I have high hopes of posting this one ahead of time. I can feel it’s going to happen. If everything has gone according to plan, I’ll be sitting in Samrat on Thursday evening, eating a chicken club sandwich and watching this upload. If things have not gone to plan, it’s probably the following Tuesday and I’m sitting in the internet café that never has internet, willing it to post.
As promised in the previous post (Harar, but no hyenas), I’ve put together something useful for volunteers who are going to be coming out to Dire Dawa in the next cycle of ICS (if it goes ahead). Some of the information is Dire Dawa-specific, like what to bring, but the majority of it is probably applicable to any placement in Ethiopia. I hope this is helpful if you’re in the October cycle J
Seems like a fundamental thing to tell volunteers, but VSO were about as useful as a mesh canoe when we asked what to pack. Because we are the first ICS placement in Dire Dawa, there was no experience whatsoever to fall back on, and our supervisors hadn’t ever been here either. My placement has run from the end of May-beginning of August, which is the hot, dry period heading into the ‘rainy’ season. You really don’t need as much as you think you do (why did I bring a silk sleeping bag liner?), and I hope this list will give you a good idea of the basics.
– 2 long skirts
– 3 or 4 long dresses
– Long (knee length) shorts
– 2 pairs lightweight trousers – NOT JEANS
– 3 pairs leggings (long or calf-length, as you choose)
– Tunics to layer with leggings
– 3 light scarves
– 1 light ‘pac-a-mac’ style raincoat
– 2 light jumpers (1 slightly warmer than the other)
– Enough vests/cami/cover-up combinations to last 8 days or so if there’s no water
– Shoes: 1 pair sandals, 1 pair ballet flats or canvas shoes, 1 pair trainers, 1 pair sturdy shoes or very light walking boots (for when the rain comes – it’s heavy – or if you are going activities like tree planting or community visits). Shoes get really dusty, so bring a change. Your shoes won’t rot (I was worried about that) – it’s dry heat, and not humid.
– Head torch – the power goes out all the time, and it’s good to keep your hands free
– Hand sanitiser – the water goes off for days at a time too, so no soap
– Nail brush
– Travel washing liquid for clothes (for washing underwear in the shower, etc)
– Battery-operated insect repeller – I got mine from Boots and it was about £14. It’s a unit with a cartridge in it that I put on at night next to my bed to make sure the room is mosquito free. I also sleep under the net VSO provided.
– Bring more DEET than sunscreen. I made the mistake of thinking I’d fry, and brought about 4 bottles of factor 50. Actually, I’m in the office all day, and running out of DEET. One bottle of sunscreen would have been enough.
– Hat – until you adapt to the sun, a hat is so useful. It’s the direct sun that tires you out and dehydrates you, but a hat will beat that.
– Talcum powder. You don’t need to worry about humidity here. Talc will be fine for everything (don’t bring athlete’s foot powder and anti-fungal stuff. Just dry yourself properly.)
– Shampoo bars (around £7 from Lush). Sound expensive, but it cuts down on weight and space. I’m on my second one just now, and I reckon it will almost last me until the end. They double up as soap too. You can always buy more shampoo out here if you need to.
– Small umbrella. For the sun – all the locals carry one, so you won’t look like a total spoon.
– Books. I loaded ebooks onto my laptop and regret it. If there’s no power and I have no battery, I can’t read. Bring your 2 favourite paperbacks and love their presence. I’ve still not seen any ‘real’ books for sale here, so if you think you might want to read, pack accordingly (but no more than two: you probably won’t get the peace to read).
– I advise bringing a netbook or laptop. VSO will probably tell you ‘oh, it’s at your own risk, our insurance doesn’t cover it…blah blah blah’, but my little netbook has been invaluable at work, as there aren’t enough desktops. As long as you aren’t flashing it about, you should be fine.
– Girls: think carefully about how you’ll deal with the monthly issues. The weather and heat may affect things, and tampons are completely unavailable here. Sanitary towels are very easy to come by in Dire Dawa, so don’t worry about running out of those. Disposal isn’t always easy though (can’t guarantee a bin; flushing anything at all is out of the question), so again, it’s worth taking time to think about what you’re going to do.
– Sweets and chocolate. The good people of Dire Dawa aren’t big into sweets, and probably haven’t got a clue how you eat Fruitella or Mentos (is it chewing gum? Is it chocolate? Questions that are hard to answer in Amharic). If you’re going to crave Dairy Milk and Percy Pigs, bring them with you.
Onto the next topic of business: Things VSO didn’t tell me, or, Things I wish they made clearer. Reading lots of blogs before you go is probably more useful than the contradicting information you’ll get at the training weekend. But please note: every programme and every experience is different. The information I give you here is applicable to this cycle of the Ethiopia programme in Dire Dawa, so please don’t take it as gospel.
– Counterparts. You will be paired with a national volunteer, and you will work together at the same placement, on the same things. Some people will also live in a host home with one of the national volunteers, so they will have a host home counterpart too. You will not live and work with the same person – you’d kill each other. I am living in an external host home, which means that I am not living with a national volunteer. VSO choose the homes very carefully, especially the external homes, and everyone in Dire is very happy in their living arrangements. Particularly me J
– You won’t find out anything until the last possible moment. Counterparts, placements and host homes are all decided at the in-country orientation, the day before you leave for your host community. Don’t expect advanced warning of anything. You won’t get it. We’ve got 4 and a bit weeks until we go back to the UK, and we still don’t know about our travel back to our homes after Heathrow, or indeed, when we even leave Dire Dawa for Addis. Acht, whatever.
– The conservative, modest dress code that they scare you about (no shoulders, no low cut tops, nothing above the knee) isn’t strictly true. The UK girls are dressing far more conservatively than their Ethiopian opposites. I don’t mean that the Dire girls dress provocatively, but skinny jeans and strappy tops are most definitely acceptable – they are extremely fashionable people.
– Ethiopians are exceptionally elegant and extremely beautiful. Even if you make a really big effort, you’ll always be outdone. Despite wearing the most flattering thing you own, you’ll look like a sack of potatoes that tried to get dressed in the dark next to an Ethiopian girl. It’s just one of those things. Accept it and move on.
– Dirt will always find a way to get under your nails. There’s nothing you can do about it.
– Losing weight in Ethiopia is completely impossible: food is love. If your host family love you, they will attempt to stuff you full of food. Annoyingly, Ethiopians can eat as much of whatever they like without ever being fat, having bad skin or feeling full. As a ferenji, you will struggle to finish a half portion and it’ll go straight to your thighs. Citizens of the world: there is no more famine in Ethiopia.
– People never EVER get tired of yelling FERENJII!, even if they see you every single day. It’s like foreigner bingo to them. They’re just making sure you remember that you’re white (because sometimes I forget, you know?) If it sounds aggressive, just keep walking. The majority of the time it’s really friendly, and a big smile and a ‘Selam no!’ usually makes a ferenjii-spotter’s day.
– Bajaj 20 Questions: the bajaj passengers and drivers all want to know your life story, and why you’re going to the arse end of nowhere (aka Gerba). It’s meant in a friendly way, lets the community put a face to a name (bajaj friends have helped me out a lot when I’m trying to get home in a powercut), and you’ll get the best laugh out of repeating your European name over and over again, and hearing the most amazing variations being parroted back. Laura. Naura. Laura. Looha. Laura. Lola. Laura. Leelee. Laura. Lala. (The Teletubbies have reached Ethiopia, and it’s clearly a major frame of reference).
– Apparently Shaun the Sheep is a global phenomenon. MBC3 plays 4-6 episodes back to back every night. I always watch it, and I appreciate how British it is.
– Learn the local language before you leave the UK. Please. Do not assume that everyone speaks English (although to be fair, not everyone in Dire Dawa even speaks Amharic, so sometimes the phrasebook ain’t that useful). Pigeon words here and there will be really appreciated by the locals, and learning the things you will use without thinking (see the word list below) will make you so much more comfortable.
– Miscommunication is inevitable. With your host family, your counterpart, your placement and even your fellow Brits. Large periods of time will pass with you feeling extremely confused and trying to work out what the hell is going on. I promise that the day will come when you reach the Shangri-La of ‘it is what it is’. Just relax and deal with the issues as they come up.
– Nothing will ever go to plan. Ever. Forces more powerful than VSO (Sod’s Law) will be conspiring against you from the beginning.
– The concepts of personal space, alone time and silence haven’t really taken off in Ethiopia. It’s a very very communal culture, and makes you realise the emphasis that the British place on the individual and solitary reflection. If you are sitting quietly, people will assume that there is a problem. If you are relaxing alone in a separate room to everyone else, expect to be moved to sit with the family and make conversation. Sleeping is when you get your alone time.
– You are going to be extremely visible as foreigners. People will be watching where you go, what you do and who you are with. My host family regularly update me on the whereabouts of my fellow volunteers – they know more about their habits than I do. Dire Dawa is a small city with a very tight network of people, and everybody knows everybody else. It’s part celebrity, part Big Brother.
– The religion question. People are going to ask about your religion in the same breath as your name, age and country. Like most things in Ethiopia, religion is a public, not private practice. My advice: even if you don’t hold religious beliefs, make the effort to join your host family at church. They’ll really appreciate the gesture, and you will get an insight into a central part of the culture. You may even enjoy it. I love going to Orthodox Church with my family – it’s so peaceful, and so different to anything I’ve experienced before. If you are religious, or have any faith at all, people will assume that you are extremely devout and follow it to the letter.
– You will become expert in mime to communicate through language barriers. Remember: sometimes it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it. Some of the best and most interesting conversations I’ve had have been with Sara, our housemaid. I speak about 15 Amharic words. She speaks about 8 English words. And yet I know all about her life, her family and what she likes and doesn’t like, and we get on famously. You’ll surprise yourself when you find that a shared language isn’t always the basis for a friendship.
Speaking of language barriers, last post I also promised you a list of My Favourite Words that myself and other people use here in D.D. Some are Amharic. Some are English, but used in a completely different (and often hilarious) context. The language has been such a big part of my experience here, and I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed putting it together.
– Gobbez (well done). Used when someone does something really good, or when you want to really patronise somebody. ‘Oh, you survived a whole day of 23 degrees celcius in the UK? Gobbez.’
– Konjo (beautiful). Best word ever because you can use it to describe everything. People, clothes, food, views, goats – whatever you like. I use it a lot.
– Ishee (OK). It’s the way it’s said that I love. Ehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh-shee. Like a sigh, even if it’s about something really good.
– Beka (enough). When your stomach is telling you that accepting a second helping of wat is a really bad idea.
– Tinish (little/small). It’s your fallback if ‘beka’ doesn’t work. Used when you know you can’t avoid the second portion, but you want to do damage limitation.
– Ferenji – foreigner
– Habesha – Ethiopian/native of a country
– Amasegenalow (thank you). I love saying it and people love hearing it. Manners make the world go round.
– Chigeraylom (no problem). A substitute for ‘you’re welcome’, or a good way to compromise/show there are no hard feelings. An alternative is ‘minim aydelem’.
– N-dehhhhhhhhhhhhhhh??????? I don’t really have a direct translation for this one. People say it when they receive unexpected information. Your voice should start low and increase in pitch towards the end of the word. It’s most effective if you say it with extra-surprised eyebrows and eyes like saucers. Example:
‘I saw a camel in a dress yesterday’.
‘Yeah, I know!’
– Facilitate. Not in terms of running a meeting, but in terms of organising something.
- Let me go and facilitate a car
- I need to facilitate dropping off these documents
- I am going to Samrat to facilitate an extremely overpriced Fanta
– Compliment. Let me help you.
- You have a lot of washing to do? I can compliment.
– Appointment. Meeting friends.
- Tonight I have a dinner appointment.
– Programme. An activity involving more than one person doing something unrelated to work.
- Lunch programme – friends over for food
- Programme at Papa – going in a group to swim and eat pizza
- You have a programme? – are you going to be socialising in an organised manner today?
– Play. Come and talk to us/dance, monkey. Is related to:
– Why silent? You don’t appear to be working or sleeping, so why aren’t you communicating with me?
– Swell up like a bombolino. My host mum’s mission in life is to fatten me up to the point where I require two seats on the plane. A bombolino is a type of unsugared donut that is part of the Italian food legacy (along with pizza, pasta, minestrone and rotisserie chicken). If I don’t look like a pastry-based confection in a month’s time, I fear drastic measures.
(Please accept my apologies for the length of this post. It’s a bit of a monster.)
I’d also like to wish my Granny a very happy birthday today (11th July). I hope you have a lovely day, and I’ll see you very soon J
Next post: an ode to that stalwart of Dire Dawa Transport, the Bajaj.