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.

 

 

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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.

 

Missing You

Missing someone is part of loving them. Not until you are apart do you realise how much they mean to you.

– Nikhil Saluja

I’ve come to realise that since returning home, I’ve occupied a state of limbo. It’s been over a month since I returned to Irvine, and that’s an odd amount of time. It’s been artificially stretched by difference, not distance, and exacerbated by my internal refusal to believe that it’s over. Dire Dawa, my little home in Gerba and my place at JeCCDO have taken on a dreamlike quality; similar to a sepia film tinged with a gold haze. For the most part, any less than perfect memory has dissolved, leaving behind a hyper-real utopia in my mind.

I’m aware that I’ve been distant since coming home. I just don’t know how to connect to people in the same way. I’ve been through a massive change, but other people haven’t. They aren’t interested any more. They don’t want to hear me talk about it in the same way they did a month ago. For them, the novelty has worn off. But it wasn’t novelty. It was my life. And it was the happiest I’d been for a very long time. I try not to occupy myself thinking about it too much, because as I’m doing now, I end up in tears. I don’t know why I’m crying when I do; whether it’s sadness, frustration at not being able to explain myself, the overwhelming feeling I get whenever my host family and Ethiopian friends come to mind or if it’s just some kind of outpouring of grief. It’s been more difficult being back in ‘normality’ than I’d like to admit. I just need a hug every now and then.

I’m now back at university. I’ve only had one class so far, so it’s not really sunk in yet, and I think I’m still pretending that in a few weeks my visit home will be over and I can go back to my life in Ethiopia. Walking from the train station to the campus last week, I saw two people standing at a bus stop, and knew instantly that they were Ethiopian. As I walked past them, I could hear them laughing and joking in Amharic –, I heard one of them say to the other: ‘N-deeeeeeehhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh???????’

It was like hearing a voice you remember from childhood, but is almost lost to you. I can’t even begin to describe how happy it made me to hear those words again.

I’m pining. Sometimes I catch myself daydreaming that I’m back in that house with the people I love so much, and the realisation that I’m not breaks my heart. I wake up from vivid dreams, shattered by the knowledge that my other family aren’t living my life alongside me anymore. I wear the little necklace that Mesai and I picked out together every day, because I feel close to them that way. Our once parallel tracks have split, and I’m back in a world of excess, stress and self-gratification, while they remain fixed in my head as occupying a state as close to bliss as anything I’ve ever known.

The thought that moves me most is the memory of Sara. Never in my life have I met a person so filled with compassion, kindness and intelligence who has also faced so many difficulties in such a short time. I think of all the things that I have that she does not; of all the opportunities that I have in the palm of my hand that will be ever out of her reach. And whenever I feel listless, or like I don’t care, or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore #firstworldproblems’, I think of Sara. I think of how she had a smile for everyone. Of her teaching me Amharic in the third week I was there, and it was just the two of us. That she wanted to speak to me so badly that she practiced English while she cooked, cleaned and washed. How we understood one another implicitly, despite coming from completely different worlds. That she was my friend, my sister and a wise woman all rolled into one. I remember her saying something in English for the first time, and how thrilled she was, and how thrilled I was. I remember her holding my face in her hands when I left, in the semi-darkness of the living room, silently crying, and saying ‘No, no, Lauriti, please no, beka beka. Laura is agir is very nice. No, no Lauriti. Ewadeshalow Laura.’

By some stroke of divine influence, or fate, or something, I found the sister I always wanted: an illiterate 18 year old Oromo girl who ran away from home and works as a maid in Dire Dawa.

Soulmates. Even the cat.

Soulmates. Even the cat.

I’m back. N-dehhh?

Well, hello stranger.

 

It’s the beginning of my third week back in the UK,  and it’s really about time I put up a blog post about coming home, and everything that’s happened since the last time you heard from me. This post is going to cover: saying goodbye to Dire; coming home; my Ethiopia night and the Action at Home training that I attended over the weekend in York. That’s quite a lot to get through, so I’ll see how we go.

 

Leaving Dire Dawa

Leaving Dire Dawa was genuinely heartbreaking. I didn’t realise how normal life there had become until I was in sight of it slipping away for the forseeable future. The night before I left, my host dad and I sat in the living room watching a TV show about Ethiopian cultural dancing, complete with a dance lesson. We passed pleasantries about the people we were watching, about how there was always one person going in the wrong direction, and how getting up to join in was just a little bit too difficult. It was all very…normal. And to be honest, I’m glad that’s what we did. After that, he went to bed, and I sat up a little longer than usual (despite the early start the next day), watching Ethiopian soaps with Gelila and Sara. We lay on the roll out mats in the living room with me in the middle, and my adopted sisters on either side.

I woke up at 3am, pulled on the clothes I’d left out the night before, and waited for my bajaj to come to take me to the bus station to meet the other volunteers. I was trying so hard not to lose control of my emotions, but as soon as I had to say goodbye to everyone, I broke my heart. All the emotions I had been keeping to myself and letting out alone all of a sudden flooded out, and there was a very tearful living room in Gerba that morning. My host parents both came with me to the bus station; none of us spoke on the way there. Talking precipitated crying. I hugged them both goodbye and tried to thank them as best I could without setting us all off again. Leaving them was one of the hardest things I had to do, and all the thoughts of cheese, broccoli and hot showers in the world couldn’t have stopped me brooding on the family who I was about to leave behind.

At the bus station, the other volunteers (and the nationals too: thanks for getting out of bed, guys 🙂 ) were in a similarly emotional sort of a mood. We boarded the bus fairly tearfully and watched the sun come up as we drove out of the city and through the desert towards Addis Ababa.

 

Home.

Coming home has been a really strange experience. Our supervisors warned us all about ‘reverse culture shock’, and I suppose that I didn’t pay that much attention to it. I imagined it would manifest itself in things like ‘where did all these cars come from?’, or ‘why isn’t it sunny?’, but my inverse struggles have been more difficult to explain. I got upset on a shopping trip because I realised what an empty experience it was, and how expensive everything suddenly seemed. For £40, I could buy another Stanley. Why did people think it was good value to buy a designer t-shirt with that money? I know that I live in a culture where the cost of living is higher, and so prices are therefore greater – I get it. But it’s still difficult paying £1.40 for a bus journey that would cost 6p in a bajaj.

I’ve also found it really hard coming into a house which is mainly empty during the day. It’s silent. Absolutely silent. Gone are the moments of praying for a bit of personal space, and in their place are moments spent wishing someone would come and interrupt the white noise. I miss all the girls arguing, laughing and mucking about with one another. I miss getting life advice from my host mum. I really miss my Ethiopian granny. She’s incredible. I miss Mehret, and how she always knew what to say to make me feel better.

Of course, it’s been so nice to see everyone at home again. I didn’t realise how much I’d missed my friends and family. Even my brother.  Speaking to them about what I’ve done has been really good, but it’s also been quite tough. There are in-jokes that I can’t explain. Experiences that can never be communicated the way I’d like. And no matter how hard everybody tries, they’ll never really be able to get it. I doubt people really believe me when I say I’m pining for Ethiopia; it’s still an abstract place in Africa, where I went to for 3 months and came back from in one piece. That’s why the Returned Volunteer workshop was so good: it was closure, and a chance to speak to people who just understood.

I don’t want this to be a total downer of a blog post: I just want to be realistic. Few of the other ICS blogs touch on the down that sometimes comes after the high, and it’s a good thing to discuss. Other people go through this too – it’s not just me – and hopefully this will be strangely comforting for them to read. You’re not alone! I miss my second home too!

 

Ethiopian Night

So, yeah! I had an Ethiopian night when I got back to Scotland! Lots of people were able to come, and we wore sheetees, Ethiopian t-shirts and agir libs, ate lots of good food (tibs, messer wat, Samrat Chicken Clubs, Special Pizza and roasted beans, to name but a few), and listened to some cracking Amharic tunes.

DSCF1036

Dad’s fairly hilarious plate of food, reflecting my time in Ethiopia

It’ll  count a little towards my Action at Home project, but I have other plans too.

 

Action At Home

As I mentioned at the top of this post, we spent the weekend at a Returned Volunteer event in York. The aim was to bring the teams back together to let us share our experiences, and work out how to channel them into something productive in the community. I personally found it a really helpful experience – I needed to speak to the others, as they’d been through the same thing, and it also gave me the kick up the backside I needed about what my social action project will entail. The current plan is to ring my secondary school sometime this week, and organise to go in and speak to the headmistress about running some sessions with the senior school. I want to open their eyes to the opportunities that are open them, and show them all that you don’t actually need to be a genius to do something amazing. I hope it all comes together.

This has probably been the worst-written post of all time, so I’m going to quit while I’m ahead. Hopefully the next post will be a little more readable, and a little less ‘thrown together out of desperation’. I’ll leave you with a link to my favourite Amharic pop song. Look out for the bajaj ❤

Shoulder Bump Like You Mean It

Salam no?

Salam!

Dehna nesh?

Dehna, Exabier yemesgen! N-detna?

Dehna!

 

A little slice of those enthusiastic greetings that I’ll miss so much.

This, I promise, is the final post from Dire Dawa. I can’t believe that I’m about to press ‘Publish’ in Samrat for the last time. I’ve been thinking about this post since last week – in fact, I started writing it before Stanley’s entry, in an attempt to stop an overemotional Laura from being given full control of a blank page and a keyboard in the final stretch.

I’ve realised that this time next week, I will be looking over photographs of my Ethiopian family and having that same twang of emotion that I get when I look at photographs of my Scottish family. That’s a strange thought. Being here has become so normal, and so everyday that I have almost forgotten what it’s like to live in a place without camels. Going back to my Scottish front door, without a compound, without Mesai, Dawit, Temar, Sara, Gelila (and anyone else who happens to be around), will be horrible at first. I am going from being one of many to one of few. From having 3 sisters to 1 brother. From days with guaranteed sunshine and few worries back to noise, stress and abundant rain.

But I’m also going back to my mum, my dad, my brother and my granny. My aunts and uncles. My friends who have watched this entire thing play out. And I can’t wait to see them all again. The only thing that has made being here difficult is being away from them. And the thing that makes going back difficult is leaving everything I have here.

I’ve started to forget about the things that I complained about at home. The unemployment.The weather. Being cold. 1960s town planning decisions. Winters that seem neverending. Alec Salmond. All I think about now are how warm and light the summer evenings will be. How many plants will be in the garden. My vegetable patch. Taking my tortoises for walks. Going to the beach. Getting excited about going to university again. Walking everywhere. Eating ice cream sundaes. Cheese. Bacon. Cheese wrapped in bacon. That this mental transformation has taken place speaks volumes about how good getting away from everything can be – I’ve had my priorities sorted out, become truly optimistic for the first time in a long time, and am so motivated about going back to university.

(Missing Irvine definitely proves that absence makes the heart grow fonder.)

So what have I been doing with myself in the final week? Well, by the time you read this, I have finished working at JeCCDO, had my early send-off party from the family (to try to keep the tears for later in the week) and spent a Sunday morning trying to teach orphans how to ceilidh (for the record, they weren’t massive fans of the Military Two Step). I’ve watched more Bollywood films than I ever thought possible, courtesy of Gelila, who seems to be something of an expert on the Indian film industry. I’ve tried to explain to Temar that Laura is going home soon; this was met with ‘Laura Scotland NO. Laura bet Dire Dawa’ (Laura’s house is Dire Dawa). I appreciate that she speaks to me in pigeon Amharic-English sentences, because she’s sussed out my comprehension level.  I’ve bought my body weight in tea, coffee and spices and am fully prepared to pay for excess baggage if necessary. It’s all coming back with me. I’ve made lists, lists of lists, and lists of the lists that have been cross-checked to make sure I have everything I need.

All being well, we leave Dire Dawa on the morning of 11th August, overnight in Addis Ababa, and fly on the morning of the 12th. I should theoretically be back in Scotland by 10.15pm in the evening, after taking off in Addis at 10am the same morning. What a day that’s going to be (the thought of a chicken burger when I touch down in Glasgow is keeping me going).

When I look back over the last twelve weeks at what I’ve achieved, I’m proud. I’ve started picking up a completely new language; been happy in my job; made friends I will treasure forever;  kept up my blog project; helped an organisation that is changing lives and I have done it all by myself. The Laura of 10 months ago could never have imagined the Laura of today. It’s at moments like these that I wish I could visit my 16 year old self, and tell her that all the worrying, all the hard work and all the challenges and disappointments that she faces are worth it. They will motivate her to keep going, and when she’s 23, she’ll get the chance to show everybody that she’s more than they thought she was. And she’ll suddenly realise that her heart lies in working for the good of other people, and that’s where her future is headed. And that knowledge, that concrete goal, will give her the drive to pick herself up and do some amazing things.

(Getting a bit emotional now, so I’m going to wrap it up.)

There were a number of ways that I could have ended the African stint of the blog. In an ideal world, there would be no writing at all; only a collage of photographs. But the world is not ideal (if ICS has taught me anything, it’s taught me that), so instead, we’ve got the best compromise – situations, sayings and everyday things that have made the past 3 months the best experience of my life. It’s not going to win the Booker Prize, but it doesn’t have to.

 

Greeting people like long-lost siblings because you didn’t meet over the weekend, and that’s a long time. Having work friends rather than colleagues. Learning to understand a culture that dazzles you. Finding a new family an entire continent away. Laaauraaaa, Laauuuriti, Laauuuriti. Asking for the food bill 45 minutes before you want to leave, because it might actually take that long. Swimming at Papa in the freezing cold water, and not caring. Bajaj drivers who chuck out passengers so that you can get in, because it’s Tedi, and he remembers you. Samrat chicken club sandwiches. Being an Orthodox Christian for 3 months. Laughing every single day. Bofa Dance. Bofa Action. Trying to remember what ‘cold’ feels like. Realising that a whole roast chicken only costs £2.50. Seeing cultural dress on a daily basis. My life, my life. Not giving a damn about my appearance. Bajaj drivers who drop you at your house. My sheetees. Computer Dance. Being surrounded by a race of people who are impossibly beautiful. Having people smile and wave at you because they want to welcome you. GERBA! ALLIEEE! AWADAY! YOU – AYAN – GET IN! Children walking backwards to practice their English with you. Asking for Coka rather than Coke. *sigh* Samrat? Having the best counterpart I could have asked for – Mehret, betam konjo, thank you so much. People paying attention to me, even though it’s awkward. Embracing my 115 words of Amharic. If the crazy people know your name, you have to stay. Existing on carbs and carbs alone for 3 months…who needs Atkins? Holy Father coming to visit, drinking 2 St George beers and passing out on the sofa. Eating more burgers and more pizzas than I ever would in the UK. Actively searching for cheese. Practically moving into Samrat Hotel. Curing headaches with coconut oil and turbans. N-dehhhhhhhhhh???? The crazy people uniform. Elga Café’s spam chicken pizza (also spam ham pizza). Mystery meat in everything. 24 people starting out as strangers and ending as a family. Learning how to butcher a goat. 13 months of sunshine. Being classified as a ferenjii, and embracing it. Having an excuse to write something every week, and finding that I can stick to it. We’re phoning David Cameron and telling him we’re keeping Laura. Being able to say I’ve lived in Africa. Daily camels. Stoned goats. Random people knowing my name. Spontaneous waves of emotion. Discovering how good Al Jazeera News is. The Amharic Shaun the Sheep books. Beka. Beka. Bekabekabekabeka. Having sisters for the first time in my life. Realising that a language barrier does not mean a friendship barrier. The spirituality. Coffee-jabana-incense-bread-popcorn combos. Always giving up your chair for a visitor. Impossibly sweet tea. Learning that ‘special pizza’ will always involve boiled egg. Come on sit down inside. Wasting so much time by saying hello. Shoulder-bumping like you mean it. Amharic music is the happiest in the world. Coming back with a completely different image of Ethiopia, and appointing myself their tourism representative in Scotland. Being woken up by hyenas. Duleti! Abesho! Shoulder dancing (Iskista). Finding tortoises, lizards and geckos at work and being the only person who cares. Crossing a dry riverbed in a glorified motorbike to get to work every morning. Bajaj 20 questions. Temar – you crazy? No Laura – you crazy! Becoming obsessed with royal baby updates because it’s a slice of Britain a long way from home. Tigranya, Oromo, Amhar, Gurage and Walita cultural music and dancing – I’ve tried my best to learn you all. Amasegenalo Sara. Chigeraylom Laura.  Cold showers every day. Being told I’m konjo, or sweet, or Russian by people I’ve never met before. Lunchtime naps. Bollywood movies. Using ‘I need to take rest’ as an acceptable excuse for getting out of everything. Yelling daily greetings from my door to the door of Ayan Sook across the road. Stanley. Ooooooooooo-eeeeeeeeeee! Going shopping with Mesai and getting everything below habesha price. Being interesting purely because I’m a ferenjii. Butter as a hair treatment. Finally having pet dogs. I’ve written another report. Strong women. Brave children. Inspiring communities. Everybody sings and nobody is embarrassed about it. Being made to question everything I knew. Cultural pride.  Dressing up the kitten. Watching the Ethiopian soaps with my family and enjoying it, even though it’s incomprehensible. Mangoes. Hispanic soap operas dubbed in English and shown on Ethiopian TV. Sleeping under a mosquito net with the fan on high, and reaching for a blanket. Stretching my brain. Going to my Ethiopian granny’s house and it feeling just like my Scottish granny’s house. Being in a society where you are instantly welcomed, instantly loved and instantly belong. Awadeshalo.

Heck, even the smell of injera.

Last week, I re-read Jane Eyre. I found that I finally understood some of the concepts for the first time, even though I know the story inside out. Finding that fate can bring you together with people who make you happier than you’ve ever been, in a place that was once alien to you but is now home, are concepts I failed to grasp before now. I see my own experiences mirrored in Jane’s narrative, and that has been more comforting than I can ever describe.

So in honour of this discovery, I want to conclude my last entry from Mother Ethiopia with something borrowed from Miss Bronte:

 

“Then you and I must bid good-bye for a little while?”

“I suppose so, sir”

“And how do people perform that ceremony of parting, Jane? Teach me; I’m not quite up to it.”

“They say, Farewell, or any other form they prefer.”

“Then say it.”

“Farewell, Mr Rochester, for the present.”

“What must I say?”

“The same, if you like, sir.”

“Farewell, Miss Eyre, for the present; is that all?”

“Yes?”

“It seems stingy, to my notions, and dry, and unfriendly. I should like something else: a little addition to the rite. If one shook hands, for instance; but no – that would not content me either. So you’ll do no more than say Farewell, Jane?”

“It is enough, sir: as much good-will may be conveyed in one hearty word as in many.”

 

This is not the last time I will be in Ethiopia – of this, I am certain. This experience has opened my eyes, and given me so many things I’ve never had before. I have another family here, and friends that I will never forget. This is not goodbye forever.

It is only farewell.

 

 

The experience in Dire Dawa may be over, but this is not the end. The blog will continue until I complete my entire ICS journey – the next post will discuss my reaction to coming home, and my Ethiopian Cultural Night in Scotland. The ferenjii is coming home habesha.

Counterpart, I Can Count On You

Salam natchu!

 

I should have learned not to make sweeping statements like ‘the next post will be the last one on African soil’. This is the second one after that entry, and I’m still in Ethiopia. I just get carried away with the drama and the emotion of a good blog conclusion. I also can’t stop myself from writing little things. So you’ve got some bonus material. Gobbez Laura.

I’ve wanted this blog entry to happen for a long time, and now it has: ladies and gentlemen, this time, we have a guest blogger! The voice I am about to hand you over to is none other than my own counterpart, the ever-beautiful Mehret. She has put together a small but perfectly formed paragraph on her experience of VSO ICS from the perspective of a national volunteer. This is important for the sake of fairness, because I’m aware that everything here has been a UK perspective and a UK voice. So here I now present a little something from Mehret:

I’m happy to be a part of VSO Ethiopia as a volunteer, because I’m working with new people that I’ve never met before – from the UK and Ethiopia. Initially, I was fearful of working with the UK volunteers because we have different lifestyles, cultures and languages, but I soon realised they are the opposite of my perception: they are sociable and adaptable in their new situation. I am especially happy with my sweet counterpart Laura. She is good and can understand everyone easily. Generally, I am happy to have made a lot of new friends from the UK and national volunteers, but now we are finishing the program and I am feeling bad because I’ll miss a lot of them. Thank you for inviting me on the blog Laura!

I told you she was lovely.

I would just like to actually take some time to talk about Mehret, and thank her for everything she’s done for me over the last 11 and a bit weeks.

When we met on the first day in Addis, we immediately clicked, and have been together ever since. I think it’s true what they say about opposites attracting –Mehret is always perfectly dressed, while I look like a complete scruffball. I remember the overwhelming feeling of relief when I found out that she would be the person looking after me in the first few unsure weeks; she’s been my other part; and my instant friend. She’s taught me so much, from the first difficult attempts at Amharic, to the less tangible things that I’ve learned: not being upset by those who wrong me, accepting what I cannot change, and continuing to do my best. She went out of her way to get me home every night for far longer than she was obliged to. She dried my eyes when I had my first week mental breakdowns. We talk about life and the universe, hopes and aspirations, and untangle problems. Being with her for 3 months has been an absolute joy, and we’ve got a lifelong bond now. And when I come back (Mehret, I promise that I am), I want her to be the first person I see.  Thank you for being my sister and my better self. I hope that some day I can repay you for everything you’ve done for me – I honestly could not have got through this without you. Amasegenalow konjo x

 

A Pale Pilgrim

I stand facing myself in the mirror and carefully envelop my head and shoulders in a large white scarf, a natala. I watch as the other females in my house do the same, and in this single action we have become united in a vision of modesty and piety. Just as the burkas mark out the Muslim women in Gerba, out natalas tell the village that we are heading to Orthodox Church this evening.

Suddenly, I become a little less ferenjii. I am wearing a skirt to the floor, and my arms are completely hidden, save for my hands. The increased whiteness of my appearance is now artificial, and somehow it cancels out how naturally pale I am. People don’t seem to notice that a white person is waiting for a bajaj; all they see now is another Orthodox Christian, standing in the evening air with her family.

When we reach Sabian, we melt into a stream of white-covered heads flowing into Gabriel Church. It seems to me like a harbour, into which floods a multitude of these pale pilgrims who know they are safe inside its walls. We take our seat on the ground near the door, as the Church garden is overflowing with the faithful. Some have come from Addis and beyond for this celebration of St Gabriel.

Floating on the white ocean that envelops me are thousands of glowing boats, given off by lit tapers. The overall impression of white starred with gold and orange is beautiful, and it is difficult to resist the feelings of calm and peacefulness that begin to descend.

The service itself is given in Amharic, which I have not mastered beyond 105 words, and these are insufficient for me to understand what is happening. I rely on surges of thunderous applause and ululations from the assembled mass to tell me that the priest is performing his duty appropriately.

I reflect that perhaps I am not really here for appropriate reasons. I have come because I know that for the next two hours, I am allowed to exist peacefully inside my own thoughts. I muse that in a past life, I would have made a good Quaker. I arrange jumbled thoughts into neat packages. I forgive the people who made me angry or upset during the week. And I surprise myself my asking whatever force there is in the universe, be it fate or divine spirit, to continue looking after me and the people I care about until we are together again.

A sudden movement and rustling followed by searching for discarded flip flops tells me that it is time for our little family to go. We slip out unnoticed; the most faithful were here long before us and will remain long after we leave.

My host mother distributes bread she spent the afternoon making to the poor, the elderly and the disabled, who have gathered along the church walls. They rely on this charity to receive some food, and I am glad that I can be part of that.

The rain begins, and we run to find a bajaj. It transpires that a natala is insufficient protection from the elements, however effective it is at deflecting  unwanted stares. We return home soaked to the bone, but refreshed.

I will always be grateful for the opportunity to join in my host family’s spiritual life. Although I do not claim to have found something I was looking for, or to have become devoutly religious, I have appreciated the time for quiet contemplation. I intend to continue having 2 or 3 hours of peaceful time when I get back to Scotland, because I genuinely believe it’s improved my emotional wellbeing. And every time I close my eyes, I will remember those golden boats bobbing on a still white sea inside the walls of Gabriel Church.