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In Ethiopia a favourite phrase at work was “we need to change this into the Ethiopian context”. And yes indeed, we did! To ease my re-entry to life in Canada and decrease the jet lag, I decided to spend 8 days “in the English context” catching up with some VSO friends and seeing my cousin. It was great decision.

Arriving at 7:30 AM I found my hotel room was not yet available so when it was suggested I upgrade to deluxe what could I do but say yes! After a breakfast buffet binge, deep soak in the bathtub (had not seen one of these since September 2012) and a short nap, I indulged in a massage, room service, Food Network TV and an early deep long sleep on a king sized bed with an awesome mattress.

Yes, one does appreciate what one once took for granted after a period of basic living! Thanks to a suggestion from my friend Judy, I spent the next day exploring Kew gardens, a perfect antidote to the culture shock of London’s Heathrow hustle and bustle.

IMG_6737Glass greenhouses and mythical beasts

IMG_6750View from the tropical glass house

IMG_6752Climbed to the top for a bird’s eye look

IMG_6740Unusual and intriguing flowers

IMG_6736Pretty prancing peacocks

IMG_6772Water Lily pool

IMG_6778Never seen a red center before on a lotus blossom

IMG_6757Marine gardens too!

IMG_6768Edible plants and flowers display

IMG_6796My day at Kew Gardens was a total delight and I kept marveling at how fortunate I was to have this opportunity to walk in such beauty. What a wonderful world it is!

Two days of pampered decadence was sufficient though and on Sunday, I headed off to meet up with friends I knew in Ethiopia and who are now officially classified as “RVs”. No, they are not recreational vehicles, but “returned volunteers”, a label I now will also carry for the rest of my days. I left my two heavy bags at the hotel, packed a small one and took the tube in to London proper to meet Terry for a sunny afternoon and a classic pub lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.

Sunday roast with Terry

Terry has been home for several months but plans to return to Ethiopia for a final 6 months in September to complete her work with an NGO in Asosa. It was good to talk about our experiences, how to adjust to life back home and share thoughts on development and where things are heading in the world.

Later that afternoon, I caught a coach to Nottingham to spend a few days with Shelgah and Steve. Shelagh and I had shared the Woldia house and classroom in 2010-2011 and had lots to catch up on.

oldest inn in englandOver the next three days, Shelagh showed me the sights of her city, including the oldest Inn in England called “Trip to Jerusalem” where the crusaders were said to have set off from…

well dressingShelagh introduced me to the ancient tradition of “well dressing” that is a church art special to this region

misty catI met the famous princess cat Misty, the one I had heard so much about in Woldia… and she truly is magnificent!

berries for summer puddingHelped pick berries in the garden for a traditional English summer pudding, something we could only fantasize about in Woldia

Bestwood laodge hotelToured some lovely old buildings…

ES mansionVisited the grounds and exquisite gardens of Hardwick Hall

me and robin hoodAnd of course I had to say hello to Robin Hood!

lunch with peter and shleaghShelagh kindly offered to deliver me to Peter and Brenda’s place and Peter greeted us with a summery lunch in their garden served on an Ethiopian styled tablecloth from the NGO Bazaar in Addis

clotted creamBrenda came home late afternoon and after a walk about their village to see the highlights (wind mills, very contented large fat sheep and an ancient mud wall) we enjoyed a delicious dinner topped off by meringues with berries and clotted cream!

It is helpful to talk to others who have been home for awhile to hear how they have adjusted to the home culture and to “debrief” together what we learned from Ethiopia and from volunteering. I find it interesting how many people imagine themselves volunteering again, despite the many ups and downs we have all experienced. The kind of people who are selected to volunteer possess an admirable resilience I think, and an ability to re-frame things positively. For me though, three years is enough and I do not see myself heading off any time soon, at least for a long term assignment!

Eileen me and bethanBrenda kindly delivered me to a small nearby village to visit my cousin

Later that day Eileen and I took a bus into Leicester to have a reunion with her daughter Bethan. I had not seen them since 1999 so this was a great chance to catch up and see what a lovely young woman Bethan has become…and she said I had inspired her to travel!

bulls head pubAfter staying overnight with Eileen, we enjoyed a farewell lunch of the British classic at her neighbourhood pub in the small village of Stoney Stanton

fish chips and mushy peasMushy peas, fish and chips!

I spent my final night at the hotel near the airport and headed off early to Heathrow Airport to catch my 9-hour Air Canada flight back to Vancouver, happy that I had had this small interlude to ease back in to my next life!

That night my sister and I sat on her Vancouver balcony enjoying a glass of wine and I was re-assured by the art installation on the roof of a nearby building…yes indeed it will be good to adjust back to my home city of Vancouver, Canada!

rennie neon

Now it’s time to get myself back into the “Canadian context” as I spend time with friends and family and reflect on what I have learned over the past three years!

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The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Syndey Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 12,000 times in 2011. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

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A junkie for election night results, I’ve always enjoyed the drama of tight races and potential impacts of the absentee ballots that get counted later, imagining the long distance routes they must have traveled, all because the democratic process mattered enough for someone far from home to bother.  I have exercised my vote in every municipal, provincial or federal election in Canada since the day I was old enough. So when the current Canadian election was called, I was curious about how I would be able to vote from the northeastern highlands of rural Ethiopia. I’m happy to report that I have now voted and my ballot is being transported back to Ottawa as I write! Here’s how my May, 2011 Canadian federal election process worked…

1.   Receive an email from the Embassy of Canada in Addis Ababa informing me of the election and letting me know that I should send them my form, available from the Elections Canada web site and a copy of my passport so they could process my request for a voting package. Go online, cut and paste the form to my desktop, load it on a flash drive, take it to work, wait for the electricity to come back on, put it in the work computer and print it. Photocopy my passport.

2.   Go to the charming little Woldia post office.

3.   Mail the forms to the Embassy of Canada, paying 30 Birr ($2.40) for fast delivery, as the timeline is very tight.

4.   Receive email notification that the forms had been received in Ottawa and that my voting package had been sent, with tracking information so I could follow its voyage to me! Follow the delivery online from Ottawa to  Frankfurt to Addis Ababa to Woldia. Go online and read about the election platforms of the various parties and the learn more about the candidates in my riding of Vancouver East.

5.   Get a mobile phone call from Fraser at the Post Office telling me “Miss Marian, the package has arrived!”

6.    Collect the voting package, take it to work and explain to the curious teachers how a Canadian out of her country can vote in this far away election!

7.   Set up my little polling station on a table at the WAW café and ask a stranger to take my picture as I complete my secret ballot.

8.   Seal the vote envelope in the outer envelope and put it in the mailing envelope.

9.   Get Fraser to send it to the Embassy in Addis  the fast way for another 30 Birr. Naturally this involves official forms being filled in and four copies made, each stamped with the requisite purple stamp!

10.  Check out the election results online on May 2nd, which will be May 3rd here as we are 10 hours ahead. Feel proud and very grateful to be a Canadian who is able to vote by secret ballot in free and fair elections all  my life, however far from home I may be!

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Reflecting back on 2010 I must drink a toast to the blog technology that allows me to connect with people around the planet so quickly and efficiently.This is the first time I have done a blog and I’ve discovered that, for me, it serves two main purposes. Firstly it is a meaningful way to focus in on and process my experiences as a Canadian volunteer living and working in Ethiopia and secondly, writing and taking photos for the blog every week or two provides a “life-line” to people back home, enabling timely sharing of impressions and insights with friends and family. Even strangers can share in my current experiences as and when they wish and sometimes this brings surprising connections. Like the agriculturalist from Holland, now working in Bangladesh, who asked to use my photos of teff on his web site on cereals or the Ethiopian student living in the US who appreciated my impressions of his homeland.

WordPress just surprised me with a message “Your 2010 year of blogging” about my site stats and I thought it worth sharing. Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my blog in 2010!  – Marian


The stats helper monkeys at WordPress.com mulled over how this blog did in 2010, and here’s a high level summary of its overall blog health:

Healthy blog!

The Blog-Health-o-Meter™ reads Wow.

Crunchy numbers

Featured image

A Boeing 747-400 passenger jet can hold 416 passengers. This blog was viewed about 4,300 times in 2010. That’s about 10 full 747s.


In 2010, there were 23 new posts, not bad for the first year! There were 253 pictures uploaded, taking up a total of 63mb. That’s about 5 pictures per week.

The busiest day of the year was July 21st with 119 views. The most popular post that day was Anticipating my Ethiopian adventure.

Where did they come from?

The top referring sites in 2010 were cuso-vso.org, community.vsointernational.org, mail.yahoo.com, facebook.com, and vsojournals.purplepixie.org.

Some visitors came searching, mostly for battle of adwa, woldia university, menelik ii, adwa, and woldia unversti.

Attractions in 2010

These are the posts and pages that got the most views in 2010.


Anticipating my Ethiopian adventure July 2010


My Work July 2010


Fundraising July 2010


How many beings does it take to change an Ethiopian light bulb? October 2010


En route to Addis Ababa, I found a lion king! September 2010

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On the “possibell curve” the odds of rain on Christmas day were o%. Here in sunny Woldia we like to use the word “possible” on an hourly basis so it was with a stroke of genius that Shelagh, recalling my conversation with the HDP class on criterion vs. norm referenced assessment, coined the term. Often it is a polite way of saying absolutely not or perhaps or sometimes yes it will be done in its own good time. I enjoy the fundamentally optimistic worldview that it conveys. So of course we had to have some questions related to the Possibell curve at our Christmas party on December 24th. Things like “Will the Ferrengi dance?” “Will Abera pin the tail on the horse?” etc. were written up on the board.

Party preparations began several weeks ago when we started to save the cores of our “soft” (aka toilet) rolls for Shelagh’s angels. Thanks to a thoughtful gift from afar, she even had eyes to paste on! By the big day seven beauties including Gloria, Ex-Chelsea, Hosanna and Posh Spice were ready for their debut.

The day of the party they “flew” by backpack to our room and assembled on the top of the bookcase amidst clouds with the quote “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”. Shelagh, taking her role as English Language Improvement Center Advisor very seriously, had added a winged Shakespeare.

Meanwhile we were ripping branches off juniper trees en route to college each day and tucking them onto a garish coat rack that Maru Mohammed had found a couple of months ago and that we had immediately tagged as a potential tree because of its large gold knobs.

At tea break that morning the most beautiful iridescent blue/purple bird with yellow eyes delighted us by hopping nearby and doing some fly-pasts that revealed gorgeous purple under wings. A good omen for the coming event.

After writing the party “objective” on the board for the HDP crowd, we set off in a bajaj to collect the cakes we had ordered from the Extreme Café.

Mid-afternoon the room was fully decorated, the soft drinks and popcorn arrived and the requisite equipment for a coffee ceremony appeared. The party tone was set as the teaching and support staff crowded into the room and took turns being blindfolded and trying to find the spot for the tail of the horse that Mastewal, the art teacher, had drawn on the board.

Some office staff surprised us by sprinkling paper “snow” all around as the requisite coffee ceremony was being performed.

While the coffee burbled away over the charcoal burner, I took photos of people with Santa…

After a speech by Ato Kebede about sharing our happiness, Gabremiriam sang a song he had written for us.

Then Ato Gubena, being the senior person present (except us I think!) was invited to cut the cake with the traditional dagger.

Some people got a little carried away enjoying their cake…

And yes, there was a small amount of both Ethiopian and Ferrengi dancing.

Slowly people took their leave, the mess left for the time being as we headed home, thankful for such a unique opportunity to share our Ferrengi Christmas Eve with our Ethiopian colleagues.

Christmas Day, after a morning invitation to eat some injera and split pea wot with our landlady and her daughters in the outdoor cooking area behind our house, we headed to Adago to do our usual Saturday market shopping for fruits and vegetables, completely free of any Christmas advertising. Just for fun I bought two bouquets of fresh chickpeas (people snack on them raw) and posed under a poinsettia tree.

The necklace i wore throughout the two days was a gift about ten years ago from my dear departed friend Deborah Fletcher – I like to think she is with me in spirit as the work she did as a CIDA consultant helped inspire me to become more involved in international development.

Upon our return we were surprised to discover that a neighbourhood party was in full swing on our patio. We accepted the invitation to join in for the afternoon, meeting the priests and many neighbours at what we were told was a “Mary’s birthday celebration”.

People drank a home brew called Tella and ate copious amounts of injera bread smothered in split pea wot (stew) and tikal gomen (cabbage and potatoes). Many Ethiopian Orthodox Christians fast for advent so these “fasting foods” are free of meat, eggs and dairy.

Later the women began to sing, ululate and dance in the small room on the patio. To their delight, we shed our shoes and joined in.

Late Christmas afternoon we took our leave to prepare our own humble Christmas dinner of mashed potatoes, tinned ham, boiled chickpeas and carrots. Shelagh had outdone herself with a cake baked in an improvised Dutch oven. Sultanas from Addis and Canadian cranberries soaked overnight in sweet local wine and cinnamon-apple and lemon-ginger tea bags produced a delicious fruitcake that caused us to exclaim, “this is good enough to put in the cookbook!”

I snuggled under my blankets on Christmas night, thankful for this unique opportunity to live in such a welcoming community, content with the knowledge that in two weeks time I get to celebrate all over again on Ethiopian Christmas!

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Our living room floor was covered in fresh green grasses when we finally arrived in Woldiya by the light of a full moon, after 12 long hours driving through the choking diesel fumes of Addis to the beauty of Ethiopia’s lowlands, a verdant patchwork of crops in greens and browns, terraced in many places and then a switchback filled climb up into the breathtaking heights of the mountainous highlands. We observed fields of wheat, barley, sorghum, teff, and maize among others. At one place there was a huge a gathering of people near a yard where it seemed sacks of food aid were being distributed. This has been a good rainy season so the land is very green and lush looking right now as winter ends and we head into spring and warmer weather.

But I digress. Regarding the grass flooring; when in Addis I had wondered aloud if these grasses, sold in bundles in the market were a form of chives! That brought a few chuckles from our hosts, the dean, vice dean-academic and Ato Maru who will be Shelagh’s English Language Quality Improvement Center (ELQIP) counterpart, along with our VSO driver Demis and two fellow volunteers who were over-nighting in Woldiya en route to their placements. I promised not to cook with the grass and the next day the young woman who does cleaning swept them away!

Traditionally guests in Ethiopia are welcomed with a coffee ceremony and our landlady, who lives in the back area outside of our house, busied herself with the charcoal and coffee roasting as our bags and boxes were unloaded. We then sat in the living room and enjoyed some welcoming words as frankincense from the burner wafted around and small cups of sweet delicious coffee were ritually served. A large basket of popcorn was passed around. Normally this is done three times and takes several hours during which people enjoy conversation but, as it had been a long day, we stopped at one. The landlady’s cat came and went and we saw this as a good omen. After everyone left Shelagh and I partially unpacked, made our beds and decided we could get used to the squat toilet and shower that is our bathroom. It is about 2 x3 feet with a sink outside the door. Today I finally immersed myself fully in the cold shower and it wasn’t that bad! Our kitchen has no sink, just two tables and a shelf but glory be, Demis from VSO had acquired a fridge for us and we are more thrilled than you can ever imagine at having this luxury.

The next morning many of the department heads from the Woldiya College of Teacher Education (WTCE) returned with the dean for a more elaborate welcome with a second coffee ceremony and special bread was served. It seemed to be made with yeast and looked like a giant sea sponge about 18 inches in diameter and 4 inches high. Very tasty. Later on that morning the landlady’s daughter Fitle, who speaks some English, invited us to sit on the floor of her mother’s quarters and we were served some delicious Shiro Wat (chick pea paste) on Injera bread. The cat observed us somewhat suspiciously I thought. The hen that lives in the yard and the cat seem to have a testy relationship and once in awhile there are loud squawks and yowls. We have concluded that the hen rules the roost.

Later in the day the Ato Bigonet (the dean) and Ato Maru returned and we went by Bajaj to a small market area to shop for plastic dishpans, water buckets and other necessities, including a large bottle of bleach and some disinfectant for cleaning. We had seen plenty of horse and donkey carts en route so I was somewhat disappointed to learn that Woldiya has outlawed them and we now use tiny three wheel vehicles called Bajaj to get around. At the market it really came home to us that our diet would be simple. What you get in season is what you eat. Right now that means tomatoes, hot peppers, carrots, potatoes, garlic, oranges and bananas. We are even more pleased that we had stocked up in Addis. Last night we managed to produce a plate of pasta with tomato, pepper, onion and garlic sauce flavoured with the Italian spices we had gotten in Addis. All that bulking up I did with the summer of farewell feasting will soon melt off these bones!

Tonight we are invited to Meskel celebration, an Orthodox Christian celebration of the finding of the true cross. It seems a giant cross will be burned and much festivity will ensue. So stay tuned…

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The deluge began just after Shelagh and I had gone into the photo shop for yet more passport sized photos, needed here to purchase sim cards for phones and internet devices for laptops. The rainy season should end soon but in the meantime wellies (aka rubber boots) are an absolute necessity. Though I see most people here are without good footwear or umbrellas.

Living in Ethiopia as a VSO volunteer means living like middle income Ethiopians. On Saturday we were given our first pay and some funds to purchase items to set up our homes. Each volunteer gets a large box containing the necessities of life – a water filter, one electric burner and one kerosene burner for cooking, a treated mosquito net, one pillow and 2 blankets.

Our boxes all piled up in the VSO compound.

Water filter

Kerosene stove

Our home will have basic furniture like beds, table, chairs but we needed to purchase small items like dishes, pots, pans, cutlery, towels, bedding, etc., so Shelagh and I headed off in the rain with experienced volunteer Valerie as our guide to the large market. Fortunately the rain stopped and we managed to make some good bargains, using the numbers and bargaining phrases we had been taught in Amharic class.

Shelagh and Valerie at the market

Laden with our goods we took a line taxi (a minibus that follows a set route and is very inexpensive), back after a couple of hours, very pleased with ourselves. A fellow volunteer reported on the hilarity that ensued when he cheerfully wished the whole minibus “good morning” in Amharic at about 4 PM!

It is sobering to think that we need to live on 80 birr a day (about $6.00 Canadian).  A house and guard are provided for us but we must pay for utilities, food, clothing and travel from our allowance. The currency was devalued here within the last month, making it even harder for people to get by. Just to insert some perspective consciousness –  I will be able to live for a day on what folks back home pay for a grande nonfat decaf latte!

Tonight I’ll learn some new dance moves at a cultural evening that is the wrap-up of our in country training for Ethiopia. This afternoon Shelagh and I met two of our partners from the Woldiya College of Teacher Education and learned a lot more about our jobs and housing. We were to drive to Woldiya tomorrow but there has been a vehicle problem so it looks like we will have a couple more days to enjoy the bright city lights of Addis Ababa!

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