Hitch A Ride

Hello everyone!


Long time no blog – things have been busy with dissertationing at my end, and to be honest, after the last entry, I decided to have a bit of a break from writing.

Things are going to be a bit more upbeat today, and I’ll be giving you all some information on two awesome events that are coming up in August that you’re all welcome to go along and join in with!

On the 16th August in Bristol and the 30th August in Edinburgh, VSO and Restless Development will be joining forces to stage ‘Hitch A Ride’, a day involving returned volunteers, the public and…….wait for it……………A FLEET OF RICKSHAWS.


Just take a moment to let that last bit sink in.


Not quite a bajaj, but close enough

Not quite a bajaj, but close enough




The idea is to get the public to speak to returned volunteers (old, young, ICS, long-term) about international development. We want to hear your opinions on all things to do with development: the aid budget, the countries that are supported through different projects, the work that gets done overseas, the people that are impacted, or even whether you think it’s a complete waste of time and money. You’ll have the chance to speak to a wide range of people who have actually been there and done the work we’re touching on, and have your questions answered.

This is where the rickshaws come in.

(This is the good bit)

There will be a fleet of rickshaws, each one containing a returned volunteer. If you want to, you can jump in alongside them and hitch a ride round Bristol or Edinburgh, and hear their stories of development. Everyone’s will be totally different, and hopefully put some of the misconceptions about international development to rest. You’ll be able to chat with someone who has seen the work that happens overseas, who has helped it take place, and met the people that are helped by it. They’ll be able to tell you the stories of the people they worked with; their struggles and their triumphs.

We’ll be capturing the day in as many different ways as possible: tweeting, blogging, Facebook-ing, photography, film and music. The public will also get the chance to capture their ‘before and after’ reactions to development, and see on a map where the different volunteer stories are coming from.

You’ll notice the use of ‘we’ throughout those descriptions, and that’s because I’M GOING TO BE IN EDINBURGH. I’m a tad excited about this. The stall/tent/rickshaw terminal will be stationed in The Meadows, and as far as I know, things will be kicking off around 10am until the late afternoon.

So if you’re going to be near either one of these locations on the day, drop by and say hello! Have a shot in a rickshaw (I can’t wait) and get yourself inspired.

You can find out more about Hitch a Ride here, as well as VSO and Restless Development’s Voices for Development campaign, which the events are part of.

Coming up next time….Rickshaws: The Aftermath.


Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting: What’s All the Fuss About?

Hi all,


At the end of my last blog, I said that I was going to talk more about one of the topics discussed at the panel discussion I attended, namely female genital mutilation. Before I get on to that, I just want to take a moment to say that I will not be ranting or preaching – I am going to be setting down the facts on the practice, and providing further information if anybody wants to find out more. I’ve compiled a resource list, which you’ll find at the end of this mammoth post, and you can take your own interest in whichever direction you so choose.

I’ll be referring to the practice as ‘FGM/C’ – female genital mutilation/cutting. This is because the term ‘mutilation’ carries very strong violent connotations, and as we will come to see during the course of this discussion, parents who perform the operation on their children do not do so because they are inherently bad people intent on abusing their child. Not at all. It is therefore more accurate to give the practice this dual moniker, which reflects the dual perspectives on the practice.

I’ve divided the post into the following sections, so feel free to skip to whatever takes your fancy:

–          Why am I interested?

–          What is FGM/C?

–          Why is it practiced?

–          What are the effects of FGM/C?

–          What can be done?

–          Resources/Further Reading


Why am I interested?

I distinctly remember sitting in the living room of my little Gerba house one evening when everyone was out, flicking through the Lonely Planet I brought with me. And I suddenly came across a section about harmful traditional practices carried out in some parts of Ethiopia. I sat reading about the various challenges that girls faced: child marriage, bride abduction, and this other thing, ‘female genital mutilation’. I looked it up in more detail when I was next at Samrat, and my heart sunk. One report I read claimed that between 75 and 90% of women in the region surrounding Dire Dawa had undergone the practice.

How many of the wonderful, bright and caring women that I’d met had undergone this? When had it happened? And why did it need to happen? I was full of questions, but I knew that it was impossible for me to ask anyone about it – like all harmful traditional practices, the discussion of FGM/C is hugely taboo.

The only time I ever heard it mentioned in three months was at an HIV awareness day run by JeCCDO. The facilitator asked the audience (nearly all female) to shout out all the ways that HIV could be transmitted. One girl shyly asked if it was true that it could be passed on when you were circumcised. When the answer was positive, there was a very uncomfortable silence in the room, and no more was said on the subject.

When I came home, I started reading, and the more I found out, the more I wanted to know. Why were little girls being cut? Who was doing this? Had anyone other than the big bad ‘West’ spoken out against it – were there any African or Middle Eastern opponents? How can we protect girls from it?

The thought of this happening to anyone shocked and upset me, not because I was outraged at the ‘barbaric practices of an alien culture’, but because people were harming their girls, the most vulnerable group in society. And there didn’t seem to be any benefit.

As a result, I’m writing my Masters dissertation on FGM/C and the international law surrounding it, and whether we could protect more girls from the practice if we looked at it through a slightly different lens. My assumption is that the human rights framework isn’t really working, and that we need a new tactic to encourage governments and communities to phase the procedure out. But enough about that. I’m going to give you a (hopefully) in-depth but broad overview of FGM/C now, starting with what it actually is.


What is FGM/C?

It is estimated that somewhere around 140 million women and girls are at risk of FGM/C every year globally. The practice itself is ancient, pre-dating any religion, and is practiced by certain Muslim, Christian, Jewish, animist and non-religious communities alike: there is no requirement for the practice in any religious text, regardless of what many may believe (and what some religious leaders preach).

FGM/C is not confined to one geographic area. It is practiced in around 28 countries in Africa, as well as certain parts of the Middle East and Asia, and is increasingly becoming apparent in the diaspora of these countries, particularly in Western Europe and the USA. The reality is that this is no longer a problem happening ‘far away’: it is happening in the UK. We have to accept it.

At this stage, it is important to note that the spread of FGM/C within a country is likely to be very varied. For example, in Country X, Cultural Group A may require FGM/C of all their girls, while Cultural Group B may not require it at all. It’s very important not to make overgeneralisations; saying every girl in Nigeria has been mutilated is completely untrue, and simply reaffirms the ‘Western’ attitude that is likely to widen divide between the women we genuinely want to help and ourselves. We’ll talk about that a little later on. Just bear it in mind for the time being.

FGM/C is a catch-all term for a whole variety of alterations. The World Health Organisation has categorised these, and the following terms have become widely used to describe the particular operations which have taken place.

Type I (cliterodectomy):removal of the hood and/or prepuce of the clitoris

Type II (excision): removal of the clitoris and labia minora (and sometimes the labia majora)

Type III (infibulation): removal of the clitoris, labia minora and majora. The raw surfaces of the wound are then stitched together, leaving a small hole for the passage of urine and menstrual fluid

Type IV: all other types of trauma to the genitals, including pricking, piercing, cauterising, scraping or incising

These operations are traditionally carried out by older women in the community, whose role it is to ‘circumcise’ girls. They may cut the girl with a razor blade, glass, sharp stones, or (as I discovered reading Waris Dirie’s books), even teeth. In the case of the most radical type, infibulation, the cutter may use spines to make holes in the wound for the girl to be sewn up. All of this is performed without any anaesthetic on girls ranging in age from a few weeks old to marriage age.

As you can probably imagine, many of the places where this is carried out are extremely unhygienic. Health concerns (the problems of infection) were the first to be put forward in attempts to end FGM/C. Unfortunately, this dialogue only led to the medicalization of the practice, with many doctors being bribed into carrying out operations out-of-hours, despite laws restricting it. This is a very important lesson to bear in mind. We cannot predict the outcomes of good intentions on another culture, and with FGM/C, it appears that where there’s a will, there’s a way.

All types of intervention cause immense pain and suffering, regardless of whether the girl is cut in the middle of the desert or in a doctor’s surgery in Cairo.


Why is it practiced?

There are a lot of reasons why FGM/C continues to be performed on women and girls globally, and as we will see, these factors are not easy to resolve. They are closely tied to ideas of community, tradition, culture, and what it means to be a woman at a deep-seated level. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with these reasons, stomping in and telling people to ‘stop it because it’s wrong’ is not going to work. Therefore, it’s important to understand what motivates the continuation of the practice. Here are the most common reasons I’ve come across in the course of my own research:

We’ve always done it/Tradition

FGM/C is thousands of years old. The Western argument of ‘this is bad’ comes across as a bit ridiculous, given that women have undergone the procedure and survived long enough to still be cutting girls in the 21st century. The process is the same from grandmother to mother to daughter to granddaughter, and when every female around you has undergone the surgery, it must be taken for granted that it is a ‘normal’ thing to go through.

Coming of age ritual

I have yet to find a community who only ‘circumcise’ their girls. More often than not, both boys and girls have to go through some form of coming of age ceremony involving genital surgery. The problem is that this is far more extreme, and far more dangerous for the girls – some commentators have compared it to castration. Girls often look forward to the procedure, because they will be the centre of attention for the day, being showered with gifts and getting all the best food; this is unlikely to happen again until they are married. Many girls in communities who practice FGM/C want to undergo the ritual, because then they will be able to take part in community activities. An uncircumcised girl is often not allowed to marry; when economic stability depends on having a husband to survive, the need to marry cannot be overstated. This is the reason why, regardless of whether she wants her daughter cut or not, a mother may feel that it’s the best thing for her child. Is it worse to cut her daughter and guarantee her future or leave her intact and outcast from the community?


The marriage argument goes both ways. Just as uncut girls are not allowed to marry, men in an FGM/C-practicing community may not want a girl who has not been cut; it is unusual, and as far as the community is concerned, abnormal. There is also a belief that an uncut girl is not an appropriate partner for a respectable man. This is changing, though, and recent UNICEF and WHO studies in Africa have shown that men who have had the reality of FGM/C explained to them are less likely to demand a cut girl for a wife. (It’s not all bad news, I promise).

Perceived health benefits

All types of FGM/C remove the clitoris, with some communities believing that it will poison men or kill babies in childbirth if left in place. There is an association between being intact and being ‘unclean’ – this can be a huge insult in many communities, where cleanliness is truly next to godliness. Removal of the clitoris is also believed to put an end to any female urges, and therefore stop them going off and sleeping about. This is the reason that uncut girls are often seen as unsuitable wives – who knows where they’ve been. In many communities, there is an association between prostitution and a girl who has not undergone the procedure – this can be an extremely difficult idea to break. But before European readers get up in arms about how terrible and horrific this ideology is (which it may well be), it would serve to remember that during the 19th century, European and American doctors were carrying out cliterodectomies to treat ‘female hysteria’, a mysterious condition which could mean anything from lesbianism to epilepsy. So just think about that for a moment before you go yelling at people to stop being inhumane. Our own past isn’t that great either. I’m not defending FGM/C, I’m simply saying that there is a need to look at these social constructs across the board. Women who are free in Europe and America weren’t always so.

Maintaining chastity

Female virtue is often at the root of the argument. This is partly because purity is a direct reflection on the family, and maintaining the family honour is extremely important. A girl who has undergone FGM/C is a good girl, and a good prospect for a potential husband. The most extreme form of FGM/C, infibulation, guarantees virginity at marriage, because the girl physically cannot have intercourse and remain intact. This unfortunately means that the girl has to be ‘opened’ before her wedding night, and again at childbirth – she is usually then reinfibulated.

Social and family pressure

As Catherine Ojo demonstrated with her story of the 8 day old baby, it can be extremely difficult for parents to prevent FGM/C if the extended family want it done. Respect for elders (often combined with threats like ‘you’ll never see her again’) mean that a couple may be put under horrendous pressure to hand their daughter over for the operation. Family members may cite all the reasons given here (and more) to convince parents that it’s a good idea.

Religious beliefs

Ah, this old chestnut. Despite having no basis whatsoever in the Bible, Torah or Koran, FGM/C is still justified as a religious requirement. Earlier this month, 13 year-old Suhair al Bata’a died in Egypt as a result of FGM/C gone wrong. Her parents believed it was ‘God’s will’ that she died as a result of the operation. Add this to people like the charming Sheikh Yussef al-Badri at the bottom of the page, who firmly believes FGM/C is necessary from a religious standpoint, and it becomes clear how difficult untangling these two forces is. This is the most difficult justification to disprove, but could hold the key to ending the practice in the majority of communities.

Lack of knowledge

Think about this logically. If you grew up in a community where every single girl is cut in some form or another, you would have no way of knowing that not all women undergo the procedure. You wouldn’t know that the reasons given for FGM/C may not really pass muster. Much of the continuation of the practice comes down to superstition, and fear of change.


What are the problems?

Now that we know what FGM/C is, and why it’s practiced, we can move onto what the effects of it are. The information I’m about to provide comes from a whole host of sources: academic articles, Waris Dirie’s books (see the resource section at the end) and general bits and bobs I’ve picked up from lots and lots of reading. One thing that did stick in my head was a message that kept popping up from some of the female Egyptian authors that I’ve read: gathering a group of cut women together and telling them about all the awful things that could happen to them as a result of FGM/C when they are for the most part, perfectly healthy, comes across as patronising. Not every woman who has undergone this procedure will suffer all of these effects, but equally, some women can die as a result of complications. I’m going to list the side-effects and problems that I’ve come across most – interpret it realistically.

Physical Problems (immediately post-procedure)


Blood loss


Nerve damage

Extreme pain (generally and more when passing fluid)

Infection (gangrene is not an unknown problem)

HIV transmission (shared cutting tools)

Body may go into shock

Physical problems (long-term)

Kleoid formation

Difficulty passing fluids

Extremely painful periods, abdominal blockages, abdominal infections caused by retention of menstrual blood (inflibulation)

Loss of sensation

Painful intercourse

Childbirth difficulties (may result in death of mother and/or baby)

Psychological Trauma



Feelings of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.

Feelings of helplessness – women in diaspora communities in particular, who feel ‘trapped’ by an alien society

Fear of pain (may lead to a fear of intimacy and relationships)


Loss of trust in family members

Social difficulties

Particularly in poorer areas, FGM/C is part and parcel of a wider set of problems facing girls:

Child marriage

Early withdrawal from education (if they were attending at all)

Early childbirth and multiple pregnancies, which may be unwanted

Lack of control over their own decisions and the knowledge that they will be put under severe pressure to repeat the process with their own daughters

If 90% of women in a country have undergone the procedure, where does that leave the country’s development? How can you improve a nation where 50% of the potential workforce and social innovators have undergone the trauma of FGM/C?


What can be done?

There are a number of strategies which have been put forward from various sources (both in the developed and developing world) to combat FGM/C. The most promising (I think) can be found below.

Law and its enforcement

The majority of countries have outlawed FGM/C in some form or another, sometimes with a specific piece of legislation (e.g. UK Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003), or by bringing it under wider child abuse laws. But this legislation is usually ineffective at bringing prosecutions, because it relies on a child testifying against her parents, or a health worker recognising FGM/C, and risking being called racist if they question it. A lack of prosecutions leads to a lack of legal precedent, and courts may be unsure how to prosecute cases brought before them. No case law also means that there is no threat hanging over those considering FGM/C. In many places, the law is also not effectively disseminated among the population – if people do not know that their activities are illegal, then what is there to dissuade them from continuing?


If people do not realise that their activities are damaging, and ultimately, unnecessary, they will have no reason to question why they are doing it. It’s extremely important to place the responsibility for ending FGM/C through education in the hands of the locals. Nobody in their right mind would listen to a foreigner with no idea of their daily life and its pressures telling them to stop something. One very successful strategy in East Africa has been educating cutters about the impacts of their job, and employing them as anti-FGM/C campaigners. Their standing in the community helps to convince people to reconsider their actions, and come up with alternative, non-invasive ways of marking the transition into womanhood. A lot of education is about de-stigmatising the practice. It happens, and there’s no point pretending otherwise.

Involving men

As with the need to involve more women in society in a variety of roles, men are absolutely critical to ending FGM/C. As the Panel at the London debate said: men are 50% of the solution, not 50% of the problem. If they are able to support their sisters, wives, daughters and nieces a lot could be achieved.

Breaking the link with religion

This goes hand in hand with the need for education. We need priests, ministers, imams and rabbis to stand up with community leaders and tell their congregations that the practice is not a religious requirement. This has proved very successful in Ethiopia in particular, with Orthodox priests teaming up with local imams to reduce FGM/C in their communities.

Support and communication

The internet has the potential to provide a safe, anonymous space for women who have undergone FGM/C to find one another and share their experiences with people who actually understand what has happened to them. We need to find a way to put affected women in touch with people who can offer them support and integrated health services.

It’s not cultural heritage: it’s abuse

Just as Western critics may be quick to call FGM/C a barbaric practice, and not want to engage with the emotional reasons behind the procedure, it is unfair to shoot down outsiders who really want to help by calling them interfering, or claiming that they are simply part of a neo-colonial project. Challenging the ‘it’s my culture’ assertion does not make an outsider racist. It also does not mean that they disrespect the rest of a culture. I love Ethiopian culture, the warmth of the people and acceptance I found there. But I hate that little girls are being kidnapped, married and mutilated in the name of tradition – not all of them, but some. As Waris Dirie says in Desert Children, if this was happening to little white girls, we’d all be up in arms. I hate to play the race card, but it’s the truth. I don’t want to offend anyone. But I also don’t want children to needlessly bleed to death in the name of tradition.

I really hope that this blog post has made you think about this issue. It’s the tip of the iceberg – women the world over are subjected to so many difficult situations and choices, and this is another burden for them to carry. The last month of news reports have brought home to many of us how unequal the world is for girls – from the FGM/C death related above to the missing girls in Nigeria, the apostasy case in Sudan and the hangings, beatings, stonings and rapes in Asia and Southeast Asia. But the reality is that thousands of women endure violence every day, and it is never reported. And not just violence to the extreme, but emotional and domestic abuse – this is a global problem. I want to finish with a quote from an article I read recently. The rest of the piece was a bit aggressive, and I’m not sure I really liked the author’s approach. But I think her opening section perfectly explains why we should all be concerning ourselves with helping to ease the troubles of the world’s women:

“No matter how many terms one conjures to lessen the impact of the horror visited upon women in the name of culture, mutilation is mutilation; it cannot be diminished by semantics. In addition, I am’ my sisters’ keeper; their pain is my pain. I have an obligation to use my words to speak truth to power in their name.” (Patricia A Broussard, 2008)


Resources and Further Reading

This is in no means an exhaustive list of further information: it’s a headstart for those who may want to keep reading. I hope you find what you are looking for.

General reading and information

World Health Organisation’s FGM/C page

What is FGM/C?


Prevalence of FGM/C by country (I know it’s Wikipedia. But it’s a good place to start)

UNICEF Report: Statistical overview and dynamics of change 

Inter-African Committee on Traditional Practices


UNFPA Interactive Map

How to tackle child marriage and FGM/C

The Guardian’s Anti-FGM/C campaign

Anti-FGM/C Organisations




28 Too Many

The Orchid Project (founded by a Returned VSO Volunteer who went to Ethiopia and had the same experience as I did with a Lonely Planet)

Waris Dirie Desert Flower Foundation – Waris Dirie is my inspiration at the moment. Her story is absolutely incredible: beginning life as a nomad in Somalia, she was ‘discovered’ by Terence Donovan in a McDonalds in London, and became a supermodel. She is now an anti-FGM campaigner and UN spokesperson, having undergone the practice at a very young age. You can find her foundation here, and her wonderful books here: she’s a fantastic writer. I read each book in a single sitting.


Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World. Author Shereen El Feki gets under the covers with women in the Middle East, looking at the problems affecting them in the present day:

Google Books FGM: A Practical Guide to Worldwide Laws and Practices 

Google Books Female ‘circumcision’ in Africa: Culture, Controversy and Change

You could also try using Google Scholar to search for academic and medical articles surrounding FGM/C if you want to find out more about it. Some of these are open access – check to see if there is an option to directly download a PDF version of the article, which should display to the right hand side of the search results pane.


The Cruel Cut, 4oD 

The Day I Will Never Forget, 4oD


It’s all about choice

Hi all!

In my last entry, I mentioned that I had some exciting news for you all. I can now reveal that on the 20th of May, I was invited as part of VSO’s Women in Power campaign to attend a panel debate in London on women, girls and reproductive health. The debate itself was hosted by DFID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Save the Children and International Planned Parenthood Foundation, and discussion ranged from child marriage to availability of contraception, with the emphasis at all stages on women having choices open to them. I’ll be discussing what was said at the debate further on, so just bear all that in mind for later!

I decided that this particular London-foray was going to be a round trip, and so after a very early start (my alarm went off at 3.30am), I found myself in Westminster for 1.30 in the afternoon, having wandered around buying books and eating croissants for most of the morning.

I met up with Team VSO, a mixture of ICS and ‘grown up’ VSO Returned Volunteers and staff, and we had a little time to discuss the event and get to know each other before heading over to Great George Street for the beginning of the debate. I had no idea how big the event was – I was under the impression that there were going to be a few people from various different organisations, a bit of talking, a bit of mingling and a bit of eating tea and biscuits. Instead, there were people in suits, people with tape recorders, the media, academics, gynaecologists, policy makers, politicians, representatives from the NGO and charity sector; in other words, it was most certainly A BIG DEAL.

When the panel walked in, I realised just why it was such a big deal. Those debating the topics above were:

No wonder there was so much press!

(I should point out that I spent the majority of the debate furiously writing down as much as possible for use here, so I only have one photograph of the panel):


L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo

L-R: Natasha Kaplinsky, Melinda Gates, Justine Greening, Tewodros Melesse and Catherine Ojo


Natasha Kaplinsky began by introducing herself and the panel, following a welcome from Justin Forsyth. Each panellist put forward a few thoughts about the topic, which was a good way to open up the conversation. For example, Natasha described visiting a hospital in India and watching a new mother go through an agonisingly long labour, only to be disappointed that the baby was a girl. Each panel member had a similar sort of experience, or anecdote, and the geographical spread of their experiences, from South America to Africa, the Middle East to Asia, highlighted the global challenge we face in trying to involve women as equal citizens.

This was also the point in the debate where a lot of statistics were introduced, and fittingly, many were from Ethiopia – this is partly because we have about 40 years of historical data on Ethiopian-based interventions, so we can track ups and downs in progress. In Ethiopia alone, 31% of girls will be subjected to early marriage. 57% will undergo female genital mutilation (FGM). Only 1 in 10 women will give birth with a midwife to assist them. These statistics are at the national level, and vary across the country; the rates will be far higher in rural areas, or in certain regions. The most recent statistics I’ve seen on Ethiopia’s regions suggests that 90-98% of women in the area around Dire Dawa had undergone FGM. We’ll come back to this in the next blog post.

Ethiopian readers: you will be happy to know that there was a lot of praise for efforts in reducing your rates of what are termed ‘harmful traditional practices’, and rolling out successful health campaigns to help protect your girls. I felt very gobbez for you all 🙂

The speakers all echoed the need for a greater educational, legal, medical and social response to the problems faced by women across the world: efforts must be holistic, otherwise the vulnerable will slip through the net. And it’s not good enough to just make a law: it has to be enforced. Only telling girls about child marriage won’t save them from it: you have to tell the boys as well. We need more trained midwives who will be able to support women through difficult childbirths and recognise when they need further help. This may all seem fairly obvious to those of us lucky enough to be protected from child marriage, bride abduction, FGM or lack of contraception, but to women in these situations, there is no alternative.

The panel had some really interesting facts, and actually, the best thing might be for me to bulletpoint some of the things they said that really struck me, whether good or bad. Hopefully something here will strike a chord with you too.

Justine Greening

  •  By 2020, we want to provide 120 million women with the access to reproductive health options. And it’s not just about The Pill, it’s about communicating other messages, like spacing out children, which means they have a greater chance of being healthier, and that the family size will not swell beyond a manageable number of little ones.
  • Women and girls are absolutely central to the attainment of sustainable development (thank you, Justine, for agreeing with me 🙂 )
  • The UK government is committing to support the Early Newborn Action Plan, and recognises that healthy livelihoods mean looking not only at nutrition, but developing education as part of human potential


Melinda Gates

  •  Disclaimer: I will never be as eloquent as Melinda was, so I apologise. You’ll just have to imagine her saying this much better than I can type it.
  • We need to re-think how we talk about the female health issue, and instead of talking about ‘infants’, ‘girls’ and ‘women’, move towards a continuum of female health
  • Child mortality has almost halved since 1995
  • On the first day of life, 2.9 million babies die globally. A further million will die within the first month. These deaths occur overwhelmingly in the developing world. Lives could be spared with very simple solutions, like ensuring the baby stays warm and dry and is exclusively breastfed.
  • There has also been very positive progress on reducing maternal and childhood deaths around the world. We are moving in the right direction.


Catherine Ojo

  • Midwives have the opportunity to teach girls and women to embrace family planning and wider education
  • Only trained professionals can give a safe delivery; Catherine warned against using traditional birth attendants as a culturally appropriate substitute, because they don’t always have the medical knowledge to recognise a preventable problem early enough.
  • FGM has a devastating effect on women. Catherine told us about a woman who came from a community that didn’t practice FGM, and married a man whose community did practice it. They had a little girl, and the parents were delighted. They both agreed that they would leave their daughter alone, and refused FGM. When the little girl was 8 days old, the paternal grandmother visited the family, and put horrendous pressure on the couple to cut their daughter; she said that unless this happened, the girl would not be able to give birth safely, would never marry, and would be unhealthy. The baby underwent FGM, and the grandmother told the parents to tie the baby onto her back to heal. The baby bled to death and was dead a few days later. This was down to the ignorance of the grandmother, and the strain that her pressure put on the couple, who felt forced to give in to the wishes of an elder family member.
  • How can a girl participate in society if she is traumatised from childhood?
  • Pregnancy should happen by choice, not by chance


Tewodros Melesse

  • International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) is aiming to treble family planning provision by 2015
  • Works with young people and the government in India, who committed around $8 million to the IPPF’s work. They are also partners of the UNFPA.
  • Need to ensure choice of contraceptives
  • IPPF is working to eliminate gender-based violence, especially in the Pacific region
  • We have to address the needs of adolescents, who are usually left out of the baby-girl-woman model; echoed Melinda’s promotion of the ‘lifecycle’ model
  • It’s crucial to recognise reproductive rights as human rights. If they are fundamental rights, they cannot be imposed upon by anybody
  • We have to engage young leaders and religious leaders to promote gender equality, girls’ education and family planning


Once you see it written down like this, you realise that the messages from these different sources – the politician, the broadcaster, the humanitarian, the midwife and the director – are all calling for the same thing. I think Melinda summed up the formula for success best:

Policy and law + community groundswell + public awareness + open discussion = cultural change

It’s a big ask, and a lot of communities won’t be ready for it yet. But the good news is that many are. We are making changes; the graphs are trending in the right direction, and the people in power care about winning the battle they’re facing.

Tewodros made a vital point at the end of the debate: some male feminists exist! We don’t have to fight these problems with only half of the world’s population. Including men is absolutely crucial if we are going to save women from a life of pain and poverty, because at the moment, men are ones with the voice.


All in all, the panel debate was a fantastic experience – the fact that I was in the room with these people blew my wee mind. If VSO wanted a broad representation of women in power to inspire us, then they certainly got it, not just in the form of the panel, but the people in the room. As Melinda said, we need women in power throughout society, not just at the poles. This is only way you will get a push-pull effect; society pushing women up from the bottom and leaders pulling them up from the top.

Equally important was the presence of Tewodros, a man from a country (Ethiopia) without a tradition of women in power, standing up and fighting for women and girls. He told us that he watched his own mother struggle with the reality of child marriage herself, but still pushing her children to achieve their full potential.

I think Tewdoros hit on the key to this conversation – when we talk about ‘women and girls’, we de-personalise the conversation. But if we re-frame the discussion in terms of our mothers, my sister, your daughter, his wife, it suddenly becomes personal and incredibly important. Making harmful traditional practices like child marriage and FGM ‘real’ and relatable, and actually explaining what happens to the girls in these situations starts to demystify the culture that’s built up round them as a way to stop them being challenged. If child marriage was morally justifiable, would it be taboo to discuss it, even in the societies where it’s practiced? I doubt it.

Throughout the debate, I was turning a few things over in my head, and I’m not sure I have answers to either yet, or whether they are even questions:

  1. What would a girl from a poor background and a very traditional upbringing think if she knew we were talking about FGM and child marriage in her community with Westerners…and worse…men? Would she actually agree that these practices are wrong? Girls who lack educational opportunities are more likely to support the continuation of these practices – how do we reach them?
  2. As that discussion was happening, girls were being pinned down and undergoing FGM. And not just in Africa, but a lot closer to home. They have no idea that the debate was happening, that anyone knows about what’s happening to them, or that the world is trying to save them. That was food for thought.
  3. VSO and agencies like them are the people who are actually helping to disseminate these messages to people on the ground, in the middle of nowhere. NGOs have an absolutely critical role to play in this, especially where the government doesn’t see fit to intervene.

If any of this has got you thinking, congratulations. You’ve just started to inform yourself about a multitude of issues that are faced by girls and women all over the world every day. I honestly believe that information dissemination is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Harmful traditional practices are perpetuated by a culture of silence and secrecy. End that and you’re a step closer to ending the practice.  Keep asking questions. Keep educating yourself. This problem isn’t going anywhere, and the more people are talking about, the fewer places the perpetrators have to hide. Increasing public awareness is akin to flooding a darkened room with light and then shining a torch into the shadows – we have to stop giving this a dark corner to hide in.

I realise I’ve touched on A LOT in the course of one post. I apologise – I didn’t realise I had as much to talk about! A lot of it hasn’t really been explained, and that’s because I wanted to ease you, the reader, into the discussion, not scare you off.

The next post (I know – the blog was like the Marie Celeste not that long ago) will discuss FGM, and it probably won’t be the most light-hearted piece I’ve ever put together. It’s a very difficult topic to broach, and until recently, I felt like it wasn’t my right to talk about it. To borrow a particularly toxic phrase, ‘it’s not my culture’.

But here’s the deal. It’s not culture. It’s a tradition of abuse, and is actually recognised as such all over the world. If people with a platform for discussion (like me) shy away from taking the opportunity to raise awareness of FGM, we’re condemning millions more girls to a life of pain and missed opportunity.

Not on my watch.





Happy Anniversary

Salam natchu and hello everyone!


This post is going to be a little different.

Today marks the ‘one year ago today, I went to Ethiopia’ anniversary!

I can’t believe it’s been a year since I stepped onto the Ethiopian Airlines flight for Addis, and the biggest adventure of my life began. In the space of a year, I’ve gone overseas, worked for a lifechanging organisation, lived with the best host family anyone ever had, and met some of the best young British and Ethiopian people I could ever hope to. I’ve attended an awards ceremony, talked until my jaw fell off, twittered here and there, and done a bit of international law along the way too. I could never EVER have predicted the journey the last year would take me on. I’ve loved every moment of the surprise. Especially the camel aspect of the surprise.

I miss those camels.

Since I’ve come home, I’ve become a bit of a quiet campaigner. I’ll save the details for my next post (I’m continuing the theme of surprises: be patient!), but what I can tell you all is that it involves women and girls in the developing (and increasingly, developed) world. The next post might get a little upsetting (I might actually split it into multiple posts to lessen it somewhat), so here, to celebrate the first anniversary of the beginning of this whole endeavour, I’m going to combine two things I absolutely adore: some of the wonderful ladies of Dire Dawa, and Amharic names.


Ethiopian females are a force to be reckoned with. They’re strong, compassionate and endlessly kind; just when you think someone couldn’t possibly offer you more, they go that extra mile. I was constantly touched by the care and attention that my host mum, Mesai, gave to all aspects of home life, from taking the sharp edges off sliced potatoes (so they don’t catch the bottom of the wat pot) to her selfless attitude when helping out friends and family members. On one occasion, she spent three days away from home to help cook, serve and clear up an enormous graduation party for family friends. And she smiled all the way through.

Mesai with the amazing fasting pizza she made :)

Mesai with the amazing fasting pizza she made 🙂

Here’s Mesai – my witty, bubbly, wonderful host mum. The name Mesay (which is how you’re actually supposed to spell it), means ‘look-alike’ in Amharic. It also bears a striking resemblance to the Amharic word for lunch, mesa. When I first arrived, every relative I visited made me laugh by calling Mesai ‘lunch’ when they spoke to her.


I had the immense joy of spending my three months living with Mesai’s two younger sisters, the littlest of whom is 9 year-old Meron, known to everyone by her nickname, Genana. She spent the last month on holiday with us, and her presence as a playmate and aunt to Temar brought a lot of happiness into the house over the summer holidays.

Genana wanted a 'formal portrait'. So we took it with a massive pink teddy bear as the backdrop.

Genana wanted a ‘formal portrait’. So we took it with a massive pink teddy bear as the backdrop.

I never found out what ‘Genana’ meant – if anybody knows, please leave me a comment – but I do know that Meron is Amharic for ‘gift of God’. It’s also a kind of holy oil used in the Orthodox Church, to which the whole family belong.


Genana’s constant companion was the indomitable Temar. Independent, curious and rambunctious, Temar and I started out shakily and finished as real sisters. Learning to see Dire Dawa through the eyes of an extremely intelligent four-year old was an education in itself, and winning her trust was one of the highlights of my entire stay.

Little Temar, the best little host sister I could have asked for

Little Temar, the best little host sister I could have asked for

Temar is Amharic for ‘studious/learned one’, which is fitting given the importance that education plays in her life. Dimbet is going to grow up in a world where she’s valued as an individual, not a commodity. She’s a well-educated child, not a potential dowry. Temar is part of a growing number of Ethiopian girls being raised by parents who value education, and know that it’s the best possible start they can give their daughter. And knowing her aged four, I can only imagine what she’ll be doing when she’s the same age as me. Litigation might suit her…


Women in the developing world are often portrayed as downtrodden, unempowered and in need of rescuing. One lady who was none of the above was my boss at JeCCDO, Sister Tigist. She ran that office (and the dozens of volunteer community facilitators reporting to her) like a captain on a ship, but never lost her empathy, or ability to move from crunching numbers to listening to a mother asking for help.

Sister Tigist being an inspiration to all the girls in the audience (and me)

Sister Tigist being an inspiration to all the girls in the audience (and me)

This photograph, which I absolutely love, was taken at a school quiz funded by JeCCDO and participated in by some of the disabled students from one of Dire Dawa’s secondary schools. Tigist (or ‘Sister’, as we all called her – a sign of respect, as she has a nursing degree), is giving a talk to the students about following your dreams, and never letting anything get in your way. What really makes the photograph for me is the three men sitting down listening to her, and respecting every word she says. It sent out a really powerful message to the children in attendance: here was a woman who was a bigger guest of honour than all the men put together, because she ran the thing that paid for the school to put on the event. Tigist means ‘patience’ in Amharic, and I always thought that was such a fitting name for a lady who had the quality in such abundance.


Another person whose very being reflected her name was my amazing counterpart, Mehret. Intelligent, thoughtful and downright fabulous, Mehret supported me more than I can ever thank her for during my 12 weeks. She was patient when I didn’t understand, understanding when I was upset, and upset when we had to part.

Beautiful, fabulous, kind: ladies and gentlemen, my counterpart, Mehret

Beautiful, fabulous, kind: ladies and gentlemen, my counterpart, Mehret

And she should be a model.

Mehret means ‘Mercy’ in Amharic, and I will always carry with me Mehret’s voice in my head when I get frustrated about something going wrong: “You don’t have to feel anything – it’s not your fault.” That and her rendition of Jojo’s ‘My Life’, which she’d whack out at random intervals to fill silent conversations. Triple threat: kind, gorgeous and hilarious.


The final photograph is actually of two people (three if you include the devil kitten, Flora/Rocky). The reason I chose this photograph for Sara and Gelila is that I think it shows the girls that I got to know at their best; happy, laughing and at ease with everything. Gelila, Mesai’s 16 year-old sister, was studying for her upper school exams while I was there. She told me early on that she and Sara were sisters, and in my new-to-Ethiopia naivety, I assumed she meant blood sisters. What she actually meant was something much stronger, and akin to the bond the three of us had developed by the end of my placement. We were three disparate people from three very different backgrounds, but a higher being, or fate, or the universe, or something, had let us find one another. Being able to come home and know that Gelila and Sara would be there made a long day at the office worth it. Whether I was watching Bollywood movies with Gelila, or talking about how much Sara loved an Ethiopian pop singer, I was always smiling with these two: it was hard not to. Imagine what an odd sight the three of us must have been wandering to church on a Sunday morning. Gelila: another model in the making, yelling sarcastic comments at bajaj drivers who looked at us for too long. Sara: laughing, smiling and linking arms with us both on the way there and singing mezmurs (Orthodox hymns) and dancing all the way back. And Ferenjii looking Dazzy-white in a borrowed netala.

My adopted sisters: Sara (left) and Gelila (right)

My adopted sisters: Sara (left) and Gelila (right)

Gelila is the Amharic version of the Biblical name ‘Delilah’, and means ‘beautiful temptress’. I’m not sure that Gelila would describe herself as such – she’s secretly a bit of a tomboy – but I like that there’s some onomastic potential for her to blossom into one, should she so choose.

Sara is also an Amharic name, from the Bible, and it means ‘princess’. I cannot express how much I love the meaning of Sara’s name; she is a princess who spends her day cooking and cleaning, but is so happy to be doing so. She’s already escaped from a future with child marriage on the cards and has found her way in the world without any education – she made her own fortune. I suppose in Sara’s fairytale, Mesai is her fairy godmother, bringing her in, giving her a purpose and a life that she would never otherwise have had. Her dream come true is happening every day, and getting better all the time. I write this safe in the knowledge that Sara is going to have a happy ending because she’s the princess that got saved from the dragon that claims so many little girls in Ethiopia.


A year ago, I hadn’t met any of these wonderful women. I didn’t even know they existed. But every day, I open my laptop and see their faces smiling back at me, and count myself lucky to have been part of their lives even briefly. They continue to inspire me in their own ways every single day, whether I need Temar’s bravery, Tigist’s strength, or Sara’s courage: they’re always there, whatever I do.

They’re the reason I wouldn’t change the last year for anything in the world. Here’s to more girls like these girls, and here’s to ICS for putting them centre stage.

Happy Anniversary, konjos.


Canapes, Champagne and a Noticable Lack of Camels

Hello again!


Here – finally, and I do apologise for the wait – is my post on THE FIRST EVER UK NATIONAL BLOG AWARDS.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this wee blog of ramblings was shortlisted for the Education-Individual category along with 9 other blogs (all of them awesome, and I recommend looking at some of them here).

I made the journey from North Of The Border to London with my camera, my laptop (and coursework blegh) and my mum (I wasn’t for walking into a room of networking types all by myself!) two days before the awards night, and had a nice couple of days exploring Hampton Court Palace and revisiting Putney, where I had my Assessment Day over a year ago. It was nice to see it again with all those experiences underpinning the visit.

On the Friday, we packed up our suitcases and headed over to The Grange Hotel St Pauls for the big night. After dragging a brush through my hair and attempting to use eyeliner, I headed out to the foyer and met up with the lovely Samia, another ICS returned volunteer who had been nominated for an award. Samia spent her 3 months in South Africa with Skillshare, and I really recommend having a nosey at her blog, which has successfully made the transition from ‘I’m an ICS blogger’ to ‘I’m A Blogger’….much to learn I have.


Samia and I.

Samia and I.


We had a really good chat about all things volunteering, ICS and ‘what are you doing next?’, before my mum met us and we were joined by Matthew (a returned Team Leader who spent 10 months in Ghana with International Service and whose blog you can find here), Lucy from the ICS Hub and Caitlin from International Service, who had very nicely come along to support the three of us.


Because ICS makes you happy bloggers.

Happy, if somewhat confused, ICS bloggers.


I’ve never ever been to anything as glitzy as this was, and people had really gone to town on looking their best. The pre-Awards Twitter updates started mentioning hair and nail appointments at about 8.30 in the morning, and the effort certainly paid off! There were lots of things to entertain the guests before the ceremony began, like a candy floss and popcorn stand, a pop-up business card printing stand and….a digital graffiti wall. It was AWESOME. Samia did an excellent hardened juvenile delinquent impression and spray-painted some ICS banter TO REPRESENT. YOU GET ME?





The event itself was really slick, and despite my initial concerns about how long the votes of thanks and the ‘networking’ would last, it didn’t drag at all. By the time we got on to the awards themselves, I had eaten so many tiny cakes that I was glad of the seat. (Note to self: if attending similar functions in the future, make sure you either eat a massive dinner beforehand, or get there early enough to stalk the waiters with the savoury canapés.)

I won’t go through each and every category and tell you who won what, because you can find all that out here: instead, I’ll show you this here picture of my wee blog up on the screen with all the other blogs who made the shortlist:





To cut to the chase, I didn’t win anything, but I really don’t mind. It was so unexpected and exciting to just be nominated, that I was chuffed to bits regardless of the outcome. I didn’t leave completely empty-handed however; all bloggers (and guests) left with a certificate, a goody bag and, thanks to the artistic leanings of Samia, a jazzy ICS magazine bag.

It does indeed.

It does indeed.



I’m not sure when I’ll next be scribbling again: dissertation season is almost upon us, and although I’m really hopeful it might generate a couple of Ethiopia-related posts, I’m still waiting on the topic to be confirmed. In the meantime, I recommend having a wee look at what other work VSO does in Ethiopia…and check out the link at the bottom of the page. I’m quite excited.

In some ways, winning the category would have devalued the message that I think runs through a lot of what I’ve written. This blog isn’t about the people who always win, or come out top. It’s about second (or first) chances, risks and an awful lot of hard work, not just on my part, but on the part of all the people I’ve met through the ICS family. They’re the people I want to really dedicate the shortlisting to, because without them, I wouldn’t be doing any of this. So thank you.

Seven Month Itch

Well, well, well. I’m back again.

The whole ‘putting the blog away until an appropriate time’ promise I made myself hasn’t really panned out all that well.

I wanted to wait until something amazing happened before I posted again. Like an opportunity to bring Ethiopia back into my life. But it would appear that Ethiopia had its own ideas all along, and has in fact never left my side all this time.

So what’s happened since I officially became an ICS alumni? Read on to find out.

There are three main things I’d like to cover in this blog post

  1. Keeping the VSO ICS spirit alive
  2. The Blog Awards
  3. The Future of the Blog

I’m hoping that this won’t just be interesting (maybe) to read, but will actually prove to be a good exercise for me on a personal level. There are a lot of things I haven’t quite decided yet, and I’m hoping to work them out by writing. I can only apologise for the ‘stream of consciousness’ that is about to follow. But in grand Ethiopian Endeavours fashion, let us set stylistic fears aside for the time being and get on with addressing my list.

1: Keeping the ICS Spirit Alive

If you’ve been following along with the blog as it’s evolved, you’ll know that I felt I hadn’t really done enough Action at Home when I got back to the UK. I hosted an Ethiopia Night, spoke to 6th Year pupils and made a quilt. I suppose the blog counts as a kind of Action at Home too. Nevertheless, I felt a little, well, empty. I’d had this amazing experience that had opened my eyes to a whole other way of life, been profoundly moved and incredibly inspired, and I didn’t feel like I’d been able to reach enough people.

So I set out on a self-appointed mission to make people listen.

The first target was VSO. I wanted VSO to listen to me and really understand how grateful I was to them for giving me the opportunity in the first place. So when I wrote my Action at Home report, I sent them a link for this blog. And amazingly, that simple act of sending VSO a link has opened up doors I never anticipated.

The blog got promoted on the ICS and VSO Facebook pages. It was tweeted. It was liked, read and re-visited. The blog view map continued to fill in with views from new countries. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve got a blog post titled ‘What VSO Didn’t Tell Me’, in which I describe their information dissemination as being about as much use as a mesh canoe. And yet here was a link to my blog, floating all over social media, promoted by VSO.

After the promoting came an email. This email asked me if I’d like to take part in a Twitter takeover on International Volunteer Day, tweeting to people all over the world on behalf of ICS about the value of young volunteers. I couldn’t believe it – they asked me of all people? And on 5th December 2013, I took to Twitter for the first time in my life, and helped to promote the role of youth in volunteering. If you missed the discussion, you can read it here – some of the conversations were really fantastic.

The good conversations didn’t stop at Twitter. A week ago, I had the immense pleasure of speaking on the ‘Role of Women in Ethiopia’ at a local Women’s Institute meeting (yes, they of Calendar Girls fame). I’d agreed to do this while I was in Dire Dawa in June, and had almost forgotten about it until I opened my diary 10 days before the evening and got the fright of my life.

The lovely ladies of the WI hadn’t given me any guidance in terms of subject matter, or even length of talk, just to speak for as long as I liked about whatever I wanted.

It turns out that I went for an hour and 22 minutes before I ran out of Powerpoint slides.

Baffling my audience with my choice sheetee outfit

Baffling my audience with my choice sheetee outfit

To make things interesting for my audience, while also trying to answer the question of ‘what did you do?’, I spilt my presentation into about 9 sections, all focussing on the role of women within that area; women at work, women at home, women and clothes, opportunities for women, the problems faced by women…that kind of thing. I was able to use lots of the photographs I took to demonstrate my points, and tell the stories of the girls I met, which made it a little more interesting for the audience, who could emphasise with their stories.

What was really nice was that at the end, one of the ladies gave a vote of thanks. In it, she had a definition of Ethiopia from an encyclopaedia; it was all famine, dictatorships, poverty and despair. She didn’t even bother reading the whole thing out, because ‘We’ve learned so much more from you this evening than we ever would have done from books. Ethiopia isn’t the place we thought it was; thank you for opening our eyes to the reality, the hope and the future potential of the country’. I think I successfully achieved my goal of making people listen, while changing a lot of perceptions along the way.

I really enjoyed my stint as Guest Speaker for the WI, who proved themselves to be an engaging, extremely insightful group of ladies, who asked lots of interesting questions and fed me exceptionally good cakes. Thank you very much!

My most recent way of making people listen took place last weekend. VSO asked me if I’d speak at the Returned Volunteer session at the Pre-Departure Training which was taking place for the next batch of volunteers heading to Hawassa…and Dire Dawa. This was a really strange experience on a number of levels, the least of which was doing the whole thing over Skype, and being unable to see the faces of the people I was speaking to. When you can’t read your audience’s facial expression, it makes you really think hard about what you’re saying, as well as making you listen a lot more to see if they found your ‘humour’ funny. I’m glad to say that for the most part, it went down OK.

Stranger yet was knowing that this training was taking place in exactly the same place as mine did. I remember sitting there, almost a year ago, listening to the Returned Addis Volunteer speaking about his experiences. And while listening to him, I distinctly remember thinking I’m going to do that when I get back from Dire Dawa. And now I’ve been able to do it, and provide that reassurance to the next group of volunteers heading out to Dire Dawa. I felt so privileged to know that I was the one who got to pass on the advice to them, and I made sure they knew that I expected them to look after Dire for me! It was such a lovely way to bring the entire experience full circle, and think it finally gave me the closure I was looking for. They’re the next round of volunteers – they’ll get to do everything that we did. They get to taste it, touch it, hear it, see it, smell it and feel it, just like we did, and knowing that they’ll understand all the things I’ve blogged about here by the end of their placement was strangely calming. I didn’t have to make them listen. They wanted to hear it. And I hope that when they come home, they’ll want to obsessively chase this need to make people listen, just as I have.

But where has all this talking got me? Well…

2: The UK National Blog Awards 2014

In the same email as the invitation to tweet was a suggestion – there’s this blogging awards thing starting up…good opportunity…we think you should enter…let us know what you decide to do. Now I’m no moron. I know advice when I see it. I thought heck, if VSO are telling me I should have a go, I’m going to have a go and see what happens.  So I entered (see previous post). Over the next month and a half, my blog sat alongside 900 others, all competing for the public vote. I forgot I’d entered it for a while when university deadlines kicked in, and then the day before the public vote closed, I put out one of those ‘if you can be bothered, it’d be nice if you voted’ things on Facebook with a link.

I didn’t expect what happened next.

If you look up at the top right hand edge of the blog screen, you’ll see a little image, similar to the one I put up in my last entry. The difference is that this new one says that I’ve been shortlisted for the UK National Blog Awards. That’s right.

Shortlisted for the first ever UK Blog Awards, 2014

Shortlisted for the first ever UK Blog Awards, 2014

Enough people voted for this collection of garbled thoughts that it’s one of 10 finalist blogs in the Education (Individual) category. I want to take this opportunity, while I’m up here on my soap box, to say thank you. There’s no way that enough people saw that Facebook status to all go and vote in the numbers needed to bring this about. I can therefore only assume that some of you people, reading from Uganda, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Malta, Ethiopia, and all these other places, decided to vote too.  Thank you so much. By voting, you’ve cut down the numbers of other blogs vying for attention with this one, which hopefully means that more people will read it. And the greater the numbers who read, the more they’ll learn about the real Ethiopia, the Ethiopia I know and love.  You’ve helped put Dire Dawa on the map. You’ve spread the gospel of Stanley. You’ve taught people how to make tibs. You’ve moved people with Sara’s story. In other words, you’re helping me achieve my mission of making people listen.

The outcome of all of this is that I’m heading down to London in April to go to a swanky awards ceremony with all the other shortlisted bloggers and their families. I’ve got no chance of winning anything, but that really doesn’t matter. I’ve got a captive audience of people who will be asking me what I blog about…I’ll get to make well-dressed people listen. I promise I’ll try my best to put on a good show on the appearance front, channelling my inner habesha. But it would be just my luck if I ended up sitting next to some stunning Ethiopian, who would outshine me on an average day, never mind at an awards ceremony. In some ways, this would be the most fitting way for it to happen – a little ode to Mehret and I, the glamourpuss and the scruffball.

3: The Future of the Blog

This is the big one. I’ve been working on this blog post for about a week now (not that you’d know that), trying to work out what I’ll write about this.

I don’t know what’s happening.

Unlike other blogs, say a beauty blog, or a food blog, I can’t really write things on a weekly basis any more. I’m not in Ethiopia. I’ve finished the ICS programme. I’ve got  a lot of things to get done that take even more time away from the little personal writing time I’ve currently got.

But in saying that, Ethiopia keeps coming back into my daily life in some form or another. It could be an email from VSO asking me if I’d like to take part in something (I keep saying ‘yes’). It could be an Ethiopian airline pilot hijacking a flight to seek asylum. Or it could be the amazing response to International Day of Zero Tolerance to FGM, which was all over our news and media for about 3 or 4 days.

Whatever way I look at it, there’s no way of shaking off my second, desert home, no matter how hard I try. And this has lead me to a semi-conclusion. I’m not saying one way or the other what I’m doing with my blog. I can’t write regularly, because at the moment, I’m not really in the position to. But at the same time, I’m not saying I’m shutting up shop for good; I’ve got blog awards to blog about!

Life is too unpredictable to plan everything down to the last detail. And actually, given the lack of flexibility in my daily life, I’m more than happy to leave it like that. It’s a little bit of be free in my otherwise rigid schedule.

I think that’s a nice way to leave things for the time being.

Out of retirement already

Hello again!

This may be the shortest entry in the history of the blog (although, given some of them, it wouldn’t be difficult). I just thought I’d let you all know that thanks to a little peer pressure and gentle encouragement from a number of sources, I have entered Ethiopian Endeavours into the 1st UK National Blog Awards!

I doubt anything will happen – there’s A LOT of amazing blogs out there, that are far less rambling than this one – but if by entering, people read and find out more about Ethiopia, VSO and ICS, then that’s a job well done as far as I’m concerned.


Fingers crossed!

Action At Home

Hello everyone,

After a lot of deliberation and procrastination, this will be my last blog post as part of the VSO ICS programme. If I don’t finish it here, then I’m not sure I ever will, and with university deadlines and ‘real life’ slowly ramping up in speed and pressure, this is my only opportunity to finish things the way I’d like to. What I will say is that I’m not shutting down the blog for good. Since I plan on going back to Dire Dawa in the future (you don’t get rid of me that easily!), it would be nice to keep things ticking over so that I can update the blog if/when I ever want to.

So although this is the last official post, it may not be the last ever. Makes sense?

So, on to today’s business: Action at Home. I should probably admit that I’ve actually officially completed the programme at this point (I’ve got a certificate and everything to prove it), but I wanted to bookend everything – since I’ve covered all the other parts of the process, and this has been written mainly for the benefit of future volunteers, it only felt right to close up in this way.

After coming home from your placement and attending your Returned Volunteer Weekend, you have 3 months to complete an Action at Home project. This can be anything you like: writing to your MP about an issue; a film night; photography exhibition; speaking to your community; raising money – anything at all.

I went down the ‘let’s go and talk to people’ route, which I initially didn’t want to do, because it felt like a bit of a cop-out. In fact, it was a really positive experience.

I got in touch with my secondary school, and spoke to 150 6th year pupils and their guidance staff about the opportunity to volunteer overseas with VSO ICS. With the employment market being the way it is, and university getting harder and harder to be accepted for, it’s a great way to do something that will benefit you in the long term, as well as help you stand out on applications. I talked about the background of the programme, why I applied, where I went, what I did, and then spent a little time covering some of the things I’d seen while I was there. I found that an effective way to get them engaged was to put the audience in the shoes of the people I had met. The senior pupils had, for example, just finished showing the new First Years round the school, and had developed close bonds to some of their buddy group. Therefore, to try and make a topic like child marriage more real to them, I asked them to imagine their 12 and 13 year old charges being married off to a person older than a teacher. That got a couple of them to sit a little straighter in their seats, believe me.

I didn’t just touch on the difficult things, though. I talked about the culture, the coffee (obviously), our amazing counterparts, placements and supervisors and our host homes. My advice when trying to do a presentation on something like this is fairly straightforward – alternate hard and soft, and light and dark. Shock, then inspire. Even Stanley got a mention. The goat story has now been told so many times that it may become an urban legend.

It had to be done.

It had to be done.

I was really touched when a group of pupils approached me at the end of my presentation and asked me more questions. Before I went in to present, I promised myself that even if I only reached one person, it was worth it. To have 8 or 9 come up and ask genuinely deep and intelligent questions was such a bonus.

I wrote up my Action at Home report, attached my slides and my presentation outlines and emailed it all off to VSO. And then I felt really strange. How could it be that this thing, which had been part of my life since March 2013, was now over? Just like that?

So I undertook a personal Action at Home project.

Those of you who are reading this and have never actually met me will not know what I massive sewing geek I am. I am a sewing geek to the extent that in a side pocket of my Dire Dawa rucksack, I packed a small bag of fabric, needles, pins and thread. And throughout the 3 months, whenever I had some spare time to myself, I sat and sewed names and words onto patchwork squares. The names of my host family alongside words that I didn’t want to forget. And when I came home, I slowly began evolving a plan to make a quilt out of all these memories. And that’s exactly what I did.

The front of the Dire Dawa quilt

The front of the Dire Dawa quilt


I hate analysing things for the sake of it (books, art, anything), but there’s a few things to be said about why this has ended up looking the way is has done. In the middle are my 16 original squares that began their life in Gerba living rooms, offices with no power and hotel foyers. They’re at the centre because the people, places and things contained there were central to my entire experience. The black border contains a saying told to me by Senait, one of the lovely volunteers at JeCCDO:

If a man calls you a donkey, pay no heed. If two speak thus, purchase a saddle.

I always thought that was good advice, so in it went.

The next border out, with a cow surrounded by clouds at the top and a bajaj on the bottom, is another Amharic saying:

I’ve a cow in the sky, but I’ve seen no milk

In other words – nothing has come of it yet.

The final camel-coloured border (not a coincidence, camel lovers), has four small embroidered pictures and more embroidered quotes. The four images are of moments from my time in Dire Dawa that particularly stood out: being left holding the goat; my first real coffee; laughing with Mehret; and the day that Temar finally accepted me.

The phrases (I’m almost embarrassed to admit) are the fruitful result of a Google search for quotes about thread and friendship. In case the image doesn’t show them up when I publish this, they say:

Friendship is the golden thread that ties the heart of all the world.

A gentle heart is tied with an easy thread.

No cord or cable can draw so forcibly or bind so fast as love can do with a single thread.

I also sewed on the details of the placement – where I went, who with and how long for.

I couldn’t find anything I liked enough to use as a backing for the quilt, so I designed something myself and had it sent off to be printed. Expensive, but I am so happy with how it all turned out:

The quilt back, with bajaj, camels, Mehret, Temar, jabana and sini and of course, Stanley the goat

The quilt back, with bajaj, camels, Mehret, Temar, jabana and sini and of course, Stanley the goat

And to top it all off, we have the fringing and tassels round the outside, imitating the stylistic glamour of bajaj interiors.

I put my quilt over my bed at night (it just covers the width of a single bed and no more), it keeps me warm and toasty now that winter is slowly creeping in, and it gives me something nice to think about before I close my eyes at night.

So before I say goodbye, I want to say thank you to everyone who has been reading along with me for the last 6 or 7 months. I can’t believe it’s all over. At the last count, this blog had received hits from readers in 24 countries. I don’t even know where most of them are. Who would have thought that a blog kept by someone from Irvine would reach people in Pakistan, Taiwan, or the United Arab Emirates? Thank you all so much.

Action at Home is so much more than ticking a box on a piece of paper. You don’t realise how an upheaval to another place, another culture, and what sometimes feels like another world will impact on you later. I’ve become more content. More driven. More passionate in my interests. And more relaxed. The action that you actually have at home will surprise you. News reports about humanitarian crises impact me far more than they did before. I see charity campaigns in a slightly different light. I’ve got my dad eating more vegetables and less meat. I’ve got my brother almost to the point where he may start requesting I play my old music again, because he’s fed up hearing ‘that Ethiopian stuff’.

And on that note (pun alert), I’ll be signing off for the last time, officially at least, with a piece of music that’s become really important to me. I first heard this while I was trawling through Youtube in April, one hand scrolling, the other keeping the Amharic music page open on my Lonely Planet, trying to work out what this country was going to sound like. I found this and somehow knew everything was going to be just fine. And you know what, it absolutely was.



Temar-Taming Tibs: How To.

I realise this blog’s been a bit of a downer since it stopped being written in Africa and its writer returned to the grey skies of Scotland. So here’s something to try to make it up to you all.

I’m going to share a bit of a ‘how-to’, and hopefully teach you how to make tibs.

I love tibs. I really do. I’ve made them a few times since coming home, and it’s a great introductory dish to give to people that want to try Ethiopian food, but don’t want their head blown off.


Tibs is composed of finely chopped onion, meat cut into small cubes, and the addition of whatever else you want to jazz it up a bit. My host mum, Mesai, and Sara would also add some kind of magic umami-style flavour enhancing thing that may or may not have been stock cubes ground up (but since I don’t actually know what it was, I’ve left it out of mine).

I’ve had ox-onions-bit of water- green chilli tibs, ox-onions-garlic-rosemary tibs and Stanley-onions-green chilli tibs. But my absolute favourite ever tibs was the recipe I’m going to share with you below. And there’s a story.


I believe the day in question was a Wednesday, around 7am. I’d been up at my usual time, washed, dressed, taken my tablets and counted my mosquito bites, and as had become my custom, was sitting with Mesai in her bed in the chillax room, talking and waiting for breakfast. Temar was still asleep, like a doll.

And then Temar got woken up. And all hell broke lose.

She informed her mother that she wouldn’t be going to school that day, because she had things to take care of at home (she’s 4 years old). She was more useful in the house – she could clean round the back of the sofas, because she’s the smallest. She had to stay at home and make sure Sara worked properly. She didn’t need to learn Amharic because she spoke that anyway and since Laura spoke English there was no point going  in for that either.

We put her tights on. She took them off. We put the dress on. She took it off. Tights on. Tights off. Dress on. Dress off.

Then the screaming started.

Remember the description of the noise the hyenas made? This was absolutely on a level with that. We tried washing her face to calm her down. We poured water on her head to shock her. Heck, Gelila threatened to squash her if she didn’t stop. Nothing worked.

And then, Dimbet issued her ultimatum: I’ll go to school if I get tibs for breakfast.

The time was pushing 7.20 at this point, and she was meant to be leaving in 10 minutes for a bajaj to school with Gelila. Temar obviously thought that a) tibs were out of the question and b) they’d take too long to make.

It would appear that the little one was incorrect on both counts.

No sooner had the decleration been issued than Sara suddenly appeared with 4 dabbo and a massive pot of tibs. Within the space of about 10 minutes, I got the best tibs of my life for breakfast, a full Temar got bundled out to a bajaj, and things resumed their normal course of action for the rest of the day.

So if peace needs to be restored in your house, here’s how to do it.


Temar-Taming Tibs

You will need:

1 onion

2 or 3 cloves of garlic

Oil for cooking – we used palm or vegetable oil in Ethiopia, so try rapeseed oil or sunflower in the UK

Meat of your choice – I used goat leg meat, but it would be equally delicious with some beef. Ultimately, it’s all about the meat, so get the best quality you can afford. ‘Tis worth it.

Goat meat from a farm shop

Does what it says on the label

3 or 4 medium tomatoes

A little water

A proper big handful of fresh rosemary

Salt and pepper to taste


  1. Very finely chop the onion and garlic. Grating the garlic may actually be easier – you want it to almost be like a paste. And then chop the tomatoes to kingdom come too. If you can still see distinct pieces, you can probably half them again.
  2. Cut your meat into small cubes. I was going for about fingernail size – not too small or it’ll disappear, but make sure it’s small enough that you don’t need to exert that much effort chewing it. You’ll also want to remove as much fat as possible from the meat. Trimming takes time but it’s worth it. I promise.
  3. Heat the oil (more than you really need – coat the entire pan and then some) in a large frying pan, and add the onion and garlic. Cook until the onion goes just translucent, on a medium heat, and add the meat.

    You may also question your choice of frying pan size at this stage. Have faith.

    You may also question your choice of frying pan size at this stage. Have faith.

  4. Once the meat is browned on all sides (if it’s cut small enough, it won’t take long), add the tomatoes and turn the heat down. The juices from the meat will have formed a bit of a gravy all on their lonesome, and the tomatoes make it amazing. If you think the sauce is getting a bit thick, you can add a little water to thin it down. What you’re aiming for is meat and onions with a ‘gloss’ of liquid.

    Let the sauce thicken just a little (tinish!) at this point. You want it to still be easily absorbed by the bread - not too thick.

    Let the sauce thicken just a little (tinish!) at this point. You want it to still be easily absorbed by the bread – not too thick.

  5. Add the rosemary, salt and pepper, and leave it for about a minute to do its thing.
  6. Whack the tibs out onto a plate (or a melamine dish with a lid, if you’re doing it the Dire Dawa way), and serve it with whatever you like. My parents don’t understand the ‘we are eating this with bread and that’s it’ concept, so we have it with rice, and it’s good. For the proper Ethiopian experience though, get some plain white finger rolls (the closest thing we have to dabbo), and share it out of one plate, using the bread to eat. Bon appetit!

If that doesn’t settle a tantrum, I don’t know what will.


A happy Dimbet and ferenjii, most likely after tibs.

A happy Dimbet and ferenjii, most likely after tibs.


Missing You

Missing someone is part of loving them. Not until you are apart do you realise how much they mean to you.

– Nikhil Saluja

I’ve come to realise that since returning home, I’ve occupied a state of limbo. It’s been over a month since I returned to Irvine, and that’s an odd amount of time. It’s been artificially stretched by difference, not distance, and exacerbated by my internal refusal to believe that it’s over. Dire Dawa, my little home in Gerba and my place at JeCCDO have taken on a dreamlike quality; similar to a sepia film tinged with a gold haze. For the most part, any less than perfect memory has dissolved, leaving behind a hyper-real utopia in my mind.

I’m aware that I’ve been distant since coming home. I just don’t know how to connect to people in the same way. I’ve been through a massive change, but other people haven’t. They aren’t interested any more. They don’t want to hear me talk about it in the same way they did a month ago. For them, the novelty has worn off. But it wasn’t novelty. It was my life. And it was the happiest I’d been for a very long time. I try not to occupy myself thinking about it too much, because as I’m doing now, I end up in tears. I don’t know why I’m crying when I do; whether it’s sadness, frustration at not being able to explain myself, the overwhelming feeling I get whenever my host family and Ethiopian friends come to mind or if it’s just some kind of outpouring of grief. It’s been more difficult being back in ‘normality’ than I’d like to admit. I just need a hug every now and then.

I’m now back at university. I’ve only had one class so far, so it’s not really sunk in yet, and I think I’m still pretending that in a few weeks my visit home will be over and I can go back to my life in Ethiopia. Walking from the train station to the campus last week, I saw two people standing at a bus stop, and knew instantly that they were Ethiopian. As I walked past them, I could hear them laughing and joking in Amharic –, I heard one of them say to the other: ‘N-deeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh???????’

It was like hearing a voice you remember from childhood, but is almost lost to you. I can’t even begin to describe how happy it made me to hear those words again.

I’m pining. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming that I’m back in that house with the people I love so much, and the realisation that I’m not breaks my heart. I wake up from vivid dreams, shattered by the knowledge that my other family aren’t living my life alongside me anymore. I wear the little necklace that Mesai and I picked out together every day, because I feel close to them that way. Our once parallel tracks have split, and I’m back in a world of excess, stress and self-gratification, while they remain fixed in my head as occupying a state as close to bliss as anything I’ve ever known.

The thought that moves me most is the memory of Sara. Never in my life have I met a person so filled with compassion, kindness and intelligence who has also faced so many difficulties in such a short time. I think of all the things that I have that she does not; of all the opportunities that I have in the palm of my hand that will be ever out of her reach. And whenever I feel listless, or like I don’t care, or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore #firstworldproblems’, I think of Sara. I think of how she had a smile for everyone. Of her teaching me Amharic in the third week I was there, and it was just the two of us. That she wanted to speak to me so badly that she practiced English while she cooked, cleaned and washed. How we understood one another implicitly, despite coming from completely different worlds. That she was my friend, my sister and a wise woman all rolled into one. I remember her saying something in English for the first time, and how thrilled she was, and how thrilled I was. I remember her holding my face in her hands when I left, in the semi-darkness of the living room, silently crying, and saying ‘No, no, Lauriti, please no, beka beka. Laura is agir is very nice. No, no Lauriti. Ewadeshalow Laura.’

By some stroke of divine influence, or fate, or something, I found the sister I always wanted: an illiterate 18 year old Oromo girl who ran away from home and works as a maid in Dire Dawa.

Soulmates. Even the cat.

Soulmates. Even the cat.