This is our first trip in our new post retirement life. We are one week into our 3 month stay in Gondar (Ethiopia). Since arriving, we have worked solidly every day of the week, to get ourselves immersed into our volunteering roles (Sylvie teaches English to school children and to local community leaders, while Jeff reviews poverty levels and helps families to generate income with new trades via micro loans; there is also a lot of crossover where we help each other). Once we have acclimatised to the way of life here, we plan to visit the surrounding countryside and the Simien mountains which are meant to be majestic and are world famous. So, here goes with our first impressions…
Living in a compound
As part of our voluntary work, we have visited families living in compounds to assess sponsorship needs. Their poverty levels are far worse than we could possibly have imagined. The typical compound is surrounded by corrugated iron with one wealthier family (often in a brick and mortar house) and their tenants who live in two to twenty dwellings (in the case of the poorest families). In between compounds, there are dirt paths, often quite treacherous, with dirty water running in the middle. That common space is shared with numerous animals and serves as a children’s playground and as a storage area for construction material such as mounds of sand and also as a drying area for chilis (on pieces of tarp). In the case of the poorest families, dwellings are simple structures of mud mixed with straw over a frame of tall thinnish wood branches with a corrugated iron roof in the best of cases, pieces of tarpaulin in the worst. Floors in every instance are beaten earth. At the poorest end (where we visited), each dwelling is a one room space of about 6 square metres. Living in the house is normally a family of 4 on 2 beds – typically a mother and three children (the father having died young or run away from his responsibilities). It is not infrequent however that more people might live in one room (very often one or two grandparents, additional children or other close relatives). Inside each dwelling, in the worst of cases, there is only room enough for two small rope beds on wooden frames, often without proper mattresses, on which all the members of the family sleep. There might, in addition, be a couple of stacked cardboard boxes or wooden crates containing a few cooking or eating utensils and possibly a few hundred grammes of flour or legumes. Extra clothes to change into, when they exist, are kept in plastic bags like the ones in which you buy food at the market, hung to a nail on the wall. They cook outside on an open fire and share a pit latrine with all the other families in the compound and also share a water hose for washing/drinking. Yet, because water is not included in their rent, they often restrict their water usage to drinking and cooking only. One of the mothers we met had HIV and lived with her young children in a room off a bar full of drunk men. When the men are drunk, they often become aggressive and the family is often at the receiving end of abuse. One mother we met feared for her children’s safety and expects things will get worse as they grow up. With all of this hardship, the families we met were absolutely charming, smiling and laughing with us, and they showed no sign of envy whatsoever at our clean clothes and privileged background. By the end of our visit, we were only too delighted to return to our relatively deluxe accommodation.
Our hotel, Zoz-amba, is conveniently located near to where our Ethiopian colleagues live, so the restaurant doubles up as our dining area and as our headquarter/meeting place when it is not busy. It is a budget hotel as this trip is meant to be “an experience” rather than a holiday for tourists at tourist prices. Besides, paying £50 per night would soon mount up over 3 months and £9 per night is more in line with what the Ethiopian middle class will pay for a double bedroom as our hotel is full of local business men. Needless to say, our hotel is perfectly unaffordable to anyone who lives in a compound. But our choice comes at a price. Yes, it’s clean and has occasional hot water and intermittent wifi, but wow, do things need fixing! All the furniture in every room is broken and none of the TVs work throughout the hotel and worst of all, the plumbing really needs repairing! Incredibly, we have visited “luxury” hotels for lunch and their plumbing is no better. Whoever came up with the decoration for our hotel and others we have seen are frankly aesthetically challenged. As for the way the hotel is built, the lack of skill or tools make it look like something that was designed by the architect Amonbofis from the graphic novel Asterix and Cleopatra.
Sylvie has started to teach in a before/after school club. The children go to government run schools but only if their families can afford to send them (some children work to support the family) and once there, they have either a 3 hour morning or afternoon session, five days a week. In their classroom, they suffer from trying to learn with 60 to 90 in a class under one teacher, so their learning will always be improved with charity run clubs. Our club is a rather run down mud and wood structure of two classrooms and one small storage/office area around a 5 square metre courtyard which acts as a playground. The classrooms have no lighting at all beyond the light coming in if the door remains open, there are no proper desks or chairs (a few wooden benches and plastic garden chairs), there is a small white board on a bench slanting against a wall and a shared pit latrine. Incredibly, despite the severe lack of resources, the club has 24/7 security guards to look after the property and its limited contents (labour is cheap, books and materials are not). All that said, the children are gloriously happy and so keen to learn. The great news we learned today is that we have a grant from Pears Foundation to carry out some of the improvements the club needs, like a tap for the children after using the latrines, so we will work on that over the coming weeks.
This week, we visited a sick boy of the community in Gondar’s hospital. Wow. The lack of hygiene and privacy was shocking beyond belief. We will never complain about the NHS again! The young boy had just had an operation for a bone infection in his leg and was in a ward with lots of older men. He was surrounded by lots of family which was at least refreshing over our bureaucratic two chairs to the bed rule, but that also meant more germs and a lot more noise and crowding as other patients also had visitors. There was a hand sanitiser by the door-less entrance to the ward, but we were laughed at when using it as it was meant only for the doctors visiting!
Racism in Reverse
It has been sad to experience racism in reverse where, as white “faranji”, we are treated as more intelligent and trustworthy than locals. After leaving Gondar’s hospital, we casually asked our Ethiopian friends why their bags were checked. They advised that “the guard wanted to make sure we didn’t steal any drugs”. OK, we responded, “but why didn’t the guard check our bags?”. “Because you are white”, came the answer. We promptly walked straight back to the guard and asked him to check our bags!
Faranji in the land
As foreigners, “faranji”, we are of course fair game. Prices are, as a matter of course, inflated, sometimes outrageously, for us. On a few occasions but not many, people will mutter sometimes as we pass by with a plan to get business out of us, like a trekking trip, or just go all out to rip us off. This being said, we experienced nearly next to no racism as such, just a mild “they are not African so they cannot understand” kind of xenophobia , like a feeling of smugness and superiority by a few Ethiopians. The vast majority of people have been fair and honest with us and moreover have been caring and generous with their time, knowledge and sometimes even possessions. They have shown us trust, sympathy, gentleness and good cheer.
We love the utter freedom which children have playing in the street in safety with so few cars and without adult supervision. Some beg for bread, others just smile widely at us. The smiles turned to laughter when we visited Gondar’s public library and chatted to the children and librarians there. Such a joy to see children loving their books, but there were sadly many empty shelves and very few modern books. Liberty is not so widespread in any administrative matter here: for example, we could not just buy local SIM cards, but had to buy and register them and our local mobile phones at the Post Office after presenting our passports.
Social equality is also absent, like in most countries. Once the capital of Fasil’s empire in the 17th century and a major trading post, Gondar boasts Unesco heritage sites (which we have not yet had time to visit) but the town has long since fallen into a state of disrepair and attracts very few tourists. Living here feels, by European standards, like what Dickensian London may have looked like, with everyone selling off street pavements or in poorly constructed shops. There is certainly a middle class here as owners of properties rent to the poor and look over them in the compounds from brick-built houses. Ethiopia is made up of 100 million people mostly living in the countryside, with only 20% in urban areas, yet the commercials on national television clearly advertise for a people with a standard of living enjoyed by middle class Europeans, and they are largely concentrated in Addis Ababa.
We adore the way everyone greets each other on the street with so much love, it is so refreshing to the cold blank looks we too often see in London. The people we work with are simply wonderful and the children delightful. The Ethiopian greeting is very distinctive. When shaking hands (a loose handshake with the hands lying limply each in the other), a sign of respect is for a person to hold their right forearm with their left hand as if the left hand reinforces the gesture of the right one. In friendship, people will also touch right shoulder against right shoulder in a funny kind of half hug. In addition to touching shoulders, two women greeting will exclaim loudly and often kiss the air near each other’s cheek.
Gondar has several thousand Jewish families dating back to the time of Solomon – the story goes that the Queen of Sheba once visited King Solomon and brought back with her a retinue of craftsmen and soldiers from Judea. Later, angry at the destruction of Solomon’s temple, priests joined them and legend says they brought with them the Ark of the Covenant and safely secured it in what is now a church in Axum. Until the seventeenth century, Jews were prosperous and well respected, at one time they even had their own kingdom. Later, they were members of the king’s administration and government when Gondar was the capital of what was then Abyssinia. Today, Jewish families, like others, live under desperate conditions. Many of them have recently emigrated to Israel as Beta Israel, also known by the derogatory name Falasha (meaning outsider), but thousands, often arbitrarily called Beta zera Israel, remain due to various factors. We visited Gondar’s synagogue for a Friday night service which was attended by over 300 all singing their hearts out in fluent Hebrew, dancing in the aisles and ululating. We have never in our lives seen so much joy in the welcoming in of Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. Such a privilege to have witnessed something which is likely to disappear if Israel accepts the immigration of the remaining Jewish families.
We have had to search for dishes which are not injera, the national dish eaten every day by most Ethiopians, especially in poor communities. Injera – a spongy very sour pancake topped with sauces and vegetables or meat, sometimes even raw meat – is in fact lovely but eating it every day can become tiresome with our ingrained expectations of privilege. Also, the typical Ethiopian diet relies very little on vegetable and a lot on salads which we have not dared try. Thankfully, we found a nice restaurant serving foul and the bigger hotels serve fairly decent Western food too. Some great discoveries we have made are Lowze tea which is basically peanut butter with hot water and of course the famous Ethiopian coffee which is fresh (45 minutes from beans washed and freshly roasted to served), strong, thick and delicious and often served as part of a ceremony. As part of our volunteer exercises we are undertaking to assess the level of poverty in the Gondar community, we need to consider the number of litres of coffee consumed by a household per month (coffee being expensive) – when we challenged that would not be a great indicator of poverty if the family does not like coffee, we were told definitively “ALL Ethiopians love coffee”!