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.
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 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!!!
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
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?”
Suzie: “So, who is preparing the food?”
Purchaser: “I don’t know.”
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!
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’!
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!