

The Marxist military movement that overthrew Haile Selassie in 1974 and ruled until 1991, tried to suppress religious belief, particularly that of the more proselytising Protestant denominations, and one of our university colleagues was imprisoned then for that reason, but now there is a constitutional right of religious freedom and what seems to be a live and let live tolerance prevails.  Like any ideology that people feel deeply, through childhood indoctrination or adult conviction, there is competition for converts and fear of falling numbers of adherents.  All believers think they know best and that others are benighted for not seeing the truth so I am told that churches certainly do preach a degree of hostility to other religions or denominations but religiously-motivated violence has seemed rare in recent times.  An Ethiopian Lutheran told us, however, that he was worried about the influx of Muslims into this region.  It has come about because of a government policy of relocating people from the poor, desert eastern part of the country, where survival is difficult or impossible, to here where the land is relatively fertile and rich.  He has the Macchiavelian idea that it is a plot to deflect the politically-aware Omoros from their opposition to the government and towards a minority group in their midst, in an overwhelmingly Christian area of the country.  A university lecturer told me he had been brought up to believe that a good Christian would not eat food prepared by a Muslim.  So, there are all sorts of myths and prejudices surrounding religion. An elderly man in the street told me once, after asking where I was from, that Britain and the States were fine countries because they were supporting Christians and Christianity around the world!  We live in a town, where younger people certainly do have boyfriends and girlfriends of other denominations, but between religions that would be far more difficult.  We can’t really speak for the countryside or other regions of the county.

Religion intrudes in our lives on Saturday night – Sunday morning with the haunting moaning, chanting, singing that is emitted by the Orthodox churches and continues all through the night.  Though founded so long ago, and still using an ancient liturgical language, Ge’ez, that is no longer spoken except in church services, this church has no qualms about using modern amplification equipment to spread the word and, in our case, to prevent sleep.  This noise is joined at about 6 am by the new,neighbouring Evangelical Church which advertises for custom and similarly abuses such modern equipment by blaring out religious pop music.  Though a bit early for our taste on a Sunday morning, it at least has the virtue of being jolly and boppy, whereas the preaching which follows it is downright scary, consisting of hitlerian hysterical screeching interspersed with meaningful hushed whispers and phrases repeated over and over for the awed congregation to chant back.  Finally, we get paroxysmic crescendos of shouting of ‘Alleluyha’.  The whole show lasts for about six hours by which time we´re ready to cut the cables or the preacher´s hoarse throat.  In this area, it seems to be this type of evangelical church that is most on the rise, sponsored by foreign money, largely from the USA, I would guess.

It was a great surprise to us to be in Holland in July, having accepted the placements in Nekemte, to read in the Dutch press the name that a new Catholic bishop, a Dutchman whose town of origin was right next to where we were sitting, had been appointed to Nekemte.  We now know that he has lived in Ethiopia for donkey´s years (an appropriate metaphor as Ethiopian has the world´s second largest donkey population, after China) and that he covers a huge region, not just this town.  The family who rent us the house we live in are Catholic and we went with them to the church to try to meet the bishop, but he wasn’t there that day.  It was interesting to see, though, how the liturgy has been adapted to Ethiopian culture.  The way the hymns were sung, accompanied by drumming and swaying, was pure Africa and mercifullly non- amplified.


At the university, female students whom we presume to be Muslims cover their hair with scarves and wear long dresses but only a very few wear the kind of long robes which completely disguise their female forms.  We have heard, though, that the wearing of this kind of garment is on the increase and that there is Saudi and other Arab money going into the propagation of their version of Islam, more rigid than that traditionally practised in Ethiopia.

Belief in a deity is apparently universal and the only incomprehensible phenomenon is non-belief.  I’ve learnt over the years never to get into debates about my own beliefs so when I´m asked what my religion is I always answer that it´s a private matter which I don´t discuss.  One of my university colleagues, who lectures in economic development and who loves serious conversation told me that he believed that God had made all creatures exactly as they are now, that Man did coexist with the dinosaurs and that Darwin’s theory of evolution must be wrong because it defies the laws of thermodynamics.  I´m afraid I couldn’t follow his argument, so maybe he´s got a point!

Emilie tells me I sound too pedantic so here´s some more personal news.  On our December 25th we had to work, but got off a bit early and met up with the other two VSO volunteers who are here, a Peace Corps volunteer and another Brit and two Swedish girls who are doing voluntary work for a few months at a school for deaf children.  Sebastian had arrived in Addis the previous week where I was attending a conference and Emilie was looking for books for her department at the university, which has none, as well as having a medical check-up.  He came back to Nekemte with us and stayed for Christmas.  He was our gamesmaster that evening and we created our own spirit of the season, though it didn´t feel like the real thing at all.  We did, however, have mince pies, which Sebastian had brought with him!  He was asked at short notice to give a talk to a group of university students and 50 or so showed up and he did a good job, telling them about his life so far and the work he´s doing.  He also came along to our Saturday class for orphans and led one of the games he knows.  It wasn´t very touristy for him but he certainly saw a side of Ethiopian that the average tourist wouldn’t.

We’re getting along fine with our work, though there are constant frustrations and, shall we say, cultural misunderstandings.  I’ve had a bad knee which has been bothering me and the lack of any specialist attention in this town is a bit of a concern, but I will have to see how it goes to see if a trip to Addis is necessary. 

We wish you all well for the New Year and thank you very much for the Christmas cards some of you sent;  you can´t imagine how much they are appreciated.  Do please write if you have the time either by post:  PO Box 328, Nekemte, Ethiopia or by email.  We hope to hear from you.

Late January-early February, 2010

We’ve been away travelling for a few days during an inter-semester break at the university.  We came to Addis on the public bus which is always an interesting experience.  You have to get to the bus station before 6 am when the gates are opened to allow the huge throng of expectant travellers to burst through, with screams and shouts, in search of tickets and seats.  No mercy or quarter are given; it’s every man and woman for himself.  All the courtesies of which the Ethiopians are justifiably proud (“It’s our culture”, they say) are foregone where transport is concerned.  There are ticket salesmen who shout out destinations and write you a ticket.  If you are a foreigner they ask “Where are you go?” and point you in the direction of the buses concerned.  This apparent chaos in the dark is disconcerting to those not in the know.  If you are the last ones onto a bus you get the worst seats on the bench at the back which goes the width of the bus.  I actually envy sardines in a tin, except that they’re dead.  Six of you have to squeeze your bums together so tightly that you all have to stand up together to get free.  Only Emilie or I could lean back on the back rest at a time while the other one leaned forward as there wasn’t room for us both to do so.  A departure time of 6 does not mean the bus leaves at 6 as it will wait to fill up and if it has to leave before being full will pick up people who flag it down along the way.  While the bus is waiting, traders take advantage of their captive market to sell nuts, chewing gum, biscuits, pineapples, coffee beans and other items essential for a long trip, beggars get on to seek monetary consolation for their woes and preachers may appear waving bibles or charging to kiss a cross they carry to guarantee our safe arrival.  The bus exhibits a sign which reads: “ Arrive alive-wear a seatbelt”, even though there is not a seatbelt to be seen.  Perhaps kissing the cross makes them redundant.

When the bus eventually goes, the joys of blaring Ethiopian pop music are provided over the rattling speaker system to entertain the travellers.  The buses hoot their powerful horns almost constantly, usually not in time to the music, to scatter the donkeys, children, cattle and any other road user in the way.  The poorer Ethiopian public’s capacity for discomfort and ability to contort would astound Houdini.  The bus may only make a pee stop every three or more hours when mostly only men get off and stand in a line at the side of the road peeing into a field; what the women do, I have no idea but they don’t usually get off to disappear behind trees on these occasions.  There is also a phobia about opening the windows of the bus.  Is it fear of catching cold or of ruffling their hair?  If we ask to open a window there are murmurs of complaint and, after a discreet period, someone will close it again.  Meanwhile, the day gets hotter; the heat, smell and squeeze of bodies is something I haven’t known since playing in a rugby scrum at school.   When the bus stops for lunch in a town, there is the same rush of salesmen, usually pushy children, and beggars, who await the arrival of every bus.   We arrive at the bus station in Addis, sweaty, cramped and exhausted after anything from eight to ten hours only to have to start all over again, contorting ourselves into collective taxis to get from one extreme of the town to the other. 

After a shower and a night in a hotel, we got the new luxury Sky Bus (“German technology-Chinese price” it announced, referring to the bus not the tickets) to Dire Dawa in the east of the country.  These buses are air-conditioned with reservable seats but unfortunately, as yet, only serve a few cities. Even though it was a posh bus, its posh loo was out of action and there were only two pee stops on the 9 hour journey so crossed legs or Buddhist mind over matter control were required.  Dire Dawa, now Ethiopia’s second largest city, is beautifully laid-out with tree-lined avenues radiating out from the now disused railway station which was the town’s original ‘raison d’etre’, an appropriate expression as it was built by the French.   The town was founded in 1902 to service the Franco-Ethiopian railway which ran from Addis to Djibouti.  The tracks still do, but the trains don’t.  The town’s importance got a major boost from the Eritrean-Ethiopian conflict and border closure which left Djibouti as Ethiopia’s only access to the sea.  Why the railway has fallen into disuse is a mystery, but it is supposed to be undergoing repairs, though we didn’t see any evidence of that.  As in all frontier areas, smuggling is rife and I can imagine that the smugglers talk of their Djib-booty.   On our return to Addis, the bus was stopped for police searches and a Snickers bar, an imported luxury, disappeared from my bag while it was on the bus and we were off it, presumably confiscated pending further investigation.

Down in the Rift Valley, Dire Dawa is fiercely hot and that, along with the herds of camels, which we haven’t seen anywhere else, and the arid, sandy landscape, made it seem more part of the Middle East.  The vast market, in the Muslim area described in the guidebook as being more ‘organic’, with colourfully dressed Oromo and Afar women doing all the work, had the flavour of an Arab ‘souq’, though in the Arab world it’s usually the men manning the stalls. 

After one night there, we climbed the Rift Valley wall’s serpentine road in a collective taxi driven by a lunatic who drove with one hand and who thought it would entertain us to overtake lorries going into blind bends.  His mate, the door operator and money collector, an essential feature of collective taxis, chewed ‘chat’, a narcotic leaf, ripping the leaves off from the branch like an animal in the zoo, as an Ethiopian who talked to us put it, probably to deaden the panic that any normal, undrugged, person would feel travelling with that driver.  We were, after all, heading for the ‘chat’ capital of the world, Harar, from where it is exported all over the Middle East and, we were told even to Europe to comfort Horn of Africa émigrés.  I had really looked forward to visiting the ancient walled city of Harar, considered by many Muslims to be the fourth holiest city of Islam, after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.  My romantic image of it had been inspired by reading of the travels of Sir Richard Burton who became the first non-Muslim to get inside the walls, albeit disguised as an Arab, in 1855.  The town was only absorbed into the Ethiopian empire, by conquest, in 1887, Haile Selassie’s father being appointed Governor.  Though the old town has 90 mosques, the main square is dominated by an Orthodox church and there is a lovely, hidden, stone-built Roman Catholic church with its own boarding school in a clean, neat, tranquil compound (too many adjectives are proof of bad writing!).  The town has been recognized for its religious tolerance by UNESCO and a plaque commemorating that is set into the arch over the main gate.  I was disappointed with the town, though, as it was dreadfully seedy and rundown with the shocking sight of men lining almost every street totally bombed on ‘chat’ and those who were still conscious daring to stick out their hands at the sight of us foreigners to beg, while their womenfolk bustled around buying and selling in the markets and generally leading a useful, if poor, life.  We were disgusted and incredulous to be told that there were no campaigns against this vice, neither from the government, nor from the churches because, it is cynically believed, they all do it too and benefit financially from the trade in the product.  So, these men spend their probably short lives in a stupour, not only being incapable of work of any kind, but also living off everyone else.

We stayed in a dilapidated old government hotel which had a certain down-at-heel charm where you could imagine famous writers and travellers staying in its heyday, with waiters and waitresses who had been around to see them still wearing the same fraying uniforms.  They were friendly and helpful enough.  The one concession to modernity was a big screen in the lounge showing satellite sports TV enabling us to catch a bit of the men’s Australian Open tennis final and the Arsenal-Man U premiership football match whilst drinking Harar’s own excellent beer.

We headed back to Addis and got another public bus to Awassa to the south, again down in the Rift Valley.  This town was laid out 50 years ago, next to a huge lake of the same name, in grid fashion and is so spread out that walking is truly hard work and the threewheeler ‘bajaj’ taxis, based on motorbikes made in India, are driven by lads who see dollar signs when a foreigner flags them down and ask what, for us, are absurd fares. Though lacking any character or old town centre, we found a crumbling oldish hotel next to the lake with an abundance of bird and monkey life in the trees and at the water’s edge.  A monkey jumped onto our table, grabbed a bag of old bread that Emilie was going to use to feed the birds and joyfully scampered up a tree to enjoy his loot.  Was it the same monkey who approached our table the next day, was shooed away by Emilie and who ran up the tree over our heads and peeed and pooped on her?

Now we’re back in Addis for Emilie to attend a workshop relating to her work and I’m using the VSO office to plan a workshop for when we get back to Nekemte, a trip which will enable us once again to savour the joys of public bus travel.

February, 2010

What does it mean for a country to be poor in modern times?  The title of a novel by the Nigerian writer Achebe captures it: ¨Things Fall Apart¨. Systems and supplies do not reliably meet people´s needs or expectations.  The grip on basic modernity is tenuous. To give you an idea, here we may have electricity for a while, and/or water, sometimes internet, the scheduled university bus for teachers sometimes doesn’t show up with no explanation or warning, we go for our macchiato coffee but they can´t give it to us because there is no water, or no electricity, or no milk.  A really bad day is when none of these is available. I came home from work today wanting a shower and was delighted that we had electricity, but there was no water.  Last Monday we invited the other two VSOs for dinner and to play cards.  There was no electricity so we couldn’t cook on our one electric ring.  Luckily, we have a little backup kerosene stove and were able to put some food on the table and eat and play by candlelight.  Internet may fail because there is a fault somewhere in the internet provision chain or simply because there is no electricity.  

There is an obvious lack of technicians, and the botched, careless way most jobs are done, be it painting, installing sockets, putting up a blackboard, even the non-technological hanging out of washing on a line, makes you either laugh or cry, but the motor mechanics must be superb, judging by the age of many of the vehicles still apparently reliably plying the roads.  Harar, where we were recently, must be the Peugeot 404 capital of the world and they were 30 or 40-year-old models.  I must also add that the capital is a different story, in some respects; I was given a thoroughly efficient MRI scan on my knee, even though it cost our medical insurance the equivalent of my month’s salary.  We asked the President of the university what his priority would be if he were Prime Minister of the country and he had no hesitation in replying that it would be ‘infrastructure’.  More things may be available these days, particularly in towns, but their supply is provisional and they will often run out before being replaced, processed foodstuffs, beer (which is serious) and soft drinks being examples. Of course, in their present form these are all modern phenomena and depend on technology, but other types of systems fail for different, more human, reasons.

There is a fear of corruption.  Indeed, it is assumed that everyone who can be, is corrupt.  They tell us frankly:  ¨We Ethiopians will always cheat or use deceit if we can, it´s the way we think¨.   This is a gross exaggeration, of course, as there is a high degree of honesty in personal dealings, as there is almost everywhere.  What they are referring to is where institutions, which are seen as fair game, are involved.  So, systems have been put in place to discourage this type of corruption, but the effect is to stymie action and impede the achievement of the goals of the organisation.  To give a couple of examples, we have computers with internet in the library, only for use by the staff.  They are not attached to printers and to prevent viruses (i.e. corruption) no flash drives or CDs may be used to copy documents.  Thus, nothing from internet can be downloaded and copied for use in the class, surely one of the objects of giving teachers access to internet. To prevent corruption a system is established which prevents useful action.  A second case is that of money.  There is a budget with detailed descriptions of what the money can be spent on.  Anyone wishing to spend money for their department from the budget for their department must obtain three estimates from three different establishments for the item, but it must be exactly the same item, same make, same model.  Many products are unique and are not sold in more than one shop so, either you go without, or the shop has three different stamps to feign being different shops to stamp your official forms.  So, again, the system either invites the corruption it is designed to prevent, or prevents the action it is designed to foster.

The result of all this is a fatalism about what can be achieved and how.  Talent is wasted  and good people become disenchanted time-servers who lose the ambition to make things happen.  When plans are made for meetings or classes, everyone knows it might not happen because of some system breakdown, so meetings are held spontaneously without prior arrangement to ensure that it does happen, thus spoiling the plans of many of those who attend who may have been expected to teach a class or fulfil some other commitment.  This is a bugbear of my work as teachers are forever missing my methodology classes because they had a spontaneous meeting.  Often their students aren´t informed, either, and are standing waiting to be taught, not knowing why their teacher hasn´t shown up.

We read a report on Ethiopia before we came here that said that Ethiopia is poor, but at least it is equally poor.  This is obviously not completely true and we were sent a report by a Spanish newspaper that quoted the Spanish Prime Minister, Zapatero, as being surprised, while visiting Addis Ababa, at how modern things were.  The report went on to say that he only saw the tiny island of recent wealth that is surrounded by the ancient sea of poverty.  University teachers can not only not aspire to luxuries such as cars, but can´t even be sure of more mundane needs.  The head of Amharic only gets water in her house twice a week, but the last month not at all.  My counterpart hasn´t got electricity in his new house yet, after several months.  Other systems fail them.  They both taught summer school for two months last summer during their official holiday and signed for extra pay.  The university has reneged on the amount of pay they signed for and has not yet even paid them anything. 

We take the reliability of systems for granted and are greatly put out when there is a failure (¨leaves on the line¨), but here the reverse is true and that attitude is a deterrent to entrepreneurship or ambition.  How can you run a modern business, manufacturing for export, say, if you can´t count on a reliable electricity supply or internet for contact with suppliers or customers, or water, an ingredient in your production process?  This is what underdevelopment means.

This has affected us considerable recently as we have been writing materials for various workshops we are putting together.  One is for English teachers in the ten local primary schools which we are running on Saturday mornings, team teaching the sessions with our two VSO colleagues who work at the Teacher Training College in Nekemte. I am running the teaching methodology side of it and Emilie the English language improvement. We started it last week and were delighted at the attendance of 40 teachers and the enthusiasm with which they received it.  I even took my guitar and got them to sing a children´s song to use in class.  We have also offered to run similar courses for third-year English major undergraduates, who will be teachers themselves next year, and those university teachers who have never done a pedagogy course.  All this has involved hours of material writing on the computer and endless annoyance that the electricity has been going on and off for variable periods of time.  It is heartening to read, and certainly makes us feel that what we are doing has some value, that ¨History has shown there is no investment more important as a determinant of personal access to an improving quality of life than education.¨ (page 195 in ‘Key Issues in Development’ Damien Kingsbury et.al.)

At least the supply of traditional products is not affected by anything I have said.  Women still struggle into town with firewood or sacks of charcoal on their backs and the same few fruits, vegetables and coffee beans find their way into the markets.  There doesn’t seem to be any danger of plastic shoes from China running out, in the metaphorical sense, either.  Cows and goats still roam around guaranteeing the supply of meat to those who eat it.  And the postal system still brings us occasional parcels of goodies that would never otherwise appear here, allowing us briefly and delightedly to escape from our dependence on what the national supply chains bring to our door.

March 30th, 2010

One of our greatest joys here is to sit on the little terrace in front of our house drinking tea or coffee and reading.  We live in a bungalow built in more modern style, of concrete, on what they call a compound as we share the enclosed land, which has a corrugated fence and gate on the street side to give it great privacy, with another building.  The other building is built in a more traditional way of ‘adobe’ (mud and straw) and is just a single-storey row of five rooms with the corrugated metal roof that all buildings have.  The building runs along the side of our house, around which we have a drainage channel as we are low, with steps and a sloping grassy, garden area leading down to our front door.  In the first room lives Emebet who acts in some respects as our landlady as she speaks English reasonably well, having studied Law at a private “university”.  Her boyfriend, Fikadu, is a lecturer at that university and usually stays over on Saturday nights.  Next along comes a tallish erect young woman who dresses smartly in a skirt and jacket to go to work during the week.  She works as a secretary or something similar.  The next room is occupied by Selamawit a plumpish, jolly-faced young woman who is from Baku and who studies electrical engineering at one of the private colleges in town.  She likes to dress somewhat outlandishly or, for special occasions, in traditional outfits.  Both she and the tall lady go off to the Orthodox Church on Sundays and festivals groomed and wearing the traditional ´shamma´ shawl.  Emebet is nominally Roman Catholic, though her boyfriend is Protestant.  In the next room lives Emebet´s mother with a 3-year-old boy called Lombi, one of her other daughter´s children who has been farmed out as she´s busy with the other five, and Bontu a 7-year-old girl orphan, who may or may not be from some branch of the family, and finally there is a store room where the nightguard, Yadissa, sleeps.  He’s a young man who studies Law in one of the private colleges so we can communicate with him to some extent in English. He´s a very soft, sweet man who always wants to help and we gladly use him to go to the bus station and grab seats for us at 6 am and to stop the bus nearer our house for us to jump aboard.  It sounds colonial, but is commonly done here and we pay him extra for his troubles.

We´ve been really lazy about learning any local languages, by the way, as English is the language of the university and, although Oromifa is the local language in these parts, there are many who live and work here who don´t speak it and only speak the more national language, Amharic.  So, this presents a dilemma about which to learn.  We do know a few greetings and expressions in Oromifa, but little more.   English is so widely understood that, though we could not engage in a discussion about the finer points of quantum mechanics with them, we can manage to buy vegetables perfectly well from the ladies in the market.

We sit watching the cock strut about imperiously and the hen clucks after her two remaining chicks, the other eight having survived only a few days and died one way or another.  It´s not surprising their life was brief as Lombi would grossly mishandle them and anyone could step on them as they twittered around. One got its head trapped under a wire fence and Emebet´s mother shook it about and blew on it to revive it which, unsurprisingly, did not work.  The remaining members of the family wander in and out of the rooms proprietorially if the doors are open.  Occasional ‘wild’ dogs wander in and out of our compound.  They seem to know how to open the gate, provided it´s not locked with a key, which is a bit more tricky for them.  The main one recently has been a mother who must have had pups not too long ago, judging by the size of her teats, but has been attacked and has a flesh wound on one of her hind legs.  It´s healing well, though.  I say wild dogs, but they’re not wild in the sense of attacking people only in the sense that no one owns them and they live in the street where they feed themselves quite well to judge by their reasonable appearance and the plentiful bones of various other animals strewn around the streets.  They don´t pay much attention to people being far too engrossed in their own battles and amorous escapades.  They’re quiet in the day and whole families can be seen sleeping in a huddle, but are cacophonous at night when they rule the roost, so to speak.

Humans have their interest, too, and we can sit and watch, as well as smell, the cooking procedures that are conducted in the various doorways over charcoal.  Sometimes the smoke is overpowering and drives us away, though the worst smoke of all comes from the neighbours on a separate compound next door.  We don´t know what on earth they cook, or burn, but when they do we have to close the shutters on that side of the house.  When they roast coffee beans, the smell is delicious and gets our mouths watering.   Lombi and Bontu play around, though they´ve been well-trained not to bother us or come to close unless invited.  They have no manufactured toys and have to be very creative with bottle tops, scraps of paper, cast off bits of chalk which they use to play at teacher and student, flowers which they break off and make a mini flower shop on a cloth on the ground.  In the absence of television, they are at play all day and never seem bored.  Lombi is a singer and never stops singing scraps of the songs we have taught them at the orphans´ classes:  ‘This is the Way’ and ‘Old MacDonald had a Farm’. ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ and ‘He´s got the Whole World’ obviously didn´t make the same impact.  We speak to them in English and Bontu understands a lot, though Lombi just says ‘Yes’ to whatever we ask, except ‘How are you?’ to which he perfectly replies I’m fine, thanks.  ‘Goodbye, see you later’  comes very easily to both of them when we leave.  Hair is a constant source of activity and we see the various tasks associated with it, the washing, the brushing, the combing into elaborate styles, and that´s just Lombi.   We don´t even know for sure where our neighbours go to the toilet, though there are a couple of out-houses, one of which we do know is used for cooking ‘injera’, the round, flat bread-like substance that accompanies all meals.  It´s a rubbery, light-brown-greyish substance which has been likened to carpet liner.  There’s also a well which they throw half a tyre inner tube on the end of a long rope into, though usually they just use the tap on the side wall of our house.  The garden at the back is quite extensive, with coffee plants among other trees from which they get the odd foodstuff.  Emebet has talked of getting a cow, which the neighbouring house has, to supply various needs.  That would give us another animal to watch, though we already see plenty roaming the streets.  Though valuable creatures, they very often seem to be unattended as well as being intelligent enough to know where to go.  Lombi and I are the only permanent males here in a very female-orientated little world.  The public, outdoor world, is very much more dominated by males who gather in groups at the shoe-shining posts or just hang around, apparently idly.

Both male and female circumcision are common in Ethiopia.  Emilie saw Lombi looking upset in his grandma’s arms one day and was shown that his little willy had been done.  She made some suggestions, not from experience of this particular event, about how the wound should be treated and a few days later was shown that all was well.  The female variety is rightly known as female genital mutilation, being very different than the harmless male version, and seems to have been performed on an estimated 75% of the female population of Ethiopia.  It’s a fallacy to think it is uniquely a Muslim religious ritual and, in fact, the main focus of the activity here is among the Orthodox Christian northern regions.  We worry about Bontu, especially when we saw her all dressed up being taken off to some unspecified event the other day, and hope that the practice is less common in the cities. There certainly is opposition to FGM and we visited a primary school in Addis that had a woman teacher who was a real campaigner even to the extent of visiting families who planned to perform the ritual on their daughters, if she got to hear of it, to dissuade them.  She didn’t mind telling us that it had been done to her.  One of the dangers, as she saw it, was that a husband would seek his pleasures elsewhere if he had an unresponsive wife.

Changing the subject completely, at work, we have run two workshops on methodology for young teachers who have had no previous pedagogical training.  One was Friday-Saturday, the other Monday-Tuesday for a day and a half each.  The idea was to show them how to be practical in their teaching, using ‘active learning methods’ to encourage their students to think and not just copy the teacher’s lectured notes.  The turnout was poor as each was supposed to have 40 participants when, in fact, only 22 showed up to the first one and 16 to the second.  It must be said that it was all organised in great haste with very little notice and the teachers had to hurriedly rearrange classes in order to attend.  They are surprised by this new approach to teaching and tend to make excuses for why it will not work with the large classes that they have to teach and with the lack of resources at their disposal.  We tried to show them how many of the methods could work, explaining that we have visited many classes in progress and are fully aware of the difficulties.  We got further insight into some of the problems faced by anyone trying to achieve anything here with people who are supposed to be professionals showing up late, up to half an hour sometimes, or missing odd sessions with lame excuses.  Many, though, were seriously interested and resolved to try out our suggestions as well as being pleasant people to chat to.  Each workshop ended with a one-course lunch at a local restaurant paid for by the university.  This kind of thing, as well as the certificate of attendance, are major incentives to get people to go to such events. 

Over lunch the first time, I had a friendly argument with a lecturer from the Journalism department about the problems of Africa, which he instantly blamed on colonialism and outside interference.  When I cited Mugabe of Zimbabwe as a prime example of bad government, he denied that he was a dictator and that he had run his country into the ground, saying that I was getting biased information and that Mugabe was doing his best in the face of a hostile world otherwise why would other African leaders support him?  He also found it most offensive, and it surprised me that he would know this detail, that Gordon Brown had refused to attend a Europe-Africa summit meeting in Lisbon because Mugabe was there.  There are others who hold what we would regard as a distorted world view.  For example, it is widely believed that HIV/AIDS was created in a laboratory in the USA in order to decimate the black population of the world.  They find offensive to Africans the idea that it came from African apes and jumped the divide to humans.  This chap I was chatting to was keen to tell me that the BBC cannot be trusted to tell the truth after a recent report has been greeted with denials by many involved.  It concerns the famine in the 1980s which took place when the Marxist dictatorship governing Ethiopia had been driven out of the northern region of Tigray by rebel forces who did eventually succeed, in alliance with other regional groups, in overthrowing that cruel regime and who now form the government of the country.  A BBC investigation found that aid money that was brought in by the major aid agencies to buy as many supplies as possible locally had been diverted by the rebels to buying armaments.  This would clearly discredit the government ahead of the national elections in May this year.  This made us suspicious when we first heard about the report, which smacked of opposition groups trying to besmirch the government.  Bob Geldof and other aid workers were paraded on Ethiopian state-controlled TV to deny the truth of the BBC report and this has now blackened the name of Britain´s most successful and trusted export, even though, as I pointed out to the fellow, the fact that famous people deny an event is no guarantee that they are right.  The BBC is very widely followed among the educated in Ethiopia and the world news channel is available in any hotel with Western pretensions, in preference to rivals such as CNN, Fox or Sky, which I have rarely seen here.  Many university types have a satellite dish at home and tell me they watch the BBC;  ‘Hardtalk’ seems to be a particular favourite

Book-buying spree -  April 13th, 2010

We´ve just had a successful week, though for you it might seem strange that we should feel that way because all we did was buy 400 books.  Emilie is tasked with creating an entity called the English Language Improvement Centre to raise the standard of English in the university.  There was a budget for this from a World Bank grant which also pays our allowances and supports my work in teacher training.  The problem has been spending that money.  The lack of books, even in Addis’s bookshops, and the bureaucratic procedures designed to prevent misappropriation of funds had so far prevented Emilie from buying any but a handful on two previous trips to Addis, when she had gone with a university ‘purchaser’, who seems to be tasked with blocking any possible use of the money, which the university seems to prefer to hand back to the World Bank unspent.  The legal requirement is that the purchaser obtains three estimates from three different establishments for each item in order to buy whichever is the cheaper.  The problem with books is that they are unique and sold at fixed prices so that, even if the same book is available in three bookshops, it will be in branches of the same shop and have the same price.  Also, all the universities are setting up their ELICs at the same time and whoever gets to the bookshop first will clear it out of the required books which are imported and take ages to replace.  Finally, the books to be bought have to be listed by title, author and publisher here in Nekemte, a list which is stamped and signed by all concerned, before the trip is made to Addis where only those listed may be bought, even if they are not available but equivalents are.

Emilie had protested to the President of the university about the inflexibility of the purchasing process and asked that she be allowed to make yet another trip with authority to buy any suitable books.  We had not expected that this request would meet with any success but last Monday we were told to go to Addis on Tuesday in a university pick-up truck with driver and a cheque for 26,000 birr, over a thousand pounds.  I went too because I needed to get a few books for my programme.  It was all very fortunate timing because we had to get Hepatitis B booster jabs, which would have required a trip to Addis in any case.  Everyone comments that such power would never have been granted to an Ethiopian teacher because we foreigners are trusted and accorded knowledge and skills that they lack.  Our age may also be a factor as we are almost regarded as senior statesmen, being by far the oldest people on the campus.  We certainly didn´t waste the opportunity and spent every single penny.  (When I first heard we were going to be paid in birr I misheard and thought it was beer and looked forward to the 2,000 a month I would receive.)

The bookselling business here gives an insight into the state of the country.  By far the biggest chain of bookshops, called Mega Books, which even has a tiny shop here in Nekemte, is owned by Azeb Mesfin, the wife of the Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi.  There is a Mega business empire with printing, publishing, real estate and various other money-making activities.  We are told, though it sounds impossible to believe, that it is not taxed and can always, therefore, undercut competitors.  We visited five different branches of Mega Books in Addis.  This was worth the effort because one branch had books which were out of stock in others, though in general, they all carry the same stock.  The main rival is called  Bookworld.  What is interesting is that the Mega bookshops are scruffy, poorly-lit and badly laid-out, but are the only ones selling an enormous number of books written by Western authors, printed in cheap editions, under the Western publishers’ banners (Cambridge and Oxford University Presses, Longman Pearson etc.).  The MacMillan, Bookworld and Books for All People bookshops only stock books directly imported from the West at three or four times the price of those offered by Mega.  Of course, it was a godsend to us to be able to buy so many books so cheaply, though there were a few in the other shops worth paying the extra for, but it made us wonder what kind of monopoly deal Ms Mesfin has cut with hubby.

This is almost certainly the best government Ethiopia has ever had, which is not saying much, and most people have never had it so good, but to call it a democracy would be to strain the meaning of the word to the limit.   There are elections next month but the victory of the ruling party is a foregone conclusion.  Membership of the ruling party is a requirement for advancement in public employment  and, in many cases, for getting business permits or loans.  Though freedom of the press is guaranteed in the constitution, the independent press is regarded as a mouthpiece for the political opposition, its journalists are frequently imprisoned and they are not invited to government press conferences.  The government is protected from accountability and criticism because the press is not only prevented from obtaining information from the government but is punished if it publishes whatever it can find out.  The Prime Minister has been in office for more than 20 years and, typical of Africa, seems unlikely to relinquish his hold on office voluntarily.  After the last elections in 2005, in which an opposition party won all the Addis Abeba seats, opposition leaders were imprisoned, including a man we know who spent 20 months in jail accused of treason and who was sentenced to 18 years of hard labour although he is in his 60s.  International pressure got him released but it didn´t help the woman who leads the opposition coalition, who was released and then immediately re-arrested and who is still in prison.  It seems that the opposition has been cowed and will not pose a serious threat this time around.  We have been warned by VSO to stay away from polling stations and not, under any circumstances to take photos anywhere near them.  This is probably in case we are thought to be foreign election observers, who have been denied entry into the country this time after they condemned the last elections for their irregularities.

Despite all the many failings, there is a great deal of optimism in the country and the government is spending money on education, health, roads, water and energy supplies, industry, agriculture and telecommunications, including internet, which are bringing improvements in the quality of life for the great majority of people.  We get a distorted perspective as we live in a town, in which posh new buildings are going up, and only see the parts of the country alongside the main roads.  The worst poverty and where improvements are hardest to bring about are in the deep countryside and the arid areas of the peripheries where 10 million people are still dependent on food aid.  Though there is still a long way to go, even there schools, which both boys and girls are attending in ever greater numbers, and clinics are being built.  Civil unrest could jeopardise this and it is most people’s worst fear;  real democracy can wait.

People – 16th May, 2010

Asfaw Keno, with his receding hair, round, smiley face and easy laugh is always ready to see humour and cracks up at the slightest provocation. He told me he had been brought up by a family of small farmers, as are 80% or more of Ethiopia’s people, and that he had gone to a Catholic school and been given financial assistance by a nun running the school as he was a promising child.  He explained how farm productivity declined catastrophically at the time of the Marxist-oriented military regime, the Derg, which had overthrown the Emperor Haile Selassie. Communist ideals were applied to the land, meaning that no one had the incentive to work any harder than anyone else as the benefits were all going to be shared anyway. They went bankrupt. He tells how, as he has advanced in his career, he has helped his parents, and neighbours as well (which seems to be an obligation here), by buying them cows so that they have been able to recover the standard of living they previously had.  He was imprisoned for a month during the Derg regime for his outspoken religiosity.  He has a voracious appetite for knowledge and, besides the courses in Pedagogy and Development he teaches at the university, also gives classes at a private college in return for studying there to be a Medical Officer.  With others he also supports some poor orphaned youngsters and when he tried to get a micro-loan to enable them to start a small business, it was denied because they were not members of the ruling party, which was the first item on the checklist of qualifications.  This sounds outrageous, though he did point out that there was a certain logic to it from the point of view of the lending agency; since these boys had no collateral, membership of the party would enable the agency to have a certain hold over them in the event of non-payment.  Asfaw is scathing about the way the country is currently run with membership of the party, not talent, being the determinant for promotions, as the university itself epitomizes with its promotion to Vice Presidents of two young men with no administrative experience at all who are only recently-arrived lecturers.  He prides himself on his outspokenness and says that it rubs some colleagues and superiors up the wrong way and makes him unpopular.  When Sebastian came to visit, Asfaw was most anxious to meet him for a chat and immediately set up a gathering of students for Sebastian to talk to, showing his desire for knowledge of and contact with the outside world.  He’s a person who probably really would benefit from a period of study in the West.   He’s religiously fundamentalist by Western standards, though, firmly believing in Creationism and that Man roamed the Earth at the same time as the dinosaurs.  Typically, he uses intellectual arguments to support his beliefs, saying that the Second Law of Thermodynamics categorically refutes the theory of evolution.  An interesting man, he is always a pleasure to chat to.  He is separated from his wife but has one of his three children living with him.

Lelisa Chalo is Dean of the Faculty of Education and could be mistaken for an Idi Amin-style African dictator, being unusually bulky by local standards, with his milky right eye lending him a scary appearance.  He is much given to bluster and temper, which add to the scariness, as you never know in what sort of mood you´re going to find him. He´s our Line Manager, so we have to have daily dealings with him but they are usually harmonious, particularly as he´s got to know us better.  In the early days, I was ill and I had asked him what I should be doing and he had said to just go away and prepare.  So, feeling ill anyway, I stayed at home to do some preparation.  He phoned because he had needed me for something but hadn't been able to find me at work, and he gave me a lecture about 'this is against our work culture, you must be here every day etc.' The next day when I went in I told him that I was 60, had worked all my life and that there had been a misunderstanding.  He showed me a folder on the table in front of his desk in which there was an attendance sheet signed by members of his department.  He told me he could make me sign it too as a kind of threat.  He never has, though, and I have seen enough examples of local ‘work culture’ especially my counterpart, Melkamu’s  habitual absence, as well as that of most other university teachers, to know that Lelisa must have been kidding himself or me.  Another example occurred when the Dean of Students, Ketema, asked me if a group of students could use my HDP room for an HIV/AIDS workshop.  I was not using it and agreed.  He promised that the room would be returned to me as it had been found.  The next morning, I discovered that most of the tables had been put outside into the corridor as they weren’t needed for the workshop which was in progress.  When Lelisa saw it he blew a fit, saying that the tables were my responsibility and that if any were lost I would have to pay for them.  I pointed out that Ketema had asked me and that it seemed a reasonable request.  He said it was good to share and maximise the use of facilities but that things could easily disappear.  He should know because when I was setting up the room and starting my classes I told him that I did not have enough tables and he went off and brought three tables himself one by one, joking that he was a ‘thief’!  If things are not in always locked rooms or nailed to the floor, they walk away here.  We always have to lock our rooms when we leave them. People always warn you not to lend books, for example, as you won’t get them back. Twelve books seem to have vanished from the tiny library of my little department between the last volunteer leaving in June and my arriving in September.  Ketema, when I told him what Lelisa had said, told me not to worry as that was just the way Lelisa was; his bark was worse than his bite.  Another example was when Emilie was trying to discuss the budget and how to spend it with him and he said ‘you are annoying me’.  Emilie was upset about that and of a mind to walk out, not only of the room but of Nekemte and Ethiopia.  I asked to speak to him and the next day was able to tell him that in our culture you can’t say that to a person as it was very rude.  He later apologised to Emilie saying that it was just a language misunderstanding.  He and other senior staff are humble in their ways, though, as when he took us with Ketema for lunch to the nick-named ‘Darfur’ restaurant, which is a shack mainly used by building workers and is, to our eyes, a squalid slum!  His main goal for the year has been to see internet installed on campus and his joy was boundless when it was and he could show us ‘our’ computer, password protected.  Ketema, by the way, has a great sense of humour and once told us that the problem on the campus was not sexually-transmitted diseases STDs), but STGs, sexually-transmitted grades, in allusion to the number of affairs he imagines or knows there to be between staff and students.  Lelisa did invite us to his home for a meal one afternoon, out of the blue, however, though, in typical fashion, there was no forewarning and we´d only just had an early lunch at the university!

The President of the University, Fekadu, known as the Professor, is a lively, bright-eyed man who oozes intelligence. We bumped into him by chance in Addis where we were attending a workshop once and he immediately asked how we were getting back to Nekemete.  When we said by public bus he made a face to express the disagreeableness of such an experience and offered us a lift in his car, giving us the opportunity to chat for 6 hours or so.  When he was a young lecturer at Awasa University he got a Norwegian scholarship  to study for a PhD in Oslo. His field is agriculture (sic).  He also had a year in the States as a visiting  lecturer.  He is obviously very proud of what has been achieved by the building of the university at Nekemte and stopped at the campus on that trip to show us excitedly how it was developing, even though it was a Sunday, we were keen to get home as soon as possible, and he had a university event shortly after and was dressed in suit and tie ready for it.  He took us to the far side of the campus to where buildings were still skeletons to give us an impression of how big it was going to be.  He told us that just four years previously it had been nothing but farmland.  On the way, he had pointed out vast acreages of land that had been fenced off and were destined to be become farmland and industrial estates for use by the Chinese, in one case, Indians and Pakistanis in others, presumably by leasehold.  We had heard that Arab states and China were buying land in Africa to give themselves food security and here it was in practice. I have read that China is beginning to invest in actual manufacturing industries in Ethiopia which will serve to create skills as a basis for Ethiopia's own industrial development.  He also told us a story about the early days of the university when he had had a crisis on his hands.  All the main religious denominations used to hold church/mosque services on the campus in a competitive kind of way: if you can, so can we or, we've got more adherents than you have, or something of the sort.  Fekadu decided to ban all organised religious activity on the campus, but the Muslims refused to obey, saying it was their constitutional right to practice their religion.  Obviously, the argument concerned the right to believe versus the right to hold gatherings that might annoy or provoke conflict.  He gave them a deadline by when they should stop holding gatherings or be expelled from the university, saying that the statutes of the university gave him that power.  Indeed, it came to that and the ring leaders had to be arrested by the police and cool their heels in a cell.  Eventually, some local Muslim leaders came to the President and begged for them to be forgiven for their youthful impetuousness and stubbornness.  Since then, no religious or political activity has been allowed on campus. He is a member of the ruling party, the ERPDF, and is standing as a candidate in the national elections this month. He is the person to see if you want to get anything done quickly in the university and we, as foreigners, seem to have privileged access and have been able to achieve what other members of staff thought was impossible by exploiting it, in particular to be given university money in our hands to go to Addis to buy books. Typically, he lives physically separated from his wife, who lectures at Awasa University, and children.

Dawit, a man of very youthful appearance who speaks excellent English, was the director of the Lutheran Theological College here in Nekemte, though he left recently because his Swedish wife had problems with her pregnancy and returned to her country.  He met her when she came as a missionary.  He gave us a lift in his church-owned four-wheel drive car to Addis.  He subsequently told us that she had lost the twins she had been expecting, which would have been their first children.  Apparently, Sweden has the largest Lutheran congregation in the world followed by Ethiopia with, he says, over 4 million adherents.  He seems such a dynamic, modern, rational young man, so we were very surprised when he said that his church was growing fast because of the popularity of and demand for its healings and exorcisms.  Religion seems to be a good career, especially if you work for a foreign-supported denomination.  It includes the possibility of foreign study and a car, the two most-prized perks in the country.  Dawit studied in Norway, though he had to work as a fast-food restaurant cook to support himself.  His mother is still Ethiopian Orthodox, with the characteristic facial tattoos that bear witness to the fact.

Kifle is the husband of an Anglo-American woman, Carmela, and they are the parents of Gideon, who was at Atlantic College with Sebastian, which is how we know them.  She came out to Addis 35 years ago as part of her paediatrics degree from King´s College, London.  She asked an Ethiopian female colleague if she could meet some local men and Kifle was the woman´s brother. She went back to do her houseman year and then came to marry him in 1974 as Haile Selassie was being overthrown and the Derg military regime installed.  There was a curfew, which somewhat spoiled the party.  He is a small, slim, bright-faced, quiet, unassuming man who is obviously from a patrician, elite family.  On the wall in their house is a photograph of a man with the beard and appearance of an Orthodox priest in an elaborate gilt-encrusted jacket who Kifle said was his grandfather and who had been a minister at the palace of the Emperor.  He told us this by way of explanation for an old man all wrapped in the traditional white garb with a hefty stick and bottle-bottom glasses whom we had seen standing outside the house.  The man had been Kifle´s estate manager on land they had owned in Harar.  He was now 90 years old and had come to stay.  Haile Selassie had been Governor of Harar, a post he had inherited from his father who had been given it by the previous king when he had seized the area from the Muslim Emir in 1887, before he took the throne and had given Kifle´s grandfather the land.  This had then been nationalised and taken away from the family by the Marxist  regime.  Kifle said that he wouldn´t have minded the land being nationalised if it had gone on to be of benefit to the poor, which was the professed reason for its sequestration, but, he said, revolutions are just one elite replacing another with no benefit ever accruing to the poor in whose name the revolution takes place.  He is understandably cynical about politics as we shall see.
Carmela’s family background is not very usual, either.  She is of Jewish parents, one from Germany, who escaped in 1936 to Israel, the other from Russia.  Somehow she got British and US nationality and lived and studied in both places.  In Addis, she set up a charity for poor twins 25 years ago and still oversees it as well as working for USAID.
Kifle was telling us that the standard of education used to be very high, obviously only for those few who could receive it, and he went to a state school which had a British English teacher as well as Indian, Canadian and teachers of other nationalities.  He went to university in Addis to study public administration but was kicked out because he was the editor of the students´ newspaper and it had been critical of the Emperor´s government, a tradition of not tolerating criticism that continues to this day when journalists are still imprisoned and newspapers closed down for criticising the government, even though the constitution now clearly allows freedom of speech.  He got a scholarship to attend a Catholic university in California to finish his degree and was there for three and a half years.  He made it clear that he hadn't had a scholarship for all that length of time and had done all manner of menial jobs to survive and do his Masters degree.   Ethiopians are very hardy, adaptable people, and, as Kifle said in relation to being in prison, it´s amazing how quickly one gets used to changed circumstances. 
I don´t know yet how he made a living on his return, but his family now has a construction business and he is obviously well off.  He and Carmela said they had thought of flying to Doha to a tennis tournament!  He drove us around the development where they now live, which his company is building.  They are big villas which could be in the south of Spain.  It surprised us that there were so many people with the sort of money you need to buy these properties.  He said they were business or professional people.  The houses are usually accompanied by a four-wheel drive car as well.  What a far cry from Nekemte, but that is what so often happens in Africa;  most of the wealth is concentrated in the capital.  I've read in the Marcus 'History of Ethiopia' book how Haile Selassie wanted to modernise the city and that all the first schools, hospitals, university and other institutions catering to the elite were built in Addis and only in Addis.  The 'fat cats' all want to be in the capital to live out the Western life style, a phenomenon common to most of Africa where the gulf between what the capital city offers and the rest of the country, including regional capitals, is enormous.  Even we, after so little time here, can recognise the Addis types at the university in Nekemte.  Students don´t choose where or what to study;  they are sent by the Ministry of Education.  In part, it is a policy of mixing up the different nationalities and religions that comprise Ethiopia to bind them into one national identity.
Kifle told us that he had always been active in politics and was one of the leaders of the biggest opposition party at the time of the 2005 elections and had played a part in forging the coalition of parties to take on the ruling party.  The coalition won all the seats in Addis but the governing party did not recognise or accept the result and opposition leaders were arrested, Kifle with them, tried on charges of attempting to overthrow the legitimate order, and, in Kifle´s case, sentenced to 17 years with hard labour.  How this could happen to such a quiet, thoughtful, intelligent man in his 60s is beyond belief, of a Westerner anyway.  He said there is no independent judiciary and that the judges just have to do as they are told if they value their jobs.  There was an international outcry and pressure from abroad meant that he spent 'only' 20 months in jail.  He was lucky, as he admitted, to have family and staff to bring food and items to make him comfortable.  Carmela said that they used to take him fruit juice laced with vodka in the evening to make the comfort even greater.  I asked Kifle what the policy of his party had been and he said that it stood for the free market, freedom of speech, in reality not just on paper, and to change the basis of the federal organisation of the country from one of ethnicity, which he sees as highly divisive, to one of a blend of geography, ethno-linguistic and other criteria.  He said that 60% of Ethiopian doctors live and practice abroad.  It’s one of the great curses of Africa that its talented, qualified people either flee to the West, whether for money, freedom or both, or, if they stay, have to keep their heads down and never participate as fully in civil society as they should to create the pluralism normal in the West.

Family.  Emebet, who lives on our compound is a Catholic but has a Protestant boyfriend so, in the towns at least, that may not be a problem.  She is even able to spend the night with him, with her mother´s knowledge, here on the compound.  There seem to be three types of marriage:  religious, civil or common law with the signing of some sort of agreement.  In the countryside girls get abducted, raped and virtually forced into marriage, often very young.  Town life is very different with people marrying later and having fewer children as they get touched by modernity.  University students, mostly of rural origins, speak of having 8, 9 or 10 brothers and sisters.  Just as we have Bontu on our compound, whose family origins we are not sure of but who is an orphan, other families take in orphans.  A man of means we know, Tesfaye, who owns two private schools, has seven orphaned children living with him. Their parents have died of AIDS, or in civil strife that took place some time ago in the west of the country.  They are always immaculately turned out and well-behaved.  Middle-class people don´t seem to marry young.  One of my colleagues, Dereje, is in his early thirties, had a fiancee, but fell out with her because, he says, she was too materialistic for his taste, always demanding he give her things, and has no one else on the horizon.  To me, he looks like a real catch, but meeting educated women of the same religion and, preferably, the same ethno-linguistic background, is difficult.  People like him these days have moved away from their families and home areas and are not subject to the same pressures to marry, have children, nor to have these matters arranged for them.  Also living with Emebet’s elderly mother is Lombi, one of Emebet´s sister´s children.  The sister has farmed her out to her mother because she feels she can´t look after him as she has five other children and ‘to give her mother company’.  Couples are also very used to spending long periods of time apart.  The President of the university has his wife and children living in Awasa, two days´journey away.  Emilie´s counterpart, Bedani, is newly-married and her husband is doing a Theology post graduate degree in Holland for two years.  The head of a primary school we visited has four children but her husband is doing a post graduate degree in Jimma, a day´s trip away.  Halima, a Muslim teacher at the university went away to study for an MA taking her smallest daughter with her leaving her husband with the three other children in Nekemte.  The head of the Amharic department, Maeza, has a husband who is a secondary school teacher.  When he bought a motorbike, he was constantly teased with ‘Did your wife buy it for you?’ in reference to her higher paying job.  He´s a brave man as it’s not easy in this male-dominated society, to have to put up with those sorts of jibes.  The government is doing a lot to promote women’s equality, however, and there is positive discrimination in favour of females for university entrance.  Girls at the university are often shockingly shy and reluctant to speak up in discussions, but the course I am teaching emphasises that the university teachers should encourage girls in all aspects of their education and they tell me that they do.  Emilie gives classes in English just for girls to help them feel more self-confident when they have to speak English in their normal classes. When we have visited people´s homes here, there are various family members around and it´s hard to know who anyone is, especially as they are not usually introduced in the formal way we would. We were invited for lunch by Halima at her house with some other university teachers and she didn’t even point out which man of those present was her husband. We sometimes ask, but are still not always clear what all the relationships are or who is living in the same house or who is just visiting!  People have strong family obligations and the eldest brother or sister is expected to provide financially for the younger ones.  One young teacher at the university was angry that he had supported a younger sister through her education, but she had got married and opted out of her turn to help those next in line.  He felt that he would have been able to get married if he had not been having to pay out to his family.  It does not seem to be considered a matter of shame to ask for this type of assistance; it is just expected as of right.

Elections – May 25th, 2010

As I sit at home writing this, on a public holiday when we are ostensibly celebrating the downfall of the vile Mengistu dictatorship in 1991 and its replacement by a supposed democracy, the rain is thundering down on our tin roof making it impossible to speak and difficult even to think.  We are in the period of the ‘short rains’, which means that there are short breaks between the torrential outbursts.  There´s a leak in our roof and we have to put a bucket under it, but, although we run the risk of getting soaked indoors, we´ve been lucky not to be caught in it outdoors, so far.  Someone emailed the other day to say that she was watching a BBC programme about the source of the Nile and I replied to say that the source of the Nile was falling on our heads.  Emilie, meanwhile, is sitting with me at the table sewing curtains for the university so that she can darken her room there to show films.

It has been an interesting week.  Last Sunday were the national elections, the fourth since the event we are commemorating today occurred.  We had been told to stay at home all day by VSO in case there were disturbances, as there had been at the time of the last elections in 2005 when 200 people were killed.  We had the other two VSOs around for a 9-hour lunch, beer and cards marathon.  The bosses phoned us from VSO HQ to ask if we were alright and whether we had heard of or seen any trouble.  Fortunately, it was a peaceful day all over the country; which is not to say that these were wonderfully democratic elections.  We have befriended the European Union election observers who are based here in Nekemte and we found them an interpreter, our ´landlady´ Emebet, at a rate of pay beyond the dreams of the average Ethiopian.   Though they are not allowed to discuss with anyone their findings here, they have passed on to us copies of the news reports from around the world, including from the Ethiopian English language press, as well as the preliminary report of the observers’ team, published last Tuesday. Prior to the elections, we had also been able to read the Human Rights Watch report on the electoral process on internet, so we have kept ourselves quite well informed.   What is clear is that there has been a completely ‘uneven playing field’ (to quote the EU report) which has not allowed the opposition parties to mount a serious campaign.  So, the problem has not so much been what happened on election day as what happened or was allowed to happen in the build up to it.  People who support the opposition were not allowed to register to vote in some cases, or opposition leaders were harassed or arrested.  People were threatened with the loss of their government jobs, or houses, or subsidies, or access to education or seeds or fertilizers or micro-credits or business licences ….. if they did not vote for the ruling party.  Government resources, such as buildings and vehicles as well as employees’ time, were used to campaign for the EPRDF, the governing coalition.  Of course, government ministers said that these were just isolated incidences of over-zealous local party officials, but it is difficult not to see a pattern to it, that of a centralized authoritarian desire to obliterate the opposition.  Added to these abuses were the insults heaped on opposition leaders, who were to be regarded as traitorous or desirous of undermining the steady progress of the country. The leader of the main opposition party, a 35-year-old single mother, is still in prison where she was put for ‘treason’ after the last elections. National and international campaigns to have her released, including requests from Western leaders in meetings with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, have failed.   Finally, there were the bribes.  The EPRDF must have spent a fortune, garnered from where one wonders, on plastering every town with their posters, handing out T-shirts, baseball caps, flags and even glittery watches with the yellow colour and bee motif of the ruling party on the face.  The bee isn´t a stylised cuddly affair but an aggressive beast that looks as if it will sting you to death if you try to get a share of its political honey.  People who have never had a watch in their lives are all happily sporting this trophy which will remind them every time they take an admiring glance at it to whom they owe their good fortune.

Among educated people we talk to at the university there is awareness and even embarrassment towards us about the lack of freedom and fairness in their elections, though these views are always expressed privately after a good look around to see who´s listening.  When the EU observers´ report came out, the government immediately reacted by condemning it and whipped up rent-a-mob rallies all over the country with the slogans:  ‘Respect our votes!’, ‘Stop intimidation!’, ‘Leave the politics to us!’, ‘We chose our leaders, accept the results!’, ‘The people´s vote will not be overturned by foreign forces!’  ‘Patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel.’ said a worthy gentleman some time ago and we were witnessing the actions of scoundrels who have found a convenient foreign scapegoat to detract their peoples’ attention from their own multitude of failings.  Classes, even exams, at the university were called off and staff and students alike, even some who have privately told us they are not party members, a risky business when you are in government employ, went off to parade through the town to condemn the EU and HRW documents they hadn´t read, just like those who burned Rushdie´s Satanic Verses, which had been conveniently and of course unbiasedly summarised for them on the radio and TV.  We were worried that things might get out of hand and that some hotheads would turn on us, but everything was peaceful.  We kept out of the way and chatted to some staff members who hadn´t gone including one who had read the HRW report online and said he agreed with it and that the state-controlled news media had completely distorted its findings. 

Despite the corrupt nature of the electoral process, the ruling party would certainly have won in any case.  The country has had several years of double-digit economic growth, everyone we talk to says that things are getting better for them: health, education, roads, water, electricity and telephone provision and all other forms of infrastructure are visibly improving, albeit from dreadfully low levels from which it´s easy to improve, and there is a stability and willingness to collaborate in Western policies of, for example, intervention in Somalia to root out islamist militias, and thus continue to attract succulent quantities of foreign aid (30% of the national budget).  Also, the opposition did not, in any case, offer a credible alternative, partly because it wasn´t allowed to and hasn´t been able to acquire the experience to, but also because its policies were not much different from those of the EPRDF, it is a coalition of small parties that could easily start squabbling among themselves even if they had the chance to form a government and because so many of its best leaders either retired from politics or fled the country after the last elections. Several journalists have also fled the country and the government has been jamming the Voice of America Amharic service for allegedly broadcasting misinformation, making it hard for people to hear alternative voices.  Many here take the ‘better the devil you know’ point of view in relation to the ruling party continuing in power, though they may not be aware that they are on a slippery slope of ever-increasing authoritarianism and suppression of human rights, according to HRW, and that the devil they know may be more devilish than they thought.

Postponed from Tuesday because of the political rally, Wednesday saw the grand inauguration of Emilie´s English Language Improvement Programme´s resources centre, where all those books we bought are now housed and available for use by staff and students.  It also has a giant TV and DVD player for showing films and is due to receive some computers which the keen can use to do computer-based English courses.  The President of the university, two Vice Presidents, Deans of Faculties and various other leading lights were there. The Dean of Education´s secretary, who looked gorgeous in a traditional costume, had made a ribbon, which the President cut with difficulty with my lousy scissors. Emilie and he made speeches and, after a quick look of admiration at the books, we all went to see the newly-established HIV/AIDS resource centre. The most important resources it offers are undoubtedly the free condoms, but we were filled with envy to see the array of new flatscreen computers and luxury office furniture.  “I feel as if I was in America!” exclaimed one teacher.    We then trooped off to lunch at 11 am in the new teachers’ canteen, a tent in a field.  Emilie had been dying of nerves about the event, particularly having to make a speech, but it all went off without a wrinkle, except the one in her brow when she saw that the HIV/AIDS centre is better-resourced than hers; probably because HIV/AIDS is life-threatening in a way that bad English isn´t!

The next day was nerve-wracking, too, because Emilie had invited the EU observers, Gary from Canada, a 68-year old retired investment adviser (he obviously got out of that just in time before being lynched) and veteran of 35 observation missions, and Liesbeth from Holland, a 60-year-old retired teacher and politician who has also observed elections in Eastern Europe, to come and be guest speakers as part of her ELIC programme, on the clear understanding that they could not talk about this election or Ethiopian politics.  The President had given his permission, but the Dean of Education, our immediate boss, didn´t like the idea at all after all the controversy surrounding their mission.  He gave Emilie an earful about why she shouldn´t have invited them, accusing her of going behind his back, and saying that he would be the one to get in trouble if riots of anti-ferenji frenzy broke out.  Emilie was on the point of ringing them to cancel the visit when the Dean enigmatically said that the damage had already been done and she might as well go ahead with it.   It turned out to be a pleasant event of courteous questions and answers, mostly about trivia such as what the capital of the Netherlands was, indeed where it was, what the weather was like in Canada but also turning to what the trick of development was that the West had learnt but Ethiopian hadn´t, all attended by 55 students and 2 members of staff.  Not a stone was thrown, nor a brickbat hurled and everyone went away happy with Canadian flag stickers displayed on their chests.

In the evening we met up with Gary and Liesbeth, and four EU observers from other regions who had gathered here before returning to Addis: a Romanian, a Dane, a Frenchwoman, and a Spaniard who gave us our first opportunity in 9 months to speak his language.  The best restaurant in town had, as usual, only one or two of the dishes listed on the menu, but the sense of relief we all felt after a hectic, challenging week made the good beer and the less-good wine taste all the better.

The election result was a foregone conclusion and no surprise to anyone:  EPRDF 499 seats out of 536.  When you consider that 20 seats are reserved for ethnic minorities, it´s about as overwhelming as you can get.  It´s sad, though, that there are so many thoughtful, open-minded people in this country who feel they have to keep their opinions to themselves.  Several have said to us, with a fatalistic shrug, ‘This is Africa; what can you expect?’

Neighbourly Anectodes, October, 19th  2010

Not all she seemed
Emebet asked us if she could borrow our camera to take photos of her brother’s wedding.  After the event, the story came out.  We saw the new bride on our compound and felt sorry for her as she seemed too young and innocent to be living in a strange town, among strange people, far from her family.  Then, Emebet told us the full story.  Her brother was a lorry driver and hadn’t had chance, with his constant travelling, to meet a girl and form a relationship.   The family probably also feared, though Emebet didn’t say this, that he might be more intimate with bar girls along the way than was wise and might contract AIDS.  So, a matchmaker was employed and a girl was found.  One of the conditions was that she was of the same ethnicity as the brother and thus spoke Oromifa, as well as being a virgin.  

Emebet came back from the wedding furious.  We know she had had to fund the event with the money she had earned as the interpreter for the EU election observers who had been in Nekemte, a job which we had helped her to get and which had paid very generously.  It turned out that the girl, who was 15, not only hardly spoke the required language, but, far worse, was no virgin.  Her mother had a bar selling local beer.  It seems that it not only sold the beer, however, but also the favours of the daughter.  Despite that extra income, the mother wanted to get her off her hands and safely married, threatening her with “Either you get married or I’ll kill you.”  Well, with a choice like that the outcome was not surprising.  So Emebet’s rather simple-minded brother has not only been deceived, but will also have to worry whether his new wife will get up to her old tricks (sic) while he’s away.  The girl made it completely clear at the wedding, as we could see from the photos, and while on our compound, that she was utterly miserable about the whole situation as never a glimmer of a smile crossed her otherwise quite pretty face.  It seems she was now demanding of the brother that she be given her own house in her home town as she hated being stuck on our compound.  After a few days, she did indeed vanish.  They are still together, however, as the girl did come with him to our compound to celebrate Meskel, a national festival.  We were not here, so we did not see them to form any opinion about the state of their relationship.  Not the best start to a marriage, one would think.

Jobs for the boys?
A couple of weeks ago, we had coffee in Addis with a student of Emilie’s who had graduated from Wollega University last July in Political Science and International Relations.  He had been elected President of the English Club and had shown great commitment to the job and a great sense of responsibility.  He was a keen, polite lad who was always willing to look for the opportunity to learn.  He would often visit Emilie’s office for tips on how to use the computer and would work with a few others to put together the English Club newsletter.  He was from a humble, rural family, with none of the airs and self-confidence of the ‘Addis types’.  We were keen to meet up with him and to hear how he was getting on since graduation, an event which he said he had enjoyed because his parents had been able to attend.  It was heart-breaking for us to hear how hard his life is now as he tries to find work.  He shares a room with another graduate an hour and a half walk out of town, and has to come in every day to go to the three separated locations where vacancies are advertised.  It costs 50 cents just to look at the vacancies list, but it seems useless for him to do so as they all ask for the experience he hasn’t got but is trying to have.  No potential employer will even look at his CV, so carefully put together with Emilie’s help.  Of course, there are hundreds or thousands of young people who have just graduated in the same situation as Kefale, probably most of them shuffling around Addis which is seen as the fount of all employment and of the good life which they all desire.  He is from a rural area where there would certainly be no employment of the kind he seeks. 

He exemplifies a problem which we identified and put to the President of the university when we first met him; isn´t there a danger that the thousands of graduates pouring out of the new universities every year will not find work and will be angry and frustrated at not being able to repay the investment that their families have made in them and to start building themselves a better life than their families had?  He, perhaps not surprisingly, reacted rather defensively, saying that it was better to have these thousands of moderately educated people than none at all, though, to me, that is only a valid argument if they can find work commensurate with their higher educated status, or at least, useful, reasonably paid employment.  If not, there could one day be an explosion. 

We were very disappointed and surprised when we saw the President again after our chat with Kefale.  He said that thousands of this year’s graduates had been employed by the banks, by government, as teachers, and by other bodies and that there was, indeed, a shortage of qualified people for the jobs available. He further said that of course not all young people could just expect jobs to be given to them by the government and that they would have to create their own, we suppose by setting up businesses or whatever. When Emilie told him that Kefale had studied Political Science and International Relations his attitude was that he shouldn’t have bothered studying such a useless subject unless he was allied to the right party, presumable meaning his own, the governing one.  He didn´t exactly say that but something like “maybe he was following the wrong line.”  We found this very dismissive of a young man who had shown himself to us to be responsible and hard-working, as well as of those who might choose to study that subject without being aware of the consequences of doing so.  He also said, which might have more merit, that he shouldn´t be looking for work in Addis, which is obviously the magnet for the best-qualified in the country and where competition for jobs is fiercest.  It seems he thought Kefale was telling us a sob story to get our sympathy and perhaps our help. 

You’re never too old.
We were surprised and heartened to see ‘emma’, which means mother and is used to refer the grandma of Lombi, one of the children who live on our compound, coming in the gate clutching a notebook and pen.  Bontu, our resident orphan, proudly took the book from her and came to show it to us, saying ‘Emma goes to school.’  We tried to ask what sort of school it was and imagined it may be literacy classes or for a primary school diploma, such as uneducated adults can do in Spain.  Eventually, Emebet explained to us that it was a Health and Hygiene course provided free by the local government and taught by staff or students from the Nekemte Nursing College and is held once a week.  It seems a great idea to us and reflects the policy of the British Government’s development aid agency, DfID, to emphasise the role of women in development.  We’ve no idea how old ‘emma’ is, she could be anything from 50 to 60 and we don’t like to ask and, in any case, older people, which doesn’t necessarily mean very old, don’t usually know how old they are and can only give an approximate idea in relation to some historical event.  The harshness of life means that people look older to us than they really are and average life expectancy is little more than 50, already an improvement on only a few years ago. 

Nekemte is known as an educational powerhouse, in national terms, with several private ‘universities’, which we would call colleges of further, vocational, education, as well as private primary and secondary schools.  We are planning this year to give classes on Saturdays, along with the other two VSO volunteers in Nekemte, at a charitable school for children orphaned by HIV-AIDS.  Known as ‘Sunshine School’ it was founded and is funded by a wealthy property developer based in Addis.  Only a year old, it already has 270 students in classes ranging from grades 1-9 of the Ethiopian education system.  The quality of the buildings, perhaps not surprisingly given the profession of the founder, is far better than we enjoy at the university and even features flushing sit-down toilets, which are unknown in our day job.  We will help the teachers with methodology, as well as improving the standard of their English, and do English conversation classes with as many of the children as we can manage.  Last school year, we ran a 7-session course on Saturdays for state Primary School English teachers, as well as doing English classes for other orphans throughout the year, so we can employ most of the same material and techniques, and kill two birds with one stone.

November, 2010

What a difference a year makes!  In our case, mostly for the better.  Of course, the main difference is that last year everything was strange.  We knew no one and knew nothing of the language or culture.  This year, it’s all hugs and kisses and “How are you?  How was the holiday?” and, from those who knew that Emilie had had an operation, “What is your condition?  Are you fine?” in Ethiopian English.  This time we’re not shocked by the state of our house, though there were surprises and not the theft we had feared (several volunteers in other parts of the country have been robbed), but a welcome series of repairs.  Emebet had seemingly employed some of her earnings as an interpreter for the EU election observers (a job we had got for her) to fix up the house for us.  The ceilings, which had had panels of canvas (for of such are ceilings usually made here) hanging down, had all been repaired and repainted.  The light sockets, which had life-threateningly hung loose from the walls, were now all fixed back in.  The bathroom walls had been repainted in bright green and, most miraculously of all, the toilet now flushed, making us the proud owners of one of the few flush toilets in Nekemte, a luxury indeed; not that it didn’t function perfectly well by having buckets of water tipped down it.  Toilets are a bit of an obsession for Westerners here as we need them more often than we might elsewhere, due to the effects of the food and the water quality, and they are universally vile in any public place, being of the long-drop variety and used by people who are extremely challenged in the knack of aiming.  Subsequent cleaning is not a priority, either.  As in so much, we remind ourselves that many parts of Europe were not so scrupulous not so long ago, either, and only recent years have seen dramatic improvements.

The lack of food in the market is all very familiar to us now and we have built up a camel’s hump of reserves while we’ve been away.  So far, too, we’re not suffering the transport nightmare.  In recognition of Emilie’s debilitated post-operational condition, the university has sent one of its pick-up trucks to come by our house every morning to collect us (I’m just freeloading) so that she doesn’t have to participate in the scrum to get onto the university bus.  The vehicle picks up the Dean of Students, one of the perks of her job, and is always available on campus in case a student, or member of staff, I suppose, needs to be rushed to hospital.

Also, the weather has been kind to us.  Last year were put through a baptism of fire, or rather of rain.  The rainy season, which is supposed to last from June to September, decided to test our fortitude by going on into November.  And when I say rainy season, don’t think of your English “scattered showers”, think of non-stop Amazonian downpours that turn cats and dogs into hippos and elephants that hammer deafeningly onto the tin roofs.  Some of my colleagues emailed over the summer to tell me that the campus was a sea of mud and that they were having a rough time of it; I felt awful for them as I lounged on the beach in Estepona.  This year it’s been mostly glorious Spanish spring weather with the bright yellow ‘meskel’ flowers, a national icon, in bloom everywhere.  Though we are slightly north of the equator, the seasons are somewhat reversed here with the summer being wet and cool, making the period we are in now into spring, when the world leaps back into life after the rainy assaults.  We had a surprise downpour yesterday which turned the campus into a mud bath within minutes, but, in general, there is no comparison with this time last year.

There have been minor improvements to the campus, too.  In particular, the teachers’ ‘lounge’ has developed into a pleasant place to sit and chat to colleagues, even though it is an ankle-turning, knee-jarring downhill hike to the bottom of our hilly campus and is still no more than a lumpy field with a couple of tin shacks.  The range of Ethiopian food on offer has improved and, of greatest interest to us, it now has a ‘macchiato’ coffee machine and a seemingly reliable supply of milk with which to make it.  Macchiato is one of the few positive things the would-be colonizing Italians left behind in the ‘30s.  Surprisingly perhaps, people still say ‘Ciao’ when they leave one another.  Again, the weather we are enjoying this year makes this a worthwhile trip, one you’d be mad to undertake in the rain when the downhill paths turn into rivers and waterfalls.

The electricity has been vastly better, too.  The year before we arrived, it was literally one day on, one day off, but last year was already an improvement on that, though it was erratic, which in some ways is more frustrating.  We would be in the middle of some work on the computer and ‘click’, off it went, leaving us with a few lines lost and unable to work until it came back on.  Whether it’s because a new dam has come on line or because the economy is on the ropes and industries are not using as much or whatever, we don’t know, but are grateful for the almost constant supply, which means that I don’t have to click on ‘save’ quite so often as I write this.  You may wish that I hadn’t and that I’d lost it all.

Human joy must never be unalloyed, however, for fear that the inevitable subsequent disappointment will prove insuperable and Ethiopia always provides suitable safeguards against such hubris.  The internet fibre-optic cable, whose installation on campus in the middle of last year gave us a quantum improvement in the quality of life, has been cut by the builders of the university, by accident we assume, leaving us also cut off from the world for the last ten days.  We go to an internet shop in town to read our emails quickly and dash off perfunctory replies, but the leisurely perusal of the football results and the news on the BBC website for a few minutes before classes start or in the lunch hour will have to await the outcome of the dispute over who cut the cable and who has to pay for the repair, which, we gather, is very expensive.  The same happened to us last year when a tree was cut down and fell on the overhead cable supplying our house and we were several days without electricity while the dispute about responsibility raged.

To make a more general point, for which this internet disruption may stand as a metaphor, life in poorer countries is extremely precarious.  Life is lived near the edge, with little needed for people to fall over it.  What to us in the West is easily dealt with by social safety nets here may be life-threatening and disastrous.  Illnesses, such as typhoid against which we had been inoculated before coming, though that is not 100% protection, and for which we took antibiotics when it did affect us, kill many people here, particularly children.  I asked a teacher colleague whether teachers as a collective have any medical insurance.  He said they were supposed to have, but that he had never seen or heard any evidence of it.  Thus, people have to be able to afford to be treated, even in the government hospitals, and pay for their own medicine;  those who can’t, suffer the consequences, which often include death.  There may not even be any local medical attention available in the remoter areas.  A few statistics for Ethiopia give an idea:
·        Average life expectancy:  53 years  (World Development Indicator, 2007).  UK: 79 years (UN Statistics Division, 2007)
·        Average per capita income:  US$780 (Purchasing power parity rate;  real, unweighted amount:  US$141).  UK:  US$34,000 (PPP- WDI, 2007)
·        Population living below the poverty line of US$1 per day:  39% (World Bank, Oct. 2008)
·        Women dying in childbirth: 673 per 100,000 (Ethiopian Demographic and Health Survey report, 2005).  UK: 8 per 100,000 (UNSD 2007)
·        Children dying before the age of 5:  123 per 1,000 live births (EDHS, 2005).  UK: 6 per 1,000 (UNSD 2007)
·        Percentage of people with access to safe, clean water:  52% (Ministry of Water Resources 2006/7)
Despite serious government and NGO campaigns to inform people of the risks, HIV/AIDS still exacts its toll.  Nekemte is a truck stop for traffic from Sudan en route to Addis and Djibouti and vice versa, and huge vehicles with licence plates from all over the Middle East with Maersk, Nedlloyd and P&O containers are parked for the night along the main street.  Cheap hotels and bars cater to the needs of the drivers, as do the bar girls who frequent these places.  Not everyone is aware or careful and AIDS hits town leaving orphans in its wake.  There is also a toll of lorries which drive off the appalling roads and down ditches and embankments because the drivers were asleep at the wheel, possibly from the excitement of the night before.  Ethiopia has Africa’s second highest road death toll.  The ‘Guardian Weekly’ newspaper reported recently that the incidence of new cases of HIV/AIDS was falling in many parts of Africa, including Ethiopia, so that is good news.

We have started teaching classes on Saturday mornings at a charity primary school that has been set up by a wealthy builder based in Addis.  The children are all AIDS orphans, 270 of them.  With the other two volunteers in our town, we work with the teachers to improve their English and teaching methodology, and with the children just English.  It’s a delight to work there as it is such a clean, well-organised place which even has its own vegetable garden where the children do a certain amount of work during the week.  Last year we ran a course on Saturday mornings for state primary school teachers and a separate class for a random group of orphans on Saturday afternoons, but this year we’ve been able to combine the two activities, albeit with different people, into one three-hour stint, another improvement in our circumstances.  Most of those living near the edge I mentioned are in rural areas, where 85% of the population live, not in towns like this where you can already see major improvements in life expectations:  better health, more years of education, smaller families, more choice of employment and so on.  Apart from the beggars who line the streets in the centre of town, with their deformed legs or withered bodies, we don’t see the worst extremes of hardship, but, as the orphans can testify, life is not easy here.

November 23rd, 2010

I spoke too soon; I provoked the jinx that delights in confounding our arrogant human pretensions.  I said a while ago that things were much better this year and then we got home to find that there is no water supply and there hardly has been since then.   I was correct in observing however, when I last wrote, how Ethiopia walks a tightrope of the wobbly functioning of infrastructure, and indeed of human life itself, and how easy it is to fall off.  There are few safety nets.  A university English teacher died last week of kidney problems.  He had seemed fine a couple of weeks ago when I last saw him.  Almost certainly he would still be alive today in the West, or maybe even in Addis where the majority of doctors and modern equipment that the country possesses are concentrated.
The electricity started misbehaving, too, so I must take back everything I said about the supply of services having improved this year!   Even worse than that, though, was the shock of going to the teacher’s ´lounge´ (as they call it here though there is not the faintest resemblance to a lounge as we know it) to be told there was no coffee.  This is the home of coffee, the stuff was first consumed by humans near here, there are millions of coffee bushes around this town which produces the most expensive and prestigious coffee in the country!  How could they not have coffee?  The answer again may come back to infrastructure and the frailty of human systems.  Coffee is not roasted and ground here in bulk, but in Addis, so the finished product for coffee machines has to be packaged and sent back here and that depends on the roads, supply chains and other human economic factors.  Thus, despite the ready availability of the raw product (we have a bush in our backyard), the supply of the finished product can fail.  The other reason, and the more likely explanation, is that someone in the kitchen didn’t notice that they were running low on ground coffee to tell someone else to go and buy it, or, if they did, no one could make the money available quickly.  These kinds of human breakdowns are all too common as there is a reluctance to take responsibility on the part of the employed or to foresee problems that may arise.  Probably, farming and other rural-life systems are highly evolved (people have lived and survived here for thousands of years, after all), but modern systems have yet to develop deep roots so failure and breakdown are frequent. 
On the other hand, there are heart-warming experiences which speak of the universal goodness of most of humankind. Yesterday, we took a communal taxi from the university back to town, as we do every day after work.  When we got home, I realized that I didn’t have the cardigan I had been wearing in the early morning chill.  I couldn’t remember if I had had it on the way home or if I had left it in the juice bar where we had had a drink in the town centre, but I was sorry if I had lost it as it was a useful, though not very beautiful, garment.  On the 50-minute walk to the university this morning, we have to follow the main road for a short way, the rest of the time taking country lanes, which are far more pleasant.   As we were still by the main road and just before we turned off onto a lane, a car horn tooted right next to us.  I prepared to jump out of the way of a taxi dodging a pot hole or animal, but when I looked round, the driver was holding up my cardigan jubilantly.  I gave him the big hug he deserved, to the amusement of the passengers, for his honesty in keeping the cardigan and perspicacity in looking out for me.  Of course, we do stand out here and probably everyone knows who we are and where we work, but I was still impressed that the garment didn’t just disappear.  We were not so lucky at a conference for all volunteers at a lakeside hotel (not as posh as it sounds) where we had each put out a shirt to dry over a chair just outside our room and within an hour both were stolen!
The weekend before last was probably the most important event in Nekemte’s history since an Italian plane was shot down nearby in 1940. Its remains can still be seen outside the town museum.
A new municipal stadium is being built and we hope it lasts longer than the Italian plane.  We saw the poster announcing it in the town centre last year, but the poster was faded almost to invisibility and we had assumed it was one of the many projects optimistically announced by artists’ impressions that fade as quickly as the ambition that led to them.  But no, this was to be a reality and once we found out where it was being built we walked out of town to see the site on which men and machines were, even though it was a Sunday, hard at work.
Then news filtered through the grapevine, and even banners began appearing, announcing that a town race was to be held in the presence of major dignitaries, including, we heard, the great Ethiopian runner Haile Gabreselassie.  Would such a figure be willing to subject himself to the potholed road whose bone-jarring jolts would guarantee an end to his illustrious career more surely than any rival on the track?  Or would he be helicoptered in? 
We and the other volunteers in town signed up to participate, the younger ones to run, we to walk.  The profits from the specially-produced T-shirt which we would get were to contribute towards the costs of finishing the stadium, which, like all such major projects, in the West too, seems to have run into financial difficulty.  My Ethiopian counterpart at work says there have been accusations of corruption related to the project, but what’s new?  We usually live on the Costa del Sol in Spain where such stories, indeed realities, are part of normal life.
A certain buzz was being generated and the special yellow T-shirts started appearing all over town in the days leading to the event.   Then, it was delayed for a week, ostensibly because Haile had another commitment. 
The race was going to be held on a Sunday and only a few days before we heard that there was going to be a concert in the stadium at which well-known Ethiopian singers would perform.  The entrance fee was to be 20 birr (about 1 euro).  We decided we would go along later than the 3 pm starting time, reasoning that nothing ever started on time and that the cost of entry would be a deterrent.  What a surprise, then, to arrive at 4 pm and find the place packed with mostly yellow-shirted humanity and to find that there was no charge at all, the two facts being probably related.  It was so crowded and such is my dislike of being hemmed in on all sides, that I suggested giving up and going, but I hadn’t counted on the power of the white skin in these parts as people started ushering us through the mass towards the front and then along to where the dignitaries were seated on plush red armchairs.  I thought it was rather embarrassing to be treated as so special, but it was the only way we were going to be able to see anything so we accepted with good grace.  It seems that everyone in town saw us on TV as we were seated right behind the big shots, albeit on a concrete step, not the seats.   After various musical acts by people we were assured were famous, there were speeches from the President of the Oromiya Region, the Mayor of Nekemte and the architect of the stadium, a refreshingly modest man dressed in the yellow T-shirt, rather than the suit and tie worn by the other figures.  Everyone was waiting, though, for the appearance of Haile and a couple of times it was announced that he was on the way and there were false starts as people near the main entrance leapt to their feet and cheered as a Toyota Landcruiser entered the stadium.  All dignitaries are driven in Toyota Landcruisers in this country.    Eventually, it was after dark when he did arrive, humbly walking around the unfinished track.  The lighting was so bad that it was hard to see whether it was him or an impostor. 
It poured with rain all night and we dreaded that the long-awaited event, so important to the town, would be cancelled.  It was still spitting when we set off into the centre of town for the start of the race.  Everyone was kept waiting for over an hour, with the serious runners running up and down to keep warm.  Sensibly, they were allowed to set off first to avoid being trampled by the uncouth, untrained masses.  We joined in walking fast and were last, at first, (sic) though after half an hour or so started overhauling those who had set off running too enthusiastically and who had seriously overestimated their abilities.  The masses never even had to complete the whole course, though, as, after we’d been going for 45 minutes or so, control had broken down and everyone just headed directly to the stadium so as not to keep the dignitaries waiting for the prize-giving or because they just felt they’d done enough.  We were disappointed not to have completed the course as we were being given rousing support by the people who lined the route and were enjoying our moments of fame if not the hardship of walking flat out.  We probably would have been flat out, on the ground, if we had had to keep up that pace.  Also, by the time we got to the stadium, it was impossible to distinguish the yellow-shirted participants from the many more who had just bought the shirt to lend support and had no sweat to show for their troubles.
Once again, we were ushered to the VIP area in the stadium for the speeches and ceremonies.  One prominent figure, besides Haile, was a man who ran at the time of Bikile Abebe, who was the first African to win an Olympic gold medal, in the marathon in 1960, and who is still running at the age of 97!  They breed them tough out here.  I was interviewed for an English-language national paper and we chatted to some of the important folk, including Haile himself, giving us our moment in the sun, even though the sky itself was black.  The announcer broke into English to welcome us specifically for having come so far for this event; he didn’t know that we live here.
Altogether it was a great occasion and one which we hope inspires the town to finish its stadium and participate more in communal activities, especially sport. For us, personally, it showed how, in this part of Africa at least, the white person is treated as an honoured guest whom the Ethiopians are pleased to have working and living alongside them and enjoy making a fuss of during a major public event.
Last Sunday, Emilie walked the Great Ethiopian Run in Addis along with 35,000 others (some also ran).  I ate something dodgy the night before and the only running I did was to the toilet.  Still, I also paid my share and got the T-shirt. 

Travels with Rebecca and Inge;  December, 2010 - New Year, 2011

Thanks to those of you who wrote emails or sent cards for Christmas.  We really do appreciate the contact and will try to reply to each individually.  We hope you had as good a Christmas as we did, even though it may not have been in as exotic a location or with as dull and limited food and drink!

We celebrated Christmas with our daughter, Rebecca, and Inge, a Dutch friend from Spain, traveling around some of the tourist areas of the northern part of the country.  The term ‘tourist area’ is relative;  Ethiopia is still a difficult destination for tourists, with poor infrastructure, and can only dream of the quantity of tourists that go even to neighbouring Kenya.  To make things worse for those who benefit from it, we were told that the tourist industry, which would normally be at its peak at this season, had been hit by the cancellation of flights from the West due to the severe winter there.  It was for us, though, fascinating to see the variety of landscapes and people-scapes that make up this country, which has only been pulled together from diverse ethno-linguistic groups in the last 150 years.

We picked Rebecca and Inge up in Addis and they had a couple of days in the capital to acclimatize (it’s at 2,400 metres), visiting our ancestor, Lucy (3.5 million years old) in the National Museum, and the world famous Fistula Hospital which features in the book “Hospital by the River” and the film “Walk to Beautiful”.  We then came to Nekemte in an ancient rented four-wheel drive car with driver, obligatory here, not because we were in a hurry to get back, but so that they could see where we live and work.  This meant that we had to take the unpaved road to our next destination, Bahir Dar on Lake Tana, where the Blue Nile begins its journey to the Mediterranean.  In addition to the discomfort this involved to all of us, bouncing and banging along a dirt track, it had a more serious consequence for Inge as the car hit a pothole at speed and gave her a badly bruised back because of the inadequate, worn-out upholstery of the seat.  This was to trouble her throughout the trip, as were the showers.  We crossed the Blue Nile, known here as Abay (father) and left our region of Oromiya where the Oromo language is spoken, to enter the Amhara Federal Region, historically the dominant one which colonized or subjugated the rest and gave the country its main common language, Amharic.  This is also the home of the pre-eminent religion, Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, as well as of the ethnically identical people, the Beit Israel or Falasha, who practice an archaic form of Judaism which probably separated from the Jewish mainstream before 650 BC and which influenced the rituals of Orthodox Christianity, which dates from the 4th century AD.  The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a process of colonization by Amhara kings of other ethnicities and kingdoms to form the current area of Ethiopia.  For this reason, Haile Selassie gave himself the title of Emperor;  Ethiopia really is an empire of conquered nations, as all countries are, though usually longer ago. 

On crossing the Nile, we immediately noticed differences in the people:  all married women in the countryside have short, cropped hair and wear brightly-coloured cummerbunds, while the rural men wear shorts, green or purple shawls and carry a walking stick across their shoulders.  Oromo men wouldn’t be seen dead in shorts in public, unless doing sport.  I imagine that the carrying of the walking stick is a way of saying that they have sufficient wealth and status to have wives or donkeys to do the carrying of produce for them.

A VSO colleague who works in Bahir Dar had booked us into a cheap hotel, which was great value except that the showers only provided cold water,  the discovery of which was both literally and metaphorically a shock, particularly to Inge who had been looking forward to a hot shower to give her back some relief.  On more than one occasion we were to be nastily sarcastic to our guests by saying “Welcome to Ethiopia!” as various deficiencies were encountered.

Sixty.-five kilometers in diameter, Lake Tana is Ethiopia’s largest lake and is home to twenty or so monasteries, some on islands, some on the shores, several dating back to the 14th century.  On Christmas Day, we took a relaxing hour-long boat ride, accompanied by some pelicans, to visit one of the monasteries and marvel at the paintings, described in our guidebook, with some poetic licence, as “positively Chaucerian in their physicality, ribaldry and gore.”  Although we enjoyed the picturesque drive to the Blue Nile Falls, a 45-metre high, 400 metres wide rock face, the falls themselves were something of a disappointment since the construction of a hydro-electricity power station which requires the diversion of up to 95% of the water.  The falls are know locally as Tis Issat (water that smokes) but that is nowadays a gross misnomer.  We waded barefoot across a Nile tributary to get close to the bottom of the falls and Emilie dropped her shoes into the water, so it was a memorable experience one way or another.

Our Christmas dinner was not especially memorable.  We met up with the local VSO volunteer and went to a reasonable Western-style hotel but, despite the Christmas crackers that Rebecca had brought, which provided amusement for the staff and the few other tourists eating there as we cracked them open and wore paper hats, the food was nothing to write home about (so why am I doing so?) and there was none of the atmosphere we normally associate with Christmas in our countries.  It was not even Christmas in Ethiopia in any case as they celebrate it on 7th January, so 25th December has no special significance to them.  The highlight for me was that I approached a waitress to offer my paper crown to her and she spontaneously put it on.  The other waitresses then grabbed the ones which had been left on the table and did likewise, creating an air of jollity that had been lacking.

Next, our driver Mamoush took us to Gondar, Ethiopia’s fourth largest city which was the capital for 250 years from 1635, though this status became increasingly nominal as powerful regional rulers virtually ignored the authority of the central monarchy.  It is most famous for the 17th century castles, built in the time of the Emperor Fasilidas, which show Portuguese, Arab and Indian influences.  These have been restored with        UNESCO help so, to those of you who doubt it, you can see that the UN is sometimes good for something.  Unfortunately for Rebecca and Inge, the price of entrance had doubled the day before we visited, but the resident cards Emilie and I have were good for a generous discount.  Still, the 5 euros they paid was not too onerous for so worthy a cause.  Inge’s shower saga continued as there was no water of any kind, hot or cold, at first, in our hotel, but eventually a generator or pump was switched on and we could all ease our muscles, aching from too long sitting in a car on bad roads and the tiring walks that tourism requires.  Also fascinating to see was the church of Debre Birhan Selassie with its paintings, particularly the ceiling decorated with the faces of 80 angels, that are regarded as the finest and most photographed art of the period anywhere in the country.

Besides the defects of the showers, our bed fell apart in the night and not due to any frisky activities we engaged in, a “welcome to Ethiopia” moment.

We had to set off at 5.30 am for the long drive to Lalibela which, though today only a village and set in an economically poor region, was the capital of a dynasty which ruled over Ethiopia from the 10th to the 13th centuries.  The most famous of its rulers was the eponymous King Lalibela.  In the midst of an arid, parched landscape, with enormously wide dried-up river beds, a mountain rises up and, after a tortuous climb on an unsurfaced road, we reached at 2,630 m, the small town which no one would visit if it were not for its world-famous rock-hewn churches.   These date back to the 11th century, which would, again according to our guidebook, “if they were virtually anywhere else in the world but Ethiopia, be celebrated  as one of the wonders of the world, as readily identified with Ethiopia as are the Pyramids with Egypt.”  The houses of Lalibela are also of a type found nowhere else in the country:  two-storey circular stone huts, with thatched roofs.  Single-storey, circular wattle and daub homes are common throughout Ethiopia.  The churches, though, are not just tourist attractions as there are still hermits living in nooks and crannies around the churches, which are carved below ground level, and attract pilgrims from all over the country who, with their staffs, distinctive hats and robes, make you think you have been transported back to medieval times, if you can ignore the clicking of the tourists’ cameras around you.  They are the kind of structures, like the Pyramids themselves or Stonehenge, that seem to defy the technology of the period in which they were built and make you think of divine intervention, which is what the faithful do claim.

We continued to have shower difficulties, even though we were paying what for us on a VSO budget was the astronomical price of $42 a night for a double room.  We arrived back at our rooms hot and sweaty from tramping around the churches, to find that in Inge’s room the water had not heated up and in our room that the hot water tap came off in Rebecca’s hand and obviously couldn’t be repaired in a hurry;  “Welcome…..”  Rebecca proved brilliant at demanding, politely, to see the manager and negotiating the use of the manager’s personal shower that evening, a change of rooms for the next day and free drinks with our dinner, using her experience with Emirates Airlines to give examples of how a major company compensates its customers for deficiencies in its service.

In a small remote town like Lalibela (what a pretty name, by the way), the ugly faces and dilemmas of tourism can so quickly become evident.  We find it tasteless to snap away without permission at poor people with a camera that could keep them fed for years, yet tourists do it without apparent concern or thought.  We went to a place offering traditional Ethiopian food and music one evening.  We ordered a “bayaynet” (meaning ‘variety’, this is a vegetarian dish with several types of vegetables, such as beetroot, lentils, split peas, cabbage, spinach, some very spiced up, served on a base of ‘injera’, the pancake-like basic food of all Ethiopia;  we had this for lunch every day during our travels) between us and drinks.  There was a group of Asian tourists already there who had not ordered anything, though they were given coffee from the “coffee ceremony” that was in progress.  A foreign man came in, again ordering nothing, and didn’t pause for a moment from taking photos of the dancers.  A tourist couple then came in and ordered one beer between them and likewise spent half an hour taking photos.  When the Asians decided to leave, the waitress said that it would be a few birr for the coffee and 30 birr (€1.50) each for the music.  The couple and the man immediately made a dash for the door, the woman saying “We may be tourists but we’re not stupid!” and adding that one never had to pay for the music.  In our experience, that is only true in posh restaurants where there is expensive food and drink and where you would not dare not to consume anything.  The stinginess was astounding;  the musicians and dancers had entertained them with great gusto and skill and the tourists had their photos to show everyone back home how interesting they were for going to such ‘authentic’ places, yet they begrudged paying a pittance for the privilege.  We found the experience excruciatingly embarrassing and apologized for the behaviour of our fellow tourists when we paid what they asked and left, after suggesting that they put up a big sign so it’s clear that people have to pay for the music.  Part of the problem is that the locals are naïve about these business matters and about what foreigners expect.  Not so naïve was the doctor who tried to charge a volunteer’s mother 400 birr (€20) for the five minutes it took to take her blood pressure.  The volunteer protested (this was a fifth of a month’s salary for her) and he admitted that he charged the locals 20 birr.  Fair enough, you might say;  perhaps there wouldn’t be a doctor at all in this remote town if it weren’t for the money he can extract from tourists.  The same volunteer and her mother then went to buy medicine from a pharmacy;  250 birr was the asking price.  They asked a local employee at their hotel to go and buy it for them;  it cost him 40 birr.   These forms of mutual exploitation can give a place a bad name and end up killing the goose that, with care, can lay the golden egg, but are common where cultures and levels of wealth clash so grossly, and raise the question of the real cost of the tourism which seems to offer relatively easy, short term wealth to a country.  A trip to the same pharmacy was the cause of amusement to our group;  Inge had a sore throat and wanted to buy some throat lozenges.  The shop assistant asked her to open her mouth and shone the torch of her mobile phone in to ascertain the extent of the problem.  This careful analysis led her to the inevitable recommendation of the antibiotics much beloved as a cure-all in poorer countries, with disastrous long-term consequences for the efficacy of these drugs.

Rebecca had to fly from Lalibela’s tiny new airport via Addis to Dubai for work, while Inge, Emilie and I were driven back over two days and more varied landscapes, some of which were positively Alpine and extremely dramatic, especially when we had to drive for half an hour throught an impenetrable mist, fearing that a bus or lorry would appear at any moment to tip us over the precipitous drop on our side of the road.  We plunged down, on the road fortunately, into the Rift Valley where there were bubbling volcanic pools and where the Middle East made its appearance with camels and many Muslim women with their faces covered.  There is a region here which is well-known for its intermarriages between Christians and Muslims;  our Programme Manager, Tesfaw Mohammed, as his name suggests, is the product of such a union.

After a meal with a few other VSO volunteers, we toasted in the New Year with coffee, Ethiopia’s champagne, while saying our farewells to Inge at Addis’s airport, before heading back to Nekemte, a couple of days later, to complete our 3,000 km circuit.

We wish you all a great 2011 and hope to hear some of your news.

Transport    February, 2011

While we were driving around a large chunk of Northern Ethiopia a couple of weeks ago, one of the most heartening aspects of human behaviour we saw was the trek of children to and from school.  Often we would pass a gaggle of kids in their tattered but still recognizable school uniforms, of varied colours, even a dashing check in one area, anxiously or carelessly clutching their priceless school books, and we would drive on for another half an hour before passing the school they were heading to, which always displayed the national and regional flags and was usually adorned with hand-painted signs depicting worthy quotations and lessons for life.  Though undoubtedly picturesque and often tempting us to shout ‘stop’ to the driver so we could take a photo, the literally timeless scenes of ploughing, threshing or winnowing filled us with more mixed sentiments as, though probably ecologically sound, they were both cause and symptom of Ethiopia’s economic poverty, there being not a machine or tractor in sight whilst humans and animals performed all the back-breaking work, condemning both to short, unhealthy lives.

The long hard walk to and from school on flat plains or in alpine mountains is now an Ethiopian universal and a tribute to the enormous effort being made by the government, with major economic and intellectual assistance from a group of wealthier countries who fund a major project called GEQIP (General Education Quality Improvement Programme) to do as the name says.  This is to run from December, 2008 until July, 2013 and $417 million has been allocated to it.  So far, the results quantity-wise are stunning:  2000: 5 million children in school; 2010: 14 million.  Now work needs to focus on quality which, in theory at least, is why many of us VSO volunteers are here; to raise teaching standards.  There is some good news; the university lecturers whom I teach have to do a two-week secondary school placement as part of their course and even since last year’s batch did the same we are getting reports of progress in terms of a negligible drop-out rate, an even number of male and female students and greatly improved textbooks which are being delivered as I write.  I can only speak for a town and don’t pretend to assert that the same would apply in the countryside, (between 20 and 70% in some areas still do not attend) but, still, progress has to start somewhere and it probably always does affect towns first.

There being no other walkable routes in most areas, all pedestrian traffic follows the main highways, which is why the ant-like columns of school children are so visible.  This has its hazards, as you can imagine.  Last week in Nekemte, three girls on their way home from school were knocked down by a line taxi; one was killed and the other two were seriously injured.  As I’ve commented before about our own walk to work, line taxis, four-wheel drive vehicles, buses and huge lorries, which are the main users of the roads, there being very few private saloon cars, swerve violently to avoid the potholes, which give our road from town to the university the appearance of having been the mistaken target of a NATO bombing raid on an enemy airfield, and the animals which wander around aimlessly.  Humans are the least priority and are the ones who have to do the dodging.

Transport is one of our biggest headaches here, even though we haven’t actually been hit by anything yet.  We have the luxury of university buses to take us to work in the morning, if we choose to use one.  Their timing is erratic but, on the whole, there is a system.  The same is not true of getting home.  Last year the ‘line’ taxi fleet of battered, ancient Toyota minibuses, supposedly for 12 or so passengers, ended its route some 20 minutes’ walk from the university, so, rain or shine, we walked to that point to get one.  This year, for double the price, they started going the extra mile, so to speak.  Or at least, sometimes they do, so you wait not knowing if one is going to show up or not.  If one does, we and a hundred other anxious would-be passengers have to rush to it and fight, literally, to get on, there being no holds barred or deference to those who have been waiting longest, are lame, female, elderly or in any other way deserving of a little consideration.  This makes my blood boil and I do sometimes use my height and weight to ensure we get on.  They do not seem like the same people who urge us to the front in the bank or post office, or lead us to the VIP section in the new stadium.  An even greater likely cause of me meeting an early demise one day is the arrival of the minibus at its final destination when a mob of people, who want to go back the other way, rush the bus before it can even turn around to face that direction, trap the passengers who want to get off the bus and trample them underfoot.  The last time, I really lost my normally calm disposition and fought back against the tide, which could have had me arrested for assault. Fortunately, we usually get off before that point.

Yesterday we had a very unfortunate transport experience.  Last year an Englishman in his late 20s showed up to work at the charity school for deaf children near our house.  He had been a builder in the UK, though with a degree in music technology, as you would expect.  He was using his own money to fund himself whilst supervising the construction of some new buildings and teaching woodwork.  We were astounded to hear from him over the summer when we were in Spain, telling us how he had fallen for a deaf girl at the school who was from a village an hour from Nekemte, had not surprisingly fallen foul of the head of the school who obviously thought a teacher shouldn’t have sentimental relations with a student, particularly one who might even be underage (no one is quite sure how old she is), and that he intended to marry her.  He was asked to leave his job, but, to cut a long story short, he is going ahead with the plan to marry and we were invited to an engagement party at the girl’s village yesterday.  For us, the story was just beginning.  Transport is rather informal here, as well as in short supply.  Apart from the more or less scheduled buses which all leave at 6 am from the bus station, regardless of the destination, there are minibuses that might leave at other times, or you can hitch a ride from any vehicle willing to stop and take you, for a negotiated price, or get a ‘contract’ taxi which you can hire for your exclusive use.  As it was Sunday morning and there didn’t seem to be much point arriving for a lunch date at 7 am, we decided to try the hitching option somewhat later.  We were four ‘farenjis’ with a deaf couple and their children.  Nothing came by on the main road near our houses, so we got ‘bajajes’, Indian-made three-wheeled mini-taxes, to the centre of town where contract taxes could be found.  They were asking silly money, and a passing local whom we knew suggested going to the bus station.  So we hiked up there and stood around hopefully but nothing was going anywhere.  We did provide entertainment, though, for some 20 local young men who stood staring at us as if we were specimens in a zoo; white people are rare here and might do something never seen before and so are worth watching closely. 

After an hour of useless hanging around we were approached with an offer of a contract taxi there and back at a pre-arranged time for 500 birr round trip.  This is a lot of money as a line taxi on the same route would only charge 10 birr per person each way, maximum 12 people, total 240 birr.  So, after three hours of looking for transport we accepted and were finally off.  We phoned the would-be bridegroom who said there would be a lad holding a sign saying ‘VSO’ at the side of the road at the point where we had to get off.  Just as we were leaving town, the driver’s sidekick (conductor, ticket collector, whatever you call such a figure) demanded 500 birr each way, even though the agreement had been as clear as daylight; 250 going, 250 on return, despite the garbled Afaan Oromo on our part and English on theirs.  We were furious and immediately piled out of the vehicle, along with five other local folk who had pleaded to go with us at the bus station and who would now also lose their ride, and were sorely tempted to kick the car, the creepy hustler or both.  Of course there is a ´farenji´surcharge in any price negotiation, but to our simple minds, an agreement is an agreement once the journey has started.  We gave up, invited the deaf couple and kids to lunch in the Classic Cafe and went home, gifts undelivered, to lick our wounds and look forward to our next trip.

Workshops       March 10th, 2011

This is the land of workshops.  If workshops could be wrapped up and exported, Ethiopia would be rich. NGO-speak has made an indelible mark on the Ethiopian languages such that ‘empowerment’, ‘capacity-building’, ‘mainstreaming’ are words that trip off everyone’s tongue at the slightest excuse and the means of ‘delivery’ (another NGO term, though I would prefer to say the ‘vector of contamination’) of this language is the ubiquitous workshop.  The original meaning of the term has been lost or never existed here, so that when I suggested to a computer chap at the university, who had come to fix mine, that he take it to the workshop to repair, he had no idea what I was talking about and wouldn’t have done even if such a place had existed on the campus.  (Just a little digression;  it’s an irony of poverty that because there are no facilities, skills, nor money for regular maintenance of equipment, when it breaks down it has to be completely replaced, costing the country far more valuable foreign exchange currency, far more often, than if the item could have been repaired.  Also, because someone always has to sign for, meaning be responsible for the loss of, every item in the university, when a machine breaks down it cannot be thrown away, but just sits collecting dust on top of a cupboard or wherever for eternity.)
There are workshops (once called conferences or seminars, I suppose) on every imaginable topic: gender issues, female assertiveness, anti-corruption, government policy as applied to education, how to administer the budget, HIV/AIDS, which is a great favourite, being more glamorous and better-funded than all the other major killers in Africa put together,  and a long etcetera.  When Emilie and I go to ‘deliver’ (as if you just hand it over like a letter) teacher training to university lecturers at our two outlying campuses this is also called a workshop.  It was our Dutch VSO colleague, Frits, who is based at the teacher training college in Nekemte, who commented that workshops are more ‘shop’ than ‘work’ when they are held somewhere with an opportunity to buy any product more cheaply than in our town.   Thus, workshops can be seen in many respects as an economic opportunity. 
The main attraction of attending or presenting a workshop is the opportunity to get free food and drinks, and a ‘per diem’.   The former is not trivial;  eating meat is not a daily event here, but is the food of choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner when it is paid for by the institution sponsoring a workshop.  For us, Emilie a dedicated 100% non-meat eater, me usually one, this makes life difficult as there is often no other choice.  The latter attraction, the ‘per diem’, is also an important motivator as it offers a boost to the coffers of our lowly-paid colleagues, especially when they can stay with family members or friends and save on the hotel costs.  As many people as possible will be involved in organising a workshop so that the benefits are spread around.  When I went to our campus in Shambu, two of us were the presenters, but our Dean went as ‘facilitator’ (another of those NGO words), which meant he could visit his family in that town, a young woman went as ‘purchaser’, which required her to carry money and pay for the soft drinks (another important component of a workshop, giving the participants the special experience of drinking Coke or Pepsi, albeit always luke-warm) and settle up with the restaurant after the meals, as well as a driver.  All got their ‘per diems’ and, in this case, a paid hotel room; 5 people for 2 to do the training.  I’m not implying that there is much corruption; all these expenses have to be approved and be taken from the relevant budgetary category.  If there is no money left for workshops this year, there will be no workshop.  Getting your ‘per diem’ is a bureaucratic rigmarole of papers and signatures, and receipts are required for all meals and drinks.  Also, it should be said, many of the workshops are extremely worthy and perhaps even valuable as a medium for ‘capacity building’, as well as for ‘experience sharing’ another popular expression and synonym for socializing.
The point Frits was joking about was that the college or university usually provides transport to these events; nothing very luxurious, just a pick-up truck.  This provides a great opportunity for shopping as ‘teff’, the indigenous grain which is the raw material for ‘injera’ the staple eaten with every meal, is a little cheaper in Shambu than in Nekemte.  So we finish the workshop on Saturday, but spend Sunday buying sacks of ‘teff’.  Charcoal is sold by the roadside so sacks of it can be chucked in the back.  Likewise, bundles of firewood, sacks of barley, live chickens, eggs, sugar cane, honey, tomatoes and carrots will be bought wherever they save a few birr, even though it makes the journey twice as long as it should be and, for the non-buyers like us, an exercise in boredom and annoyance when we would rather get home less slowly.  Butter, too, is sold loose, and as the temperature rises in the car creates a sour smell, intolerable to our delicate noses. Coffee is one product, though, that has protected markets and is illegal to transport without a licence to do so.  There are police road blocks that check up on suspicious-looking, possibly coffee-carrying vehicles, though they don’t check the contents of the occupants’ stomachs .
If we attended all the workshops that are relevant to us, we would hardly be in our placements.  Emilie’s job is the English Language Improvement Programme, funded by GEQIP, the General Education Quality Improvement Programme, the money for which is provided by a consortium of Western agencies including the World Bank, Britain’s DfID (Department for International Development), the Dutch equivalent and so on.  It pays for two annual national workshops for each of our programmes.  VSO has also sponsored a national volunteers’ ELIC workshop as well as a workshop for all education volunteers.  We just don’t have the time, inclination or desire to suffer the day’s bone-jarring road travel each way to attend every one of them and feel that our main job is doing our work at the university, not just going somewhere else to talk about it.  The Spanish have a very appropriate saying;  “Entre dicho y hecho hay mucho trecho.” – between what is said and what is done, there is a big gulf.  How much is really taken away from these events and put into practice? Our Ethiopian colleagues have a patience for talking and listening that astounds us; workshops should more properly be termed talking shops.  At least the workshops that we or VSO itself organize are interactive and participatory;  theirs all too often involve nothing more than reading out PowerPoint presentations off the wall and sitting in silence listening to hour after hour of worthy talk.  The desire to learn is enormous, however, and we admire enormously people who give up their free time at weekends to better themselves with no direct reward.  Last year and this, we four volunteers in Nekemte have run Saturday workshops for primary school teachers to improve their English and teaching skills.  We offered no per diems and only the most minimal refreshments, yet they have been reasonably well-attended and, we hope, beneficial to the participants, as well as satisfying to us to conduct.  Maybe we are kidding ourselves and rationalizing our being here, but we like to think we are doing something useful, with these workshops at least.

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A Country Wedding    April, 2011

Those of you who read my newsletters and have a good memory (that narrows it down to two) may remember my story about the ill-fated trip to a village for the engagement ceremony of an English lad and his Ethiopian girl friend. Here’s a quick reminder of what I wrote.  “Last year an Englishman in his late 20s showed up to work at the charity school for deaf children near our house.  He had been a builder in the UK, though with a degree in music technology, as you would expect.  He was using his own money to fund himself whilst supervising the construction of some new buildings and teaching woodwork.  We were astounded to hear from him over the summer when we were in Spain, telling us how he had fallen for a partially-deaf girl at the school who was from a village an hour from Nekemte, had not surprisingly fallen foul of the head of the school who obviously thought a teacher shouldn’t have sentimental relations with a student, particularly one who might even be underage (no one is quite sure how old she is), and that he intended to marry her.  He was asked to leave his job, but, to cut a long story short, he is going ahead with the plan to marry and we were invited to an engagement party at the girl’s village yesterday.”  Well, we didn’t make it for reasons to do with transport difficulties common here, but I won’t bore you with that story again.  Last Sunday, however, we attended the wedding and quite an experience it was.

Phil, for that is his name, had laid on minibuses to make sure we couldn´t escape this time and we climbed in to find we were sharing the vehicle with the bridegroom’s father, mother and a friend of the family as well as another lady, who speaks of God as her personal pal, who has been coming to the deaf school behind our house to help out for 40 odd years.  It is so rare here to see foreigners of any kind, though Chinese road builders and telephone technicians are becoming increasingly common, that to see English ladies from the home counties with their floral hats and accents to match is truly astounding.  ´Out of place’ hardly begins to describe the scene, particularly of the lady friend of the family, a woman in her 60s, who had a bare shoulder and décolleté look that would be normally associated with a ball gown.  That will go down a bomb in the village, we thought.  She, and the others, male and female, showed true British grit, though, and stiff upper lips, apart from décolleté, were much in evidence throughout the ordeal.

When we arrived at the point on the main road where we had to abandon the vehicles, we were met by horses, caparisoned in brightly-coloured ropes and tassels, traditionally used for conveying the important guests at a wedding.  At this stage, the bride was still in her home village anxiously awaiting the arrival of her husband-to-be, so Phil and his dad and brothers, whom we now saw to be typical English lads with their beads and piercings and funny hair-dos (and that was just the dad), clambered awkwardly up, though his mum for some reason, perhaps the fact that she was wearing a dress that would reveal too much leg, didn’t join them.  She and her low-cut friend with her walking stick hiked gamely across the fields leading uphill to the village.  ‘Village’ is too generous a word for the hamlet we came to, panting with the heat and altitude, after 20 minutes or so.  Then the singing and ululating of the females of the village began, with an energy and gusto that explains Ethiopia´s successes in the marathon and other endurance events.  The bride appeared wearing a dress that belonged in Phil’s family and had been brought over and adjusted for the occasion.  It seems to be the custom here, which no one has been able to explain adequately to me, for the bride to look as miserable as sin until the ceremony is over.  Perhaps it’s not just an act. Perhaps there has been sin.  It could also go back to the idea that the female has to be taken against her will.  Of course, in the West it’s traditionally thought to be the reverse.

Being honoured guests, the whites, including an Indian nun who works in these parts, were given the best seats, though best is relative as we crowded onto benches on either side of long tables in sweltering, cramped heat in a mud-walled room with no ventilation.  I know it was mud-walled because we could see from the outside, though it had been covered, walls and ceiling, with plastic sheeting.  Part of the fun was imagining what the newly-arrived English folk were making of all of this.  Emilie and I had at least experienced similar meal times when invited by colleagues in Nekemte.  After an Ethiopian buffet lunch, eaten as always with the fingers, we had another hike, this time with the bride, too, mounted on a horse, uphill and down dale, even crossing a stream, to the local church, another earth and sticks structure which was just as hot as the house had been. The youth of the village totally filled in the window holes that might have provided ventilation in their eagerness to see the spectacle which was probably the most historic event the population had ever witnessed.  A nasty fight had broken out on the way between two local men, apparently about whose turn it was to ride on one of the few horses.  This was the second fight we had seen at a wedding.  Once, on our way back from Addis, we had had to slow for a wedding procession, complete with the ornate horses.  Another traditional part of the procession is a group of twenty or so men in two ranks jumping along in time to their singing, stamping long sticks up and down.  On this occasion, two of them had started whacking each other with the sticks and the other celebrants were busy dragging them apart.  What is it, we wonder, about Ethiopian country weddings that brings out this aggression in some of the men? 

In the church, the female choir sang to the accompaniment of a drum and harp-like instrument, with the usual verve and hypnotic rhythm and swaying, and then the minister preached.  To make matters far more interesting, his preaching was translated into sign language by a male teacher from the deaf school, for the benefit of the bride herself and some of her deaf school friends who had come, and then into English by the lady mentioned earlier who can communicate to some degree in both Amharic as well as in the sign language used here.  There were some amusing mistranslations, picked up by the local interpreter who speaks English himself, especially concerning the interpretation of quotations from the Bible about women being subservient to their husbands. Sincerely enthusiastic clapping and cheering broke out when the couple were finally pronounced and gestured to be man and wife and given their official certificate, suggesting that such a wedding of a local girl to a foreigner was not badly viewed.  By some cynics, no doubt, it will be seen as her having won the lottery with undreamed of opportunities for material advancement.  We didn´t dare ask, but we wonder what his parents make of it all.  They did tell us it all seemed unreal, as if they were participating in a TV documentary and they certainly put a brave face on things, the father even getting up in the church to make a short speech, translated into sign language and Afaan Oromo, thanking the village people for their welcome and their generosity.

Even the return trip was not without drama.  Our four vehicles had stopped at a spring; trips outside the town are always interrupted by buying opportunities or, as in this case, some local delicacy that can´t be missed, even though it´s only fresh water.  Our minibus had just set off when we noticed people running agitatedly in the opposite direction.  Our car swung round to go back.  The handbrake of one of the minibuses, the one with the bridegroom’s mother still in it, had failed and the vehicle had run into a ditch and was leaning at an unfortunate angle.  It was proving to be a more memorable day for the poor lady than even she would have wished for.  Passersby stopped and stones were piled under one of the wheels so it got itself out and back onto the road.

This was the signal for the big, fat drops of rain that had been threatening to start falling.  We went back to town to Phil and Birale’s rented quarters for a bit of foreign food, but the excitement was over for the day, except for the tummy troubles which were inevitably going to afflict some of the party, as they did Emilie.

Dam!      May, 2011

The Ethiopian Prime Minister recently laid the foundation stone of what is to be Africa’s biggest dam, on the Blue Nile.  Dams are always controversial, mainly among environmentalists and those concerned for the displacement of poor, powerless residents of the area to be flooded by the lake behind the dam, but another reason for controversy is the effects that result, or are feared may result, on downstream communities which may include those in other countries.  The new Gibe 3 dam in southern Ethiopia fitted both bills:  the environmentalists said that it was being built on a tectonic fault.  They were right and one of its tunnels cracked and led to long delays in it starting up.  Neighbouring Kenya objects to the disruption to the water flow of the river Gibe which enters Lake Turkana (formerly Rudolph) in their territory.  They say the water level of the lake will be reduced and that it will become more saline.
The newest dam, however, seems to be controversial in Egypt, as far downstream as you can get, because of a 100-year-old treaty concerning the use of the Nile cooked up by the British in the bad old colonial days when Britain effectively ran Egypt and the Sudan.  Britain’s main interest in both countries was cotton to feed the mills of Manchester and cotton requires a lot of water to produce.  Poor, weak Ethiopia was in no position to protest when an ‘agreement’ was imposed stating that no country should build dams on the Nile and risk impeding the flow of the precious liquid.
Ethiopia regards hydro-electric power as the panacea which will do for it what oil has done for Saudi Arabia.  The country does have immense potential, as the ‘water tower’ of Africa, in which 5 major rivers arise and no one could question Ethiopia’s right to exploit whatever resources it may possess, but Egypt under Mubarak was worried and sought to deny that right to Ethiopia.  The new interim regime in Egypt seems to be more reasonable and Ethiopia has given an assurance that the water will only be used for electric power generation and will, after passing through the turbines, immediately return to its normal course and will not be drawn off for irrigation, which would deplete the volume of downstream water.  When the stone was laid and opposition from Egypt was expected, a mood of defiance was struck up in Ethiopia;  “If Egypt wants a fight, we’re ready for them!” our Line Manager said, confident in the knowledge that he is too old to be called up to confront the enemy and his son too young.  There has been an outpouring of nationalistic fervor to whip up support for the project.  The national TV stations, all two of them, show one dam thing after another, almost exclusively dedicated to the topic with the endless video clips of traditional dancing now having dam themes and the similarly interminable reports on meetings, with rows and rows of bored-looking men in baseball caps, are all to do with the same dam subject. 
More interestingly, for the first time, as far as I know, bonds are being sold to finance the dam;  the name’s Bond, Dam Bond.  Offering 6% per annum over 5 years, it’s not a good deal with inflation raging at the moment.  The inflation rate is not public knowledge, by the way, but a bus fare has gone up 100%, our coffee 50%, and teachers’ pay 30%, which they said was not enough.  The fact that the public is involved in financing a project like this is, however, highly significant.  The need for rulers to raise funds from their people has been the main route by which democracy has been created.  Kings needed money from their Lords to pursue their wars and the quid pro quo was a say in running the country. Eventually, this was extended to the rest of the public.  If governments raise taxes from the public, they are answerable to it.  This has always been held to be one of the defects of both aid and the income from energy resources; that they are capital which flows directly to government  and which does not require the government to be responsive to their voters.  On the contrary, politicians use part of the wealth that flows in to bribe the voters to vote for them again so that they can keep their greedy, grasping paws on that wealth.  Then the voters aren’t needed any more and can be safely ignored.  Or, in the case of dictatorships and absolute monarchies, think Saudi Arabia, the rulers can easily keep themselves in power, by force if need be.
So, these bonds will create a link of trust between government and people as well as demonstrate to the world a self-help ethic.  At least people who buy bonds get a certificate which says that it guarantees to pay the interest and capital on the due dates.  No such guarantee accompanies the donations which are ‘voluntarily’ being made towards the dam.  Collectives, such as teachers, are called to meetings at which they are asked to give a month’s salary towards the dam and most are doing so.   The month’s salary is paid into the fund over a year, not all at once, which no one could afford to do, but voluntary it isn’t as no one dares to defy the will of the group.  We are old cynics and ask how they can be sure the money will be spent on the dam, or what will happen to the money if the dam is never built, or who will really benefit from the electricity generated by the dam?  On the other hand, it is heartening to see a country trying to pull itself up by its bootstraps and willing to put its money where its mouth is, if you can excuse these mixed metaphors. 

‘Development isn´t rocket science’   May, 2011

Emilie´s gynaecologist in Estepona had it all figured out:  ‘There’s no hope for those people in Africa’ he told her when she said she was going to Ethiopia as a volunteer.  He had obviously arrived at that conclusion after an immense amount of research, and expressed it with a major display of human sympathy. You might think that it was not the most diplomatic of things to say in the circumstances. 
He wasn´t saying anything that is uncommon among many Westerners who so easily forget the two world wars we inflicted upon humanity, and even recently the corruption of Enron, Bernie Madoff, successive mayors of Marbella, the credit crunch and a very long etc., and who think there is something unique in the African psyche that keeps them backward.
Backward, in economic terms, Africa, by which I refer to sub-Saharan (i.e. non-Arab) Africa, certainly is.  The statistics, even applying the caveats that statistics always require (‘lies, damned lies and statistics’, ‘rows of figures looking for an argument’), make shocking reading; already the world´s poorest area it is falling further and further behind.  According to the latest data I can find, which may well be some years out of date, its per capita income is one third lower than that of the next poorest region, South East Asia. Most African countries have lower per capita income now than they did in 1980 or in some cases 1960. Half of Africa´s 880 million people live on less than $1 a day.  Its entire economic output is only $420 billion, just 1.2% of world GDP; less than Mexico’s.  Its share of world trade is half what it was in the 1980s, just 1.6%.  Its share of global investment is just 1%. It is the only region where per capita investment and savings have declined since 1970. It is the only region where illiteracy is still commonplace- 2 in 5 Africans and half of all women are illiterate (1 in 8 in East Asia).  It is the only region where life expectancy is falling.  All 25 lowest Human Development Index countries are African.   More than half rely on Western aid for as much as 50% of government budget and 70% of public investment.  Africa has received more foreign aid than anywhere else: $500 billion since 1960.  There is 1 doctor per 78,000 people in Ethiopia (versus 1:100-200 in the rich countries).  Three out of four people have no access to clean drinking water in Africa.  Population grows by 3-4% per annum, food by 0.5.
And yet, Africa is rich in mineral resources:  it has 75% of world´s gold, 70% cobalt, 40% vanadium and platinum.  Rich countries import up to 50% of their bauxite, phosphate, cobalt, uranium from Africa.  Coltan, vital for mobiles, is only found in the Congo and BoliviaAfrica has more than 40% of the world's potential hydro-electric power and is a major source of oil. But these possibilities of prosperity all too often become the cause of corruption, war and a worse life for the majority. 
So, what has gone wrong? Africa suffered slavery for 400 years from 1400 to 1800 and colonisation for 150 (1800-1950).   The colonial powers distrupted indigenous political and socio-economic development. Pre-capitalist Africa had hiring of labour, exchange in kind  and money-like payments (Axum 350 AD had coins), trade, empires, city states.  Of all the colonised areas of the world, Africa suffered the longest and most severely.   At least 22 million of men and women of working age were taken as slaves.  The slave trade took away the most productive Africans who then provided cheap labour for the west.  It helped the West create a vital economic surplus and led to improvements in marine technology, credit and insurance systems.  Slavery helped America produce more cotton, which then helped European cotton goods production (which went on to undermine the Indian cotton industry).  Colonisation led to a dividing up of ethnic groups; for example the Mandinka were divided between Britain and France, the former group becomin Sierra Leone and Gambia, the latter, Senegal.  The Somali people became four:  Somaliland (Britain), Somalia (Italy), Djibouti (France), Ogaden (Ethiopia).  Different ethnic groups were forced into one state and traditional forms of government were overridden or artificially created by colonists who did not know how traditional government worked and who merely appointed strong men to be the local point of contact.  This has made state-building and creating a sense of nationhood extremely difficult.  Ethiopia has 85 different ethnic groups speaking the same number of different languages.  Ironically, many now argue in Ethiopia that it would have been better off if it had been colonized!  Emilie held a debate on that topic with groups of students and the voting was remarkably even.
Once Europe had started industrializing, it was able to establish the rules by which the economic and political game would be played.  Take trade policies:   the total value of agricultural subsidies in the West amounts to $1 billion a day, higher than the gross domestic product of all sub-Saharan Africa. The European Union subsidises each cow to the extent of $900 pa, more than the average African income.  The Japanese subsidy is $2,700 per cow.  Western surpluses, sold at a fraction of their real cost of production, are then dumped on African markets, undermining domestic producers.  At the same time, African exporters face tariff barriers.  Africa is the world´s third largest producer of cotton and gives a livelihood in West Africa to 1 million farmers, representing 5-10% of GDP, more than a third of export income.  Production in West Africa costs 38 cents per pound.  Production costs in the West are twice as high, but the US gives cotton farmers a subsidy of $4 billion, more than the value of the entire crop.  They can export at a third of what it cost them to produce.  Over 15 years they have gained a third of the world market.  This has cost Burkino Faso 1% of GDP and 12% of its exports. The trade losses suffered by West Africa as a consequence are more than all the aid they receive. The EU supports cotton producers to the tune of $1 billion p.a.  It would be three times cheaper for Europe to import cotton from Africa than grow it in Spain or Greece.   African production increased by 14% between 1998 and 2002 but receipts fell by 31%.  Much the same can be said for sugar.  These trade policies cheat the Western consumer whose taxes pay these subsidies and the African farmers, who can’t sell the products of their labour and thus, by their own efforts, raise their standard of living. Yet this is what the hypocritical West preaches at them to do. The marketing of other products vital to Africa is more often than not in the hands of international marketing boards which can play producers off against each other to keep the price low.  This is the case with coffee, Ethiopia´s main export (up to 60% of exports by value) and the world´s second most traded product, after oil.  
When I said to some Spanish friends that Africa was subsidizing the West, they thought I had taken leave of my senses, until I explained about capital outflows (it is estimated that African political elites hold $700-800 billion in Western banks. Recent estimates suggest that capital flight from Africa totaled more than $600 billion between ’70 and 2004.  Total aid to Africa since 1960 is $500 billion so there has been a net loss.  Much aid is spent in donor countries, too, so the loss is even greater) and the number of skilled Africans who work in the West; as many as 40% of university graduates emigrate from some countries and only a few return.  Up to 75% of Malawi´s doctors leave the country which now has only 266 doctors for 13 million people.  The tens of thousands of dollars spent training each doctor is effectively subsidizing the Western health service.  Ethiopia has only some 4,000 doctors for 80 million people and the majority stay in Addis where the money is.  There are more Ethiopian doctors in Chicago, we heard, than in all of Ethiopia.  When the West was developing, there was nowhere better to take your skills than the country you were in or its neighbours; this is no longer true so the already poor countries lose the talent that could help to make them less poor, the victory of the personal benefit over that of the collective.  Of course, money sent home by those working abroad does help and can’t be underrated as a source of sustenance to the receiving families and, indirectly, the national economy, though Ethiopia is one of the countries in Africa with the lowest per capita level of remittances received.
Aid hasn´t always helped.  In many ways it has, such as in the drastic reduction or even eradication of diseases such as smallpox, river blindness, diphtheria, tetanus, AIDS, TB measles and malaria. Infrastructure has also improved: 40% of Ethiopia’s road building programme has been financed by foreign aid, opening up economic opportunities and facilitating the access to basic services.  Other infrastructure projects, such as dam building, are far more controversial and their benefits to the poor not so clear, especially when those poor are displaced and the electricity only benefits the towns. Another problem with aid has been the conditions imposed on the receiving countries in exchange for the aid.  When Kenya reduced restrictions on imported clothing and cotton as a condition for receiving IMF aid, cheap clothing flooded the country, devastating the country’s cotton industry.  The imported cotton included that from the USA which was exported at up to 40% less than it cost to produce because of the subsidies given to the farmers in that country.  As is well-known, aid has led to corruption as a source of revenue over which the politicians can squabble, if there are politicians, or, if not, as a very welcome fount of discretionary spending for the dictator who donates his vote in the UN or keeps out the communists or islamists.  Less well-known are the inflationary effects of aid, which actually make it harder for the country receiving it to export whatever it can offer, the fact that much aid only goes straight back to the donating or another Western country in salaries to expatriate staff and payment for products required for the aid project (up to 40%), or that it can serve to undermine democracy by taking decision-making power away from national parliaments and voters, and putting it into the hands of the donors.  I could go on, but, suffice it to say, this is a complex area whose benefits are far from clear.  Indeed, one recent writer, an economist from Zambia (Dembisa Moyo in ‘Dead Aid’), calls for the end of all aid to Africa  except for emergency, humanitarian aid.
I asked a colleague at the university today how he thought Ethiopia should develop.  He said it could not follow the Chinese model but had to find its own way.  He flatteringly said that our role as VSOs was important because, more than anything, the country needed ´capacity building´, a drastic improvement in the level of education, in the broadest sense, of its people.  He quoted as an example the effect that the Marshall Plan had had on postwar Europe, which had been able to recover from devastation in a few years because its people knew how to put the aid to work productively.  I often say to the university lecturers I teach that it’s relatively easy to build hospitals, schools and universities but it’s much harder to create the humans with the skills, knowledge and attitudes necessary to run those systems.  We also discussed the failure of the institutional infrastructure necessary to facilitate progress.  Money in the banks is not put to work effectively because, in Ethiopia at least, the state owns all the land which is then leased so no one can offer it as collateral on a bank loan.  Until recently, anyone who wanted to start a business in Ethiopia had to publish a notice in a government newspaper which cost four years’ average salary and go through 35 different procedures.  Under pressure from the World Bank the former requirement was dropped and the latter simplified and there has been a 50% increase in new businesses opening.  This is not even to begin to speak of corruption.  Transparency International ranks Ethiopia 117 out of 178 on its scale, hardly lilywhite, but not the worst, either.  Much of this is political favouritism rather than outright embezzlement at government level, from what we hear.  At least we VSO volunteers come at the request of the institutions we work for, they are our bosses and we do what they ask us, and we don´t come as ‘experts’ with huge sums of money or material in our pockets.  We can’t throw our weight around and nor do they have to kowtow to us to get their hands on the goodies we bring.  We can only offer our skills, blood, sweat and tears.
In all respects, except political openness, which has declined since 2005, Ethiopia seems to be making great progress, but, from such a low starting point, there is still a long way to go. Even with 10% or so annual growth, multiplications of next to nothing are still not very much. The colleague I mentioned above says that the main priorities for the country’s development are improvements in health, education, employment and dignity, the last being an unusual and interesting addition to the conventional list.  Many people, he said, live in semi-servitude with minimal freedom of choice or freedom to think for themselves.  We were sitting in the teachers’ coffee bar where a delightful young waitress, who always has a radiant smile on her face, runs between tables and loves to practice her English with Emilie and me, earns 200 birr a month; that’s 10 euros, 13 dollars.  The UN defines poverty as living on less than a $1 a day, on one measure, though it is being argued that it should be $2 a day.  She gets less than half a dollar a day. So many people deserve so much better.  Inequality between countries and within countries has increased: in 1998 the UNDP found that in 1960 the average income of the richest 20% of the world´s population was 30 times greater than that of the poorest 20%.  By 1995 this had become 82 times.  In 1970 the per capita GDP of the USA compared to Bangladesh (richest to poorest) was 88:1.  By 2000 gap between the richest and poorest  (Luxembourg and Guinea Bissau) was 267:1.
What’s the answer? At our in-country training course in Addis when we arrived, the head of Save the Children NGO spoke to us and said that “Development isn´t rocket science; it´s much more difficult than that!”
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If you are interested in reading more about this topic, may I recommend the following:
Jared Diamond’s  “Guns, Germs and Steel” is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historical and geographical explanation of why some countries are rich and others poor.
Jeffrey Sachs, Bono’s guru, is a developmental economist and author of the UN Millenium Goals who argues the case for an increase in aid to end once and for all the extreme poverty that blights the world in “The End of Poverty”. 
“The Bottom Billion”, by former World Bank economist and now Oxford University professor, Paul Collier, is a short account, based on an enormous body of research, which explains the trap of poverty that the very poorest countries find themselves in and suggests remedies.
William Easterly is also a former World Bank economist, but he takes Jeffrey Sachs to task on his proposals and argues, more in line with Dembisa Moyo, that aid is not the answer.
Alex Perry, TIME’s Africa bureau chief, wrote a book called “Falling off the Edge” which details the growing inequalities in the world and the conflicts that arise as a result.
Except for the last named, I don´t have these books with me here to refer to so my information comes from random notes that I have jotted from a variety of sources over the past year or so here; information is not easy to come by, especially without a fast internet connection.  I would like to have dealt with the topic exclusively with reference to Ethiopia, but it´s hard to find the data, especially if you´re not in the capital.

Summing Up  June, 2011

With the rainy season in full flood now, keeping us indoors, and only two and a half weeks until we leave Nekemte for good, it seems a good time to look back and take stock of our time here.

What have we achieved?  VSO asks for measurable, provable impacts, but so much is not like that. We are asked to quantify the numbers of direct and indirect beneficiaries of our work, though they don´t define the terms for us. The development world is full of ‘MBA-speak’, as I call it, with its ‘outputs’ and ‘inputs’, ‘objectives’, ‘impacts’ and ‘indicators’. How can we know the effect we’ve had on Bontu and Lombi?  How do you measure the time spent chatting to colleagues about life in the West (the good and the bad) and here.  Certainly, we have derived great satisfaction from doing the workshops, which people were not obliged to attend and which were not part of our official work here but merely something that we saw and need for and wanted to do, on Saturday mornings with the primary school English teachers and at the Sunshine school, with both kids and teachers.  We haven’t in any way measured the effect (impact, in development-speak), but assume that there has been some educational benefit and, perhaps more importantly, a human one.  The Director of the school wrote a letter of thanks to the four of us volunteers who work here, saying that “The overall service you have been giving is great and praiseworthy, and if it were measured in terms of money it would cost a lot. Above all, your kindness and friendly relations you have had with our students and teachers deserve great appreciations (sic).” Notice that the ‘above all’ does not focus on the measurable effects of our work. It probably sounds ‘wet’ and ‘feely-touchy’, but we should not be too cynical and, though I doubt whether anyone here (or elsewhere, come to that) can really understand our motives, certainly there is some appreciation of our efforts by those who know us and know why we are here.  How, too, do I measure the impact that teaching English children’s songs to both primary teachers and students has had?  At the workshops I taught ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ and ‘This is the Way’, among other songs, to the teachers and got them to sing and act out the words, too.  Last Friday was a national holiday celebrating the downfall of the previous military dictatorship, the Derg, and not incidentally, celebrating the coming to power of the present ruling party.  Oromiya regional TV was in town with its cameras and one of the things they broadcast was a group of schoolchildren singing the songs I had taught their teacher!  

Then there have been the benefits to ourselves; we’re not kidding ourselves we are just here for the good of others – humans don’t work that way.  We have been enriched in ways we don’t yet even begin to appreciate.  Besides anything else, we have endless stories to tell and photos to show to bore you all to tears with for years to come.  The word ‘Ethiopia’, let alone ‘Nekemte´, will jump out of the page at us and we will care for its future a little bit more than for almost anywhere else, as I still do for Egypt.  We look forward to coming back again for a visit after a few years and hope to see improvements in all aspects of life as well as to the warm welcomes we know we will receive. We have loved the countryside walks and our trips to other parts of the country, to getting under the skin of a country to better understand its people and their way of life.  

We have learnt a lot, too.  Cooking a variety of healthy, balanced meals on one electric hotplate, if there is electricity, or on a kerosene cooker, if there isn´t, using only carrots, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, rice and cabbage is a challenge and something we had to learn rather quickly.  At work, we have learnt to use the computer in ways we had never, or rarely, done before to make graphics, charts, tables and to write more reports than we ever thought possible could be required in any job.  We´ve certainly had to work on our patience, tolerance and fortitude skills as well as acquiring a fluency in Afaan Oromo and Amharic that will enable us to say ‘hello, how are you?’ and ‘thank you’ in those languages whenever we encounter an Ethiopian.

However, it´s been physically and psychologically draining.  We feel shell-shocked, particularly after the recent onslaught of illnesses which affected us both.  VSO had told us that volunteers don´t usually suffer any more illness while abroad than they would at home.  We have been exceptions then, especially Emilie, who has suffered urinary tract infections at least 6 or 7 times, acute gastroenteritis, dysentery and typhoid. I’ve had malaria and typhoid in just the past three weeks.  When you’re ill in places like this you just wish there were a magic carpet to whisk you instantly back to where you know you can be comfortable and get the best treatment.  The doctors in this town really don´t inspire much confidence and the child´s-chemistry-set ´laboratories´ where the tests are conducted, even less so.  How would we ever get to the capital, Addis, the only place where there is sophisticated equipment and, one supposes, the best medical care, in an emergency?  That has been a worry.  We live on the edge, always worried that some disaster may befall us and that we are trapped. The lack of water, of electricity, of easy to make food, of internet, even of mobile phone access are much harder to bear when you don’t feel well and there have been times when we have just wanted to pack up and go, concerned that we were building up problems in our bodies from which we would never recover. How is it possible that in one of the wettest parts of the country, where we are now in the rainy season, there are so many day-long periods without domestic water? Despite the optimism with which we started the year, in a vivid illustration of the topic of a blog from last year (which I’m sure you all remember), entitled Things Fall Apart after a Chinua Achebe novel, these last few weeks have saved the worst for last; daily power and water cuts and, worst of all, no internet or mobile phone connections for two weeks or more, just when we so desperately need the internet for making our leaving arrangements, flight bookings and so on.  Even the land line in our house crackles so badly that we can’t hear what the other person says. We feel totally cut off from the world. Nothing is ever explained to the public here, either, except when the government wants the public´s money to build a new dam, so no one knows why mobiles and internet are down for so long. 

Work, too, can be challenging with misunderstandings and what seem to us unnecessary complications to achieving anything.  Our line manager has at least been a more approachable, sympathetic person than last year’s, who went off to India to do a PhD.  He’s got a good sense of humour and appreciates ours, even when it’s barbed and implying criticism.  When I went in to nag him about something I wanted done once he said humorously, “You ferenjis (foreigners) give me a headache!”  I’ve quoted that at training sessions with university lecturers to tell them that they, too, must give their bosses a headache when something fixable stands in the way of their doing a good job.  Last year I had the frustration of a counterpart, who was supposed to be working alongside me and learning from me, who rarely appeared, with the excuse that he was having his house built and had to supervise operations.  This year he’s fine and working well, but we’ve brought two other counterparts on board to get the experience of running the programme in order for it to be ‘sustainable’ (i.e. carry on) and now I find that they tend to decide things without my knowing or being involved in the decision and when I query it they say that they told me or that I should already know about it, by clairvoyance, I suppose.  I try not to make an issue out of it, telling myself that it´s their future, not mine and that this is evidence of the ‘capacity building’, the ability to run things for themselves, that I was tasked with.  Work colleagues disappear to see their families in other parts of the country for days on end or for workshops in mid-term taking it for granted that we are here to make sure things carry on, or not worried if they don’t.  Emilie and I bought 26,000 birr worth of books on a two-day shopping trip to Addis last year;  this year, six teachers managed to spend ten days to buy books for 17,000 birrs, with per diems.  By chance, they have families in Addis.  These are cultural impediments to rapid development, though, ultimately, it´s up to them how and at what speed they develop, not us.

Emilie´s work has been more difficult to feel satisfied and rewarded with than mine.  I inherited an ongoing, nationally-designed course of lecturer training that has some prestige and possible career benefits with a handbook for the participants and a leader’s guide for the person running the classes, all produced by VSO volunteers working at the Ministry of Education alongside local counterparts. I taught lecturers, 25 last year, 58 this, and trained three counterparts, who will take over the running next year, and can say my job´s done.  I also, with Emilie´s help, wrote material for and ran several two-day, lecturer training workshops, both on our main campus in Nekemte and at the outlying ones at Ghimbi and Shambu, an hour and a half’s and four and a half hour’s drive away, respectively.  These are necessary because most university lecturers are incredibly young, only recently graduated themselves, and have had no pedagogical training at all.

In Emilie’s case, however, although the English Language Improvement Programme was also established by volunteers and Ethiopian colleagues at the Ministry, there is no centrally-produced material to use, little guidance about what to do and no obligation on the part of lecturers or students, the supposed beneficiaries, to participate.  It all depends on the volunteer in each university or college deciding who needs classes, setting them up, writing the material to be taught and hoping that someone will, voluntarily, attend.  Also, Emilie is supposed to be an adviser, not just the teacher, but cannot find anyone else willing or designated to do the teaching. What happens when classes are set up is that everyone starts with great enthusiasm, keen for the opportunity to improve their English, which, let us not forget, is the medium of instruction, but then, all too often, quickly finds excuses to disappear.  Sometimes, the excuses are real and created by the general disorganization of the university where spontaneous meetings are called, timetables changed arbitrarily, and any number of other disruptions arise unexpectedly leaving  the poor old ELIP bottom of the priority chain.  For example, last year Emilie started a class for female students, who are supposed to need the ‘empowerment’ which improving their English skills would help to bring about. It was felt that being free from dominating male company would rid them of the excuse not to participate and embarrassment at doing so, but after a few weeks they totally disappeared as if they´d all voted with their feet from one day to the next.  If there is any interruption for whatever reason, such as the Christmas break, the class just never restarts as though everyone has forgotten about it. The most successful course, perhaps, was a short-term one for secretaries which was 12 sessions over 5 weeks and had 90% attendance, even though it ate into their lunch breaks. They were a lovely fun group of women of various ages and organized a traditional ‘coffee ceremony’, filling the room with smoke from the charcoal, to celebrate the end of the course and the certificate-giving ceremony.  There were some good groups of third-year English major students that also reached successful conclusions.  One surprisingly serendipitous achievement came about when Emilie’s sister, who works in the Psychology Department at Leiden University, emailed to say that her boss was running a project to offer several Africans the chance to do a PhD in their own countries, sponsored by Leiden, with visits to Holland included.  Emilie was very excited about the possibility, got very involved in trying to make it a reality for one of our staff here and was delighted when one of the Psychology lecturers, who was in her advanced English, IELTS, class, applied and was accepted for one of the places.  He’s a thoroughly deserving, thoughtful man whom we look forward to seeing in Holland one day.  It pleases us even more that most of the work will be done here than if he had gone off to Holland for three years, as so many of those who get that chance don´t come back and bring no or little benefit to the country.

One thing that disappoints us is the widespread ‘can´t do’ attitude. So often, when we suggest something that we think should or could be done to improve life (such as when I asked the librarian to photocopy two books of mine on development which I feel should be in the university library - where many books are only illegal photocopies - or I encourage lecturers to use a variety of active learning methods, or Emilie needs her small library of books to be registered in the main library but not moved there) the answer is that it can´t be done or ways are found to make it immensely complicated.  I have mentioned this attitude in teaching training sessions by asking what Obama’s election slogan was; they all know and say “Yes, we can!” (it appears here on T-shirts, emblazoned in English and Amharic).  Then I say “Correct.  It’s not ‘No, we can’t’!”  They see the point.  People are very hierarchical and deferential, always avoiding rocking the boat, preferring to act in line with tradition and political obligation.  This makes the attitude changes that we are trying to bring about, which follow the policies of their own Ministry of Education, extremely difficult to achieve.  There is no habit of reading, not even among most university lecturers, who rely on one standard textbook or their own university notes for their lectures and we never see them sitting and having a coffee reading, even though they are completely alone, and only rarely using Emilie´s library, which is well-stocked with up-to-date reference as well as reading books.  The President of the university decries this, too, but even he is powerless to change it.  The doctor in the clinic where I was treated for malaria sat staring into space or watching the TV screen in the waiting room between patients yet, when I asked about dietary restrictions relating to the medicine he was prescribing me, he said none, though when I read the prospectus, there were; why hadn´t he spent his time reading up about his medicines?

 There’s also an attitude of ‘It´s good enough’ in relation to all work that we see, intellectual and physical, with no imperative to strive to do it better, to do jobs as well as they could be done given the limitations here:  trivially, in almost every hotel we have stayed in, which are never the classy ones, the soap dish in the shower slopes downwards so that the soap always slides off onto the shower floor, all taps in the country swivel when you turn them though they are not the swiveling kind, the scooter-taxis line up at their starting point in random order so that you have to walk along the whole line asking to find which is the first one to go (why not line up in order of departure?), washing is thrown over the line to dry all bundled up so that it dries more slowly and comes out totally wrinkled, paint dribbles down over sections of a different colour on walls because the painters can’t be bothered or don’t think to use masking tape, even though it’s easily available.  Is it because there is no example of high standards to copy or learn from?  It’s not only lack of skills, certainly; it’s the lack of an attitude.  We, in the West, have internalized the urge to improve, to innovate, whether for competitive reasons, because we are obliged at our workplaces or because we find satisfaction by doing so; that approach is far less common here where rows of shops, for example, will all sell the same items with none trying to distinguish itself.  We’re not here to inculcate the ethos of capitalism, nor are we always convinced of its merits in all its manifestations, but striving to do better is a human characteristic with positive connotations which we would be happy to see more of here.  The government itself aspires to raise Ethiopia to middle-income-country status, but it’s not going to happen without considerable cultural change.

Doing better than others, in this tradition-bound society, is frowned upon as a threat and a challenge to others and can lead to teasing and virtual ostracism.  An Ethiopian lecturer who does my job at another university and who I love chatting to at conferences when we meet told me how he greatly admired the work ethic of the volunteers who worked with him but how, when he imitated them, was made to feel a pariah by his fellows.  This happens to a degree everywhere, perhaps, but seems to be particularly strong here where the prevailing ethos is not that of work hard to get ahead or show your commitment to your job and organization, but keep your head down to conform.  This is encouraged by the one-party dictatorship political system in which party yes-men get the plum jobs over hard-working talented people.  The line taxi drivers were on strike in Addis the other day to get the government to increase the controlled fares to match increased petrol prices; there was not a word in the government-controlled media This hardly conduces to spirited debate, nor to the desire to aspire to better things.  If they are not careful, the rulers here are heading down the same path as Egypt’s Mubarak and others in the region.

I know I sound like an old-fashioned Western imperialist looking down on the ignorant natives, but when I discuss these matters with the lecturers I teach, they always say I´m right, that these things must change and recognize that it must come from themselves.  “Improvement begins with I”, as the cute punning saying has it.  I know I sound dreadfully negative, too, but, as a slogan at our induction training in Addis reminded us “If there wasn´t a problem, you wouldn´t be here!”  Doubtless, there are lessons we can learn from Ethiopians and maybe they should send some ‘aid workers’ in the opposite direction, but the demand comes from the opposite direction and their problems really are matters of life and death.

There is change, though, and a powerful commitment by the government to transform for the better rural life, the role of women, aid dependency, food stability, the quantity and quality of education (13 new universities in 5 years, with 10 more to come) and, in general, to achieve the UN’s Millenium Development Goals, of which it is a star performer, on schedule.  We notice new buildings springing up here in Nekemte, nothing compared to the boom in Addis, which are evidence and symbols of optimism and determination.  Even those who oppose its dictatorial methods, praise much that the government has achieved, perhaps made even more possible by the single-mindedness that the lack of opposition permits, the ‘Chinese model’.

A friend of ours in Spain said to us before we came, as a result of a trip she had made to the tourist sites of Ethiopia, “They (Ethiopians/Africans?) have something which we in the West have lost.”  She couldn’t have been more wrong.  All human life is here, the good and the bad, with extremes of cruelty and ignorance, as well as resilience, generosity and solidarity.  Many Westerners only see the former, alternative types only the latter, and the complexity gets lost.  They love their children, yet children work from the earliest of ages and are left alone all day.  The two on our compound of 4 and 8 are loved and cared-for, yet are left for hours on their own and the younger one wields a razor-sharp knife to peel the potatoes  while the elder girl lights a charcoal fire and cooks for them both. Unthinkable to us.  People here look after their elderly, yet when you see the fights to get on the line taxis, it’s the elderly (or a heavily pregnant woman we saw once) who get left behind with no one concerned to give them a place.  They love their families and look after each other, yet a colleague at work complained to me about his sister virtually demanding that he give her money.  Many brothers and sisters, probably more the former, abuse the family support network and the others do realize and resent it.  Our colleague Frits encountered a boy in the street with badly damaged arms and, on asking him, was told that his father had strung him up with rope to a beam for several days as a punishment.  Frits tried to get the neighbours, police and local government to do something about it, but no one wanted to get involved.  Yet it is routine for elder brothers or sisters, or the more successful, to support others in the family to pay for their education or medical care. When I was in hospital for malaria recently visitors flocked in, twenty-two one day, including the President of the university twice, and a neighbour brought us tea and cooked food, which hospitals don´t provide here, for breakfast at 7 o´clock in the morning both days. 

Why should it be otherwise?  Humans the world over, rich or poor, are far more similar than they are different;  paradises and utopias only exist in the minds of those with highly selective eyesight or cast-iron ideologies. Looking after the young and elderly, caring for the sick, these are human universals. That is the greatest challenge of an experience like ours, how you can share your common humanity with people whose external circumstances are so vastly and, often shockingly, different?. The VSO motto is “Sharing Skills, Changing Lives”, but it should just read “Sharing Lives” which is, perhaps, the most we can claim for our time here.

I’ve jotted a random list of some of the good and bad things about our life here, apart from what has been mentioned above:

The good:  Bontu and Lombi; our house and terrace, where we sit watching the birds and enjoying the colourful plants, sometimes even colobus monkeys; many people who were kind, warm and welcoming; the pleasant weather during the dry season conducing to country walks with lovely views; teaching/training when we have non-bureaucratic personal interaction with people who enjoy and appreciate our work; drinking a machiatto while chatting with colleagues; kids who say hello on the street, or smile and wave; fruit juices at the juice bars; sociable evenings with our VSO colleagues when we cook a meal, have a few drinks and chat or play cards; acting as a focus for the generosity of friends back home (we’ve been sent money, books, even spectacles, to donate here; egotistically, feeling different and rather special with everyone knowing who we are; writing letters and feeling we have something to say(?)

The bad:  Kafkaesque administrative hassles; paperwork, with interminable and repetitive reports to write for our two bosses, VSO and the university; transport, with its extreme discomfort, uncertainty about its very availability and squabbles to get a place; lack of variety  and quality of food;  missing chocolate, cheese and brown bread; local food in general(except ‘beyeynet’) is not something we will miss; erratic services of every kind: water, electricity, internet, phone network, machines, transport; people who ask for money facetiously; blaring churches and music shops, especially our hitlerian Protestant preacher next-door but one, but also including the wailing Orthodox church which goes on all night on occasion;  the wild street dogs which howl and bicker every night; the mercenary attitude of ”I´m not going to lift a finger unless I’m paid for it” which we often encounter;  the denial of democratic rights with the lies and deceits practiced by the virtual one-party dictatorship government, which insults the intelligence of a lot of bright people who daren´t speak out.

You´ll be very happy to know, if you´ve read this far, that I will no longer be making such great demands on your attention span as we return to Europe in a few days and my emails will become much shorter again.  I hope that you will have gained at least some insights into the life of the Ethiopian people and that, because of our presence here, the country will have become more interesting to you, too, though we’ve only scratched the surface; as I wrote in an earlier newsletter, the longer you live in a country the more you realize you don´t know much about it at all. 

We look forward to seeing you all again very soon.