Archive for the ‘Tourism in Ethiopia’ Category

On March 15, one week after International Women’s Day, I was amazed to receive an email from Atota Bedane announcing that a group of 5 teaching staff at Mada Walabu University had put together a gender proposal and were seeking the support of our Gender Directorate.

atota me and kedir at M oEWe would like your overall support, at least professionally, your knowledge, skills and expertise/experience on the issue. As a result, we want to recruit at least 2 experts from the Ministry Gender Directorate, including Marian Dodds, as trainers.”

Atota had participated in several gender workshops I had done over the past couple of years in his role as a Higher Diploma Leader so that’s how he knew me. A well thought out proposal was attached to his message outlining what they had already done – amazing! I replied that I would be pleased to assist and asked when would they next be in Addis to discuss the plan.

half the sky signAtota told me that he had some students pose and computer science students made this design to include on their proposal; later it was made into attractive banners

A week or two later Atota and Kedir arrived at my office to discuss their plan. Why do you two guys care so much about gender issues? I was simultaneously amazed at their initiative to draft an ambitious proposal to “Engender Higher Education Curricula to Ensure Equity and Quality of Education” and curious at such passionate concern for gender equality by two well educated young men (both have Masters degrees). One said he had attended a lot of gender workshops and had realized how important an issue it was for the country’s development. Both had seen female relatives suffer from lower expectations and opportunities. As University instructors they also wanted their female students to be successful.

Robe shopYoung women outside a shop in Robe, Oromia

The statistics speak volumes. Imagine the uphill struggle for an Ethiopian girl to make it all the way to grade 12 graduation, then be assigned a faculty and university, not necessarily her first choice of studies and likely far from home, only to be put on “warning” due to low grades and in some cases dismissed after the first semester?

Currently the MoE Gender Directorate is preparing a new Gender Education Strategy for the Education and Training Sector and the issues have become all too familiar to me after months of discussions and feedback sessions with educators working on the ground. The entire education system from policy level to the academic environment to physical infrastructures (think segregated hygienic toilets with locks and water available – only a dream in most schools here) present extra challenges for female students and staff.

abigiya and key message signMWU Gender Officer Abigiya poses in front of a banner that reads “Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenges of reducing poverty, promoting sustainability and building good government”

The slogan “A country cannot develop without the full participation of all its’ citizens, both females and males” appears to have become the rallying cry and since about 96% of the academic and management staff are male, it is men who are often leading the way. The World Bank estimates that if Ethiopian women were fully integrated into the economy the GDP would rise by 1.9% per year, contributing much to poverty reduction. For universities, the key challenge is to make all campuses “Female Friendly” despite resource shortages.

madawalabu sign

Twice Atota and Kedir made the 800km round trip from Mada Walabu University to Addis to meet with me to share their ideas and gather resources as their plans evolved. I helped connect them with others in the Ministry, including my director Mekdes Eyoel who offered advice, encouragement and support to move things forward. Their flash drives were filled with gender resources from my computer. Despite Internet challenges they managed to email me drafts of their plans and I sent them feedback. Their university president was fully behind the plan and the requisite bodies approved enough of their proposed budget to allow them to complete the gender sensitization process and begin action planning for students and staff before the end of the academic year.

At the 11th hour the MoE could not supply a car and driver so they overcame bureaucratic challenges I don’t even want to imagine to arrange for a car from their university to collect me and my MoE colleague Zaid and to bring us back! Kedir even made the trip to Addis with a terrific driver named Daniel just to ensure it all went smoothly.

black smoke pollution

On June 17th I was happy to be on the road and moving away from the pollution of the congested highway out of Addis…!

breakfastBreakfast stop at Mojo – Zaid, Daniel the driver, Getema and Kedir (L-R)

camelsAlong the Rift Valley lowlands we encountered a huge group of camels, likely on their way to the market

3 onion boysEthiopian road trips invariably involve a stop or two to buy some of what’s in season – in this case onions!

After our buna break at Shashemene the landscape began to shift to narrower and more winding roads and the mountain climbing began, a suitable metaphor for the work ahead. I don’t imagine many people are invited to assist an entire university in “Engendering the curriculum” and I felt fortunate to be invited to help. Weeks earlier I had wondered if we would overcome the assorted challenges to pull this training off so, as I inhaled the fresh mountain air, I was especially pleased to be on this road trip 430 km southeast of Addis to Mada Walabu University in Robe, a town of about 70,000 in the Oromia region of Ethiopia.

baboons ahead!Suddenly a baboon family appeared on the road ahead

baboonsUnexpected delights of the journey

agora betTraditional houses dotted the roadside

big nyalaWe saw nyalas off in the grassy areas

nyala close up

high road and valleyAnd climbed higher and higher into the mountains

lush crops patchworkAbundant fields of wheat, barley and maize – delightfully lush patchworks of colour

gari donkey and mosqueMany more mosques in this part of the country

man standing up on gari

Standing up on garis seems to be common practice here – must have pretty good balance!

looks like rain aheadLooks like rain up ahead as we get closer to out destination

park sign

Warmly welcomed by Atota and Kedir, Zaid and I settled into a great hotel they had arranged for us in the nearby town of Goba and the team met over dinner to finalize the plans for the next day’s session, planned for about 10% of the 400 instructors at the university. Mada Walabu is newer university with about 5000 students. It is 6 years old and most of the construction is complete – they are fortunate to have a large ELIC/HDP building with offices, open space and a classroom.

2 signs outside the meeting hallNext morning we arrived to see the key message of the events announced on a giant banner!

the team with bctf buttonsThe planning team: Kadir, Tesfaye, Kefale, Abigiya and Atota (L-R)

This dedicated team has a plan to educate and activate the university community (600+ students,150 instructors,450 administrative support staff and 50 top managers)  to effect changes that will advance gender equality and make MWU a model for others to follow…

Atota opening speechAtota opened the training day for the instructors with an outline of the project stating that the gender issue is a burning issue that is on the global, national and institutional agenda. He said that gender equality is a key to poverty reduction, sustainable development and good governance in any society. Next he introduced the university president who is very supportive of this work

Dr Ketma Meskela MWU President

University President Dr Ketema Meskela spoke clearly and directly about the importance of gender equality to the university community and noted the key role played by instructors in moving things forward. I later learned over dinner that Dr Ketema spent four years in China doing his doctorate and can speak Mandarin!


Tesfaye presented data on attrition rates of female students to provide concrete examples of the current situation

Then we got down to a series of mini-sessions aimed at highlighting both the issues and actions that are needed to address gender equality at their university with an emphasis on curriculum and instruction. Three enthusiastic young Peace Corps volunteers working in the region were also invited to participate and may be able to offer additional support, especially for the female students as the project moves forward.

yes or no?A yes/no survey warmed things up. Do you prefer a son to a daughter?

women instructors yes-noDo you think it is possible to achieve equality? Of the 400+ teaching staff, only 17 are female

Abigiya with proud to be teacher buttonTeam member Abigiya is one of them! She has a Masters degree in Biology

equal oppotunity but not equal access on the real issues on the ground

Equal opportunity but not equal access on the real issues on the ground – lesson learned about the difference between equity and equality from group discussions using the story of the fox and the crane

Zaid, Tesfaye and Kedir at lunch cafeLunch break in Roba town at their favourite cafe – serving raw meat and shekla tibs (beef cooked over charcoal)

instructors develop action plansGroup work on language use – a discussion on proverbs was especially popular

action plan

The afternoon ended with action plans being drafted and evaluations completed. The day was rated highly and many needs for further training were identified by the participants

While I summarized the evaluation forms and we further refined the plan for next day’s managerial staff training, my colleague Zaid took time to discuss the work of the MWU Gender Office

Abigiya and Zaid in gender officeAbigiya and Zaid discuss her work in the gender office – the MoE Gender Directorate offers support and encouragement for such initiatives to increase the success of female students. Abigiya explained the sign designed  to celebrate high achieving students

top students displayThis sign, initiated  by the Gender Office, is displayed on a library building to celebrate the highest achievers at the university; there are a number of female students in this category to be role models for others who follow!

The gender office has a plan to add a photo banner each year of the highest achieving students to be seen as an inspiration to all the students on campus.

On Thursday we conducted the training for the managerial staff

panel presenters

The morning training for managerial staff began with a panel presentation by the team explaining the results of the student training the previous week and a sobering analysis of the data on females students at Mada Walabu University. Higher attrition rates for female students, the issue of Gender Based Violence (GBV) identified by students on campus and the lack of gender responsive pedagogy set the backdrop for the managers to begin a deeper analysis of the issues and identify opportunities for actions to improve the situation within their respective portfolios.

managers listeningManagerial staff listen closely

My PowerpointI presented a “gapped lecture” titled “Gender policy background, gender issues and gender mainstreaming at higher learning institutions in Ethiopia” with time for mini-discussions after each topic

managers discussingDiscussing information presented as it applies to their area of responsibility be it finance, clinic, support staff, public relations, etc.

managers at work on actionsDrafting some initial action plans to mainstream gender into their work. The feedback was positive and hopeful with a request for further training at the end

team in front of signA final team picture!

By the end of June this part of the project will conclude with a training for administrative support staff on the issues and the roles that secretaries, guards, cafeteria workers and others can play in creating a safe and secure environment for all. No doubt the team will be submitting a proposal to further the initiative in the next academic year.

A surprise on our last afternoon was a trip up the Bale Mountain National Park to the Sanetti Plateau where Kafale, Abigiya, Zaid and I enjoyed the fresh air and awesome views at around 4000 meters.

hareCan you spot the hare?

Described in the Bradt Guide as “The world’s largest expanse of Afro-alpine moorland…renowned for supporting the most substantial extant population of the Ethiopian wolf … other mammals are the Abyssinian hare, the endemic giant molerat, and a number of other endemic small burrowing rodents.” I got a fleeting glimpse of a wolf, managed a snapshot of a hare and side stepped many rat holes while wandering around exploring the plateau.

KefalePsychology instructor Kefale was thrilled to have his first visit to this plateau and I delighted in his exuberance as we hiked past giant lobelia trees

me hugging lobelia in wind:coldAs a true Canadian, I couldn’t resist the urge to hug a tree! It was very breezy and bracingly cold.

dead lobelia trunkDead lobelia trees make lovely sculptures

lake at senattiI was surprised by how many small lakes there were…

Kefale at senattiA painters dream landscape…

ground cover plantsThe ground cover presented fascinating miniature worlds and the air was filled with birdsong

blue flowers close up Lovely wildflowers lichen on rock close upLichen covered rocks

red foxLook hard and you’ll see a couple of the endangered Ethiopian red foxes – this was a rare sighting, thanks to the park guard in the back of the truck who spotted them as we headed back down the mountain

red fox painting in President's officeThis is what they looked like in the President’s office!

I wish I could have hiked there for a few days. Other parts of the park can be enjoyed on horseback and rough camping is available with several simple mountain shelters with guards. Tourism in this area is in its infancy with huge potential for growth. The university offers Eco-Tourism and Tourism Management degrees. I met the Director and hope to connect him with counterparts back in BC who might be interested in sharing ideas.

The road home on Friday was another delight with an abundance of warthogs, some baboons, plenty of nyalas and even the surprise of a very large spotted hyena loping along the roadside in broad daylight as we traveled through the Rift Valley lowlands.

warthogWhy did the warthog charge across the road?

2 warthogsMaybe to meet up with his friend?

agora bet and cavesWe passed this dramatic rock formation full of caves at Sebesebe. The region also has the Sof Omar Caves to explore, reputedly the largest network of limestone caverns in Africa

mraket carts on way homeIt was market day in some small towns along the route and as the journey progressed we passed many donkey carts loaded with people heading home

horse riderThere are a lot more horses and riders in this region than I have seen elsewhere in Ethiopia, including women riders

deribe driver at lunch in shashemene

We took a lunch break in Shashemene and great driver Deribe had some tasty skekla ground beef with injera

MWU logoMada Walabu University – an inspiring place to visit!

I have to say this was one of the best weeks of my time here as a gender adviser; I felt I was doing what I had dreamed I would be able to do when I signed on and, as I promised the group at MWU, if they email me when I get back home to Canada in a few weeks, I will do my best to continue to offer technical/academic support based on what they identify as their training and research needs.

Though their climb is steep I believe they are fit for the challenge and I wish them all the best. I deeply appreciate the hospitality and enthusiasm they shared; this will be a lasting great memory of my Ethiopian volunteer experience!

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The bus touts swarmed us at the Woldia manaharia (bus station) but we were experienced enough to play it cool. Whenever foreigners appears in Woldia they are accosted by shouts of “Lalibela, Lalibela”. This is the main reason anyone passes through Woldia – to visit the 11 rock-hewn churches of this famous UNESCO world heritage site and likely accounts for a large percentage of Ethiopia’s tourism income. But that was not our motivation to visit this time.

My travel strategy involved seeking out a bright looking English speaking young man who appeared to be trying to get on the same bus

“Hello, are you going to Lalibela?” I ask

“Yes I am”, he replied in good English

“Great, so are we, can you help us out?”

“Of course”,  he volunteered.

True to his word, he made sure we got seats and then helped us negotiate the second bus once we arrived in the chaos of small town Gashena. Turns out he is working for a German NGO that is involved in saving the endangered endemic Ethiopian wolf.

stradling 2 vansWe squeezed onto a mini-bus going to Gashena  on the ashphalt road (aka the “China Road”) and hoped for the best…after all, these roads were more straightforward with fewer hairpin curves up the mountainsides

The last time Shelagh and I had done this trip we had taken a bus that diverted to a “short cut” gravel road where we had to ford a “small river” washout with 50 others on a 24 passenger bus. This time this one proved a better option…the road was good and the ride not bad, only a couple of stops to ditch extra passengers prior to the traffic police check and then collect them again a few kilometers ahead – they appeared to have sprinted through the fields to catch up. Well, Ethiopia is famous for its’ runners after all!

next bus to lalibelaThe second mini-bus from Gashena to Lalibela, fated to be stopped twice by the traffic police and once for onions!

buna breakTaking a buna break in Gashena while the mini-bus gets a tune up, Steve and Shelagh are anticipating meeting their Plan foster girl the next day in a small village near Lalibela

My motivation was to cut down travel time back to Addis by taking this route and flying back the next day. At the same time I would get to see our Scottish friend Susan who now has a flourishing restaurant, Ben Abeba, on top of a mountain in  Lalibela. Shelagh and I had seen it half built two years earlier and I had been back in January 2012. Since then I had sent countless other volunteers there to be nourished by Susan’s good home cooking and always got happy reports of her superb hospitality. I wanted to spend one more evening on the top of the world with good friends!

minibus from woldiaLooks like there’s room for a few more in here…

lowland townTypical scenes along the way

two goatsSometimes it is just easier to sling a defiant goat over your shoulder!

dirt road to lalibelaYes the woman (and the donkey) usually carries the bigger burden here…

boys looking at us in busWhenever a bus stops children instantly appeared to stare in at us and beg for pens, money and candies. I tried to get a good photo of girls but every time I made an attempt boys would jump in front of them with a grin. Yes indeed there is much gender work left to do here…

Heartbreaking as it is, when confronted by these kids, to hand out trinkets would result in literally dozens more appearing out of nowhere and demanding more. In Ethiopia there is never enough and, especially where tourists abound, the children have learned that begging often yields results. As development workers with concerns about long term solutions to poverty the challenge always is to balance compassion with pragmatism. I find that smiles and jokes, asking them some questions (what grade are you in?), some attempts at broken Amharic and showing them their photos on the camera screen works for me…

In the Bradt Guide author Phillip Briggs makes a good point  in his piece on responsible tourism: ” The thread that runs through my opinions is that you should never give things to people who ask just because you are a foreigner. The give-me, give-me, give-me attitude is prevalent enough already in Ethiopia;responding to it will only reinforce it.”

In Lalibela town itself the kids are trained to say “Welcome to Lalibea” and not to beg overtly. A favourite scam though is the one that goes like this: “I really want to learn English – would you please buy me a dictionary?”  The naive tourist is taken to a shop, pleased to support some poor kid’s education. The same dictionary has been sold hundreds of times, the shopkeepers are laughing all the way to the bank and the kid pockets few Birr as well! He could have been in school instead.

boys with ballShowing off their hand made ball

loading onionsRed onions skins drifted past my open window and scented our luggage as five sacks of onions added a weight to the roof that I though might cause it to cave in!

Our bus had several long unscheduled stops on the gravel road from Gashena to Lalibela. While it is only 60 km we spent time loading 5 sacks of red onions at one point and a hour long pause while the traffic police issued the driver with what looked like several tickets and smacked him in the face while half the passengers stood around and weighed in on the situation. Someone took an air filter hostage so the bus could not take off. In situations like this, the only smart move is to stay put and quiet and allow things to resolve. Eventually a fine was paid, the filter returned and we were on the road again.

looking downFinally at about 4 PM we chugged up to the top of the mountain in Lalibela. 175 km, two mini-buses and 7 hours travel time. Oh well – it took Thomas Pakenham 4 days on a mule from Dessie to Lalibela so things have certainly developed since 1955!

me and susanAfter a deliciously decadent hot shower at the Top 12 Hotel set on the nearby cliff, we finally met Susan for our reunion at Ben Abeba –  Salut!

During her 6 years living in Lalibela Susan has opened a school and a restaurant and shows no sign of stopping with plans for accommodation in the works – not your usual retirement! Ben Abeba employs 32 cheerful young people who are being taught hospitality industry skills in cooking, serving, finance, management and customer service. I have no doubt this initiative will ripple out for years to come and improve the lives of many more Lalibela citizens.

kitchenThis is likely the most beautiful kitchen in the country! The girl in the foreground in scrubbing out giant pan for the film set…

Ben Abeba gets great reviews on Trip Advisor and has made it into the new 2012 version of the excellent Bradt Guide to Ethiopia – only problem is they raved about her Shepherd’s Pie so now they are obliged to make it every day; one night they served 20 portions! Steve and I enjoyed it too while Shelagh opted for the meatballs and pasta.

movie set and habtamAnd here’s a surprise – we are on a film set!

Susan’s Ethiopian business partner Habtam shows off the film set – turns out an Irish-American co-production is being partially filmed at Ben Abeba and the new flowers and plants will remain as a garden legacy. Titled “Wild”, this Lalibela love story is expected to be in theatres in about a year.

ben abebaMore railings and a glassed in area have been added since I last visited

wifi at ben abebaAnd yet another surprise – Susan has Wifi!

down pool ben abebaGardens and future sites for some small tukuls to rent out

dining on top at sunsetBen Abeba at sunset – a destination well worth the effort!

sunset with railingAfter a long and lovely evening reminiscing and catching up, we said our farewells and headed off to the Top 12 Hotel where I sunk into a decadent mattress with springs – foreshadowing what’s to come when I get home in two months after three years of VSO foam!

lalibela quiltTucked under a heavenly Lalibela angels quilt for a great night’s sleep…

Next morning Shelagh and Steve were collected by Plan officials to meet their foster girl and I chatted with two couples staying at our hotel en route to the airport who had enjoyed hiking in the mountains. The Swiss couple plan to visit Vancouver in the fall so I invited them to look me up there! He has been working with Medicins sans Frontiers in the Somali region for a while with interesting stories to tell. You never know…

fields from planeFlying home over freshly planted fields

ploughing with oxenAll these fields are still being ploughed by oxen – I was reminded of this as we walked past the Woldia Primary School on the way to the college

airiel viewBright green teff fields and small rural villages

simien mountians entrancePassing by the Simien Mountains our Ethiopian Airlines flight touched down briefly in Gondor and then smoothly took us to Addis Abeba

view from planeDeep gorges. No doubt about it – Ethiopia has stunning landscapes and rich potential

diggy welcomeHome sweet home to the usual welcoming gang and then back to work the next morning after my 5 day adventure packed journey with good friends and two destinations that touched my heart.

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The loud knock on the door brought me stunning news. I had been expecting my two guests from Australia, who had arrived the previous day, to come for pancakes and coffee.

arrival!Renee-Claire and Vanda just arrived and anticipating a lovely two week vacation in Ethiopia!

ballerina girlThe first afternoon we spent a lovely time absorbed in the wedding scene at the Ghion Hotel

Ghion pool wedding musicReligious wedding ritual by the pool

on stpes for wedding photosDuring “wedding season” many affluent Ethiopian couples have their wedding photos taken in the beautiful hotel gardens and it is fun to see the parade of traditional and modern fashions.

That first evening Vanda and Renee-Claire met my VSO and Cuso colleagues at a dinner party and we spoke of our plans to visit Harar and tour the famous sites in the north. Renee-Claire was to hike in the Simien Mountains while Vanda and I relaxed by Lake Tana at Bahir Dar but that all changed overnight…

Suddenly I found myself racing across Addis by taxi to the Yekatit government hospital where the Veronika Hotel manager had transported them and then had dispatched a guest who spoke some English to tell me the news. En route, I called Dr Brian, a Cuso International volunteer to alert him something seemed to have gone terribly wrong. When I leapt out of the taxi I was so relieved to see Brian, Katharina, a VSO volunteer mid-wife and trained nurse from Sweden and Hanny, a Dutch volunteer’s partner already on the scene. Vanda lay on an emergency room bed having seizures, her daughter Renee-Claire by her side and everyone trying to assist. Dr Fekadu from Yekatit Hospital was doing exactly what was needed and Brian and Katharina began assisting while Hanny and I rushed to the hospital pharmacy to buy a prescribed pill. We quickly reached consensus that she needed to be moved to the private Myungsung Korean Hospital as soon as possible, so once she was stabilized, Renee-Claire and I careened across town with Vanda and an attendant in an ambulance, sirens wailing.


Dr Bereket greeted us at Emergency and professionally assessed the situation, ordering blood tests and determining that she needed a CT scan. Since the hospital scanner was broken, we crossed town again in another ambulance to a private clinic. The news was good – no signs of damage on the brain. But the seizures continued and we raced back to the Korean Hospital where Vanda was moved to the Intensive Care Unit.

Korean finance man mr leeRenee Claire spent a lot of time with the very helpful hospital finance manager Mr Lee

sent to the pharamacty to buy drugs!A visit to a pharmacy to fill a prescription

That first worrying night Renee-Claire joined several Ethiopians whose relatives were also in ICU in an overnight vigil, kindly befriended by Biruk who let her use his mobile to keep in touch with me and found her a gabi (traditional cotton blanket) to keep her warm.

Meanwhile, I got their belongings from the hotel and set up the small spare bedroom/bathroom in our compound that was fortunately vacant and my landlord had agreed they could use. The network of VSO volunteers mobilized to help; most had met Vanda and Renee-Claire the evening before at a dinner party and several texted to offer support. My neighbor Judy loaned me her folding cot to put beside the bed plus sheets and a pillow. My landlord offered to drive us around. His sister Adanech is a nurse at the Korean Hospital and was able to reassure us about what was going on throughout the time Vanda was hospitalized.

Adanech and babyI had met Adanech months ago, she is my Landlord’s sister and regularly visits our compound when relatives gather on the weekend – here she cuddles a cousin’s baby, born last August! It feels great for me to have this family connection and support here!

Marian, Biruk and Rness ClaiereHere I am with Biruk and Renee Claire. Biruk’s brother Teshale arrived at one point and invited us for coffee in the hospital canteen. He pulled a copy of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine out of his briefcase when he found out I was Canadian and started a conversation about neo-liberalism and Milton Friedman and the Chicago School of Economics. You just never know what surprises are in store in Ethiopia!

the lineup outside ICUThe lineup outside ICU where family members sit vigil day and night

New firnds in the waiting hall who shared their matress with ReneeWhen Vanda felt better she paid a visit to the ICU crowd…everyone was pleased she was feeling better

Mike and Anjeli, a husband/wife team of Canadian Cuso volunteer doctors texted me to say they would come to see Vanda the next morning. They met with Dr Tadesse in the ICU and reassured us that Vanda was getting the best care possible and that the doctors were doing exactly what they would have done back home. Dr Fisseha the internist also was following her case and on call at night.

At ICU with DR Tadessa and nurse to say thank youA thank you visit to Dr Tadesse and a nurse in the ICU. Dr Tadesse is still in touch by email!

Vanda’s seizures lasted 12 hours on Monday and thankfully, by the time Mike and Anjeli saw her, she was recovering and had no more from then on. The puzzle of why this happened continued. Vanda spent 2 nights in ICU and then 2 more nights on a ward in a room with 4 other patients. The first night we were surprised to discover that a family member is expected to stay overnight watching the patient so Renee-Claire, exhausted as she was, sat vigil. The second night we hired Natneal from a private nursing company to stay with her.

Renee, Vanda and Natneal the night nurseNatneal the night nurse!

On Friday after lunch, we were at last able to bring Vanda back to my compound where she spent the rest of her Ethiopian “holiday” resting and recuperating. Our original plan to fly around Ethiopia to visit the tourist spots had long been abandoned and, while we talked of taking a small trip out of Addis by car, as the days went by, it just did not seem feasible to be too far away from medical care. Arrangements were made for Dr. Bereket to accompany them on the long two-flight journey back to Perth via Bangkok.

Vanda with emergency room Dr BereketER Doctor Bereket accompanied Vanda and Renee-Claire home to Australia and enjoyed meeting Vanda’s husband Peter and touring the Perth Aquarium and Zoo and King’s Park. He also had a city tour of Bangkok on their stopover en route!

In TahialandStopover in Bangkok between flights allowed time for a city tour

Bereket and woma pythonTouching a woma python!

Bereket and koalasIn Perth Zoo with Koalas behind in the tree

The day Vanda was released from hospital was the start of 3 days of Timkat, the biggest celebration of the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian calendar. Luckily for us 2 churches were congregating in the football field two blocks from my house so we could easily partake in the festivities and Vanda was able to see some events and take rest in between.

early morningFestive flags decorated the streets and processions from Ureal and St Michael’s churches made their way to the park with priests in colourful garments and sparkly umbrellas carrying the sacred Tabot, symbolic of the Ark of the Covenant to the park where it rested overnight before a return procession. In the early morning baptisms took place.

arrival of processionProcession

umbrella and tabot

priests and crossesPriest and elaborate crosses and gowns

tabotTabot in procession back to the church

beautiful child at timkatBeautiful baby!

laughing girl at timkatHappy children!

sweet girl at timkat

baptism sceneEarly morning baptisms

grass sellersWomen selling grass and herbs for traditional coffee ceremonies

donkeys in the laneDonkeys grazing in my lane

On Saturday volunteers Hans and Katharina took Renee-Claire on a day hike to the Entoto Hills above Addis, encountering about 6 more Timkat processions along the way.

electrician on roofThat afternoon, while Renee-Claire was on her hike, her mom napped on my bed and did not even hear this electrician on the roof above the bedroom. The power had been off for about 48 hours and he managed to restore it…we were not so lucky with the water which was off and on much of the time and did not have enough pressure for showers so we ended up boiling up pots of water for sponge baths during the rest of the visit…

Over the next 8 days Vanda rested and we made small excursions around Addis to see some sights. Volunteer friends invited us for dinner and we had some over as well. Low key and friendly, supportive affairs. Another VSO doctor, Jo was in Addis en route home to the UK after completing her year at Gondor Hospital, and kindly offered advice and reassurance to Vanda over coffee at my place.

Not the vacation that had been much anticipated but a unique experience to be sure! And despite the terrifying start to their time here, there were many memorable moments of kindness and compassion of Ethiopians and VSO/Cuso volunteers. To complete the picture here are some images of what else we saw beside the interiors of hospitals and ambulances…

ethnographic museumThe Ethnographic Museum at Addis Ababa University provides an outstanding overview of Ethiopian history and culture

renee with dogsRenee-Claire made friends quickly with Titi and Pico and I am sure if they could talk they would tell her they are missing her attention!

kifle and almazAto Kifle and W/ro Almaz al dressed up for a wedding!

st george church

A visit to the 2nd oldest church in Addis, St Giorgis in Piazza was well worth the effort. A guided tour of the museum and church highlighted more history for us…

inside st george church

Playing with traditional musical instruments

afework tekle paintingFamous painting by Afewerk Tekle in the church

tiatu hotelA visit and lunch stop at the oldest hotel in Ethiopia – the Taitu

taitu hotelThe Taitu Hotel is a lovely place for a visit

makeeato and cake at the the good times cafeTime for cake and makeato on the Good Times Restaurant and Bar balcony in Piazza. Nice to see Vanda looking more perky on the last couple of days…

RC at good timesRenee- Claire enjoys the good Ethiopian coffee and view

taxis from good time balconyI imagine she won’t forget all our rides around Addis in these old blue and white taxis!

etam cleaning chilis for berbereTypical scene back home – preparing chilis for berbere near my front door

at Haile Selassie's tombThe next day a visit to the beautiful Selassie Cathedral in Arat Kilo where Haile Selassie and Empress Menem are entombed and where the grave for recently deceased Prime Minster Meles Zenawi is under construction

Sylvia Pankhurst grave in AddisBritish suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst is also buried here

small selassie churchDetail from the small round church on the property

marian and henokI was pleased that we were able to have lunch with my young friend Henok who managed time off from his medical studies at Black Lion Hospital and was able to accompany us to the Selassie Cathedral

old baskets at national museumTraditional woven baskets at the National Museum

tedjA taste of Tej, honey wine served in special flasks, capped off our day of exploring

coffee potThe last morning. landlady Almaz invited us for a traditional coffee ceremony and served her delicious tibs and firfir for breakfast

IMG_3022Kifle, Almaz, Etenu and Amazon join in the ceremony…and then we headed off to the NGO Bazaar for some last minute souvenir shopping

VSO group at mallOn their last day we met up with some of the volunteers who helped us. Dr Brian is the tallest one standing in front of Dr Anjeli. Katharina is on the left beside Hanny.

The good news is that the flights home were smooth and uneventful. Vanda’s doctors are still puzzling out the causes and the current theory is it may have been a reaction to the yellow fever vaccination she had 11 days prior to arrival in Ethiopia. While the whole experience was very shocking and frightening and it was such a disappointment that they did not experience the beauty of the Ethiopian countryside and the richness of the cultural sights, they did have an in-depth insight into the kindness and caring of Ethiopians that most tourists never know. So despite the dramatic turn of events, I hope they retain some good memories of the people they met here and that Renee-Claire will return to hike in the spectacular Simien Mountains some day soon.

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Out of the blue, my phone rang a few weeks ago. “Hi Marian, a VSO program manger suggested you might be willing to come to Awash to assist me in faciltating a training on gender based violence” said Dr Khasmin. “Tell me more”, I said.

Once I heard the plan I readily agreed to travel the 250 km to Awash on the edge of the Afar region to assist in the project. Dr Khasmin Ismael (aka Khas) is an enthusiastic young doctor from the Philippines and a sister VSO Ethiopia volunteer. She’s spent the past ten months in Semera, a very hot and dusty town in the remote Afar region, working on maternal health at the Afar Regional Health Bureau. An increase in reported rapes (12) had recently shocked the community; girls as young as 5 and 7 had been raped and a 12 year old girl had died after being gang raped. Khas decided something needed to be done to assist local health providers to develop a comprehensive and coordinated response and prevention plan for gender based violence (GBV) and had applied to VSO Ethiopia for a small grant.

In her grant application Khas stated “These survivors need assistance to cope with the physical, emotional and psychological consequences of this violence. They need medical and psychological care, social support, protection, security and legal redress. At the same time advocacy for prevention and monitoring in the community must be put in place for immediate response and effective interventions.”

The resource package  Caring for Survivors of Sexual Violence we adapted was developed in 2010 by the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on Gender in Humanitarian Action (IASC) and the Global Protection Center (GPC), both part of UNICEF and UNFPA. It couples excellent content with participatory activities and emphasizes a multi-sectoral approach. Printing these resources for our training was supported by UNFPA.

So early last Sunday morning VSO driver Derije collected me and we headed out, picking up another facilitator, Addisu from the UNFPA, along the way. We immediately found we had lots in common to talk about so the hot and dusty trip sped by quickly.

awash road tripAs always, I am amazed at the number of long haul trucks on the roads and saw at least two overturned in the ditch. These trucks often carry cargo to and from the port of Djibouti on the Red Sea and travel aggressively fast, passing in places I would never dare. I was thankful Derije is such a great driver and that I was nit stuck on a scary mini-bus!

We got to Awash and settled into the Genet Hotel; Awash, located in the Rift Valley, is very hot and I was pleased my room came with a fan and cold water shower. Over lunch, Addisu, Khas and I had some discussions about the workshop plans and then I headed out with Derije since he had invited me to tag along for a visit with his cousin in a nearby town of Awash Arba. We crossed a couple of  bridges (photos strictly forbidden) one of which had an interesting bust of Haile Selassie’s father a mid-point.

St Gabriel gatheringOrthodox Christians celebrate St Gabriel’s day with a coffee ceremony

Derije and small girlDerije and a small girl who really wanted her picture taken!

Derije's cousin and her small boyDerije’s cousin and her baby boy

Khas had selected modules from the training package and throughout the week we juggled and adapted these resources to suit the needs of the group. Addisu is based in Semera for the UNFPA and has done a lot of effective work with communities to decrease female genital mutilation (FGM) in the region and so was able to facilitate several lively sessions on multi-sectoral approaches and community activation.

planningKhas and Addisu consult on the plans.  The Genet Hotel was a great venue with reliable water and power, thanks to a generator so we could use our laptops for Powerpoints…organizing

A full day was facilitated by Khas on the medical aspects of GBV that had the doctors, nurses and mid-wives asking many questions and offering examples from their practices. Khas has had experience in this area, working for Doctors Without Borders in other countries so has a wealth of experience to share.

Khas had also arranged for  Kidist, a lawyer from UNICEF, to speak to the group about legal issues and the justice system and they sat riveted as she presented a thorough overview and answered their many questions.

Khas facilitated several activities that got at myths and realities of GBV and we were able to provide a global picture of the issues with our own examples from the Philippines and Canada as well as Ethiopia. One of the most emotionally charged sessions of the week was viewing the film The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo, a heart breaking documentary with women survivors of rape sharing of the horrors of their experiences and some rare footage of soldiers in the forests justifying their raping. The problem is global and while it may manifest differently in local contexts, the impact on survivors is universal.

Marian and Hiwot session

Hiwot from the Ethiopian Mid-Wives Association was a participant, but when it emerged that she was a trained counselor, the two of us agreed to collaborate and lead a participatory session on communication and counseling skills to aid survivors for the group.

Our participants were doctors, mid-wives, nurses, staff from regional health bureaus and university lecturers on gender. Its expected that future trainings/meetings will occur involving representatives of other sectors in order to develop an SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for GBV response in the region and some participants in this workshop will also be involved in delivering training to others in the health and community sectors. The newly established Afar Regional GBV Working Group is seen as a potential coordinating body. All of these initiatives, have the potential to do much to improve response to GBV and also to support prevention programs that address the underlying causes.

Group day 2On day 2 we gathered for a group photo after tea break – a few were missing though…

tea breakTea breaks broke up our days as we enjoyed lentil sambussas (called samosas in Canada) with our delicious Ethiopian coffee while whisking away swarms of pesky flies. It was obvious the hot season approaches as each day got noticeably hotter. The Afar region is known for the Danakil Depression, called the “hottest place on earth” and some hardy tourists en route there in 4 wheel drive SUVs loaded with gear stayed a night at the hotel.

organizing Khas facilitated an in-depth day on the medical aspects of GBV that had the doctors, nurse and mid-wives in particular asking a  lot of  questions and sharing their ideas on current practice and what else is needed

designing workshopsGroup work was lively and productive

role playRole plays gave the chance to practice skills

flow to multi sector illustrationUsing string to illustrate the flow of services. Medical, police, family/friends,legal help, counsellor – who to turn to first? While this is ideal. in reality many services are difficult to access or may not exist.

discussionsI was impressed by the active involvement of the participants and the quality of their contributions

soeting out financesAn evening spent sorting out the finances – a team effort!

goat arostoThe very yummy goat arosto with hot sauces made our hard work easier to swallow though!

Teamwork!Our  “facilitation team” Hiwot, Khas, Marian and Addisu, along with mid-wife Meron who is also an expert trainer

presenting workshop draft plansI facilitated the final morning on facilitation skills that culminated in drafting training workshops in small groups. It was refreshing to have 6 women amongst the 15 participants – usually in Ethiopia the trainings are 95% men and while most are keen and compassionate, women’s voices really do need to be included and heard!

workshop draft planThis workshop is designed  for women community members. Others were for educators and health professionals

completing final evaluationsFinally,  participants completed feedback and evaluation forms and got certificates and CDs with extra resources

final group pictureEveryone made it into the final group photo, taken by the hotel manager!

Friday afternoon I headed back to Addis and collected some images of the long and dusty road home. As we enjoyed the countryside, I reflected on how blessed I was to have had the opportunity to contribute to this work in some small ways and learn more about the lives of Ethiopian health professionals dedicated to working hard for their country’s development under challenging circumstances. I also appreciated the efforts of Dr Khas to make this happen and VSO Ethiopia for funding it. Gender is a cross cutting theme in VSO Ethiopia’s strategic plan and this was an example of health and education volunteers working together. Teamwork, collaboration across sectors and involvement of Ethiopian facilitators is a wining formula.

Here are some scenes of Awash and the road back to Addis…

awash from balconyA view of Awash from my hotel room

balcony view girl and goatMy bird’s eye view into life in Awash – doesn’t that goat look yummy!

rift valley gorgeThe Awash Gorge in Awash townroaside camelsNear Awash there were plenty of camels grazing along the roadside

lake sceneThe road home involved crossing through a watery causeway in a saline lake

washed over road and trucksHere we go!

near matahara volcanic rock woman walkingThe area has much volcanic rock and it is said at night one can see flashes of activity for the mountain tops

small boysFriendly kids always like to pose- this was a pit stop to get some charcoal

charcoalCharcoal sold along the road can be bargained for a much better price than in the city

metahara cafeA stop in Matahara for a brief lunch

mounds of cropsI always love seeing the harvested crops

villages along the roadAnd traditional villages along the way…

donkeysDonkeys are so stoic under their heavy loads

awash orangesOranges were in season so I bought 4 kilos back to share with everyone!

In 2005 I remember my friend Jane returning for a UN Women’s meeting at the New York headquarters and telling me that the world’s women had agreed that gender based violence and the issues of trafficking and prostitution were top on their list of concerns. There has not been a full global gathering of the world’s women since Beijing 1995. I really think it is about time we had another United Nations Women’s Conference and I certainly plan to advocate for one and to be there, wherever in the world it might be!

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After work Thursday my friend and VSO colleague Judy and I were heading up the hill from Arat Kilo to the National Museum for the opening of a photo exhibition “Future Makers” sponsored by the German GiZ.

Leaving the MoE building we decided to take the overpass, rather than risk our lives crossing through the rush hour traffic like we usually do…

Our destination – the National Museum compound

Suddenly, as we came down the overpass stairs, a young man stopped in front of me and said:

“Marianna, Marianna”.

“I am Marian”, I said

He replied “Yes I know you and I LOVE your blog. I am from Woldia and I know Henok too! Your blog is fantastic!”

The view from the top of the overpass

The scene of the meeting with Adane…

Wow, a blog fan recognized me on the streets of Addis. Turns out his name is Adane and he has commented several times on my blog posts over the past couple of years. How sweet is that? As we carried up the street, I said to Judy, “Well, that made my day!” When Henok and I met up on Saturday he confirmed that yes indeed, Adane was a few years ahead of him in school in Woldia and he thinks he is an engineering student at Addis University.

What I love about blogging is delightful surprises like this; you just never know what connections will occur. Among those I have so far virtually met:

  • An agriculturalist in Bangladesh who wanted permission to use my teff photos and asked me to take some close ups of sorgum for his cereal crops web site
  • An American photographer who wanted my help in tracking down a student she was sponsoring who had landed in jail in Woldia
  • People from Woldia who are thrilled their home town is being profiled and “put on the map”
  • Ethiopians who are proud to have their tourist sites promoted
  • Several folks who are moving to Addis and wanted some tips on what to bring
  • Homesick Ethiopians in the US and Canada who enjoy the pictures and stories
  • Folks coming to do short term work in Ethiopia who want advice
  • Former VSO and Cuso Ethiopia volunteers now in the Philippines, Canada, south of France, etc.
  • New volunteers about to arrive looking for tips on what to expect

Along with my “15 seconds of fame” in Arat Kilo last week, I have recently had several pieces published to share my volunteer experiences, with a goal of assisting Cuso International and VSO in recruitment of volunteers.

Here’s a sampling:

1. The World Matters and Teachers Care. I just had an article published in the September issue of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation Teacher Newsmagazine.Click here to see a PDF: Marian Dodds article Sept 2012.Many “baby-boomer” Canadian teachers are retiring still full of energy and backed by valuable experience that others in the developing world would appreciate sharing. In this two-way exchange, Canadians not only get to teach but also enrich their lives by learning across cultures; sometimes that old 60s idealism gets jolted awake and retirement becomes a whole new world of adventure. Think about it!

2. LACE campaign: when I was home in August I was asked to write about my friend Deborah who died of cervical cancer 9 ½ years ago. Were it not for her, I might never have gotten here. She recruited me to work with her for a number of years as a part time communications consultant with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and together we spread the message of international development in BC . Later I was able to coordinate several CIDA funded Global Classroom Initiatives for the BCTF to support educating BC students about global issues.

Kat and I enjoy a farewell lunch the day I left Vancouver for Addis this summer

LACE is an acronym for Live Aware, Create Empowerment, a good motto for life, I think! To all my readers from back home in BC, Oct 22-28 is Pap Awareness Week so please spread the word.

3. My sister Kat created the LACE campaign through her company, Hello Cool World. She specializes in campaigns using social media to promote health issues and documentaries like the Corporation and 65_RedRoses. Speaking of which…

Here’s  Henok proudly sporting his 65_RedRoses t-shirt.

Thanks to Kat,  I was able to share with Henok the 65_RedRoses DVD, the moving story of beautiful artist and actress Eva awaiting and receiving a lung transplant.  Now he is able to share it with his fellow medical students at Addis Ababa University Black Lion Hospital. Shelagh and I met Henok at Meskel in 2010 the first weekend we arrived in Woldia and he became our Amharic teacher for the year, while he completed grade 12. And the circle continues as Henok may now appear in a #4Eva blog to promote organ donations sometime soon…

4. Last fall Cuso International sent two volunteers (a journalist and a photographer) to Ethiopia and their pieces about several of us are now up on the Cuso site. With a click you can you can visit me at work and see a photo of me and Temesgen in our office at the Ethiopian Ministry of Education at Arat Kilo.

You can meet my new neighbor Endashaw, a diaspora volunteer from Alberta with a fascinating tale to tell of his journey to become a Canadian citizen after spending time in Kenya as a refugee. Now he’s back in Ethiopia to volunteer and give back to his homeland.

Endashaw at a recent party welcoming new Addis volunteers

A huge advantage for diaspora volunteers is their cultural knowledge and Amharic language skills.  Yared had a hugely successful placement at Dire Dawa University setting up computer systems. We met at the Cuso training in Ottawa in August 2010 and, even though he could only stay one year due to his job demands in Seattle, he has returned this year for a few weeks to help set up  partnerships. Speaking of IT,  do not miss Mike from Winnipeg who dedicated the past 3 years to set up a sustainable network at a Technical and Vocational Institute in the northern highlands.  Mike’s  dedication, cultural integration and success is an inspiration to all of us. I last saw him at the end of the road leading to the VSO office as I sat getting a shoe shine fellow to scrape the mud off my shoes (rainy season hazard!)

Mike stood and chatted about his imminent return home that evening, telling my his adult son Dylann had threatened to bring a film crew to the airport to record their reunion.

You can watch this stylish short (3 minutes) and moving video on YouTube – trust me you will need tissues!

I am thankful for the power of the Internet, film and blogs to tell stories and connect globally for common causes.  So if you are a fan of this blog, feel free to send me a comment. Let’s connect – I guarantee you’ll make my day!

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The crowd on the line taxi on June 9th, 2012 was totally silent, listening with rapt attention to an gripping Amharic radio broadcast which even I could tell was describing a seriously crucial race.

When the passengers erupted in cheers I asked the guy squished in the front seat beside me:

“Which race is this?”

“Tirunesh has won the New York race!”, he exclaimed.

This 5000 meter race was her second race in June in the US. On June 1 she had won the Prefontaine Classic in Eugene, Ore., winning the 10-kilometer event in 30:24.39, then the year’s fastest time.

Betam konjo! Olympics here we come!” I cheered.

A line up of Arat Kilo line taxis – this is the way I commute and get my sports news!

Ethiopian runners have been world renowned ever since Abebe Bikila won Olympic gold in his bare feet in the marathon in the 1960 Rome Olympics! National hero Haile Gebreselassie is a household name throughout Ethiopia, having won 10 gold medals (2 in the Olympics), 3 silver and 3 bronze in various world championships. They say he got his start running 10 km to and from school every day. This year he was one of the chosen stars to bring in the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies. He also has a resort, the Haile Resort at Lake Hawassa, and has recently become the spokesperson advertising  Ethiopian Airlines partnership with Star Alliance. And… I walk down the major street named after him every day on my way to and from work!

Lake Hawassa, Ethiopia has hippos, birds everywhere and plenty of monkeys

The animal and bird life at Lake Hawassa is stunning and often quite approachable!

To encourage running in Ethiopia, Haile Gebreselassie initiated the Great Ethiopian Run about ten years ago. Every year VSO volunteers, including yours truly,  join the 30,000+ participants in The Great Ethiopian Run to run (or walk) 10K  through the street of Addis Ababa.

Shelagh made a special trip down from Woldia last November to join me in the race. Full disclosure: we did finish the full 10km but walked and paused at the 5km mark for a coffee, but still came in under 2 hours I believe! Clearly we are NOT Olympic material in this lifetime!

Mel and I were certainly not in the fast lane!

In a country where there is a very long way to go to meet the Millennium Development Goal #3 of Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, one bright spot is participation in the Olympics, where Ethiopian women have participated equally with men for some time. This year, where much ado is being made of the fact that all participating countries actually have women on their teams, it is heartwarming to know that Ethiopia has for many years sent almost equal numbers of men and women to the games to compete. At least in this, they are ahead of the game!

Running is a national passion in Ethiopia. In a country with few resources and certainly no fancy gymnasiums in schools, it is a sport that requires little infrastructure. The fact that much of the country is mountainous and above 2000 meters is also a factor that helps in training.

Little Hanna, one of my Woldia favourites, was always on the run!

Passing a tiny rural school in the northeastern highlands, I see through the  bus window that the kids are out on the sports field, running

Every day last year at Woldia Teacher’s College I could watch the sports class running

Right now I am home for a holiday in Vancouver, following Olympic events and waiting with excitement for the running to begin. What a thrill to see  Tirunesh Dibaba win gold for Ethiopia in the 10,000 meter race and Tiki Gelana win the women’s marathon in record time. Right this moment, I almost wish I was back in Addis to join the cheering crowds who are no doubt clustered into the cafes watching the Olympics on TV or listening with rapt attention to the radio in the line taxis. I hope there will be more wins on the way – Go Ethiopia!

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If awards were given out for the best restaurant with a view in Ethiopia, Ben Abeba would surely win the gold medal. On the outskirts of Lalibela, 2500 breathtaking meters above sea level atop Chul Amba mountain, this new restaurant opened in October 2011 and has been a hit from day one with both tourists and locals. Almost every man, woman or child in Lalibela seems to be on a first name basis with Susan and will cheerfully and proudly point the way to Ben Abeba located just a short (15-20 minute) walk from the famous rock-hewn churches in the town center.

Scottish volunteer doctors and nurses enjoy their sunset dinner after doing cataract surgery on almost 214 patients in a 6-day period! Ben Abeba has quickly become a meeting place for tourists, volunteers, ex-pats and Ethiopian locals thanks to Susan’s gregarious nature and gracious hosting. The choice is yours to select a quiet spot or join strangers around the campfire as the evening unfolds…

A dream come true for retired Scottish Home Economics teacher and her Ethiopian business partner Habtam, Ben Abeba (Ben means hill in Scottish and Abeba is flower in Amharic hence “Hill of Flowers”), it took two years for their vision to be realized. I was fortunate to see it at the half built point last May when Shelagh and I took a mini-vacation from Woldia.

Susan surveys her domain!

We had been introduced via mobile phone to Susan by one of the teachers in my class at Woldia College of Teacher Education, Ato Gubena, who said “You must meet the ferenji woman in Lalibela”. Susan not only arranged some reasonably priced accommodation for us, she invited us to dinner and introduced us to an Irish woman who supports a street youth NGO and visits every vacation and a Scottish tourist who had just spent an enjoyable week horseback riding down south! We had a delicious, delightful wine infused evening swapping stories, with topics including how Susan had come a few years back to open an alternative basic education school for a friend and had decided Lalibela was where she wanted to settle. Turning the school over to local management after a couple of years, she needed a new challenge and Ben Abeba was conceived. The Irish guest regaled us with a description of how hard it really is to herd a goat – she had negotiated a good price that afternoon for her goat to be served at a feast for her NGO and had thought it would be simple enough just to walk it into town a couple of kilometers. Apparently much easier said than done!

Ben Abeba under construction in May 2011

Next evening just before sunset Habtam and Susan took us to the Ben Abeba building site and I absolutely knew I would have to return to see the finished restaurant. Their dream was to open a quality, sustainable restaurant where local youth could learn how to cook, serve, clean and manage the business. This January, accompanied by a visiting friend, I made my much anticipated return…

Designed by the same creative Addis Ababa architects involved in the Kiriftu resorts, the structure is made of local rock and wood and spirals up several levels with water features built in and around the center points. The crowning glory is three “flowers” at the top, named the “Zaff Tree Terrace” where diners can enjoy 360 degree views of the surrounding mountains and the crop fields and villages below.

The rippling path of eucalyptus logs sets the stage for a unique experience…

Zaff Tree Terrace

Sunsets are on special every night from 5:30-6:30!

To dine at Ben Abeba is to experience being inside a lovely sculpture. Serving staff are proud to practice their customer service skills and English on their foreign guests and they get a great workout running up and down to the various dining levels at the same time. Tips are pooled and everyone on staff has been enjoying monthly bonuses thanks to the generosity of happy customers!

Even the toilets are works of art (all 6 of them) and a full time staffer ensures they are impeccable – a rare treat in Ethiopia!

Lalibela, a world heritage site and major Ethiopian tourist attraction has some higher end tourist hotels but from my experience I have found they tend to offer predictable and mediocre fare for high prices. The Ben Ababa menu has a limited but high quality selection of both Ethiopian and international items based on what is in season locally, with specials featured each day, at reasonable prices. “Procure locally, prepare globally” could be their motto!

The first night my friend and I visited we enjoyed tasty beef stew with yummy mashed potatoes and perfectly al dente carrots and beets. Next night we savoured fat, succulent meatballs in a rich herb infused tomato sauce. Pasta with the same tomato sauce would be a hearty vegetarian alternative. The lentil soup is said to be fabulous and filling. Shepherd’s pie is on the menu rotation, very appropriate given the setting where countless shepherds are tending their flocks below! Comforting food for those craving a taste of good home cooking.

Attractive local black pottery serving dishes for the beef casserole and accompaniments

For lunch we enjoyed nicely spiced fish cakes with a colourful array of crisp, flavourful salads. Salads, often off limits to tourists fearing stomach upsets, are safe here. At Ben Abeba, Susan makes sure all raw vegetables/salad greens are washed properly in purified water.

Desserts are few and far between in most of Ethiopia’s restaurants outside of Addis Ababa but here one can always find a tasty fruit salad drizzled with warm local honey or yogurt (or both!). On our first night, the special banana crepes with lomi sauce were a tart-sweet dessert treat. Lomi are small bright green local limes that for some inexplicable reason people here call lemons.

Susan whips up a batch of scones to satisfy the cravings of two Belgian women who had been hiking in the local mountains. The accompanying jam was made from a melange of local fruits. This is the only place I have met a scone in the year and half I have lived in Ethiopia!

Ethiopian food is available too and coffee ceremonies can be booked for tour groups. A selection of beers and wines are on offer along with local favourites Tella ( beer) and Tej (honey wine).

Five thousand fruit trees, including mango, papaya, avocado, apple and guava have been planted on the property and the coffee plants are flourishing; eventually these will provide all the restaurant’s coffee and fresh fruit juices. An herb garden has been established to supply fresh flavour bursts. Early on, 30,000 trees were planted on the mountainside below the site to prevent erosion and attract bird/wildlife back to the area. The meat couldn’t be fresher – goats and sheep graze calmly nearby enjoying their last meal before they become yours!

Arrangements have been made with local villagers down below to provide vegetables

Medage Terrace –  lovely spot to contemplate the majestic Lasta mountain range

Cooks are cheerful and keen to please their guests, learning under Susan’s able tutelage the necessary skills of menu planning, food preparation and presentation, budgeting,  portion and quality control,  food safety and sanitation and time management

KItchen with a view – no wonder everyone from the cooks to dishwashers are so happy to work here. Not only is the view awesome but the kitchen is efficiently designed and stocked with state of the art equipment to make cooking a pleasure!

A local couple celebrated their wedding while we were there – a delightful surprise bonus for my friend visiting from Canada and for other tourists who happened to be there that afternoon

Wedding photographer arranges the shot beside the pond while tourists capture their own memories!

During our time at Ben Abeba we met independent tourists and tour groups from Australia, Holland, Belgium, USA, France, Poland, Spain, Austria and Italy. Everyone from rugged back-packers to those on luxury tours can find common ground at Ben Abeba!

Imagine the tales that Susan could tell if she fancied writing her memoir!

Once the sun sets, fires are lit and people gather round to chat with other guests or dine/sip by firelight

Lalibela lacks public transport but if guests have not got a way home, Habtam, who also owns Treasure Transport and is affiliated with Tesfa Tours will cheerfully drive folks back to their hotels for a minimal charge.

I so admire people who dream big and follow through with grounded planning and implementation to achieve results. Habtam and Susan have succeeded and are justifiably proud of Ben Abeba. What a legacy this will be for the youth of Lalibela and for tourism development in Ethiopia. And while it is still a work in progress (more railings and windows coming soon!), Susan already talks of building her own traditional round Tukul house nearby and possibly several others to rent as guest houses.  Who says retirement is boring? I can’t wait to return!

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