This second post comes to you – FINALLY – from Dire Dawa, my home for the next 10 and a half weeks. I am sitting in the living room of my host home typing up my post, as the birds and Temwar, my 4 year old host sister, sing in the background.
It’s been a crazy few days. On the Friday of last week, we were assigned our counterparts, host homes and placements for our time in Dire Dawa. I was very happy to be paired with Mehret, and together with another counterpart pair, we will be working at JeCCDO. JeCCDO (Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organisation) is an NGO that has been working in and around Dire Dawa for 13 years. Originally set up in the 1980s to deal with the fall out of Ethiopia’s drought and famine, it has expanded its remit to helping marginalised and vulnerable communities set up sustainable futures. Working in a concentrated area for around 5 years, JeCCDO builds on what the community already knows, be that in terms of business, education or spirituality to promote a holistic development model that lasts after JeCCDO moves on to the next community. The manager seemed very happy to have the four of us for three months, and has promised to squeeze out as much work from us as possible while we are here – time to get busy!
It’s not all been plain sailing though. When we set out for Dire Dawa last Saturday, we were beset by difficulties and issues. Our 6am start slowly became 8am and the heavens opened, soaking everything that we had loaded onto the top of our minibuses…soggy mattresses galore. 2 hours behind schedule, we set out on what was to become a 13 hour journey across the country. We realised that 550km is a LONG drive. Particularly when your bus gets caught in another rainstorm that blows the now sodden mattresses off the top of the bus and onto the road. All the guys jumped out of the bus into the rain (us ladies were not allowed to help!) and hauled the heavy mattresses back onto the roof. We caught up with the rest of our group at our lunch stop, where we regaled them with our tales of 100 mile-an-hour mattress games. The second part of our journey saw us get more and more sleepy, not to mention travel sick. As we reached the outskirts of Dire Dawa, the long day and stresses of travelling took their toll on one of the volunteers in particular, who is now in hospital being looked after, just to be safe.
It was almost 10.30pm by the time we got into Dire Dawa, and the next few hours were spent driving around the city dropping people off at their host homes. 9 of the 12 Ethiopian volunteers are also host homes, so our numbers dwindled very quickly as people left two-by-two for their Ethiopian beds. The eagle-eyed amongst you will have realised that 9 is 3 homes short of the full 12: 3 of us are living in external host homes without a counterpart volunteer alongside us. I am one of those people! Unfortunately for myself and one other volunteer, it was too late for us to go to our host homes at the same time as everyone else – our anticipated 8 or 9pm arrival had slowly become midnight. Alongside our programme supervisors (who have been amazing), we checked into a hotel for the night and enjoyed a well-earned rest.
We went to our host homes the next day, and I can honestly say that I love my host family already. I have a mum (Mesai), dad (Dawit, head of one of the partner organisations), little sister (Temwar) and there are also two maids, who are sisters (Sara and Gelila). For those of you who may be thinking ‘keeping maids is terrible’ –please let me reassure you. Sara and Gelila are treated like part of the family; they joke with us, shared the chocolate I brought as a present and look on Temwar as a sibling. Gelila is in Grade 10 and speaks really good English, so if they family are out for any reason, I can chat to her. Dawit and Mesai also speak excellent English, so there are few communication worries.
Challenges? Plenty. The heat is unbelievable – it’s close to 36 or 37 degrees during the day, and stays at around 20 or 25 at night time (VSO have provided fans for us to use in the evening). The dry heat we were promised is still to materialise, and it is fairly humid. My clothes were soaking yesterday by the end of the day, and it’s not surprising that people take 3 daily cold showers! I’ve had a funny tummy for about 5 days, but I think it’s starting to settle now. The combination of the heat and new food has meant that my appetite is practically non-existent, and my mealtimes (with HUGE portions) are punctuated with LAURA: EAT! LAURA: DRINK! A slightly logistical issue is the distance between my host home and the rest of the volunteers, or indeed, the centre of Dire Dawa. It takes me a good half hour and two bajaj (with lots of help from Mehret) to get to where I need to be. A bajaj is like a tuk tuk that you hail down by yelling your destination at the driver before squashing in with the other passengers. Dawit has said that he is going to organise a contract bajaj to get me to and from work each day, to help cut down the journey time – my house is at the outer edge of the city, and there are not many bajaj going in the right direction, meaning that I have been late to meetings because I have had to wait so long. As it is still the first week, Mehret has been coming to pick me up every day, but she lives at the opposite side of Dire Dawa, so her total journey from her house to wherever we are going uses 5 bajaj and can take an hour or more, as she has to get me too. A contract bajaj would be perfect! I also still need an Ethiopian sim card, and am hoping that Mehret and I can get one tomorrow (today is a public holiday marking the downfall of the Dirge regime, so everyone is relaxing).
I’m learning so much about Ethiopia, and that has been amazing. The people are so proud of their heritage and their culture, and everybody can tell you about Lucy, the earliest known hominid, found in Ethiopia. This is the cradle of humanity, the genetic beginning, and the people here are fiercely proud of this fact. ‘You have come home now’, I’ve been told. ‘We are all Ethiopian inside!’ The hospitality has been overwhelming; coffee ceremonies; food, food and more food; the best bed in the house (man, do I feel guilty about that big bed); and BBC news instead of the preferred CNN because ‘LAURA: YOU ARE BRITISH! WATCH BBC!’ My host granny and auntie are keen for me to not only learn a lot more Amharic than I know (my knowledge is pitiful), but to learn how to dance like an Ethiopian too. I seem to possess more of the Amhar dance genes than Amhar language genes. Or I look stupid enough to be endearing. My efforts are appreciated anyway.
There is still a lot to learn: getting a bajaj on my own. Always carrying a torch for the evening power cuts. My bearings when in the city (it’s very disorienting, and that grid square road pattern is only helpful if you are able to distinguish between the identical buildings lining the streets). How to increase my appetite. Exactly what time I should be getting up and going to bed. How much I am allowed to help around the house (at the moment, I am instructed LAURA: RELAX! when I try to make my bed or fold up my clothes). I will be fine in a few weeks, but everything is new and confusing, and all the ‘there is nothing to worry about, please relax and enjoy’ in the world can’t make the ferenjii chill out just yet.
I hope that all of you are well, and I miss you lots. I wish you could come and see what I am seeing, taste what I am tasting and feel what I am feeling. My attempts at description will never do the reality justice.
Love to you all,