Dire Dawa, Queen of the Desert



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,



Selam from Addis Ababa!

I’m here, I’m alive and I’m in Addis Ababa!

Today was day 3 of our In Country Orientation, and I’m sitting in my dorm room typing away before dinner, and it’s nice to have some space to myself and a little bit of silence for an hour or so.

So what has happened since the last post? Well…

After leaving Edinburgh Airport at 6.20 on Monday morning, we all met in Hammersmith at noon to have a final briefing before we left for Addis. Once we took the customary ‘Team Ethiopia head out’ photo, we were handed our tube tickets and boarding passes and dispatched in teams to Heathrow by Tube. I was really worried about this, since the only underground I’m used to is the trainset-also-known-as-Glasgow, but it was fine.

We were able to check our bags in really early, which was such a blessing, and then we got on our flight at 9pm. The flight itself was better than I anticipated; because we were flying at night, when I looked out of my window, I could see coastlines and cities illuminated in amazing detail – 3 hours into the flight, the sky was so clear that we could pretty much tell where we were from the outline of the countries below. Our in-flight entertainment consisted of a hilarious selection of things to watch, ranging from the pilot episode of ‘New Girl’ to a nature documentary about social learning in seals, to a 30 minute rundown of the 2013 Spring-Summer trends from Paris Fashion Week. I managed an hour’s sleep here and there, but mainly ended up suffocating myself with the supplied pillow and blanket.

International arrivals in Ethiopia was a fairly casual experience. Hand over passport and entry card, look in a camera, scan your fingers and pick up your bags. I can’t imagine it’s like that in America! We then met the Addis Ababa project supervisors, put our bags ontop of our two waiting mini-buses and drove out to the University of South Africa complex just outside Addis.

Although we didn’t actually drive through the city centre (taking the ring road to avoid the African Union anniversary celebrations taking place), it was a fascinating introduction to the country that will be home for 3 months. Cows, people and vehicles all jostling for space on the main road; 15-storey high wooden scaffolding that is as much a feature of the architecture as the buildings; the colourful roadside stalls displaying fresh fruit, and the children running to school alongside business people heading to work.

After time for a short nap, the national volunteers arrived. It was really exciting to finally get to see the faces we’ll be working with for 12 weeks. The Ethiopian volunteers had been working together for a few weeks before we arrived, putting together a welcome programme for us all. We were treated to the traditional coffee ceremony with popcorn, cake and biscuits; had our 3 placement cities (Addis, Dire Dawa and Hawassa) introduced to us; and were treated to a showcase of local dress and dancing – and of course, we all joined in too. Later on, the UK volunteers tried to return the favour by showing the Ethiopian volunteers the Macarena, the hokey cokey and a somewhat hastily assembled rendition of the Gay Gordons – it’s fair to say that we weren’t a patch on them! The pride they have in their culture is obvious to us all, and they have been so patient and friendly that we all feel right at home.

Monday also marked our first introduction to Ethiopian cuisine – in particular, injera. Injera is a greyish (but can be other colours too) pancake-like flat bread made from fermented tef, with a consistency similar to a very thin, sour, floppy crumpet. We have this at every meal (although there is ‘normal’ bread too), and sometimes there is chopped up injera in a sauce to have alongside your whole injera at breakfast (I just…can’t…do it). But injera is more than just a bread – it’s your plate and your cutlery. Everything goes on top, and using only your right hand, you tear off a small piece and use it to pick up your food. There’s definitely a skill to be learned there. The food is so different – somewhere between Middle Eastern and Indian, if you’ve got nothing else to compare it to. Everything is very heavily spiced and flavoured, and I’m afraid to say that at meal times I look forward to some plain rice or pasta with vegetables, because I’m lazy. Don’t get me wrong – Ethiopian food is delicious – but I think our UK tummies are still craving bland food from home!

The last three days have been a mad whirl of meeting people, thinking about global issues, cultural diversity, communication, expectations and Amharic lessons. The Amharic classes in particular have been mentally exhausting, with our teacher only speaking in English when we correctly guess what words mean! Yesterday was counting, with only the other UK volunteers, but today the Ethiopians stayed in for our lesson to help us practice conversations in shops, transport and counting money – they had quite an entertaining time listening to all the British regional accents attempting to roll ‘r’s, click ‘k’s and pop ‘p’s. It’s a fun language to learn, but it’s very very different from anything I’m used to, and I still don’t quite grasp it.

This evening, some of the other volunteers have organised a movie night for us all, which will be really nice. I’m looking forward to chilling out with everyone and watching a film for a few hours before bed. I’ve never fluctuated between being SO AWAKE and SO TIRED so many times in one day, but I’m not the only one. The combination of the travelling, the heat, the altitude, malarial tablets, a new environment and intense training is taking its toll on most of the UK volunteers, who are napping in snatched hours and having a lot of cold showers.  It’s not unpleasantly hot here in Addis, but Dire Dawa is going to be another story. The volunteers who live there have told us that they sleep outside to try to cool down, or inside with all the windows and doors open and a fan on AND THEY LIVE THERE! Imagine how us pasty, ’12 degrees is the summer’ Brits are going to cope! I’ve got a 10 hour bus journey to work out how to put up with the heat, so I’m worrying about it later.

I think we find out more about placements, host homes and counterparts tomorrow, and I am as apprehensive as I am excited. Although a lot of this still doesn’t feel real, I’m not as numb with excitement as I was on Sunday morning, and the realities of what we are trying to do are beginning to dawn on me. It’s not a bad feeling, just the start of the much-needed reality check.

Hopefully I manage to upload this tonight without too much trouble (thank you University of South Africa for your wifi room), and I hope to be in touch soon. I’m not sure how regular these updates will be, but I’ll try my best.

Love to you all, and thank you (amesegenalo!) for all your support so far,

Laura (Konjit –my ‘Ethiopian name’, given to me by Selam. Amesegenalo Selam!)





Thank You and Goodnight!

Evening all,

It’s less than two days until I leave now, and I thought I’d quickly check in after the last, slightly hysterical, entry.

I’ve still got a kilo of stuff to move out of one case into another, but other than that, I think I’m almost ready.


As I’m writing, I’m sitting in front of the Eurovision Song Contest which is a nice contrast to the entertainment I’m sure I’ll be enjoying in a few days. It still all feels far from real, but I hope that I’ll be able to hold it together until at least Tuesday evening 😛


Really, the purpose of this post is to say a huge thank you to everyone before I head off.

To my parents, for all their support, wise words and help over the last few months (in particular).

To my brother, for showing me how to avoid kidnap through careful deployment of the ‘goose hold’.

To my Gran, for worrying about me more than I ever thought possible.

To my aunts and uncles for their interest, advice and generous donations.

To my friends, who have given up time to make music, cycle, pack bags, listen, comfort, donate, make suggestions and put up with my rollercoaster of a few months.

All of you have helped me to get where I am about to be. When I’m lying in bed, too warm to be able to sleep, or too homesick to close my eyes, I’ll think of you all until I start to dream.


Thank you from the bottom of my heart.


Laura x


The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in AFRICA!

Crying Is Good For You

Hi all,


So this post was initially intended to be about the experience of the training weekend, meeting the other volunteers and getting to grips with the practicalities of leaving.

Instead, it’s going to take a slightly different spin.

I’m just back from a day spent with friends, and found that as the night wore on, the realisation that I was actually leaving finally started to sink in. It’s been a bit of a slow burning process, but I’m glad it’s starting to happen.

This week has been pretty hectic – I leave in 8 days, and spent Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday (today) starting the process of saying goodbye. And it’s been more difficult than I’ve been letting on. There have been a fair few private tears, but I think that’s normal. I haven’t had the proper ‘goodbye and good luck’ chat with the nearest and dearest friends yet, but touching on the subject today made me realise that I’m not as emotionally pulled together as I’d like to be.

There has been a heck of a lot of denial on my part – not starting to pull my bedroom into an acceptable state to be left in; not thinking about booking travel down to London; putting off organising seeing people and then realising I’m being stupid. The worst part is that I don’t know why I’m so upset (although hormones probably have a lot to do with it). I’m coming back. I’m going because I want to and I DO want to. But not having familiar faces around me is going to be hard. And I didn’t give that thought much time. I’m more naïve than I realised. And it turns out that this ICS process throws the learning at you from the get-go in terms of how you view yourself.


An example – knowing that I only had a month to get £800 together, I threw myself into my fundraising, and managed to raise £2,060 for VSO, an incredible amount. I never knew that people could be so generous, or that I could organise as much as I did and be so successful. The problem is that I’d already started to mentally distance myself from my fundraising at this point. I treated it as my job. I was raising money for a charity, and yeah, I would be working with them, but that wasn’t for 6 weeks. 5 weeks. 4 weeks. 10 days. 8 days. And today it’s hit me like a train. A slow train, but a train nonetheless.


So what am I going to do about it? Well, I finally opened a going away card from a friend and I read it, something I’ve been putting off for about a week and a half. I had a little cry, and then I realised the value of it. So I’ve written this post. If I want this blog to be a fair and honest representation of my time on the ICS programme, I need to cover everything, not just the abstract things or the theory behind what I’m doing. 


Today has been immensely useful. It’s put a lot of things into real perspective. I’ve started to make my peace with my own issues (denial 😛 )and get on with focussing on the task ahead of me. I need to be able to do that to the best of my abilities, and that’s not going to happen if I sit around moping. Equally, I don’t want to be too busy to breathe. So tomorrow, I’m going to get some practical things dealt with:

  • Phone the optician about where the hell my contact lenses have got to
  • Wrap a long overdue birthday present
  • Scan photos for my gran
  • Choose photos for my photo album
  • Tidy my bomb site of a room up
  • Finish bits and pieces of admin that need done ASAP.


That’s not difficult. I just need to man up and get on with it.