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.