Salam natchu and hello everyone!
This post is going to be a little different.
Today marks the ‘one year ago today, I went to Ethiopia’ anniversary!
I can’t believe it’s been a year since I stepped onto the Ethiopian Airlines flight for Addis, and the biggest adventure of my life began. In the space of a year, I’ve gone overseas, worked for a lifechanging organisation, lived with the best host family anyone ever had, and met some of the best young British and Ethiopian people I could ever hope to. I’ve attended an awards ceremony, talked until my jaw fell off, twittered here and there, and done a bit of international law along the way too. I could never EVER have predicted the journey the last year would take me on. I’ve loved every moment of the surprise. Especially the camel aspect of the surprise.
I miss those camels.
Since I’ve come home, I’ve become a bit of a quiet campaigner. I’ll save the details for my next post (I’m continuing the theme of surprises: be patient!), but what I can tell you all is that it involves women and girls in the developing (and increasingly, developed) world. The next post might get a little upsetting (I might actually split it into multiple posts to lessen it somewhat), so here, to celebrate the first anniversary of the beginning of this whole endeavour, I’m going to combine two things I absolutely adore: some of the wonderful ladies of Dire Dawa, and Amharic names.
Ethiopian females are a force to be reckoned with. They’re strong, compassionate and endlessly kind; just when you think someone couldn’t possibly offer you more, they go that extra mile. I was constantly touched by the care and attention that my host mum, Mesai, gave to all aspects of home life, from taking the sharp edges off sliced potatoes (so they don’t catch the bottom of the wat pot) to her selfless attitude when helping out friends and family members. On one occasion, she spent three days away from home to help cook, serve and clear up an enormous graduation party for family friends. And she smiled all the way through.
Here’s Mesai – my witty, bubbly, wonderful host mum. The name Mesay (which is how you’re actually supposed to spell it), means ‘look-alike’ in Amharic. It also bears a striking resemblance to the Amharic word for lunch, mesa. When I first arrived, every relative I visited made me laugh by calling Mesai ‘lunch’ when they spoke to her.
I had the immense joy of spending my three months living with Mesai’s two younger sisters, the littlest of whom is 9 year-old Meron, known to everyone by her nickname, Genana. She spent the last month on holiday with us, and her presence as a playmate and aunt to Temar brought a lot of happiness into the house over the summer holidays.
I never found out what ‘Genana’ meant – if anybody knows, please leave me a comment – but I do know that Meron is Amharic for ‘gift of God’. It’s also a kind of holy oil used in the Orthodox Church, to which the whole family belong.
Genana’s constant companion was the indomitable Temar. Independent, curious and rambunctious, Temar and I started out shakily and finished as real sisters. Learning to see Dire Dawa through the eyes of an extremely intelligent four-year old was an education in itself, and winning her trust was one of the highlights of my entire stay.
Temar is Amharic for ‘studious/learned one’, which is fitting given the importance that education plays in her life. Dimbet is going to grow up in a world where she’s valued as an individual, not a commodity. She’s a well-educated child, not a potential dowry. Temar is part of a growing number of Ethiopian girls being raised by parents who value education, and know that it’s the best possible start they can give their daughter. And knowing her aged four, I can only imagine what she’ll be doing when she’s the same age as me. Litigation might suit her…
Women in the developing world are often portrayed as downtrodden, unempowered and in need of rescuing. One lady who was none of the above was my boss at JeCCDO, Sister Tigist. She ran that office (and the dozens of volunteer community facilitators reporting to her) like a captain on a ship, but never lost her empathy, or ability to move from crunching numbers to listening to a mother asking for help.
This photograph, which I absolutely love, was taken at a school quiz funded by JeCCDO and participated in by some of the disabled students from one of Dire Dawa’s secondary schools. Tigist (or ‘Sister’, as we all called her – a sign of respect, as she has a nursing degree), is giving a talk to the students about following your dreams, and never letting anything get in your way. What really makes the photograph for me is the three men sitting down listening to her, and respecting every word she says. It sent out a really powerful message to the children in attendance: here was a woman who was a bigger guest of honour than all the men put together, because she ran the thing that paid for the school to put on the event. Tigist means ‘patience’ in Amharic, and I always thought that was such a fitting name for a lady who had the quality in such abundance.
Another person whose very being reflected her name was my amazing counterpart, Mehret. Intelligent, thoughtful and downright fabulous, Mehret supported me more than I can ever thank her for during my 12 weeks. She was patient when I didn’t understand, understanding when I was upset, and upset when we had to part.
And she should be a model.
Mehret means ‘Mercy’ in Amharic, and I will always carry with me Mehret’s voice in my head when I get frustrated about something going wrong: “You don’t have to feel anything – it’s not your fault.” That and her rendition of Jojo’s ‘My Life’, which she’d whack out at random intervals to fill silent conversations. Triple threat: kind, gorgeous and hilarious.
The final photograph is actually of two people (three if you include the devil kitten, Flora/Rocky). The reason I chose this photograph for Sara and Gelila is that I think it shows the girls that I got to know at their best; happy, laughing and at ease with everything. Gelila, Mesai’s 16 year-old sister, was studying for her upper school exams while I was there. She told me early on that she and Sara were sisters, and in my new-to-Ethiopia naivety, I assumed she meant blood sisters. What she actually meant was something much stronger, and akin to the bond the three of us had developed by the end of my placement. We were three disparate people from three very different backgrounds, but a higher being, or fate, or the universe, or something, had let us find one another. Being able to come home and know that Gelila and Sara would be there made a long day at the office worth it. Whether I was watching Bollywood movies with Gelila, or talking about how much Sara loved an Ethiopian pop singer, I was always smiling with these two: it was hard not to. Imagine what an odd sight the three of us must have been wandering to church on a Sunday morning. Gelila: another model in the making, yelling sarcastic comments at bajaj drivers who looked at us for too long. Sara: laughing, smiling and linking arms with us both on the way there and singing mezmurs (Orthodox hymns) and dancing all the way back. And Ferenjii looking Dazzy-white in a borrowed netala.
Gelila is the Amharic version of the Biblical name ‘Delilah’, and means ‘beautiful temptress’. I’m not sure that Gelila would describe herself as such – she’s secretly a bit of a tomboy – but I like that there’s some onomastic potential for her to blossom into one, should she so choose.
Sara is also an Amharic name, from the Bible, and it means ‘princess’. I cannot express how much I love the meaning of Sara’s name; she is a princess who spends her day cooking and cleaning, but is so happy to be doing so. She’s already escaped from a future with child marriage on the cards and has found her way in the world without any education – she made her own fortune. I suppose in Sara’s fairytale, Mesai is her fairy godmother, bringing her in, giving her a purpose and a life that she would never otherwise have had. Her dream come true is happening every day, and getting better all the time. I write this safe in the knowledge that Sara is going to have a happy ending because she’s the princess that got saved from the dragon that claims so many little girls in Ethiopia.
A year ago, I hadn’t met any of these wonderful women. I didn’t even know they existed. But every day, I open my laptop and see their faces smiling back at me, and count myself lucky to have been part of their lives even briefly. They continue to inspire me in their own ways every single day, whether I need Temar’s bravery, Tigist’s strength, or Sara’s courage: they’re always there, whatever I do.
They’re the reason I wouldn’t change the last year for anything in the world. Here’s to more girls like these girls, and here’s to ICS for putting them centre stage.
Happy Anniversary, konjos.