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.