I’m exhausted… but I feel good. Tomorrow I’m flying to Kenya (well actually, I’m getting the bus at the crack of dawn to Bahir Dar, to get the evening flight to Addis, then the next day I’m flying to Kenya) to spend Christmas with some other VSOers (hooray!) And, to make it even better, I’m going with the satisfaction that we (the college and me) have done some good stuff in the last couple of weeks.
Coffee ceremony number 4
Having ‘done’ the boys, it was time to get a guest speaker for the girls. I wanted to focus on health stuff because a high number of girls drop out of high school / college here because they unintentionally get pregnant. And of course, the issue of HIV is pretty big here. So, I asked the lovely Nurse Ethiopia (yes, that’s her real name) – neighbour, and nurse at the local clinic – to come and speak to the girls about family planning. She doesn’t speak English, so it would be in Amharic, but sod it, I thought, let’s just forget the frigging English – some things are more important! (And this, my friends, turned out to be the key…)
So, anyway I’d found 2 excellent students, Maritu and Zufan, to lead the discussion, and they took it upon themselves to do the introduction and links in both English and Amharic – kind of Eurovision Song Contest style. Then, amazingly, when the other girls got up to share their ideas and opinions, they did the same. I couldn’t believe it…after 10 months of nagging the girls, and saying over and over ‘please speak English’, when they were given the option to use Amharic, they chose to show off their English!! Lesson learned! All I can say is – “Girls of Gilgel Beles – douze points!”
But more importantly Nurse Ethiopia was brilliant. She had a great rapport with the girls, they were really interested in everything she had to say, and they had genuine questions for her. We gave out photocopied pamphlets at the end, and it was literally like we’d given them the latest copy of Heat magazine – they were enrapt! So, I was really chuffed – I think it was an interesting and useful event (and I honestly can’t say that about everything I do here) and if it stops one girl from dropping out or getting sick… awesome!
Incidentally, my personal favourite part of the whole event was the day before. Because coffee is made from scratch here, and therefore an extremely lengthy process, the girls always do the washing, roasting and grinding of the beans the day before these events. Usually they go to the ELIC ‘librarian’ – Worke’s house to do this. ( I think I may have mentioned Worke before in an early blog. She is a nice woman, but probably the most passive person I have ever met. One day, totally frustrated by her lack of activity and interest to actually do anything, I asked her what her job involved. Her concise and quite fantastic reply was “Sitting”. Well…you can’t really argue with that, so I didn’t.) Anyway, despite her passionate inactivity, the one thing she does do, and it helps me out a lot, is let the girls come to her house and prepare the coffee beans before an ELIC event. However, on this occasion Worke was sick. So, I borrowed all the coffee washing, roasting and grinding paraphernalia from my neighbour and they came to my house instead. All of them… It was meant to be 6 girls, but then, when they realised they would have a chance to see the ferenji’s house, 17 turned up. Seriously, I felt like I was on MTV Cribs. They checked out my wardrobe, my photos, my cosmetics – minimal, btw – (best moment, one girls spraying herself liberally under the arms with deet insect repellent, thinking it was body spray), the contents of my kitchen, and were extremely excited by my hair straighteners and an old copy of ‘Glamour’ that was passed on to me by another volunteer. After the initial excitement, however, they were let down once again by my music selection. “Suzie, do you have Chris Brown?” “Suzie, why don’t you have Chris Brown?” I felt old and uncool. (Why don’t I have Chris Brown?..)
Peer Mentoring for Girls
When my VSO programme manager visited way back in June he suggested I apply for a grant and implement a gender project that had been successful at another college. Basically it involved selecting the strongest female students in each department, and paying them a small amount to tutor the weakest, ie, those in danger of failing and therefore getting kicked out. Sounded great. A good chance for the struggling students to improve their chances of graduating, and a nice opportunity for the very academic girls to practise their mentoring skills, gain confidence, and a earn a few birr.
I managed to enlist one of the special needs instructors, Gizachew (who is also nominally assistant head of gender), to set up the project with me. He agreed to help me get lists of suitable students from the heads of departments and speak to the girls. A good start….but as usual the process wasn’t exactly smooth, due to a few ‘challenges’…
1) The attitude of some department heads – some told me there were no strong female students (not, of course, true), and wouldn’t it be better to use male student tutors instead? (“Um, actually no, it wouldn’t, and I think you’re slightly missing the point, you sexist, misogynistic axxxhole!” – This is what I thought, but thankfully – and I think you’re going to be proud of me here – not what I said.)
2) One department head actually produced the list of students, one gave it to me in Amharic script, some asked what payment they would receive for producing the list (WTF?) and the others just didn’t bother. So, in the end, I got the lists myself from Tadele, the ever-helpful college registrar.
3) We had to have two attempts at getting the relevant students together – at the first meeting only 6 turned up, so they were delegated the task of bringing the others the following day. This time was slightly more successful – almost all the selected girls were there – but then, something I hadn’t really anticipated (in retrospect, very naively) happened. Gizachew explained the idea of the project in Amharic – the reasons behind it and the benefits for all involved. Unfortunately, the lack of enthusiasm from the girls was overwhelming. It was honestly like we’d suggested going for a 10 mile walk in the scorching midday Gilgel heat…barefoot…carrying a bag of rocks. I couldn’t help feeling that I’d got something badly wrong here…
Anyway, despite this great, encouraging vibe, the girls did manage to organise times for their sessions together, and the groups did start this week. And some even managed to look like they wanted to be there. Who knows…maybe it will work.
Trying to let go
One of the things that’s hard for me here, is that as VSO volunteers, we’re not actually meant to do everything – what we’re meant to do is demonstrate, encourage, motivate, facilitate, and basically cajole the local people into doing things for themselves. Essentially, capacity-build, which is, of course, absolutely the right policy. There are 3 main reasons why this can be difficult, however. Firstly, my local colleagues often don’t want, don’t have time, or simply aren’t interested in doing these things. (Understandably, given that it generally means a bit of extra work for them.) Secondly, constant cajoling is hard work. I don’t know how much you’ve cajoled, but I find it absolutely exhausting, and it can be slightly dispiriting. (On the other hand, when it pays off, it’s well worth it!) Finally, it’s generally just much quicker to do things yourself, and (without meaning to be rude), you know that it will get done. On top of this, I can be a tiny, weensy bit of a control freak…say no more.
However, on this occasion, which happened to be a debate on whether women in Ethiopia should focus more on having careers or being good mothers, I was determined to sit back and let my counterpart, Tsehay, take the lead.
Ok, so I didn’t stay completely out of it, (there was definitely more than just cajoling going on), but I definitely did less. Even to the point where, when inevitably the hall wasn’t free as promised at the start time of the debate, instead of getting in everyone’s face, I just went to the staff cafeteria, had a coke, and let Tsehay sort it out. (Note to self – not only good for capacity building, but also excellent for my mental health). And the debate was great. The team advocating women having careers were particularly good – (and the thing about here is, even if the language isn’t always brilliant, they say it all with passion) – and we had a full house, with many of the students (even one female student!!!) wanting to get up and offer their (passionate) opinions on the subject.
These 3 things happened in the space of a week, so at the weekend I felt I deserved a bit of a reward, a bit of a chill-out sess, a bit of a treat. But what would it be? A hot bath? A slap-up meal? A few glasses of chilled sauvignon blanc??? Sadly, none of these are available in Gilgel Beles, so I went for the only other possible option – I decided to chew a bit of chat. Now, in terms of drugs, I am probably the squarest person I know. My experience is limited to a few unsatisfactory puffs of weed on a couple of occasions at music college, (the first just made me feel sick, and the second meant that I couldn’t focus on my violin practice the next day, so there was no way that was going to happen again… ) and a bit of experimentation with laughing gas on a ‘crazy’ birthday a few years ago. Therefore, I’m not the obvious candidate for chat chewing, but hey, there’s precious little else to do on a weekend in Gilgel, and it’s only chomping on a few leaves – how bad could it be?
And, actually it wasn’t bad at all. In fact it was rather pleasant! Nothing happened for the first hour or so, I just felt quite chilled and really wanted to listen to ferenji music, then I got extremely talkative, and finally felt the need to give everyone present advice on love and relationships…. (Why I thought I of all people was qualified to do that, I have no idea.) Went to bed at 2am (wild, I know!), but couldn’t sleep all night. Check me out…I’m soooo rock n roll.