Thursday, July 17, 2008

This is probably the final blog post that I will write. I am back in Toronto after two years in Ethiopia.

I left Adwa about two weeks ago, and have been travelling in southern Ethiopia - the South Omo Valley - where life is very different from the developing modernity of the north. There are a number of peoples living in very traditional ways in the south. There's much more chronic poverty, and people are much more vulnerable to the drought and price rises. I think my pictures show this.

I spent a couple of days in London on the way back, and am now in Toronto. I'm still trying to figure out how to feel about being in such an opulently consumerist society.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

I was at an opening ceremony last weekend at Maiweyni School for the toilet VSO has funded. All the families in the area were there: children, mothers and fathers. When we went to look at the toilet, the men came first and crowded into the toilet building, while the woreda head did his speech. Then we filed out and into a classroom, while the women trailing behind us went in to look at the toilet. In the classroom, the men and I were treated to more speeches and explanations of teaching aids. Just before two children were about to present a dialogue, I whispered to one of the woreda heads that perhaps we could invite the women in to see the dialogue… and it was done. Someone went out, told the women to come in, the men shifted over, and there was space enough for everyone. I don’t know whether it’s more or less disturbing that there was no reason for excluding the women. They were simply an afterthought, not important enough to be included. Women and men are often separate, and more so in the rural areas than in the town. While gender is an issue, class is very much an issue too. As women and men become more educated they don’t put up with this. Or at least not quite as much. My friend Mehari – a man – did a full coffee ceremony for me the other day, and had to withstand a lot of ridicule from both male and female friends for doing so. A lot of men wouldn’t do it at all, and although some men in the town have some token involvement with their children, there are still a lot of lines that people won’t cross. Men DO NOT make injera is a big line that I’ve never yet seen crossed. And the idea of hiring a man to teach in the Kindergarten – not popular!

It’s hard to believe that I’ll be leaving my life here in Adwa in 21 days. There’s still so much to do: meet with Cluster committee and supervisors to finish developing the annual plan for next year (I won’t be here!); visit the schools that have constructed toilets with VSO funding; hire new assistants for the Inclusive Kindergarten (all the current staff is staying on, but since we’re adding a class to KG1 and KG2, we’re adding staff) and register children; write reports for everything under the sun; sort out two years of accumulated stuff in my office and my house, and pack!

There have been regular power failures across Ethiopia 2 to 3 days a week for the past several months, which makes it a bit hard to get things done. This is the result of drought causing low water levels so that insufficient hydroelectricity can be produced. So power outages are rotated across the country so that every town (or place that has electricity) has it for a few days a week. This is quite difficult for businesses that rely on electricity, such as the nearby textile factory. It’s also difficult for small cafes and restaurants and internet providers. In Addis some cafes are using generators, which means added costs. And the replacement of a carbon neutral energy source with a carbon-spewing one! Others have no choice but to lose business. Here, the generator option is fortunately less available.

The power outages are just part of the bigger drought problem (although we have had some rain recently, but not enough), and the resulting price increases across the country. Teff, the staple grain in most of Ethiopia, has almost tripled in price in the past year. This means that even in favoured Tigray, we’re seeing more women and children begging in Adwa, and fragile looking children in the rural areas. There are some foods, like flour, that you can’t buy at all. But in southern parts of Ethiopia, the situation is more severe.

See Ethiopians drink from cup of sorrow

Of course, the rapid increase in food prices is top of mind when I can see the impacts of it in front of me here. But it is also all over the internet and the media. As I get ready to go back to Toronto, one of the many things I wonder about is what it will be like to be aware of problems without being directly in them (at least to the limited extent that I am now), and how I’ll be able to make a contribution to this problem. The top priority in my mind is getting countries on board to seriously address climate change. It’s mind boggling to me why this is so difficult, especially when it’s increasingly apparent that petroleum based fuel is not going to be around forever.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Once again, money is coming up as an issue here. A lot of volunteers find our salary of about 1600 Birr a month insufficient. I sympathize, but I can’t help feeling a bit judgmental too. We are volunteers after all, not UN staff. And I am here as much because I know I need to have less as because I know others need to have more. I do crave certain things – decent chocolate, decent toilets, but overall I find it pretty easy to manage here on the salary I get. To some extent I think I can be tolerant to a fault. But this is an opportunity to live a simpler lifestyle, and one would reasonably be expected to embrace it.

Today is May 1, a meaningless holiday here but still a day off work, which works well as it is also the feast day for Georgis church where I live. So people have been pouring into this part of town all day and filling the houses with music, food and suaw (homemade alcohol).

There are students from Axum University staying at the college this week while they do practicums at the high school. Unlike at teachers’ colleges, students at universities come from across the country, and so usually speak Amharic or other languages rather than Tigrigna. I was reminded of how insular Tigray (and especially Adwa) is when I was at a cafĂ© yesterday. One of the Amharic-speaking students needed a friend to translate as he tried to communicate with the waitress about what juice was available. Iit was a conversation I could have handled, and I suspect the need for the translator was more about the student’s need to keep a line between Amhara and Tigray than about any real language gap.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

I read an interesting article today about the Cuban fuel embargo period, during which food and fuel shortages led to sustained weight loss and improved health in Cuba. As much as we’re willing to talk about simplicity and say “less is more” and “bigger isn’t always better”, when it comes down to it, mainstream western society (and not just western society) is driven by some idea of progress as always growing in size and wealth, having more, not just having better or being better. It seems ironic that it’s so difficult to embrace the health and lifestyle and environmental benefits of having less. What I’m afraid of is that if we don’t embrace having less, we’ll be forced into it, in fact many people already are. But this only affects those who already have too little, those who are at risk of starvation, the people living on the edge in Niger or Malawi or parts of Ethiopia, not those in North America who really do need to lose fifty pounds and gain some muscle in their legs.

Unfortunately, I read Oryx and Crake not long ago (and hated it all the way through, although possibly being at a refugee camp at the time didn’t help). With the constant talk of food shortages and economic crises and the growing impact of climate change, I can’t get Margaret Atwood’s image of the future out of my mind.

It seems so simple: those in the west, in North America which is using far more than its share, need to use less. Less meat, less junk food, less junk, less fuel, better life. Then we need to invest in technologies that will allow us to keep what we need: solar capture, hybrid cars, sustainable agriculture, low-flow showers, whatever. And we need to help developing countries access these technologies too. It’s not rocket science, and any economic or environmental think tank can tell you basically how to do it. So why the **** aren’t we doing it?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

I’ve had a lot of conversations with people lately about how desperately poor Ethiopia is – or at least is perceived to be. The roads are awful, especially in Tigray region. Electricity, water and phone infrastructure are inconsistent. And as one friend noted, there’s little evidence of development: few international companies or resource extraction industries are based in Ethiopia. My argument is that these things – which are most obvious to us from the west – have little impact on actual quality of life for the majority of Ethiopians, which has improved dramatically in the past twenty years. Is Ethiopia as poor as we think?

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

There is electricity tonight, for a change. It’s taken me a while to find out the reason for the frequent power outages. There is a schedule, although I don't know what that schedule is, communication being what it is here. It would seem the unseasonal dryness in Ethiopia this year means there is not enough water to power the hydroelectric dams that provide electricity for most of the country. So we’re having rolling blackouts. I am so used to having power, even here. Until now we have usually had not more than a few hours without power each week. It’s frustrating going into work with a load of computer work and photocopying to do and having no power for the whole day, and it usually doesn’t come back on till about ten o’clock at night. My favourite beeswax candle is now down to nothing. But it certainly does make me aware of how much I take electricity for granted, as my colleagues do too. In some ways it’s strange, because it was only a few years ago that there was no electricity here at all. At the college lounge, as at most cafes in town, we now have a fancy coffee machine. And although last year (before coffee machine – BCM!) coffee was made using the traditional method. Now this is verboten, and it seems to be asking a lot to simply boil water for tea when the power is out. I’m just as bad, and I do appreciate it when power failures land on our workshop days. But if I happen to be in the office, I’ll stare wistfully at the computer and flick the light switch regularly, even though I know there’s no way that power’s coming back on before nine at night. I might take the opportunity to go visit a school, or I might go for a walk after work, but come darkness, I’ll be sitting in my house counting the minutes till the power comes back on.

I will be returning in a couple of months to one of the richest countries in the world. Unfortunately, much of her wealth is dependent on huge investment in economically and environmentally unsustainable industry. Perhaps it is because I am working in a country that is just at the beginning of its modern development that I am particularly conscious of sustainability. Or because of the overwhelming awareness of climate change and the population and food pressures that it exacerbates. I am increasingly worried about the need in all countries for development that is sustainable. Development is ultimately only economically and socially sustainable if it is environmentally sound. So as I return to Canada, I wonder about how truly developed we are, and how we might shift our development onto another path that might bring greater sustainability and security.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The price surge has hit Ethiopia. The price of a quintal (100 pounds) of flour has gone from 450 to 760 Birr, sugar from 600 to 800 Birr, and teff (for injera) from 450 to as high as 700 Birr within the space of a couple of weeks. Bread has doubled from 25 or 30 centimes to 50 or 55 centimes. Some of my colleagues are worried, but they generally make enough that they can cope. For the majority of people in Adwa, already struggling to get by on 200 Birr or less each month, the difference is more painful. In the past month or so I've seen more children at schools, and on my road, who look thin and listless.

I know many people don’t agree, but I am terrified by the worldwide price increases. We’ve been living on borrowed time for too long and finally the population and environmental pressures imposed by rich and poor countries have reached the tipping point. But far too little is being done. I’m going to sleep with apocalyptic visions of rioting and hunger across the world, and praying that I’m being paranoid. Certainly there’s a need for a change in attitude towards what we eat and how we produce it, in order to mitigate the impact of climate change and water scarcity, and this needs to happen across the so-called developed world as well as in the developing world! And we’ve got to stop dedicating resources to this insane biofuel project!

Reusable Menstrual Pads

I have not done very much in my work in Ethiopia that extends environmental issues into the classroom, other than not promoting the use of the college’s laminator. Most of my work has been focused on teaching strategies and methods. However, I have been coordinating a large VSO-funded project constructing toilets and setting up girls’ rooms at selected schools in our cluster programme. Often adolescent girls do not come to school when they are menstruating, in part because menstruation is seen as something shameful and because they don’t actually have any menstrual pads. The idea of the girls’ room is that this is a place where menstrual pads can be provided, and where girls can change their menstrual pad. It can also serve as a meeting place for a girls’ club, and for the dissemination of information that is important to girls – nutrition, anti-early marriage, birth control, career advice, etc.

Where this has been done in other places, the bulk of the money has been spent on disposable menstrual pads. I wasn’t keen on this, so I sucked in my embarrassment and showed my male colleagues my washable menstrual pads. I asked my friendly Almeda textile factory manager for a donation of scrap cotton material. And my colleague Abebe went wild making sample menstrual pads.

We had our information session yesterday for the schools that are receiving funds for girls’ rooms, and it was quite a success. The directors (mostly men) and the girls’ club coordinators (women) were keen and had a lot of good ideas on all the issues we raised – for activities and topics for girls’ clubs, for including boys in gender equality education, for HIV and AIDS education – and seemed to buy into the reusable menstrual pad idea. Each school made a sample menstrual pad to take away with them – and as often as not it was the man who was cutting and sewing – and took a load of donated materials away with them. I was afraid reusable menstrual pads would be seen as a step backwards - away from modern packaged pads, rather than forward - but the teachers seemed to embrace both the environmental and financial benefits of reusable pads. We’ve also had numerous requests from college staff, especially the cleaning women and others whose salaries are very low, for instructions and sharing of material, so we’ll do a session with them soon. From my initial skeptical feelings about the girls’ room idea, I ended up being quite pleased with the project. It still has to be implemented at the schools, though, so we’ll see what happens.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Back in Adwa. Today is a holiday (TPLF day of all things!) so in addition to catching up on workshop planning, I also have the time to reflect on, complain about, puzzle over and feel overwhelmed about my role in development here. I’m finding myself more and more asking what is development, what is poverty, what is progress and where do we, as a global society, really want to go?

Hunger and starvation are problems. But living a rural lifestyle, in relatively good health, using a donkey to cart your produce to market along dirt roads: is there anything wrong with that? If food security is in place, as it is in much of Tigray, then do we really need all the other trappings (did you notice the root trap?) of modernity and so-called progress? I’m asking because I don’t know. Should developing countries strive to the level of development of Canada? If my answer is no, it’s not just because I’m not sure it’s environmentally sustainable or even possible. It's also because I’m not sure it’s a better life for people. Or at least whether many parts of it are a better life: more processed food, big office buildings, longer work days, cars, paper, an economic system that’s all about production of stuff with little focus on peoples’ real needs in terms of the environment, health and social well-being. What’s so great about all that?

Ethiopia, even with its pro-poor policy and areas where people are relatively food secure, still has a way to go – many peoples’ lives are still not great – in terms of

- equality of women and men

- access to an education system that promotes thinking and supports all children, not just the brightest

- improved health and health care

- clean water and sanitation.

How can these needs be met in Ethiopia and other developing countries, while still maintaining and strengthening aspects of life here that are important? Already you can find cheaply made junk from other countries in many shops in isolated Tigray, and the Coca Cola invasion is certainly underway. Peoples’ ways and attitudes are changing too. Many people who would not have thought twice about walking 30 kilometres from one town to another will now wait for a line taxi to take them one kilometre down the road. Teachers in towns use lack of materials as an excuse for poor teaching. Reusable bottles and boxes are often thrown out as garbage. Many people have access to television, if not in their homes then in shops and bars. They can see the way of life in Addis Ababa and the West, and they want it.

In developed and developing countries, we’re blindly following a path just because it’s there, with little thought to where it leads or what alternative paths there might be.

I’ve probably written similar things before, and have come to no conclusions. But this problem is huge. As I approach the end of my placement here, and begin to wonder about what I’ll do next, it’s a problem that is occupying my thoughts. I know I will go back to teaching in Toronto in the short term. But in the long term what do I want to do? How do I want to be involved in development or in improving the lives of people?


There is a strong movement to prevent corruption here. As a result accountability and record-keeping are huge issues. Unfortunately, there is now so much anxiety about providing receipts and paper that the original purpose is often forgotten. The process seems to me to be opened up to corruption even more. For example, the Cluster Unit pays for lunch for teachers at workshops, often provided by small restaurants in little villages. Often the restaurants don’t have proper receipts, or the restaurant-keeper doesn’t know how to write. So our solution to this, as at our workshop yesterday, is to find a shopkeeper or someone who does have receipts, ask them to give us a blank one and stamp Paid on it, and fill in the purchase and the amounts ourselves. This happens so often and is so little thought about that I think there must be books worth of blank stamped receipts floating around. Although I trust that my colleagues are writing the correct amounts, there is nothing at all preventing them from bumping it up a bit and putting the rest in their pocket.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

I’ve been travelling and hanging around in Addis Ababa for the past few weeks. The Cluster Unit and Kindergarten took an experience sharing trip down to Debre Birhan and Addis – to see the Cluster Unit and Special Needs departments in Debre Birhan and the school for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis. It was a really useful trip. As I’m writing I’m thinking of all the ways it reflects the problem of isolation in Adwa.

For the teachers – okay, me too - we saw materials and strategies in Debre Birhan, courtesy of the VSO volunteer/Special Needs Advisor there that I think in their very concreteness helped to answer the how of teaching children with Special Needs, especially the Deaf and developmentally delayed children. I think I have given them a lot of good ideas and we really have done very well in the Kindergarten. A lot of what Kat taught us in Debre Birhan extended these ideas a little further. We also had a chance to talk with some Special Needs teachers at one of the schools in Debre Birhan, although there were no classes to observe because of a directors’ meeting. I was a bit skeptical of how much useful discussion would come out of that, not having any concrete basis of a lesson observation to get us started, but as it turned out, the discussion was quite animated (in Amharic, so I only got a rough translation). I think both groups of teachers were grateful for the opportunity to talk with others who had some understanding about their experiences. At the Mekaneyesus School for Developmentally Delayed Children in Addis Ababa we all observed a class for about an hour and a half, and the teachers were blown away by the different way of teaching there – basically the Montessori approach.

I think the teachers benefit so much from seeing different ways of doing things – even if they don’t adopt all of these ideas (in fact, I don’t think they should adopt all of these ideas). But as they see other ways of doing things, I think this helps them to develop as reflective practitioners: thinking about what the children need, what they do as teachers, why they do it, and planning with greater intentionality. This is part of the problem of isolation, of never really seeing anything different - it makes it so hard to move forward. So at least this is my hope, that we won’t throw away the baby with the bathwater, or wholeheartedly embrace something new without really thinking about why. The teachers will just have a slightly broader basis from which to question and think about what they do, and may slowly bring in new approaches where they fit the need. At any rate, I think Freweyni understood this, but I didn’t have much chance to talk with her about it.

Although the trip was undoubtedly very useful, it was not altogether pleasant: a two day journey from Adwa to Debre Birhan on our infamous mountain roads (things are improving, there are paved roads for about half the distance). Two of the teachers were very carsick for most of the way (most Ethiopians aren’t used to car travel), and none of us were particularly comfortable. I found myself getting easily, and perhaps unreasonably, irritated with certain tendencies of my colleagues – like insisting on bypassing nice well-appointed restaurants (when available, in places like Mekelle and Addis) for tiny cheap little holes in walls. With a bit of distance, these things don’t seem so crazy, but at the time, I was certainly frustrated.

We planned our trip to coincide with the school exams and holidays in Tigray, which last two weeks, so I scheduled my holiday at the end of the trip, as I’ve not taken many holidays. I’m starting to be aware of the end of my placement bearing down on me, and there are still some places I want to visit in Ethiopia. When the experience-sharing trip was over, I stayed in Addis and made my way from there to Dire Dawa and Harar, two cities in the east of the country. There is an airport in Dire Dawa, but to save money, I took the bus – it’s almost a full-day bus ride, but the roads are paved all the way, which makes a big difference. Dire Dawa is the second biggest city in Ethiopia – with a population of about 250 000, but surprisingly cosmopolitan. A lot of different cultural groups live there – Oromos and Amharas, Afars and Somalis. Walking past a high school at letting out time, I watched the girls coming out in their white blouses and green skirts. I wasn’t surprised to see the Muslim girls wearing long skirts to their ankles, but I was surprised that the other girls were wearing skirts reaching no further than their knees. In Addis, many women dress in a very modern way. In Adwa and other parts of the country I’ve seen women wearing trousers and the odd woman wearing a shortish skirt, but it’s still pretty rare, and the standard outfit of even the teenage girls at the college is an ankle-length skirt, whether Muslim, Orthodox or anything else.

I met up with Clare, the volunteer in Harar at whose house I would stay, at another volunteer’s house at Haremaya University. This was a bit of a treat, as they have lucked out with an American-built house well-stocked with just about every cooking utensil you could ask for, and of course, an oven! The evening was spent making chocolate cake, macaroons, pork (I didn’t eat that) and altogether enjoying the luxury of delicious and different food, and good company.

Harar is famed as the walled Muslim city. It is a beautiful city, although I think the descriptions of it in guidebooks and the like tend to gloss over the fact that it’s very much a poor developing country city, and a lot of people go there expecting it to be like a polished old European or even Asian city, and it’s not quite all that. But it is beautiful and a bit different from the northern cities and towns. Probably the people, from the outside at least, are the most different: the women with their colourful headscarves, and the Oromo men with their skirts. Like all big cities, there’s more poverty and desperation, more people living on the street and more severely disabled people begging. In Harar and Dire Dawa to a lesser extent, there is a lot of chat-chewing (imagine if every person in Toronto smoked marijuana on a daily basis…) Some people are addicted to it, and others perhaps do it more socially. But there were a lot of men sleeping on the street during the day, which is not something I’ve seen so much of in other places.

I came back to Addis on Tuesday for the meeting of the VSO volunteer committee of which I’m a member, and then stuck around over the weekend for the Cluster meeting this Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. So between all this and the experience sharing trip I will have been away for 2 ½ weeks. When I get back we’ll be right into a workshop in Ahferom on Thursday and Friday. I’m bouncing between another volunteer’s house and a hotel (the hotel is paid for during the meeting time, so it’s nice to enjoy the luxury, but it’s also nice to be in someone’s home – I’m staying with another Canadian volunteer, and although we are different in many ways, we certainly do have some shared reference points, which is something to enjoy). I have really recognized how hard I was finding the isolation in Adwa. It seems to build up on you until you forget that there are other people, other places, other foods and other things - or at least don’t realize how important they are. I really needed to get away, but didn’t realize it till I got here.

There are quite a few VSO volunteers from Kenya in Ethiopia. Being in Addis, I have been able to find out a little about what’s been going on with some of them. There is still a lot of uncertainty and violence in Kenya. Certainly it’s difficult and dangerous to be there, but also for the volunteers here, there is a lot of worry about their families and homes. As a Canadian with a security net, it’s easy to think of my experience as the only one. But for Kenyans – volunteers from another developing country – there are difficulties that I wouldn’t really imagine. For most Kenyan volunteers, a short phone call home is not just expensive, but prohibitively so, making the anxiety that much greater.

I was getting my shoes shined the other day. It’s something I do more often here in Addis than in Adwa, feeling the need to dress a bit more smartly, and also because one can imagine that it’s a little less dusty and a shoeshine might actually last for more than a few hours. I was very aware of what a good job the shoeshine boy was doing. There is never a slapdash attitude, despite the repetitive work and the low income, but rather a lot of care put into each step of the process. I’m not romanticizing shoeshining, but I am impressed with the shoeshine boys’ commitment to doing their work well.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

At our workshop at Abba Hailemariam School on Tuesday, I was surprised to find a high school. The very large area of Geter Adwa – the rural area on all sides of Adwa town which is a separate woreda or administrative area – has had no high school of its own. Students have to travel up to 30 kilometres to attend high school in Adwa town – a long distance on rocky paths with no buses. At Abba Hailemariam School, a grade 1 to 4 school, a high school has been built. This year it is just Grade 9, next year it will add Grade 10. So high school is accessible for about 250 students a year living in the surrounding area.

I took the opportunity to observe a couple of classes. There is no plasma television so the teachers have to work for the whole period, and work they do! I observed two classes, Physics and Mathematics. The teachers, who know their subjects well, lectured for the whole period, with little thought that the students might benefit from doing some work themselves.

Both teachers worked out several exercises for the students’ benefit, but didn’t give them time to do anything on their own, and neither teacher assigned any homework. They were pretty receptive to my feedback though, although they still repeated the old line that there’s not enough time for the students to do more. I was impressed that all the high school teachers, who naturally had not been aware of our workshop, welcomed the invitation to join in.

I’ve been observing a lot of higher grade lessons lately. While the lack of student involvement is obvious, the high quality of most teachers’ lectures is also obvious. It does make me think back to my own education in high school and university, and really how similar the lecture format is. We certainly don’t have all the answers to education in the West either.

High school teachers have Bachelors degrees, while Grade 5 to 8 teachers generally have Grade 10 plus three years Diploma, and Grade 1 to 4 teachers have Grade 10 plus one year Certificate. I don’t know if this creates a bit of an intimidation factor, but it was apparent that something was going on with the high school teachers in our workshop. They were the only ones to offer ideas to the whole group. The normally keen grade 5 to 8 teachers wouldn’t say a word.

Phone Update

My phone is still stolen. But at least I was able, with remarkable efficiency, to get a new one with the same phone number. The bad news is that although I didn’t feel terribly upset at the time, it has made me a bit more wary. When a little boy touched my shoulder to offer to carry my bag home from the market today, I responded with a lot more paranoia than I would have liked.