A trip up north

Guess what? I’ve escaped! To cut a long story short, a while ago, Peter, another volunteer, invited me on a trip he’d organised, trekking in the mountains in northern Ethiopia. Right up my street, and I really wanted to go, but I felt guilty about leaving my placement again so I said I couldn’t. However, after two and a half weeks of no electricity at all in the village, not being able to cook or work properly, or in fact do anything much at all after about 6pm my resolve was definitely weakening. The next day I was bitten on the face by an angry wasp (unattractive swelling, sadly no photos ), there was news that we could be waiting another month for power, and I realised I could combine trekking with a trip to Addis to buy equipment for the college. At this point any guilt I had left had been  replaced by a desperation to get out…and I was off!

Tuesday Sep 3rd  (Journey to Axum, day 1)

Get up at 4.15am to trudge through mud, in pitch dark, to bus station. My student’s agreed to meet me there at 5am to help me get my bus. I arrive and I’ve got no idea if he’s there or not, but I can’t find him – it’s far too dark and there are already loads of people waiting outside the locked gates.  After about 20 minutes of waiting, no student and no action in the bus station, I ask  in my best Amharic, if there’s a bus going to Bahir Dar today(I’ve been caught out by this before…). Luckily, there is, and one of the guards takes pity on me, the lone ferengi, lets me through the station gates early, and gets someone to help me onto the right bus with my bags. And THANK GOD HE DID, ‘cos when the gates are finally opened at 5.40am, there’s a mad stampede for the bus – it’s basically survival of the fittest, dog eat dog, first come first served, and some people don’t get a seat and are chucked off again. (I would never have made it with my huge ferengi backpack!)

Anyway, the bus leaves at 6 and we’re on our way. I’m feeling surprisingly chipper for such an early start, and when we suddenly have to stop because there’s a huge lorry stuck in the mud, almost sideways on in the road, I’m not worried – I’ve got hours til my flight, and surely another truck will just come and pull him out, and then we’ll be on our way.

As the minutes tick away, though, it dawns on me that I’ve never actually seen any kind of rescue or emergency vehicle here at all, and how would they contact them anyway ?- we’re in the middle of nowhere and there’s no phone signal…hmmm. I’m getting a teensy bit worried.

Early morning bus queue

Early morning bus queue

Meanwhile, other buses are starting to queue up behind us , everyone’s getting off , shouting at the lorry driver and having reunions with long lost friends. The local police arrive – hurray, we’re saved! They stand round, looking nervous and doing nothing…

An hour and a half later I’m getting seriously stressed. Various valiant communal attempts to push the lorry out of the way have failed, and it doesn’t look like we’re going anywhere. I put my sunglasses on and have a mini breakdown. If I can’t get to Bahir Dar today, I’ll miss my flight to Addis tonight, which means I’ll miss my flight to Axum tomorrow morning, which means I won’t be able to go trekking or see my friends…and worst of all, means I’ll have to go back to the darkness of Gilgel Bloody Beles. Woe is me!!!



And then things turn around. Unbelievably. after a gargantuan effort, they manage to push the lorry just far enough to let the other vehicles past. Everybody cheers, and we all get back on our respective buses. And just then I hear “Suzie!”, and I turn to see Million, one of the drivers for Mike’s NGO.

“Suzie! Where are you go?”

“Bahir Dar.”

“Me, I go Bahir Dar. Come on!”

So I end up getting a nice comfortable ride to Bahir Dar in a brand new SUV. Million drops me off at a hotel where I meet my friend Dereje and have a nice lunch. I bump into the owner of the hotel (who I’ve met before) who offers me a free ride to the airport, get my plane, no problem, and arrive at 10pm at Judy’s (another volunteer) house, where she makes me beans on toast for tea! (Baked beans! Luxury!)

As I go to my comfortable bed, in her spare room, I think about the number of people who have been kind to me today. Amazing!

Wednesday Sep 4th

Up at 5 to get taxi to airport with Peter and his son, Martin. When we arrive in Axum it’s great to see Aisling and Sun, the two other volunteers who are trekking with us. However, tiredness begins to show when I have an irrational tantrum in a cafe, where a waitress has had the audacity to put sugar in my macchiato.

“Lemin sukwar? Lemin?” (“Why sugar? Why?”) , I scream.

“I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”, the poor girl says.


 We look around Axum – it’s ok. It’s the historical capital of Ethiopia, and there are these ‘stelae’ – huge obelisk things, which, a bit like the pyramids of Egypt, are an amazing feat of early engineering. But I can’t help feeling a bit underwhelmed. Maybe I’m just tired.

Axum stelae

Axum stelae

 Thursday Sep 5th – Monday Sep 9th (Trekking in mountains in Tigray)

Awesome scenery, lovely local people, nice food, good exercise, really good laugh with my friends, staying in community lodges in spectacular locations – basically on the edge of a cliff! And of top of this, we saw baboons – brilliant!!

What a view!

What a view!

(All good, except for one thing – fleas!! The beds in the lodges were full of them. Poor Sun counted over 120 bites on his feet, ankles and back, and I don’t think I was far behind. Itchy!!!)

Tuesday Sep 10th (Ethiopian New Year’s Eve, Mekele to Lalibela)

Yes, not only does Ethiopia have a different system of telling the time, they also have different months and years. Their year begins in Meskerem (September), except it’s not exactly September, because each of their months is 30 days long, and then they have a little extra month called Pagumay, which is only 5 or sometimes 6 days long (and, incidentally, during which nobody gets paid or has to pay rent)…which is why our September 11th, is their Meskerem 1…2006! Oh yeah, I forgot to say that their calendar is 7 years behind ours as well….Confused? I bloody am!

Live chickens on top of bus - ready for New Year feast!

Live chickens on top of bus – ready for New Year feast!

Anyway, after a stunning 8 hour drive through the mountains, we welcome the New Year in Lalibela, with a burger and chips (hurray!)and have ‘Tej’ (local ‘wine’ made from honey) in a traditional music and dancing house, where the locals show the ferengis how it’s done. It’s also where a man with a violin type instrument, goes round, picks a ferengi, and improvises a song about him/her. All the locals fall into hysterics, and the ferengi, who has no idea what’s been said about them, tries to smile and look like they’re cool with it all. Good times!!

Wednesday Sep 11th (Ethiopian New Year’s Day)

Spend the day looking at the famous rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, watching the priests perform their New Year rituals, stalking a new religious cult leader from Spain, and generally getting a bit giggly. I think we’re all a bit tired.

Priest perform new year rituals at Lalibela

Priest perform new year rituals at Lalibela

Martin makes friends with Jose - leader of new religious cult...

Martin makes friends with Jose – leader of new religious cult…

Getting giggly outside Lalbela's most famous rock-hewn church

Getting giggly outside Lalbela’s most famous rock-hewn church

My neighbour calls me to say Melkam Addis Ahmet (Happy New Year), and to tell me there’s still no electricity in Gilgel. That’s almost 4 weeks now. Will it ever come back?

Thursday Sep 12th (Lalibela to Addis)

Breakfast experience in Lalibela:

8.00am: All order eggs, bread and coffee

8.20am: Enquire after eggs, bread and coffee. Explain we’re in a bit of a hurray – our bus is coming at 9.

               Told eggs are coming.

8.35am: No sign of eggs. Go into back to investigate. No sign of anyone.

8.40am: Waitress comes. “Sorry, no bread.”

                                                   “(Stifle screams)Ok, we’ll just have the eggs. Quickly please.”

                                                  “Sorry, no eggs.”

                                                  “(More stifling). Ok, what do you have?


                                                  “But you just said no eggs…um….ok, pancakes then!”

8.55am: Pancakes arrive (definitely made with eggs). Mystified, we shove pancakes down, and run   back for bus to airport.

Next stop Addis!

 Tigray Trek Picture Gallery

Though you probably can't see it, our first lodge was on the edge of that cliff!

Though you probably can’t see it, our first lodge was on the edge of that cliff!

Our trusty bag-carrier

Our trusty bag-carrier

Early morning mist

Early morning mist

Walking along the valley floor before the long climb up

Walking along the valley floor before the long climb up

Kids in teff field

Kids in teff field

Local fasting food - ba aynet

Local fasting food – ba aynet

Doro wat - Chicken stew with eggs

Doro wat – Chicken stew with eggs

Lodge number 3

Lodge number 3

The album cover - my trekking buddies

The album cover! – my trekking buddies

A local family invites us into their home

A local family invites us into their home

Baboons on the cliff top

Baboons on the cliff top



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Tomato traumas…(Aug 23, 2013)


So I’ve been back in the village a few weeks now. The bat’s still here, two frogs have moved into the bathroom,  and we’re well and truly mid-rainy season. It pours for hours at a time – day and night. You think after an hour or two it has to stop, there can’t be any more water up there, but it just keeps on going.

My house in the weed jungle!

My house in the weed jungle!

Anyway, one of the results of all this rain is it’s like a jungle outside my house – waist-high weeds at the front, maize much taller than me at the back. All my neighbours planted a ton of this a couple of months ago, and with all the chickens clucking around, and other animals, I feel even more like I’m living on a farm.

Can you spot the cat in the maize??

Cat in the maize out the back

Market day in the mud

Market day in the mud

Another consequence is that most of the village, including around my house and the college, is a sea of ankle-deep mud. (I think I mentioned in a previous post that the mud was preferable to the dust. I would formally like to retract that comment now!) It’s far worse around some of the back lanes where people live in huts – they’re literally living in squelch…and on market days, all the sellers have to squat down in the middle of it. And, obviously, because cows, goats and sheep wander freely around everywhere, it’s not just mud… One of the most gross things I’ve seen so far was some little kids doing bare-foot skids in this mud-shit mix…nice! Thank god for my walking boots – probably the most important things I packed. (Definitely more relevant than my hair-straighteners – what was I thinking?!)

The other result of the constant rain is that the mosquitoes are taking over! It’s like a daily war against them, and despite a 3-pronged attack (spraying my room, spraying  myself, sleeping under a net), the bastards still get me. Thank god (again) for doxicycline. Every day a different one of my colleagues goes down with malaria and it doesn’t look like fun!

Other than the rain, these are the most notable things that have happened since my last post:

1) I know I said before that I wasn’t going to talk about electricity issues anymore, but I think this is worthy of mention; there has been no electricity for almost 3 weeks now and nobody knows when it’s coming back! Apparently, ‘the big end’s gone’ so to speak at the local power station (something to do with transistors…) and the replacement part isn’t available in Ethiopia, so it has to be imported from somewhere else. God knows how long it will take to get it – considering the purchasing process just to buy stationery from the next village, this could take several years!  There’s the usual lack of information, and the Gilgel Beles rumour mill is working overtime. I can’t count the number of times people have said to me, “Don’t worry, Suzie. I heard the light will come tomorrow,” (in Amharic, the word for electricity is the same as the word for light). But it never comes… some people have even admitted that they told me this just to make me happy…

Anyway, all of this means that that although the college replaced the stolen electricity cable  relatively quickly (under 3 weeks), in the last 6 weeks the ELIC has had power for precisely one and a half days…frustrating.  It also means that from around 6.30pm I’m in semi-darkness, so I’m going to bed around 9.30. You’d think this would mean that I’m getting up really early, but that doesn’t seem to be happening…

2) Me and the kerosene stove have finally parted company. There are several reasons for the falling out – namely that it’s a pile of shit that explodes, coats everything in filthy black residue, and makes all food kerosene-flavoured – but also because I ran out of kerosene and it’s not available in Gilgel Beles. So I’m now the proud owner of a ‘formalo’ – a charcoal

The latest in charcoal technology!

The latest in charcoal technology!

burner that all the local women cook on. My neighbour, Mulu, took me to buy it and a large sack of charcoal, which you have to get from the Gumz women, who carry them around on long shoulder-poles. Anyway, the formalo is an improvement on the kerosene stove, in that it’s fairly clean, doesn’t stink, and doesn’t explode. Only one slight catch – I can’t light the bloody thing!!! My long-suffering neighbour has shown me about a million times – it involves first lighting a plastic bag, then teasing it with small twigs, piling charcoal carefully around the flame, then fanning and blowing for your life to get the charcoal going – and I’ve tried, I really have. But, to be honest, I’m not really up for getting up at 5 in the morning so that I can spend two hours (and about a hundred matches) trying to make fire, so that I can have a cup of tea before work – life is hard enough here!! So, this means that 3 times a day I have to do the walk of shame to Mulu’s house, and get her to light the frigging thing for me. She and her family find this highly amusing, but they are really kind to me, and I don’t know what I would do without them!

3) And this is the big one…Tomatoes have disappeared from Gilgel Beles! This might not sound like a tragedy, but given that a) I’m a tomato addict, and b) there was already a very limited range of stuff to buy, it’s a bit of a disaster!

The weekly shop has never been a particularly exciting occasion here. There’s no dairy – no milk, no yoghurt (another addiction) and – most difficult – no cheese. Meat isn’t really an option – if you want chicken, you have to buy a live one, kill it, pluck it, remove the insides, etc (I’m not really up for that). Apparently there’s one place where you can buy pieces of goat and sheep, but it sells out at 5am (pitch darkness), so I’ve never quite made it.  There’s no fish, despite GB being on a river, and there are no tins (or ‘packed food’ as the locals call it) so no cheeky tins of tuna or baked beans for emergencies…

The 'Waitrose' of Gilgel Beles - the most popular market stall.

The ‘Waitrose’ of Gilgel Beles – the most popular market stall.

What they do have here is a good supply of root vegetables – potatoes, carrots and beetroots, as well as cabbage, chillis, onions and garlic – and I stock up on these every Saturday at the market. Occasionally, someone brings something exciting from Bahir Dar (a couple of times, I’ve seen aubergines and avocados!!!), but that’s generally it for vegetables. When I arrived there were papayas and mangoes, but sadly, like the tomatoes, these have disappeared, but you can usually get little bananas and lemons.

 There’s also loads of lentils and pulses and stuff, and you can buy local rice and pasta. The only problem is, they keep it in large open sacks, and the first time I bought rice here I found a rat poo in it, which somehow put me off a bit… In terms of snacks (and I’m a snacker!), you can buy raw peanuts which you roast yourself, and popcorn kernels. (God, I miss biscuits and cereal bars!)

Roasted maize delivery from my lovely neighbour.

Roasted maize delivery from my lovely neighbour.

So, it’s do-able, just. The main issue is that nothing is quick or easy. It all takes a lot of preparation and cooking, and when you’ve got no running water and are trying to cook it on charcoal, quite frankly it’s a pain in the arse! (No wonder so few of the women work here – they spend all their time fetching water, trying to light bloody charcoal, and preparing everything from scratch. Nightmare!) At least when we had tomatoes, I could make pasta sauce. Now I have 4 signature dishes – ‘pasta bi atikult’ (pasta with vegetables – well, pasta with bits of carrot and cabbage), ‘atikult wot’ (root vegetable stew), misar wot (lentil stew – takes around 2 hours to make because first you have to pick all the stones and other crap out of the lentils) and eggs (boiled, scrambled, fried). So I live on these, and bread with peanut butter , which I bring from Addis.  (Even the cat’s defected to next door for its meals!)But I’m lucky. College students have the same thing – injera (the sour bread/ pancake thing) and shiro (dried pea powder mixed with oil and spice) – for lunch and dinner every day of the week, and many Ethiopians do the same. Choice and variety don’t really seem to be considerations here.

I’ve lived in a few places now, and I’ve never struggled with food before. But then, I guess I’ve never lived in a village in a developing country before. For the first time in my life I’ve started having dreams about food ; one fantastic one where a rep from Marks and Spencers came to GB with loads of cakes and biscuits, and a bizarre dream about finding brocolli in the market here…(I really need to get out more!)

4)Work has suddenly become better for me, because I’ve got two projects  that I’m really interested in , and actually feel equipped to do! Firstly, I’m going to do some teacher training for the English instructors at the college and local high schools, which they’ll pass on to 50 teachers from primary schools in the area. Secondly, I’m sorting out a new listening module for the trainee English teachers at the college. Until now it’s all been theoretical because they’ve had no materials to practise with, so no exposure to English. Consequently, the listening and speaking ability of the students here is generally pretty terrible. So, I’m going to write the module, find materials and buy some equipment when I next go to Addis. Of course, it’ll mean the usual purchasing nightmares, but it’s worth it because the college instructors are really up for it, and hopefully it will be very useful and sustainable.


'Back to the Board' Ethiopian style!

‘Back to the Board’ Ethiopian style!

Because of the lack of power for computers, TV and CD players, the ELIC has been a lot quieter during the college summer programme. However, I’ve had a group of students who have come every day for English practice. They are a mix of pupils from local schools and college students, including a lovely guy who’s an orphan and has been supporting himself by cleaning shoes since his parents died when he was 10 years old. Anyway, they are so keen that it has been a pleasure teaching them and reeling out all the old TEFL games and tricks. They are so nice that I even came in on the weekend to teach them – what IS going on?

6) Yesterday I was told I was a boy! I was having lunch with two colleagues, trying out my very limited Amharic, when one of them said “Wand nesh!” (“You’re a boy!”)

“I’m not,” I said, cleverly. (I know I’m not looking my best here, but I’d hoped that I was still recognizable as female.)

 “I know”, he said, “but you have learned Amharic quickly, you are clever. Wand nesh!”

Apparently, the highest compliment a man can give a woman here is to tell her that she’s a boy. Hmmmm. I know this is terrible. I know my blood should have been boiling. I know every fibre in my female body should have been outraged. I know I should probably have had a little rant about respect and equality, (and probably 6 months ago I would have). But, to be honest, I was a tiny bit chuffed….I think Germaine Greer’s career is probably safe 😉

So that’s what’s been going on here recently. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to pop round to my neighbour’s and get my charcoal lit, so I can boil some eggs for my dinner!

Gilgel Beles in the rain!

Gilgel Beles in the drizzle!

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Inkwan des allachu!!

My new lodger!

My new lodger!

There’s a bat living in my house… just hanging from the bamboo rafters, upside down, ‘chillaxing’. Not sure how long it’s been here -it must have moved in sometime in the last 3 or 4 weeks, when I was in Addis. Not sure how I feel about it – it’s too high to poke with a broom, and it’s not in my room, so I think I can live with it. As long as it doesn’t invite its friends round – one bat is cool, a flock (is that the right word?) not so much…

So, I’ve been in Addis – it was the end of the semester, the students had all left and  the rainy season had kicked in, so it seemed like a good time to escape. And I really needed a break! The couple of weeks before I left were eventful to say the least.

1) A brush with the law…

My wallet containing amongst other things my VSO ID, my Ethiopian residence card, and my bank cards  disappeared from my bag. I’m not sure whether I dropped it or it was nicked. It was so chaotic in GB at the time – very heavy rain and no electricity –  the town’s in pitch blackness after 7pm. So when I had to go shopping my focus was on holding a torch and umbrella, and trying to avoid the sea of mud, rather than keeping an eye on my valuables. All I know is that I had my wallet at the bread / chat shop, and I haven’t seen it since. I tried going back to the bread / chat shop and asking if they’d seen it, but as I didn’t know the Amharic for wallet, lost or have you seen..?, it didn’t go too well.

The good thing was that, (maybe for the first time) this was a problem that my colleagues could really understand and sympathise with, and when I told them, things started moving. Losing something in a small Ethiopian village is different to losing something in a city because there are a limited number of places it could be and people who could have taken it. Trying to find the thing again involves an interesting process.

First I go back to the chat shop with a colleague, who explains what has happened. The guy hasn’t seen my wallet but promises that the ‘chat boys’ will put out word throughout the village. According to him, with the promise of a small reward, things usually turn up this way. Unfortunately, my wallet doesn’t.

2 days later, my line manager makes a poster  in Amharic (I don’t know what it said exactly , but the key words were ‘ferengi wallet’, ‘reward’, and ‘no police’)which we post on all the noticeboards (well, trees) in the village. Apparently, his dongle was ‘found’ in this way. No luck for my wallet, though.

So, a few days later, I go to the police station with yet another colleague. (I don’t want to particularly, because foreign police stations are scary, especially in remote Ethiopian villages, but I have to get a police report in order to apply for a new residence permit.) The first thing we see at the police station is a kind of wooden cage outside the main building with 4 depressed looking Gumuz (local tribe) guys inside. There is no door keeping them in, but there doesn’t need to be. The number of uniformed men standing around with machine guns is probably enough…Anyway this is to be the first of four visits to the police station. After my colleague has explained what has happened, we are told to come back with a written report (in Amharic of course) detailing what has happened and what the wallet contained. Apparently they can’t write a report for me, until I’ve  written a report for them. Luckily, my line manager comes through again, and drafts a report for his secretary to type up.

We go back in the afternoon with our report, and they tell us to come and collect their report the next day. So, the following day we go back, but there is no electricity at the police station so they give us a handwritten report to type up and bring back for them to sign and stamp.

Finally, after asking another friend to type it up for me, we go back, and get our letters signed and stamped and say goodbye, hopefully for the last time!

Anyway, it was a total palaver, and quite inconvenient ( I still don’t have any bank cards or Ethiopian ID), but I got a lot of support from my local colleagues and friends, which was really nice.


2) Gumfan

I’ve dreaded getting sick here, given the basic facilities, and I’ve been very lucky – most volunteers that came out with me have had loads of issues. When it finally happened to me,  I felt like I had bad flu (‘Gumfan’ in Amharic), but my colleagues got me worried  because when I told them my symptoms they all kept saying ‘Maybe malaria. You must go to clinic’. Malaria is rampant here  – especially in the rainy season. Ahmed, the admin vice-dean told me he currently has 25 requests per day from students to go to the health centre for treatment.  I still thought it wasn’t malaria, (I’d read the VSO health booklet and self-diagnosed and  I’ve been taking my anti-malarials religiously every night) but after spending 3 days in bed, and feeling no better I decided I should probably get tested. I dragged myself to the ‘clinic’, (room next to pharmacy with man in white coat and microscope), had my blood taken, dragged myself to the water shop, dragged myself back to the man with the white coat to get the results and was told I didn’t have malaria. Hurray! The only downside was, when I told my colleagues I didn’t have malaria, and it was probably just ‘gumfan’ the sympathy stopped abruptly. “You have gumfan? Me too, I have gumfan. No problem!”


3) A brush with  a colleague

The final ELIC event of the semester is The Great Instructor’s Debate. The instructors had chosen their topic – an English and a history teacher were  up against a biology and an ICT instructor to debate the question “Which is more important for Ethiopia’s development – social science or natural science???’

Anyway, I  assumed that things might run more smoothly as it was instructors, rather than students – bad assumption… At the start time the hall was full of students and instructors (dare I say there was excitement in the air?), and miraculously, the drinks were ready on time (nice one, purchaser!). Just one tiny problem – the biology teacher had disappeared, last seen in a bar in the town, and had switched his mobile off – brilliant! Not for the first time here, I had no idea what to do. One instructor went off to the town to try and find the missing debater, but the other speakers were getting twitchy, and talking about it getting late (rich, I have to say, coming from Ethiopians…). Anyway, after about 20 minutes of running round the college campus, begging other instructors to stand in at the last minute, finally another biology teacher agreed to save the day.

Debate in action.

Debate in action.

And, actually, the debate was brilliant. The speakers were great (really impressive English), and the audience were really up for it – totally behind their instructors – cheering like crazy whenever they made a good point. The result – natural science won – was not exactly an impartial decision, given that the audience decides, and (due to government policy) there are significantly more natural science than social science students. And this is what led to the bitter end of the occasion. The debate over, I was thanking and congratulating the speakers on their performance, and they were really chuffed with themselves and thanking me, and it was a feel-good factor moment. That is, until I reached the history teacher – who turned round and shouted at me “I told you many, many times you needed an independent judge. That was the problem here.” To be fair he had mentioned it, but honestly, it’s quite hard to find an independent fluent speaker of English, in a remote village in Ethiopia, in a college where every member of staff is teaching either some form of natural or social science. I had asked the Dean to adjudicate, but he said he had too much work, indicating the college laptop – he was on Facebook… Anyway, I tried to explain all this to the history teacher, but I’d hardly opened my mouth when he said, “Enough! It’s over!” and flounced out, leaving his orange Mirinda half drunk. F***ing cheers!

4) Local primary visits

The college has 24 link primary schools, most in extremely remote villages, relatively OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAnearto the college. The idea is that the college supports these schools with teaching materials and provides CPD training for the teachers there. In reality though, because funds are so tight at the college itself, because the college instructors are working all day every day teaching their own students, and because the linkage schools are impossible to reach without the use of a 4WD and the college vehicles are almost always unavailable or being repaired, these things rarely happen. However, finally ,in the last week of the semester I managed to book a working vehicle, and the head of CPD at the college to translate, and we spent the dayvisiting 8 of the schools, to see if they would be interested in English or methodology training. When we arrived, it was clear that many of the schools had far more basic needs,

Girls toilets in one primary school.

Girls toilets in one primary school.

like safe toilets and classrooms that weren’t falling down. USAID, VSO and other NGOs have done a lot of good work here, there’s just such a lot left to do! The teachers and kids were all really friendly though, loved having their photos taken, and as usual I was struck by the way people just get on with things here despite the horrendous conditions.


5) Graduation Day!

Enjoying the gowns!

Enjoying the gowns!

Graduation is important anywhere, but here, it’s really important. The college provides very little in the way of materials and equipment for the students, but one thing it does provide is caps and gowns for all graduates (which it borrows from unis and colleges in other regions). So, for the 3 days before and 2 days after Graduation Day, the final year students  were swishing around in these robes, not just on campus, but throughout the village as well! (I guess graduating is fairly new here. Pretty much all the students’ parents, if they still have any, are farmers, who only had a few years schooling at best. So, getting through college is a major achievement, and if you do it, you want everybody to know!)

The actual ceremony was probably quite similar to any graduation – speeches, certificates, prizes – with a few noticeable differences.

1) There were 744 graduates, but the main hall holds 550 max, so when the doors opened there was literally a stampede (quite scary) to get seats. (Relatives had to stand outside).

2) Every time the master of ceremonies said ‘Inkwan des allachu’ (congratulations!), it was a cue for all graduates to wave and throw their caps like in the movies. (This happened at regular points throughout the ceremony).

Inkwan des allachu!

Inkwan des allachu!

3) All graduates had to swear an oath that they would work hard as teachers to repay the Regional Education Bureau for supporting them. This was a bit like marriage vows, with the academic vice-dean, saying each line of the pledge, and the graduates repeating it in unison.

The college Academic Committee

The college Academic Committee

4) Music choice – Ethiopians love local Ethiopian music, but for some reason, during the ceremony they kept playing ‘Celebration’ by Kool and the Gang.”Ceeeeelebrate good times.  Come on!…”

5) The posing – OMG – put an Ethiopian in front of a camera and they suddenly turn into David Brent, leaning on their elbows, looking moodily into camera, all eyes. The classic pose at graduation is to get your friend or relative or teacher to make an elaborate gesture of presenting you with your plastic ‘congratulation’ bouquet, while you both look meaningfully into the lens. Hilarious at first, slightly wearing after you’ve been asked to do it 50 times by students you’ve never met.

The graduation pose!

The graduation pose!

But it was a really nice day, and everybody was pleased to have me there. Like weddings here, having a ferengi present at your graduation is cool, and will bring you good luck! After the ceremony there was a lunch for all the teachers in the college library, and the obligatory dancing. I don’t even try and avoid it anymore!

So there was a lot going on at the end of the semester, and I was looking forward to going to Addis – to do a couple of days training for the British Council, and then to study Amharic for 2 weeks with other volunteers. I don’t even want to talk about the journey in the college car to Bahir Dar. Suffice to say, I was told to be ready to go at 7am, but at 1.30 I was still waiting, sitting on the ground outside the college with my rucksack, getting angry at everyone, terrified that I would miss my flight to Addis, and ready to quit Gilgel Beles forever!  But we made it, just, and I had a lovely time in Addis, hanging out with other volunteers, eating ferengi food, having hot showers and generally having a more normal time. In some ways I kind of missed Gilgel Beles though..

I got back last week to find the bat had moved in, the electricity and water were both working in my house (hurray!), but that the expensive main power supply cable to the ELIC room had been stolen, and there was now no electricity there at all. God knows how we’re going to sort this one out!!

The ferengi dances at the post graduation party!!

The ferengi attempts to dance at the post graduation party!!

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Life goes on in Gilgel Beles…

Ok, so I’m not going to go on about water and electricity anymore – you get the picture. Suffice to say, I’m not overly-clean, the dreadlocks have made an unwelcome return, and the daily battles with the kerosene stove continue. Whatever…that’s just how it is here. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s not. Anyway, these are the main highlights of the last couple of weeks.

Friday May 31st: the coffee ceremony

Because of the general under-achievement of the girls here, another tradition that was started by previous volunteers  is the coffee ceremony for female students. This takes the form of a discussion in English on a ‘gender’ issue, with  coffee and other traditional refreshments served by students. The idea being that without boys around, the girls will feel more confident and able to participate and express their views.

Anyway, the coffee ceremony is a huge part of the culture here, and it’s very specific. It involves preparing the coffee from scratch – washing then roasting the beans over charcoal, wafting the beans under all the guests noses so they can appreciate the smell, then grinding the beans by hand. The coffee is then boiled over charcoal, (the fire has to be continually fanned to get the temperature high enough), and this is all performed by a woman in traditional white dress, and has to take place on a special platform, with greenery on the floor  and candles and incense burning. Finally the coffee is served in tiny cups (everybody should have 3) with traditional bread and popcorn…

So, to be honest, organising this had been a bit of a faff. First I had to submit a budget request involving  a breakdown of all the quantities of every item that we needed, with the prices. Not something I’m overly familiar with, and not helped by the fact that nobody really had any idea how many girls would come. (And believe me, the coffee ceremony has to be done right, down to the last detail. When I asked a student if bread was really necessary ,  she shuddered and said, “Coffee without bread is…” and left the sentence hanging as if this was completely unthinkable .) Then we had to go with the purchaser to buy all the stuff, which involved a special trip to the Wednesday market – the only place you can buy sugar and oil without a special permit. Then we had to organise a group of willing girls (the Coffee Ceremony Committee or CCC) to make the coffee, etc, and find somewhere to roast the coffee, and finally beg various staff members to lend us the equipment to make and serve it all.

The coffee ceremony committee

The coffee ceremony committee.

But I needn’t have worried – it all came together, thanks to the CCC. I tried to get involved with the preparations, but I couldn’t keep up with the babble of Amharic and I was blatantly more of a hindrance than a help, so I just let them get on with it. And they did a great job!

The Dean cuts the bread to start the coffee ceremony.

The Dean cuts the bread to start the coffee ceremony.

The actual event  wasn’t exactly a slick affair – we started almost an hour late (standard here), there was no electricity so we were in semi-darkness by the end, and many of the girls have such soft voices that we could hardly hear them. BUT, over 120 girls turned up, a 3rd year student led the discussion (on how we can encourage female participation), the girls actually discussed the various questions in English, 15 girls came to the stage to share their opinions,  the Dean attended, and at the end of the event promised to continue supporting female students. Afterwards, there were two more positive signs – firstly, the purchaser (we’re friends now…) remarked that he could see a change in the female students, and secondly, the girls  are keen to have another event soon, this time involving a proper debate – go girls!!

Deep in discussion...in English!!!

Deep in discussion…in English!!!

Sat June 1st – Monday June 3rd: Wombera

Mike’s  job involves supervising numerous water projects around the region, and once a month this takes him to Wombera, a very remote village high up in the hills, where they don’t have electricity lines at all yet, just a generator which comes on at 6pm every evening and goes off at 11pm. I’d wanted to visit it for a while, and this time he took me along.

It takes us almost a day to get there – all along a bumpy dirt road. We stop at various small villages along the way to meet the local water office people and inspect springs and handpumps. In one village – Dibate – we meet Father Richard, a catholic priest who’s spent 30 years in Africa, 11 of them in rural Ethiopia (respect!) He’s been in Dibate for 3 years now – it’s a tiny place that makes Gilgel Beles seem like a metropolis, and where they’ve had no electricity for over a month! Father Richard must be about the most chilled-out person on earth (I could learn a thing or two…) and he treats us to coffee and ‘bombalino’. This is a bit like a doughnut, but quite hard and with no sugar or flavour – basically a lump of dough, deep-fried in palm oil (surprisingly addictive).

Anyway, the last hour or so of our journey is along a windy road through the mountains – stunning scenery but pretty hair-raising, with sheer drops and no barrier. Thank god for Mulugeta, Mike’s driver. A couple of kms before we get to Wombera, Mike (a bit of an exercise freak) suggests we get out and walk the rest of the way. As we walk into ‘town’, I feel more like I’m in Surrey than Ethiopia – it’s so green, and hilly and pastoral. (Admittedly the donkeys and  mud huts shatter the illusion somewhat, but it’s certainly nothing like the parched and dusty TV images of Ethiopia that I grew up with in the Band Aid era…)

Next morning I’m woken up, by Mike knocking on the door and calling ‘time to get up!’ (He’s already been for an hour-long run.) After breakfast we go to the even more remote village of ‘Minjo’ – even the dirt road stops here – and spend the day following pipes along knife-edge ridges, climbing up and down huge hills to find the spring sources, taking photos of springs, water pumps and hand-dug wells, and being invited into local houses for food and drink. Every time we come back to the car there are random people waiting for a lift. There’s no public transport here – if people want to go to the next village they have to walk – so the rare sight of a car is a huge magnet.  One guy, a health worker who had come to pick up his wages, had walked for a day to get here, and faced another day’s walk back. So anyway, we all bundled into the car, and Mike drove back like the clappers, before the rain came, and made the dirt road impassable.

I will say one thing; you can see too many springs – to be honest, one spring source looks very much like another, and after traipsing up and down hills to about the 8th one of the day, I’m ashamed to admit that I rebelled, and refused to look at anymore until I’d had coffee and a bombalino. But it was a very interesting weekend, and a lovely break from the humidity and dust of Gilgel Beles.

Tuesday June 4th

Back in GB, and it’s time to prepare for the next event -the ELIC Committee Graduation. This is a ceremony/party to say thank you to the students who have helped in the ELIC for the past year, and goodbye to the 3rd years. Again, apparently it has to be done right (“Suzie, there must be flowers. Graduation without flowers is…”). Anyway, we get off to a bad start – my counterpart has disappeared to Addis for some training, and taken the ELIC laptop (with all our files on) and the key to the cupboard with him. Then there’s the whole purchasing palaver to go through. To give you an idea, this is the process that has to be endured if you want to organise any kind of event here:

1) Write a proposal for the budget required for the whole semester.

2) Wait (weeks) for the proposal to be discussed and agreed (but with a reduced budget) by the college management committee.

3) Nearer the event, write a budget request,  just for this event, for finance.

 4) Get the budget request signed and stamped by the dean (even though it has already all been agreed once).

5) Take the proposal to the head of finance to sign.

6) Wait for the head of finance to pass it on to the purchaser.

7) Harrass purchaser in days leading up to event, to try to get him to shift his arse.

8) Purchaser goes to collect 3 pro formas (quotes) for each item that needs to be purchased.

9) Purchaser goes and buys / orders items based on cheapest quote.

So, on Tuesday, we are on stage 7 of this tedious process – we’d submitted the proposal, signed and stamped by the dean, to finance the previous week. (The students had told me what was required, based on last year’s event, and, as well as the flowers, we needed all the coffee ceremony stuff, plus  soft drinks, 4kg of goat meat, 30 eggs (for the Muslim students) and 20 injeras (the big, flat, sour pancake thing that Ethiopians eat with everything).

As you can imagine, given our history, I always approach finance with a sense of trepidation. I’m sure they’re thinking the same -“Bloody ferengi, always coming in here making demands and causing problems”. But anyway, I paste on the smile, walk into the office, say ‘Salaam nachu?’ (‘Are you at peace?’ ) to the 6 people who work there (no idea what they do all day), give them all the obligatory Ethiopian handshake (basically a shoulder bump) and ask the purchaser how the purchasing for the ELIC graduation was coming on. The purchaser looks mystified and starts rifling through the papers on his desk. After several minutes he locates our proposal and says, “So, do you need flowers and meat and egg?” “Yes, we discussed it last week and it’s been authorised by the dean”, I say, Cue rapid discussion in Amharic between purchaser and head of finance. “Ok, I will arrange.” says the purchaser.

Wednesday 5th June

Back in finance, pasted smile, “Salaam nachu?”, handshakes.

Suzie: “Just checking that everything’s ok for Friday.”

(Rapid discussion in Amharic.)

Purchaser: “There are no flowers in Gilgel Beles. You will need to request the college car to go to Chagni.” (This is an hour away)

Suzie: (resignedly) “Ok”.

Vice-dean’s (my line manager’s) office

Suzie: “Is it possible to have the college car tomorrow to go to Chagni to buy flowers for the ELIC Graduation?”

Vice-dean: “When is the graduation?”

Suzie: “On Friday.”

Vice-dean: “Oh. That is near.”

Suzie: ” I know.” (I don’t have the energy to explain that we’d submitted the proposal well over a week ago..)

Vice-dean: “How many flowers do you need?”

Suzie: “Nine – apparently we have to have them.”

Vice-dean: “Actually, yes, you do. But for just 9 flowers, the fuel to Chagni is a lot..”

Suzie: “Yes.'”(He’s absolutely right, I couldn’t agree more…but a graduation without flowers…) “So can we have the car?”

Vice-dean: “I will discuss with finance.”

Suzie: (extra resignedly) “Ok.”

I have no idea if we are going to Chagni tomorrow or not!

Thursday 6th June

8am: As I’m leaving my house for work, my neighbour Hannah (my line-manager’s sister-in-law) says, “You go Chagni?”. I don’t know!

I go straight to finance – “So, are we going to Chagni?”

“I don’t know. You must discuss with vice-dean.” (aaarggghh!)

I go to vice-dean – “So, are we going to Chagni?”

“Yes, no problem.”

I go back to finance – “We’re going to Chagni.”

“Ok, I will call you when the car is ready.” (God knows when that will be…)

I go to the ELIC and crack on with the female ICT project. I made a plea at the coffee ceremony last week and it seems to have worked. We’ve had a steady stream of female students coming to write their info on the computers.

10.30: Purchaser arrives in ELIC. “Suzie, come on. We go to Chagni.”

10.40: Leave college. (Hannah and her sister, (my line-manager’s wife) are in the car, taking advantage of the rare opportunity of a car-ride to Chagni.)

10.45: Stop to change car oil.

11.30: Arrive in Chagni. Drop ladies off at market so they can do ‘women’s business’, and I  follow purchaser round while he visits shops to buy paper and pens for college. They don’t have the pens, but ‘chigar elem’ (no problem), a man is on his way with the pens on a bus from Bahir Dar. He’ll be here by 1pm if we can wait. (Yeah, right…sorry to be cynical, but I’ve heard this kind of thing many times before here…)

12.00: Go to look for flowers. I was imagining fresh flowers, but it turns out they’re plastic things. And, they don’t have any ‘graduation’ flowers. But, ‘chigar elem’, his friend has some and he’ll bring them if we can wait…(Jesus)

12.15: Go for coffee (tragedy – no bombalinos). Purchaser tells me two interesting, if slightly worrying  things: 1) Driver is currently taking opportunity to drink large quantities of draft beer, which is not available in GB (nice…), 2) College Dean has been sick for some time and has gone to Bahir Dar. “To hospital?”, I ask. “No, to pray.” Things really are different here.

12.45: Go back to flower shop. Friend has arrived with flowers. Hideous though they are to

Congratulation flowers!!

Congratulation flowers!!

my ferengi eyes, they do say ‘congratulations’ (actually they say ‘congratulation’ – how annoying is that??), so I guess they must be graduation flowers. The only problem is they want 80 birr for each, and our budget is only 35. The purchaser gets it down to 40, but this is still too high. Phone call to head of finance, rapid discussion in Amharic. We buy the flowers, but will have to reduce the amount of meat by half a kg to make up the difference.

1pm: Go back to pen shop. Surprise, surprise, pen-bringer is still on bus. But he’ll be here soon – shop-owner will call when he arrives. Go and wander round market to kill time – buy mangoes, bananas and potatoes.

2pm: No phone call. Sick of wandering around, irritable and hungry. Go to hotel for lunch.

3pm: Finish lunch. Still no call. I ask purchaser how long he’s prepared to wait for these pens. Another 30 mins apparently.

4pm: Still no call. Purchaser decides to go back to GB.

4.30: Car + slightly tipsy driver arrive to take us back. 4 live chickens in back. Detour to back streets to buy ‘teff’ (local grain) for woman who works in finance.

5.40: Arrive back at college. Ask if I can put flowers in ELIC ready for tomorrow, but no. The flowers have to be checked in to the store-room. Tomorrow I will have to check them out and sign for them before the ceremony…

All that for 9 hideous, synthetic flowers. The students better bloody like them!

Friday 7th June

8.30am: Back in – guess where? – finance. “Just checking that the food will be coming at 4pm.”

Purchaser: “Yes, I will buy the meat and injera later from Netsanet Hotel.”

Suzie: “So, Netsanet wil prepare the food, yes?”

Purchaser: “No.”

Suzie: “So, who is preparing the food?”

Purchaser: “I don’t know.”

(Oh shit…)

I go to my line-manager. I feel like a pratt, but I just assumed that because we were ordering the food from a hotel, they would also be preparing it. (I had tried to clarify this several times, but sometimes getting a straight answer here is difficult). My line-manager is a complete legend, though. He says, “Ok, we will find a solution.” Then we go through various options, including the female students cooking it, me cooking it (a joke, I think – goat for 14 not being one of my signature dishes), but in the end he makes a deal with the college cafe staff. They’ll cook the meat and eggs, and a woman from the town will bring the bread and soft drinks. Thank God – I could literally hug my line manager – it’s all going to come together for 4pm!

2pm: The purchaser arrives in the ELIC, looking sheepish. “Suzie, sorry there is no meat. It is finished at hotel.” Inwardly, I think,  “You’ve had a week to arrange this you utter twat!”, but, what’s the point? I just say “Chigar elem”, ask the purchaser to buy another 36 eggs instead, and get on with preparing the certificates, etc for the party. (I know the students will be disappointed though – meat is a rare treat for them.)

3pm: Slightly worried  – I still haven’t managed to locate the store manager – bloody flowers still locked in storeroom.

4pm: Flowers retrieved, coffee and popcorn ready, special guests (admin vice-dean and head of language department) installed in ELIC ready for graduation. No sign of food or coffee ceremony bread and all female students disappeared.

4.30pm: Female students appear, dressed to kill. Still no sign of bread / food. Students  bored and special guests getting twitchy and muttering about how much work they still have to do today. Decide to put music on to lighten atmosphere. Vice-dean (an English teacher) suggests English music – students say they want ‘disco’. After a quick look through my i-tunes, the best I can come up with is Blondie. Students seem unimpressed at ‘Heart of Glass’. I try a bit of Amy Winehouse, (I’m not sure why..) Students even less impressed. Put on Ethiopian music – everyone happy.

4.45pm: Special guests say we must start, but there’s still no bread, and heaven knows what’ll happen if we serve the coffee without bread…

5pm: Start serving coffee, and bread arrives in nick of time. Present certificates and vile flowers, make speeches, then food arrives. All students having a good time, then something that I’ve dreaded since coming to Ethiopia happens. One student offers me ‘Goursha’. This is an Ethiopian tradition . Basically, everything is eaten by hand here, and if you want to show respect to someone, you get a load of food in your right hand (the tastiest morsels on the communal plate) and then feed them (shove it in their mouth). It’s very rude to refuse, apparently, so I just open my mouth and accept it. Then all the students start doing it, and it’s actually fine. I feel flattered, but I also thank my lucky stars that the goat meat wasn’t available. (It’s usually very tough, and takes several minutes to chew each mouthful, so things could have got messy…) After the food, the dancing begins, everyone’s happy, and it’s actually a really nice event.

Monday 10th – Tuesday 11th June

It’s final exam week and there’s been no electricity in Gilgel for the last few days. The generator, which supplies power to 3 offices only in the college, has been on constantly and all the instructors have been huddled in these 3 small rooms, peering at computer screens in the dark (the generator doesn’t power any lights for some reason) trying to prepare and print off exam papers and compile the results. Then there are the huge queues of students begging the office staff to let them charge their mobiles there. It’s complete chaos. If this was in the UK, people would be going mad, but here everybody just cooperates and gets on with it. Nobody’s complaining about the ridiculous conditions…there’s no point – there’s nothing anybody can do.  If I’m honest, some things about Ethiopians drive me absolutely crazy, but this characteristic of tolerance and patience is really admirable.

Wednesday 12th June

The electricity crisis takes on new proportions – they’ve used the generator so much recently that, in the afternoon, they run out of fuel. Now there’s no power at all in the college. They go to the garage to get more, but (because of the lengthy electricity drought) there’s no fuel left in the whole of the town. They decide to send the purchaser with a driver to the next town, but there’s another issue – there’s no cash in the college, and the two people who can authorise a bank withdrawal (the dean and vice-dean) are both out of Gilgel Beles this week. So, they have a whip-round and borrow money from various members of staff. Then they set off for the next town. They have no idea if there’s fuel there or not. We’ll have to wait and see..

Thursday 13th June

They got fuel! The reassuring buzz of the generator is back and we all huddle into the 3 offices again.

In the evening it’s Mike’s leaving party. I’m gutted – my one, fellow ferengi in GB is going! We’ve known for a while that his contract probably wasn’t going to be extended, but we (well, mostly I) had been hoping for a last minute reprieve. Unfortunately , it never came, and tonight is the first of his two dos, this one for his immediate work colleagues. A goat has been bought and roasted for the occasion, and we all crowd into Mike’s living room, which is illuminated by the generator-powered angle-poise lamp. I feel quite privileged – it’s a bunch of Ethiopian male water experts and field advisors, and me! Anyway, there’s lots of beers and it’s all good fun. There’s just one slightly awkward moment. Apart from the obligatory goat slaughter at leaving parties, another Ethiopian tradition is the impromtu speeches. After  we eat, Mike’s close colleague gets up and makes a speech thanking Mike for his hard work, etc. Then he asks if anybody else would like to say anything. Everybody looks at the floor. After a seemingly interminable silence, (I’m cringing inside), somebody else gets up and talks about Mike’s positive qualities. (I sigh with relief, thank God this is over now.) When he sits down, everyone looks at the floor again. (The silence is deafening – I’m swear some tumbleweed blew across the floor…) I’m expecting that to wrap up the speech-giving, but no! We wait, eyes down, for another awkward, lengthy pause, until the next person stands up and says a few words. This goes on for a while, and I realise, making a speech is not an option and it’s going to be my turn soon. I’ve got no idea what to say – the other guys have used all the positive adjectives! Anyway, when I can’t avoid it any longer, I reluctantly get up and mumble something about thanks for the support and the cat, and sit down, relieved. Now we can get on with the fun stuff again. But that’s the end of the party! Everyone shakes hands and goes home! Bizarre!

Friday 14th June

Female debate day has arrived!

Spot the guys trying to get in at the back!

Spot the guys trying to get in at the back!

We’ve had the usual trials and tribulations leading up to this event – the date had to be changed twice due to movable exam schedules, one girl got sick and had to be replaced yesterday, we’ve had no practice until this morning (getting 4 students together this week has proved impossible), one of the speakers disappears to do an exam right at the start time of the debate (she reappears 20 minutes later), the bread doesn’t arrive til half-way through, there isn’t enough

Astegach - voted 'Best Speaker'!

Astegach – voted ‘Best Speaker’!

coffee or popcorn for the audience… But, it’s a really good event! The speakers are brilliant – they certainly give the guys a run for their money! -and around 200 girls turn up to watch. A few of the male instructors attend and they are really impressed. For the first time, I feel like I’ve done something really important here!

Saturday 15th June

Last supper with Mike. I will really miss coming round to his house, and being looked after and supplied with food and beer. And speaking English to someone without having to grade my language, and being able to have the odd rant about life here to someone who really understands…How am I going to manage without him???

Sunday 16th June

I wake up today feeling miserable. Mike’s gone – I’m on my own.

But, the day turns out well. It’s such a nice morning that I drag myself out of bed and go for a walk in the local countryside. For the first time I speak to some of the Gumuz people. They are the native people of the area who live in round, grass huts, with no real nod to modern life at all. I’ve been a bit wary of them (I’ve been told by my 15 year-old neighbour, that, if you do anything wrong by them they will kill you…) but they’re friendly, very excited about having their photo taken, and laugh hysterically when they see their image on the camera screen.

Then, in the afternoon, my neighbour Mulu, who is a primary school teacher, invites me to her staff end of year party. This is an interesting affair and a real cultural experience. Whereas office parties in the UK tend to start quite formally, and then degenerate into rowdy drunkenness, this one seemed to be the opposite.

When I arrive, everyone is sitting round in a classroom, drinking beer and eating huge plates of roasted meat and injera, while a few game teachers try to get the dancing started. Then there’s a kind of forfeit game, where you have to take a bit of paper from a bowl, and do what it says in front of everybody. Forfeit’s range from the quite fun – do a dance in one of the many local styles or do an impression of a cockerel, to the strangely heavy – tell us about a time when you faced a great challenge in your life or explain archimedes principle of displacement… When it comes to my turn, I’m praying for an animal noise – I’m not a dancer and I’ve had too many beers to use my brain. Of course, I pick out a dance (in the Agonya style…) – I try my best, but I’m pretty sure I’m not wowing the teachers – the laughter is on the point of hysteria.

Anyway, the forfeit game finishes, and then the head teacher comes to the front and, bizarrely, asks each person there (around 40) to stand up in turn while he says their name and what they do in the school. (I’m not sure if this is to prove that he knows all his staff’s names or what – I mean they all work together, and the school isn’t that big…surely they all know what each other does). It’s all in Amharic, so when it gets to my turn, I’ve no idea what he says about me, but I do catch the words ‘ferengi’ and ‘volunteer’. For some reason I do a little kind of curtsy before I sit down – I think the occasion must be getting to me…or maybe it’s the afternoon beers.

 After he’s gone through everybody, he makes a long speech (about the school, and its future, according to Mulu) and then the last and strangest part of the whole event occurs. Two other teachers come to the front, one with a kind of log book and a pen. They say something and then wait. There’s a long silence and everyone looks down,  (just like at Mike’s ) until one teacher gets up and says something in Amharic. All I understand are the last two words – ‘hamsa birr’ (‘fifty birr’ – the local currency). When the teacher says these last words, there’s a lot of cheering and clapping and the teacher does a little bow and sits down, while the guy with the log book writes something down. Another awkward pause until the next teacher gets up and makes a short speech ending in ‘meto birr’ (a hundred birr) – more cheering and clapping, and writing in log book. After several more teachers have got up, I suddenly realise what’s going on. They’re all pledging money for next year’s staff party – and the guy is writing it down in case anyone doesn’t pay up! I’m not going to be there next year, but my neighbour is nudging me to stand, and they’ve been so kind and welcoming to me today, and I’d feel like a right tight-arse if didn’t pledge anything, so I stand up and say ‘meto birr’ and receive a huge cheer.

I can sense that this process is going to continue for quite some time (probably until every one of the 40 teachers have stood up), and everything is in Amharic, so I make my excuses and leave. As I’m walking home I’m smiling to myself – I’m imagining the LSI (my old school’s) Christmas party – and us all standing up and solemnly promising to pay 20 quid towards next year’s do, while Terry (health and safety) writes it down in a big book. Life is just soooo different here!

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The rainy season arrives…and Suzie reaches her limit!

Green Gilgel Beles!

Green Gilgel Beles!

So, the rainy season has begun.  Almost every day and night is punctuated by a huge thirty minute storm, with great crashes of thunder, huge cracks of lightning and a deluge from the heavens. This has both a positive and negative side…

Let’s begin with the pluses:

1) It’s generally much fresher – the temperature drops considerably after the rain, and the locals go round wrapped in blankets and headscarves. To be honest, it’s not cold at all – it’s a really pleasant temperature -, but I did have a sheet over  me in bed for the first time last night!

2) There’s less dust – until now, everything, including me, has been covered in a thick layer of reddish-brown dust – it gets everywhere! When a car or lorry drove past on the road through the village, it whipped up a huge cloud of dust which gets in your eyes, mouth and tinges everything brown. (At first I mistook it for suntan). Now, you might get spattered with a bit of mud, but it’s definitely preferable!



3) Lush – everything is turning green in the countryside around here (very beautiful) , and I have mangoes in my garden! (I think this mango tree must be quite famous with my neighbours – I’ve never had so many visitors, who come in, drop the subtlest of hints – a pointed finger and “Ohh, manoges – nice!” – and then leave with as many as they can carry. I’ve even started providing carrier bags!)

So there are definite benefits. Now I’d like to have a bit of a rant about the drawbacks – apologies, but I need to get it off my chest – it’s therapeutic.

1) The basic utilities have (and I didn’t think this was possible) got worse. We’re now in our 9th consecutive day without water and 7th without electricity either…hmmm. It just makes life bloody difficult – I honestly don’t know how the locals do it! Lack of electricity affects me in 3 main ways:

Death by kerosene...

Death by kerosene…

a) I have to cook everything on my kerosene stove. This hideous contraption coats all my pans in a thick, black substance (v hard to get off, especially with minimal water), flavours my food with a subtle hint of kerosene, and – more worryingly – bursts into a fireball at regular intervals. (Well, at least it’s tidied up my eyebrows!)

b) After around 6.30pm, it’s totally dark inside the house, and I have to do everything by the light of candles and a headtorch. I’ve twice tried to eat my dongle, mistaking it in the dark for a Bourbon biscuit …

c) If the generator isn’t working at the college, I can’t charge my laptop, so consequently I can’t skype or email, check what’s going on in the UK, and, most distressingly, catch up with the second series of Homeland…

The absence of water is similarly troublesome. Everything is filthy, including me. Today (thanks to some water that Ibestay fetched for me) I washed my hair for the first time in 9 days!! (It was beginning to resemble a very unsuccessful attempt at dreadlocks – like I was trying to get down with the kids here or something.) My bathroom is disgusting (there are no words to describe the toilet), all my clothes are downright grubby, and washing-up consists of a quick rinse in some not-so-clean water. It’s ironic really that with so much water coming from the sky, we have so little that we can actually use. On Saturday I did the same as the local women and put all my bowls and buckets out in the storm to collect rain water. After 5 minutes I went out to check the level, but to my amazement there was about a teaspoon of water in each! How could it be? I was literally soaked after standing out in it for 30 seconds! Then I realised what the other women were doing – they were placing the buckets strategically to catch the run-off from the roof. I did the same, and it was certainly more efficient, just a bit brown and manky-looking. Still – it was good enough to flush the toilet!

No 1 of 6!

No 1 of 6!

2) The insects. As well as the 6 (yes, six) scorpions that I’ve found in my house in the last 2 weeks (4 in bathroom, 1 in kitchen, 1 in bedroom;  4 squashed under walking boot, 1 sprayed to death with cockroach killer, 1 killed by a combination of both), my house seems to have become a breeding ground for ants, various fly-type things, millipedes, grasshoppers, and an array of other insects I’ve never seen before. The ants are the worst; they’re hardcore, viscious little things, that crawl all over your feet and bite! (Especially annoying when you are trying to prepare your dinner outside on the kerosene stove, by the light of a headtorch!) The mosquitoes are out in force  now too. Thank God for mosquito nets – they must be one of the best inventions ever – not just for mosquitoes, they keep everything out when you’re sleeping.

3) And this is what finally finished me off…my house is not remotely waterproof!!! Basically it’s a kind of compound, with all the rooms around a central courtyard area – so if you want to go from one room to another, you have to go outside and in again. Visually, quite attractive, practically, a bit of a nightmare. I’m not sure who the architect was, but I don’t think they are going to be winning any design prizes soon because the compound floods  in heavy rain! (Perfect for a country with a 4 month rainy season…)Anyway, 10pm Saturday night saw me in a battle against nature, desperately  sweeping water away from my bedroom door (and cursing the whole of Ethiopia) in an attempt to stop it coming in. I won eventually, but only because the rain eased off after about 20 mins. To make matters worse, on Sunday night, I realised that my bedroom roof was leaking. I put my headtorch on, got up to see what was happening, slipped in the puddle, and landed with a thump on my arse, and then head. My headtorch flew off and went out, and I was left lying on my back, slightly dazed, in a pool of water, in the pitch dark…not good (poor me!)

My house after the rain.

My house after the rain.

Anyway, it was this that finally tipped me over the edge. Monday morning I went to the college Dean’s office, and did what can only be described as ‘went f***ing mental’! The ‘meeting’ is a bit hazy now, but basically the Dean brought in the guy from finance (arch-enemy number 1), and I said (actually screamed hysterically) that nobody ever did anything when I had a problem with the house or needed support, and that I was leaving tomorrow unless they fixed the roof now. The Dean, to be fair, handled the situation quite well, and told me to calm down, and to tell him what problems I’d had. So, I calmed down (a bit) and listed all the issues – the rats, the kitchen, the shower, toilet and sink, the doors to outside that don’t shut, the broken mosquito screens, and now the flooding and the roof – and by the end, he agreed that this was a problem (hallelujah!) and said so to the finance guy (who denied having heard about any of it…). Anyway, the upshot of it was, we all trooped down to my house, and then the Dean instructed a maintenance guy to clear the gutterings and Mr finance was sent to purchase materials to fix the roof. There wasn’t heavy rain last night, so I’ve no idea if they’ve fixed it, but at least there was some action for a change. To be honest,  I don’t think the incident (hereafter  to be known as ‘floodgate’) has done my credibility at the college any good, but frankly, it was just the last straw.

So, as you can probably guess, I’m not really a fan of the rainy season yet. I thought I was getting used to life here, but it seems I’ve got a long way to go. I  really don’t know how the locals, especially the majority, who never have any water or electricity, and live in mud houses or grass-roofed huts, cope with it. None of the things that I’ve been dealing with recently are the end of the world, but as my friend Emma commented during a Skype conversation the other day, they just wear you down. And that’s how I feel at the moment: worn-down!

But, it’s really not all doom and gloom here. Despite the tough conditions, some really positive things have happened in the last couple of weeks, which stop me wanting to just get the hell out of here.

1) Staff Training: Part of my (very vague) remit is to give training for the academic staff at the college. I hadn’t been looking forward to it as, generally, when the topic of ELIC is brought up or anything extra for them to get involved in is mentioned, they look about as enthusiastic as if I’ve suggested a day’s hard labour in …well ..Gilgel Beles. And after a luke-warmly received needs analysis, I was almost expecting an embarrassing no-show for the first session. However, 16 instructors turned up and they all seemed really into it – they got into animated discussions in the groupwork, wrote stuff down like crazy,  and were all raising their hands to give answers – so it went really well. People even thanked me afterwards! Favourite comment from one instructor -“Suzie, that was nice. I didn’t expect it, but that was nice.” You’ve gotta love honesty!

The debate team!

The debate team!

2) The Great Debate: One tradition that was started by previous volunteers at the college is the ELIC debates. These involve 2 teams of two students or teachers, arguing their case on an issue in the college main hall, and the audience choosing the winner  by  ‘clapometer’!  Anyway, I was quite nervous before it, as I’d heard how good these debates were in the past, and I really didn’t want the first one I was involved in to be a flop. But, over 450 students turned up (admittedly lured by the promise of a free soft drink), and despite an enforced break due to the thunderous rain drowning out the first speaker, we had a decent debate about the pros and cons of educating males and females separately, and loads of the audience wanted to come to the stage to ask questions and give their view on the topic. The best things was that although I pretty much organised it and prepped the debaters, the staff and students did everything on the day; The head of languages compared the debate,  while another English teacher summarised the main points to help the audience follow. My ever-committed student Abderdir was ‘Debate Chairman’ and the Dean gave the closing speech and awarded certificates, and it was all IN ENGLISH! Result!!

3) Girls ICT project: In spite of the slight hindrance of having no electricity to power the computers for much of the last two weeks,  over 70 girls have now taken part in the ICT project. Also, I’m beginning to see a knock-on effect. Many of the girls have come back in to the ELIC to use the computers and some even to take part in the drop-in classes. In Listening Club last week we actually had a 50-50 split of boys and girls – result! Of course, most sessions are still dominated by male students, but at least it’s a step in the right direction. (I think I may be becoming a feminist…)

Weighing the honey!

Weighing the honey!

4) Outings with Mike: Thank God for Mike, my ferengi friend in the village! He always seems to come to the rescue when I’m really struggling or just need to get out of Gilgel Beles. Apart from after-work walks into the country-side, usually followed by a beer at Mike’s and often dinner (he’s a very good cook!) , he also takes me along for the ride if he’s going anywhere interesting. In the last couple of weeks we’ve been to see some of his water projects in villages, been to buy mountain honey from a man in a hut in another village, and been for tea at the Catholic Mission! (I wasn’t sure how much I’d have in common with Sister Theresa, but she was a very nice woman, and she made a cake!)

5) Local hospitality: Even though people generally have very little here, people want to invite you into their homes and share what they have. For example, last week, as I was walking home for lunch, Aichow, a nice guy who works in the college canteen, but is also a student, called out and invited me into his house for coffee. I followed him into his house – really just a very small mud room, smaller than my bedroom – and met his brother and two sisters, who all lived in this tiny room with him, plus another guy who was staying with them. They were having coffee as a treat (it’s expensive for most Ethiopians – several days’ wages per kilo) and they wanted me to enjoy it with them. How nice is that! On another day – St Mary’s Day – I had four separate invitations to peoples’ houses – and was offered so much to eat and drink that I could hardly move at the end of it! And just today, I’ve been at my neighbour’s son Bereket’s  9th

Happy Birthday Bereket!

Happy Birthday Bereket!

birthday party. I was expecting a cultural experience, but to be honest, it was pretty much like a kid’s party in the UK – lots of little boys giggling, eating crap and trying to outdo each other on the dance floor. Most amazingly of all, in a place where I can find almost nothing relatable to my normal life, where context gaps are the biggest barrier to communication, and where the vast majority don’t even have electricity, let alone TV or the Internet, Gangnam Style has made it! Some of the kids even knew the moves!!(WTF?)

And on top of all these good things, my friend and fellow volunteer Debbie was sent to Gilgel Beles to help with some training, so I had a very welcome visitor for almost a week. Debbie’s great (even the cat likes her – and it’s very fussy), she was game for sleeping in a house with scorpions,  and we had a good laugh together, which definitely made the difficult conditions much easier to deal with. (She was also the bringer of Bourbons and strawberry jam!!)

So, there have been a lot of highpoints – work seems to be getting better,  the people here are generally really kind and friendly, and I see things that I’ve never seen before every day. I think one of the reasons I was so upset during ‘floodgate’ was that I didn’t want to leave, but I thought  I would have to, as the situation with the house had just gone too far. Anyway rainy season or not, I’ m determined to see it through! And would you believe it, just as I’ve been writing this, the electricity came back on – wahey! (True, it went off again after less than a minute, but it’s a sign. Who knows, we might even get water soon as well!)

Oh, and finally, the news we’ve all been waiting for…After close inspection and confirmation from Debbie, I’ve come to the conclusion that the cat is a boy! I’m still undecided over a name – it responds well to ‘Brett’ (suggested by a friend) but I feel like it should have an Ethiopian name to reflect its ethnicity. I’m seriously considering Bezuayehu (pronounced ‘biz – why – yo’) after the college Dean!!


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Hooray for religious holidays!!

I’m writing this in hour two of a seven hour wait in a small cafe, in a small (not even one horse…) town on the way back to Gilgel Beles. Yes – I’m almost embarrassed to admit it – I’ve been away again, this time thanks to ‘Fasika’ – Orthodox Easter. While the locals have been doing a lot of praying and slaughtering goats, chickens and sheep, after fasting for 55 days, I’ve been having a lovely time in the lakeside town of Bahir Dar, with other volunteers.

I did actually have a hard-working and challenging, though quite productive week before I left though.

The River Beles

The River Beles

Sunday 19th April

For some reason I’ve never been left out of the college gates before – probably because the village just seems to stop – but today I’m going on a river walk with Mike. We turn left, get to the river (two minutes away) and it’s beautiful. Among the people washing themselves and their clothes, there are flocks of herons, kingfishers and other birds. It’s really idyllic. In contrast, over the small bridge there are piles and piles of rubbish intermingled with animal bones and skulls. (There is no waste disposal system here – people generally just throw their rubbish on the ground).

Chat pickers

Chat pickers

Anyway, after we’ve walked through the dump we’re in banana plantations and ‘chat’ fields. ‘Chat’ is a kind of leaf that people chew here. It’s a natural stimulant that you can buy in 50g packets, and you often see the guys in the village sat round tables, drinking coffee or beer with bags of the stuff. Ethiopian opinions on chat use vary from “It’s harmless” to “It’s very dangerous”. According to my colleague, the two ex-staff members who are now ‘mental’, went that way because they got addicted to chat.

Whatever the effects, growing chat is a good way of generating income , and for at least one hour of the three hour walk that we do, we are walking through chat fields. It’s a nice walk – we see lots of birds, paddle across the river at one point, and return just as the local boys are bringing the cows out to graze.

In the evening Mike comes round to try to fix my bathroom. Unfortunately, the plumbing is so knackered that the pipe breaks off in his hand. Oops…

Monday 20th April

A great day! 5 reasons:

Maritu, Zufan & Adise

Maritu, Zufan & Adise

  1. As I’m walking through the campus, some female students actually call out ‘Hi Suzie’ to me. This may not sound much, but considering the usual reaction of female students when I go near them is a) open-mouthed gaping, b) whispering and giggling, c) a hasty retreat in the opposite direction, or d) a combination of all three, this is pretty big stuff. These 3 girls – Maritu, Zufan and Adise – become the first participants in the ELIC’s new project. It’s International Girls in ICT Day on April 25th, so to celebrate this, and in an attempt to get the girls more involved in the ELIC, I’ve decided to make ‘The Gilgel Beles CTE Book of Female Ambitions’! For the book, each student will write four sentences on the computer (My name is XXX. I come from XXX. I’m a XXX year XXX student. My ambition is to XXXX.), and these will appear, alongside her photo in the book. Again, this probably doesn’t sound like much, but given that computers and digital cameras are in very short supply round here, I’m hoping it will be a good incentive to get the girls in. The final ‘hook’ is that each student who contributes will get a copy of the book, which we will produce using the equipment and stationery I picked up in Addis. I’m not sure how it’s going to go – it could be great or it could be a complete flop. I’m hoping to get a 100 girls – maybe a bit ambitious. Anyway, at least we get off to a good start. Maritu, Zufan and Adise seem keen, and promise to tell their friends.
  2. The Dean visits the ELIC!!! (Usually staff only come here when they want to use our Internet – this has been broken for the past 2 months, so visitors have dwindled…) I show him everything that we’re doing and he tells me I’m doing well. (Praise indeed!)
  3. The plumber comes! (It was Mike who finally saved the day with his connections to the local water office.) There’s no water to check if everything’s ok, but I’m so grateful I pay Lingo the plumber 100 birr (a whole day’s allowance) for his trouble. I figure it’s worth it; according to my colleagues, Lingo’s a kind of water God here – he even knows when our part of the village is going to get water! – so I want to keep him sweet!
  4. I have a cat!! Yes, at the age of 39, I finally have my first pet. Again Mike came to the rescue. Having seen the rats running around my place, he sent round one of his cat’s kittens in a box. At the moment it’s cowering in the corner and hissing at me, but I’m sure it’ll settle down soon and then starting catching all the rats!
  5. (And this really isn’t nice of me…) My colleague tells me about the college trip to the dam (the trip that they forgot to get permission for me for). Apparently it was a bit of a disaster (tee hee)! They set of at 3.30 in the morning in the two ancient college buses. At 11.30, still an hour away from the dam, one of the buses broke down and they had to cadge lifts from other vehicles. On the way back, in the sweltering afternoon heat, the other bus got into difficulties and had to be abandoned, so staff had to hitch back. Most staff didn’t get back til around midnight, and some only made it back this morning. (Tee hee!)

Tuesday 21st April

A less good day – karma is well and truly alive!

  1. Water back on at lunchtime – bathroom flooded. It’s worse than before. I think about the 100 birr and call Dawit, the guy (who speaks English) who helped contact the plumber. He tells me to wait in the house, the plumber is coming now. I wait for an hour, no plumber. I call Dawit back. He tells me the plumber will come after work, at 6pm.
  2. Cat meowed all night, won’t eat and runs away every time I go near it. The poor thing must be really unhappy. I think about returning it – I can’t cope with the responsibility!

But… 9 more girls in ELIC for the ICT project!

Wednesday 22nd April

I have a working bathroom – it’s official. Now, (if we have water, of course), I can not only take a shower, I can wash my hands in the sink, clean my teeth and flush the toilet. Great days!!

My cat!!

My cat!!

Also, there are signs the cat is happier. It’s eating and has definitely started purring. (It’s showing no signs of catching any rats, however…)

5 more girls in ELIC

Thursday 23rd April

Cat comes close enough to smell my hand. I want to give it a name but I have no idea if it’s a boy or a girl yet.

8 more girls in ELIC.

Friday 24th April

Cat lets me stroke it this morning. We have bonded!

Also, very exciting trip to the post office. There are four things for me, including a venom extractor from my mum (in response to the scorpion incident a few weeks ago), and an amazing parcel from my amazing friends, Emma and Sarah. Among many other things they have sent olives (classy), mini cheddars (cheesy), baked beans (yummy), deodorant (in short supply and very necessary here) and a grow-your-own daisy kit (random!). It’s the most interesting and thoughtful parcel I’ve ever received in my life – you are both legends!!

ICT project girls

ICT project girls

At the end of the week, I am proud to say that a total of 37 girls have typed out their ambitions and had their photo taken, and it’s all stored ready for the book. It’s taken a lot of time – some of the girls have never used a mouse or keyboard before, and, as usual, the power has cut out regularly during the week, just to make things difficult– but with the help of 3 guys on the student committee, we managed to fit it in between the other ELIC activities! With another 2 or 3 weeks, we might even make the 100!

Saturday 25th and Sunday 26th April

This weekend I experience something truly amazing. I am witness to the Gilgel Beles ‘Holy Trinity’ – that is, water, electricity and phone network – at the same time and almost for a whole day! I think it’s the first time this has happened since I’ve been here…It’s amazing!

Apart from this excitement, it’s another full-on domestic weekend. As well as the usual cleaning, hand washing, rubbish burning, market shopping, etc, I have to prepare the ‘guest room’ (aka my kitchen) for my friend, Debbie, who is coming to stay next week. I also (and I can’t believe I’m saying this) make a pair of curtains to replace the grungy, flowery brown fabric that is safety-pinned to the window in my room.

But the exciting news is that this will hopefully be the last weekend like this because I’m getting a ‘seretenya’ – which translates directly as ‘worker’. My neighbour Mulu has a relative (a student at the college) who is going to come 2 or 3 times a week to clean the courtyard in the house, do hand washing, burn the rubbish, etc. Mulu invites me round to her house to discuss it Ethiopian style over coffee (which today is served with salt rather than sugar…). I find this difficult (the discussion about domestic help, not the coffee – although it is, frankly, quite disgusting) – to be honest, I’ve never been good at these kind of things. It was the same in Cairo, when I was obliged to have a cleaner (she came with the flat). She was probably the worst cleaner in the world – you could never really tell if she’d been or not – but, despite this I never seemed able to tell her that it wasn’t good enough, always thanked her profusely and paid her extra most of the time. (Is this a British thing or just me?) So when I talk with Mulu about Ibestay, (the seretenya girl), it’s a bit awkward, but we talk about what she’s going to do and decide on the price. Done!

Monday 27th April

Not a particularly good day.

I walk home from work, excited about the prospect of a clean house and clean clothes, but when I get there, the only thing that’s been done, as far as I can see is a rough sweep of the floor – nothing’s been cleaned, my clothes are still where I left them, as is the rubbish.

I go round to Mulu, and we have a ‘discussion’, and suddenly ‘Suzie the Domestic Dictator’ appears:

Me: “Mulu, my house isn’t clean and my clothes haven’t been washed.”

Mulu: “There was no water.”

Me: “There was water – I had a shower at lunchtime!”

Mulu: “She is Ethiopian girl. Do not be angry.”

Me: “But Mulu, you said she would come and clean everything when we had water.”

Mulu: “She can come now.”

Me: “I don’t want her to come now. It’s late and there’s no water.”

Mulu: “Suzie, no problem. She will come now.”

Me: “I don’t want her to come now. I want to relax in my house.”

Mulu: “Suzie, it is not late. I will do my washing now. She will come.”

Me: “I said not now, Mulu. It’s my house, my money and my rules, ok? She can come tomorrow.” (OMG, here did that come from?)

Mulu: “Ok Suzie.”

Me: “Thank you Mulu.”

I feel bad – Mulu has helped me out a lot – but I think I’m just fed-up with people trying to fob me off all the time. I hope it doesn’t make things awkward though…

Tuesday 28th April

A mixed day:


  • When I get back from work, the house is spotless and my clothes are on the washing line. (Nice one Ibestay!)
  • Two girls who took part in the ICT project actually turn up (without any coersion on my part) to a conversation class in the ELIC! (This has never happened before!)
  • Debbie arrives, I introduce her to my colleagues (who, are all, of course absolutely charming!!), and my new best friend (the cat), and then we go out for food and beers. (This is the first time that I’ve been out with a woman in GB! So far I haven’t found any females (apart from kids and a couple of college students) that either have enough English, have enough confidence or maybe simply want to talk to me!)


  • The bus station. First thing in the morning I go to the bus station to try and find out bus times for tomorrow, and get advance tickets for me and Debbie if possible (oh, the naivety…). I get to the bus station (my first time there) and it’s a complete nightmare. There are loads of people who all stare at me and shout ‘ferengi, ferengi’, and there doesn’t seem to be any kind of ticket office anywhere. I ask somebody about the bus to Bahir Dar, and get the worrying reply ‘machina yelem’ (‘there’s no bus’). I decide that it must be a communication problem (I’ve been told by so many different people that there’s a daily bus from GB), – but I just don’t have the language to check. It’s the first time I’ve felt completely helpless here!So I leave and come back later with my colleague, Tsehay. He finds the bus station manager, but even he doesn’t know if there’s going to be a bus tomorrow because the buses haven’t been assigned yet! Apparently, because a lot of people want to visit the big dam project here, they have been sending a lot of buses there instead of the usual destinations (I’m guessing some back-handers have been going on.) So, there might be a bus, but there probably won’t be… Nevertheless, Tsehay assures me that we won’t have any problem in the morning, because there’ll be buses going to Bahir Dar from other villages that will be passing through Gilgel Beles. All we have to do is be outside the college gates at 6am and he’ll help us catch one. Cool!
  • The ICT project has come to a halt as we haven’t had electricity for the last day and a half. (Frustrating!)

Wednesday 1st May

Journey to Bahir Dar:

5.30: Get up, wash face in bowl of water, feed cat, say goodbye to cat.

6.00: Meet Tsehay outside college. There are a lot of people waiting, but a worrying lack of buses.

7.00: Still no bus. There’s a lot of discussion in Amharic. Apparently there are no buses coming – they’ve all gone to the dam. A rumour goes round that somebody has a private bus going to Bahir Dar from the bus station – tickets are 150 birr, double the normal price. We think about it.

7.10: Another rumour – the guy with the private bus has had his license confiscated by the police. He’s not going anywhere.

7.30: College Dean arrives. He offers us a lift in the college car to the nearest town, Chagni. From there we can get another bus to Kosober, then a minibus to Bahir Dar. 10 of us squash into a small pick up, and we’re off.

Chagni bus station

Chagni bus station

8.30: Arrive at Chagni bus station. It’s complete chaos! Hundreds of people are trying to get back home for Fasika (think Christmas Eve in the UK), and nobody knows what’s happening – not even the locals. Thank God we are with my neighbour Tadele, and two other college staff. Tadele ‘registers’ us for the bus to Kosober – apparently there is a long list – we will be on the 3rd bus that comes – ‘maybe in an hour, maybe this afternoon, but definitely sometime today!’ To pass the time we buy coffee and a ‘toothbrush’ carved from a stick by a boy who looks about 6 years old, then crouch down to wait with the locals.

11.30: Our bus arrives! Tadele calls us, and we elbow our way through the crowd. Our names are called (“Soowezie Kowatez”), we get on the bus, and start the bounciest journey I’ve ever had!

1pm: We arrive at Kosober, and get straight on a minibus to Bahir Dar. They squash as many people in as physically possible, and then we’re off. The driver, who looks about 14, is a bit of a maniac, and I’m glad that that there are so many people on the bus, that I can’t see out of the front window. We realise why later when his mate in the back passes him a handful of chat to chew on while he’s driving. Anyway, the benefit of having a driver who’s on the local equivalent of LSD is that the final leg of our journey is very quick.

2.30: Arrive at hotel, chill out by lake.


Monday 6th May (Today)

Having been assured by various people in Bahir Dar (did we learn nothing from last week??!) that even though it’s the day after Fasika (Easter Monday), we would have no probs getting a bus back to GB, we set off at 5.30am, with really heavy backpacks (I’ve bought half the supermarket here to see me through the next couple of months) for the bus station. Surprise, surprise, it’s pretty much empty, except for private minibuses. The minibus touts tell us ‘zarei machina yelem’ (‘no public bus today’) but they can take us as far as Kosober, and we’ll be able to get a bus from there. (Minibuses never go beyond Kosober because that’s where the asphalt stops). It’s difficult to know whether to believe them – this bus station is notorious for ripping off tourists – but after wandering aimlessly around the bus station and getting the same ‘machina yelem’ response, we decide it’s our only option. Another manic drive later, and at 8.00am we’re dropped off at the roadside in Kosober. We find the bus station, and, in complete contrast to last week, it’s like a ghost town. Guess what? ‘Machina yelem! ‘The next bus is tomorrow. Ah…

Caffeine highs!

Caffeine highs!

Not sure what to do, I text Mike – I know that he was coming camping somewhere near here for Fasika. He texts back – he’s in Bahir Dar! But he’s driving back later and can pick us up from here around 3pm. We are saved! So now it’s 12.15, only another two and three quarter hours to wait. We’ve had every (soft) drink on the menu and are buzzing from caffeine overdose. I’m actually looking forward to getting back – can’t wait to see the cat!!


Bahir Dar picture gallery.

Hotel gardens

Hotel gardens

Macchiato time!

Macchiato time!

Pelicans on the lake

Pelicans on the lake

Local taxi service

Local taxi service

Lake monasteries

Lake monasteries

Me and a monk!

Me and a monk!

Men only monastries. Even female animals are banned!!

Men only monastries. Even female animals are banned!!

Stunning scenery

Stunning scenery

Early morning hippo

Early morning hippo

Lake sunset

Lake sunset

And there’s one other picture I so wish I’d got…A man, on a bicycle, with a goat strapped to his back, piggy-back style. Ok, I know he was just taking him home to eat for Fasika, but they looked as if they were on a date!



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Back down with a bump!

Back to Gilgel Beles

Ok, so you know the culture shock graph? The one that’s in 3 stages – the one that starts with a peak when everything is new and exciting, fine and dandy, and then plummets in stage 2 when you get really pissed off with everything and everyone in your new environment, before evening out to ‘acceptance’ and normality in stage 3. Well, I am most definitely in stage 2!! In fact, I’ll apologise now that this may well turn into a bit of a rant.

So the situation now is I’ve been back in Gilgel Beles for over a week. Before that I was in Hawassa for 5 days for a conference, followed by 10 days in Addis.

Tuesday 9th April

We leave an hour late due to a communication mix-up. I’m waiting for Mamo and Dereje the driver at the VSO office, while they’re waiting outside Marlies and Cat’s house. I’m not popular, and when they see the amount of stuff I’ve bought to take back to GB – a broom, dustpan and brush, saucepans, and loads of food supplies, including rice, pasta, green beans, courgettes, powdered milk, olive oil, etc, etc – the atmosphere gets decidedly frosty. This has all got to fit into the pick-up, on top of an armchair, a fan, 2 backpacks, and all the supplies for the college. Anyway, we squeeze it all in (I end up sitting on half of it), and after I produce donuts for breakfast things lighten up a bit.

We actually have a really nice day. Mamo and Dereje are a comedy double act and they speak good English. In fact, they don’t stop – somehow they talk continuously for the 8 hour drive. We stop overnight at the same town as before, and I’m instructed to be ready to leave at 6am so we can arrive by midday, before it gets too hot.

Wednesday 10th April

Scene of breakdown # 1

Scene of breakdown # 1

I’m downstairs by 6.05 – not bad. After a comedy, “Good afternoon”, from Dereje, we set off. About 40 mins later, I’m starting to drift off when we stop in the middle of nowhere. There’s a bad smell coming from the car. Dereje gets out and opens the bonnet, and great clouds of steam rush out. Not good. People start appearing from nowhere to see what’s going on. As the crowd gets bigger (clearly not much happens round here) Dereje pours my bottle of water into the radiator – steam rushes out again…really not good. Dereje asks some of the onlookers to fill the bottle again. I’m not optimistic – there really is almost nothing here – just a couple of mud huts, no river or pump – so water is probably a very precious commodity. Miraculously, they manage to come back with a full bottle three times! Amazing – and so generous!

Mamo looking worried at breakdown # 2

Mamo looking worried at breakdown # 2

Anyway, after the radiator cools down a bit, we set off again. After maybe 100 meters, steam starts billowing out again. We stop, a new crowd gathers, and we repeat the process.We carry on like this, stop – crowd – fill – start – stop – crowd – fill – start, until we reach a town big enough to have a mechanic. Fortunately, they have a proper solution and we are saved!

Back to Gilgel Beles

Back to Gilgel Beles

We finally reach GB at around 3pm, in the full heat of the afternoon. It’s goteven hotter than when I was last here!! But actually, it’s good to be back. The college instructors and students seem pleased to see me (they all thought I’d run back to the UK), and the students help carry all the new equipment to the ELIC. Mamo talks to my line manager and we arrange to all meet at the college at 10am, the following day, with (most excitingly) the village plumber!(Oh my god – I’m going to have a functioning bathroom!) Then we drive to my house, install the armchair and my new fan – seriously, it’s going to be a palace!

Thursday 11th April

Back to reality.

10am – Mamo and I ready outside my line manager’s office. He’s not there. In fact, he’s out for the whole day. (How did I not guess this would happen??) No sign of plumber either, but, after traipsing round various offices, we end up in Finance, who have the authority to summon the plumber. The plumber and his sidekick arrive and we check out the different issues, and decide what we need to buy. After that, I’m told to wait in my house until the men come back with the stuff…

5pm – noone has come back. I’ve been waiting in my house for 6 hours. I finally have phone signal and call Mamo. They couldn’t find any of the stuff in GB (not that much of a surprise) so had to go to the nearest biggish town – an hour away. There’s no time to do anything today, so we’ll start again tomorrow… at 9am sharp. (Palace dream fading slighly…)

Friday 12th April

10am – Mamo and Dereje arrive. No sign of plumber. After a further half hour and some

Plumber # 3 - drenched!

Plumber # 3 – drenched!

very terse phone calls in Amharic, two young guys rock up in his place. I’m not very sure of their credentials but there are a couple of real cartoon comedy moments, with water shooting everywhere, and drenched young men with stopcocks or valves or whatever in their hands desperately trying to get them back on.

Anyway, as darkness falls I still don’t have a working bathroom, but I do have mosquito screens over my windows and a door handle that doesn’t fall off EVERY time I open the door – definite progress.

Mamo and Dereje resignedly check back into the hotel for a third night (they can’t wait to get back to Addis) – we’ll have to try again tomorrow.

(Highlight of day – birthday parcel from my sister! Highlight of parcel – Belvita Crunchy Oat Biscuits – oh, how I’ve missed processed sugar! Thanks Judi!!)

Saturday 13th April

Dereje chez moi!

Dereje chez moi!

The original plumber is back! And, when I get back from the market, I have a toilet that flushes and a bathroom tap that works! It’s a miracle and I say thank you to everybody maybe a thousand times.

Mission accomplished, Mamo and Dereje set off back to Addis. I’m sad to see them go – it’s been great having them on my side, fighting my battles – and they are absolutely hilarious together.

That night I clean my teeth IN THE BATHROOM and can wash my hands without fetching a bowl of water from the garden. It’s almost like normal life 🙂

Sunday 14th April

I wake up to a gushing noise – there’s water all over the bathroom. The pipe under the sink has developed a serious leak. I try to phone the person who has promised Mamo he’ll help me with future issues, but we get cut off after a few seconds. I receive a text from him saying to turn the water off outside the house. (I was hoping for a more permanent solution…) I try to phone back but the network has gone. The only thing for it is to turn off the supply , which means I don’t have any water in the bathroom at all now.

By the evening there is still no phone or Internet. I’m so frustrated, I want to kill somebody!!!!

Monday 15th April

Back to work – summary of day’s meetings.

Meeting with finance:

  • I try to pick up my allowance (everyone else was paid last week) but it’s not possible – there’s a hitch, can I come back tomorrow.
  • They promise to phone plumber.

Meeting with line manager:

  • He says he will push finance to call plumber.
  • He agrees to help me find a ‘seretenya’ – a girl who fetches water, does a bit of cleaning, washes clothes, burns rubbish, etc. (I know it sounds ridiculous that I should need a maid, but things take so long here. If I do it all myself, my weekend is taken up with domestic crap, and it’s knackering! And everybody else has one…)
  • He promises to get the Internet sorted in the ELIC. Before I left the dial-up thing broke, so we agree that a dongle is the best way forward.
  • I tell him my exciting proposal about making Abderdir my counterpart after he graduates. He pauses, gives a big smile and tells me to talk to the Dean.

Meeting with Dean

  • I tell him my exciting proposal. He pauses, gives a big smile and tells me that they’ll discuss it, in such a way, that I’m pretty sure he won’t. I mention that there was a full time Ethiopian counterpart in the past, and that it’s quite difficult to do everything on my own, and that the idea of the partnership is skill sharing and teamwork to ensure sustainability, not the volunteer working their arse off, alone for a year. (I rephrasethe last bit). He agrees and then asks me when I will have the next newsletter ready…

Tuesday 16th April

Back in Finance – I ask if he’s had chance to call the plumber. He tells me he doesn’t have his number (Jesus!) I give him the number and he tries to call but there’s no network again. He promises to try again later.

I ask about my allowance. “Tomorrow”, he says . It seems there’s still a hitch. I say, “If I don’t get my allowance, I can’t eat.” (Probably a little over-dramatic, but in some ways it’s true – there are no cashpoints in GB, so I’m pretty much reliant on my cash allowance from the college. And I get paid half of what the instructors get. Probably shouldn’t have had that luxury pedicure in Addis, but my feet were really bad…) Anyway it does the job, and in the afternoon I get summoned to Finance to collect my allowance.

Wednesday 17th April

No sign of plumber. It’s getting really hot here – over 40 everyday and really humid. I could really do with a shower!

There’s a buzz around the college. There’s a trip for all college staff on Sunday. It’s to the Renaissance Dam – a huge project for Ethiopia, which is happening about 2 hours drive away. Some staff ask if I’m going – why not, I fancy a bit of a jolly, even if does mean spending hours on the pre-war college coach. I put my name down.

After work I go for a couple of beers with one of the Finnish NGO workers whose in town for a couple of days – fun! When I get back home, there’s a rat sitting on my food shelf – not fun.

Thursday 18th April

Still no plumber. Getting annoying now.

No sign of anything else that we talked about in all the meetings either – it’s not like I expected everything to happen immediately, but just some indication that things were at least moving forward would be nice. I’ll go back to my line manager tomorrow to find out what’s happening.

Friday 19th April

Meeting with line manager

  • I ask about maid – he says he thinks it’s better if I ask someone else to help. (Ok, but why, oh why, didn’t you say so before?)
  • I ask about the Internet – he says I have to write an official request to the Dean (Ok, but why, oh why, didn’t you say so before?)
  • I ask him about plumber. He calls Finance – they say they don’t have number…


Everybody’s getting excited about the trip – they ask me if I’ve got my special trip t-shirt – everybody has one, but apparently they’ve all finished. I go to the Dean’s office (I can’t face going back to my line manager), and ask about my t-shirt. He calls – guess who – Finance, and they say my name wasn’t on the list. I tell him I wrote my name down yesterday. He calls the project leader in Asossa, the regional capital. I hear him, pushing to let me come, (at least he tried), but there is no official permission for me so I can’t go. Apparently, the college had to apply for permission for everybody and they didn’t remember me. I’m not particularly gracious in my exit.

I know it’s stupid, but it really pisses me off. I’ve made a massive effort to get to know everybody (making a fool of myself with pigeon Amharic) learn everybody’s name, be friendly even when people were unsupportive, encourage all the students, and I’ve worked really hard. I’ve had enough.

Saturday 20th April

-Get up to do pilates before it gets too hot.

-Go to market in sweltering heat to buy vegetables.

-Spend 3 hours cleaning kitchen – I sweep out the rat shit and scrub walls, floor, sink, tables with bleach. Then I try to plug every possible hole – the rats will NOT get back in.

-Make lentil stew for lunch. (Also boil eggs in case there’s no electricity later on.)

-Do three loads of hand washing.

-Fill all the water containers (who knows when we’ll next have water?)

-Sweep compound.

-Burn rubbish.

-Write blog

-Go to village to buy bread.

-Go home.

-Make dinner.

-Watch episode of Coupling on laptop.

-Go to bed.

I really need a maid… and a shower.

To end on a more positive note – the actual water supply is much better now. We have water for a few hours everyday – we just don’t know when it’s coming. (We eventually found out what happened before. Contrary to what my neighbour told me, the 10 day lack of water was not due to a conspiracy by the jerri-can (sp?) sellers, but due to a pipe breakage. The Chinese road construction workers, who are all over the region, accidentally drilled through the pipe, and were too scared to tell anyone, so ran off. Then it took 4 days to identify where the damage was, and another few days to repair it. So, all this time I’d been unfairly blaming the Ethiopians!!) The electricity is not bad, but always seems to go off at really inconvenient moments. In the day, it’s usually in the morning when I really need a cup of tea, or when I’m in the middle of cooking lunch. In the evening, I’ve been left in pitch blackness in the bathroom (I won’t go into details.) Probably the most pitiful (or comedy) image, is me, having a strip wash from a bowl of water in the garden, with only a headtorch to cover my modesty! It’s all glamour here!!


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