What it’s like to work in Ethiopia

On the streets of Addis Ababa – the capital of Ethiopia – chaos reigns supreme. Buildings are half-finished, abandoned when developers ran out of money. And if you walk down Bole Road, the main ‘high street’ for just a few minutes you’ll be accosted by several heartbreaking charity cases. You might see a boy with half of his face burned by acid, or an emaciated mother with a baby hungrily sucking at her breast. There may be a grandmother with no legs, crawling frantically along the curb side – hoping to get spare change from the passing vehicles.

Heavy smoke billows out of Lada taxi cars that would be laughed out of any UK MOT centre. Drivers (who often buy licenses on street corners) weave haphazardly through the streets. They beep their horns at every possible opportunity, rarely – if ever – actually stopping at a zebra crossing.

You’re never alone here. If you’re a ‘ferengi’ (the Ethiopian word for foreigner and also – incidentally – the name of the alien race in Star Trek) you’ll always have swarms of locals around you. Children as young as three will constantly implore you to buy their tissues and chewing gum. Others will launch into an Amharic begging ‘sales script’, widening their eyes in expectation of pay day. This was our welcome to Ethiopia and our daily experience.

So, why had we moved to Addis?

Well, my husband and I had decided that we would visit an African country for 100 days to ‘give something back’. At the time I was doing pro bono PR (via my employer) for a charity called SafeHands for Mothers. I loved their work with women and children, much of which is in Ethiopia. And my husband was on a sabbatical working for Save the Children. Life hadn’t been easy but we both felt we had been very lucky . We had both been successful in our careers and knew that our skills (mine in journalism and PR and his in management consultancy) were strongly needed in the charity sector.

Being of Caribbean origin, we had decided it would be amazing to reconnect with the African country that my ancestors were originally from. One maternal ancestry DNA test later, we discovered I had links to Cameroon and Gabon. But there was just something about Ethiopia – a special kind of allure.  It seems that Bob Marley and his Rastafarian brothers were right about seeing Ethiopia as some kind of homeland. And compared to other African countries, it was relatively safe, and was a cost-effective place to live.

So, using my husband’s Save the Children contacts, we secured ‘on the ground’ placements In Ethiopia. Our salaries covered our flights and living expenses.

I had never even been camping before, yet I had a romantic notion of going into the field and really making a difference. But Ethiopia is a country with challenges on many levels. In fact, many charity workers who hold high paying jobs in Ethiopia have previously spent months living in remote villages with no running water or electricity. And the suitability of expats for overseas charity roles has a lot to do with whether they can eat the local food and not get sick. So, we had been cautioned with tales of business people who sign up for a year’s charity work and fly home within two weeks.

Yet, we had drive and determination and the willingness to get stuck in and make a difference. But could that be enough?

My 'wake-up call'

The country we arrived in was one that was still in dire straits. Shortly after arriving back home I read a newspaper report that outlined how Ethiopia had supposedly gone from ‘famine to feast’. Yes, it’s true that most people are no longer literally starving and that Ethiopia has the third fastest growing economy in the world. But it still remains one of the poorest countries in the world. In the 2010 Human Development Report, published by the United Nations, Ethiopia ranked 13 from the bottom of 169 countries. A whopping 50% of Ethiopians are aged under 17. And one in ten children still dies before the age of five, from causes that we can easily prevent.

On my first day of work, I was advised by my colleague to: “watch your back, because the most dangerous job you can do in Ethiopia is to be a journalist.” I had nursed hopes of writing a blog, even contributing to the local newspapers and documenting the issues the Ethiopians faced first-hand. But as he regaled me with horror stories about the front-line of journalism, I decided it was safer to take another track. I focused on my core role, which was to create a communications strategy for Save the Children’s African Advocacy Initiative. This included creating writing and editing guidelines for documents.

I also focused on teaching the Save the Children employees how to write compelling stories, more like magazine articles, that documented the charity’s work. I created a two-day training course that involved visiting Merkato, in the heart of the Addis slums. The area is congested, with people almost living on top of one another. And walking the streets is like playing an intricate game of dodgems.

Merkato is Ethiopia’s centre of commerce. Businesses buy and sell here in bulk before distributing their goods across the country. It’s not unusual to see men carrying five double-bed mattresses on their heads. Others have 30 plastic containers perched on their shoulders. Unfortunately, sex also sells well there. And this has helped the area to have one of the highest rates of HIV /AIDS in Addis Ababa. As a centre of commerce, many people come into the area looking for work.  However, they find that the streets are not ‘paved with gold’ and many end up on the streets or working as prostitutes. The rich businessmen return to the more prosperous parts of Addis leaving a slum at their corner of their businesses.

A feeling of just skimming the surface

My course involved visiting Ayesha, a 16-year-old orphan with tuberculosis who lives with her 14-year-old brother Jaffar. They live in an 8 square metre tin house in Merkato, which is tiny considering that a typical prison cell is 5.5 square metres. Their parents both died of AIDS. Now they scrape together a living, with Jaffar selling cardboard boxes for people to kneel on at the mosque. But the irony is that each time myself and group of 15 participants visited we would give them at least 200 birr (about £8). This is the amount an average person would earn in a week. And I couldn’t help but wonder how our acts of kindness help to perpetuate poverty: skimming the surface but never finding a cure.

The ultimate purpose of the course was to enable the participants to write great stories that would ultimately entice donors to fund projects. I began to get an understanding of what it is like to be an orphan in Ethiopia. I was immersed in the poverty of a country that I’m told is proud to have never been colonised and doesn’t actually want handouts. But each night, we went back to our comfortable apartment, which was set in an art gallery. It was spacious, clean and tidy and a refuge from each day’s sights and sounds. And it only served to emphasise the rich-poor divide in the country.

Living in a city that doesn't 'sleep'

The city never really left us. Every night street dogs howled and barked in packs performing a dog’s chorus that could last for hours. Then just when quiet descended, the 5am call to prayer would be blasted from the speakers of the nearest Christian Orthodox church.

However, there were moments of pure joy. When we visited Save the Children projects, we would be greeted by hordes of smiling children. In fact, some said that our visit was one of the happiest times of their lives. At one school for orphans we handed out some simple stationery sets and the gratitude and excitement from the children was overwhelming.

But to survive in charity work you have to firmly get off the emotional rollercoaster and take a pragmatic approach to your work. You have to look at making the system better and try to ignore the lone beggar tugging at your trousers for some spare change. It’s certainly not for the faint hearted.

Being happy to let go

And so I left Ethiopia with a huge respect for the people who manage to do this work on the ground, day-in and day-out. I can’t. There is also very little order and predictability in Addis, and so I found the daily chaos draining. I often found myself feeling completely bewildered by my surroundings. For instance, if I took a short stroll from my office to eat at a simple cafe, a cow or a donkey carrying sheaves of Teff flour would saunter past. For someone used to glossy magazines, high heels and sushi bars, it was a shock to my system. However, with my eyes opened to real poverty, I appreciated my life in England in a way I had never done before. And it has upped my commitment to continue giving to charity, albeit from a distance.

I also realised that going in search of my roots in Africa was fruitless.  I felt at odds with the Ethiopian people who tried to constantly adopt me as one of their own. I realised that my roots are a mix of Caribbean and Black British, and that roots are based in the community and culture in which you grow up or adopt for yourself. They’re not tied to biology or DNA. And that the colour of our skin or where we originally hailed from doesn’t necessarily make us who we are.

But I wouldn’t change a thing about our adventure. Yes, it was tough at times being in the trenches, but most Ethiopians don’t have a choice. We did.

Homecoming: a poem about my Ethiopia experience (originally performed at the 2011 Oslo International Poetry Festival)

I began a genetic journey
In search of lost blueprints
Awaiting my homecoming to the cusp of my kin
To the spiritual birthplace of the rootless Rastafarians
But the path wound west to a remote village
To the heart of a tribe of cannibals

Then a howling cry shadowed me through the streets of London
Mourning my rotting bloodline from the corpses of slaves
Coerced and captured onto Jamaica-bound ships
Unlike the proud Habesh

So I travelled
Tossing high heels, magazines and sushi in media land
Picking up pace like a high speed train snatching seconds of billboards
Carnival, rum, braids with beads
Lilting Patois around laughing little feet

But the streets of Addis were potholed with pitfalls
Faces burnt by acid
Suckling babies on hungry breasts
Hollow eyes imploring ferengis, “to pay, to pay”
Smoke billowing from rusted cars
A symphony of bells, prayers and dogs
A kaleidoscope of chaos
As sunlight peeks a new day

Calm settled and a voice called me home
To a place of afternoon tea and crowded tubes
Where health is not a luxury, where the poor die old
And prison cells are not childhood homes

My genes of Africa lie dormant
Quieted, chastened, moulded by change
A community and culture where brown is British
And Britain is home.

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