Category Archives: Ethiopia

Travels Part 1 – Hawassa, Addis, Bahar Dar, Gondar and a proposal.

Streets of Gondar

Ghion grounds - Bahar Dar

Proposal Wine - Addis

Fasilidas Castle - Gondar

Fish Market Hawassa

Stork Hawassa

Slightly delayed post on travels from June, but it’s been a busy couple of months finally getting some work done! This post is split into 2 of travel in the South and Amhara regions of Ethiopia and then back to Axum and travelling in Tigray.

The first week in June, Vicki and I decided to combine a necessary trip to Addis for leaver’s workshop with a trip down to Hawassa. Hawassa is a beautiful, lakeside town in SNNPR region in the south of Ethiopia. It is green, lush and much more laid back than the North. The difference in hassle towards ‘ferenji’ is that they shout “you” instead of ‘give me money’. I don’t answer to either.

We stayed at the lovely Lewi Resort on the lakeside where the service was pretty excellent, with lovely views and good service, decent wine and fish! One of the most amusing aspects of the hotel are the cheeky monkeys which patrol the restaurant area and will steal food from your plates. One morning I was held up by a monkey who stole a banana from me by squaring up to me, I relinquished the banana rather than have my eyes scratched out.

Whilst in Hawassa we visited the fish market (which you have to pay to enter) and saw massive maribou storks that look bizarrely like old men in suits. We also visited the other VSO volunteers in Hawassa who lived in a lovely little compound and were also plagued by monkeys on the roofs (makes a difference from pigeons in Axum). Hawassa is a 4-5 hour drive from Addis and served by the fancier Selam Bus, which is more like a luxury coach, you even get served a snack during the journey. As is standard for all bus journeys you stop halfway for a toilet stop which the women are only lucky enough to take advantage of if there are decent enough bushes (there are never decent enough bushes).

Back in Addis, the leaver’s workshop passed without event as we got to grips with the bureaucratic process of leaving this country. The night before Lee (my boyfriend) arrived in Ethiopia, Vicki and I had the luxury of staying at the Hilton courtesy of her parents as a treat for her birthday. We got to enjoy margarita cocktails and the heated pool and felt very much like we weren’t in the Addis Ababa that we had already experienced.

I met Lee at the airport and welcomed him to his first time in Africa, before heading to the Siyonat Hotel in Bole area. After a day of settling in and now being more confident on the line taxis (which are the best way to get around) we ventured out to spend a day by the pool at the Hilton (400Birr). Enjoying some beers by the poolside, a heated pool and then lunch with some nice white wine again is very far from my previous Ethiopian experiences and it was a lovely day. In the evening we headed out to MK pizza, which was great with a good atmosphere and served large portions and interesting versions of steak. With every meal, Lee continued to be surprised that there were many things he could actually eat. After a wonderful day, just as we were getting into bed, a very unexpected event (not on the itinerary) occurred and Lee proposed! After a definite yes (I actually said 100% yes) Lee went down to source their best imported wine (South African – not bad) which was insistently brought to the room by the bemused bar staff. It all started to make sense why a usually laid back guy was so anxious about the effectiveness of the room safe.

The rest of our time in Addis was spent exploring, visiting the National Museum and ‘Lucy’ the oldest discovered bones detailing our origins. There were a number of school groups in the museums who found the ferenji much more interesting than the bones, and forced me to read out the signs in English whilst giggling at me. After the ethnological museum at the university where we saw Haile Selassies’ bedroom (interesting but not as grand as you might expect), we decided to take a walking tour around parts of the city I hadn’t seen yet, ending up at Tomocca coffee where I bought supplies.

We flew to Bahar Dar (not my first choice but the roads would have taken 8 hours) with Lee’s ticket being 3 times the price of mine without residents ID. Bahar Dar is another lakeside town, on the shore of Lake Tana and has a lovely tropical feel with lots of greenery and orange soil. Lake Tana itself is the largest in Ethiopia and takes a day to cross at its widest point. We stayed at the lovely Abay Minch lodge where it seemed we were the only guests. It is a 5-minute drive on a line taxi out of town, but the site is worth it in beautiful secluded gardens with lots of interesting bird life. Also the line taxis are easy to get on and only cost 2 birr into town. In Bahar Dar we wandered around the town, had some lunch and beers at the lovely grounds of the Ghion (best tegamino I’ve had in Ethiopia) and used the wifi to try and contact people back home to spread the news! We also had a lovely lunch at Dessie lodge which has a lovely lakeside location. The market here was also a great place to buy Ethiopian football tops.

As I thought it was imperative for Lee to experience all of Ethiopia I organized for us to take public transport (a minibus) to Gondar from Bahar Dar. First we were hassled at the bus station onto a more “comfortable” bus than usual (and charged an extra 40 birr finders fee). It took 2 hours to leave the bus station, and then stopped to change a tyre before even leaving the town. About 10 minutes out of town they piled on extra people and it was no longer the ‘comfortable ride’ promised. That aside at least there was no relentless vomiting like there is on the minibuses in the north. The countryside continued to be green and filled with fields and people ploughing in preparation for rainy season.

We reached Gondar by the afternoon after seemingly stopping at every hut and village on the way to drop people off and pick up more. The bus was so full I think it was probably safe if we crashed as no one would move.

Gondar was completely different again from Bahar Dar and has a feeling of a medieval town up in the hills. Supported by the fact there is a massive castle right next to our hotel. The Lodge du Chateau is a lovely little place with a few rooms in an enclosed compound and a secluded roof terrace with great views, a lovely place to try the local Dashen beer, and also to have breakfast. As we only planned one night in Gondar we rushed out to see around the Fasilida’s castle. Again ferenji price in play, with a residents ID I paid 10 birr, Lee paid 200birr. We managed without a guide and spent the afternoon wandering around all the ruined castles which have a distinctly North African/Portuguese feel about them. After a walk in the dark through lanes in the evening we came across the Four Sisters restaurant that is easily the best place I’ve eaten in Ethiopia. The setting and service were fantastic and we had lovely Ethiopian food, honey wine all for very reasonable prices.

The next day we were picked up by our driver Abram, organized by the wonderful Dawit of Covenant Travel based in Axum, and we set off for Debark and the Simien Mountains.


A List of 10’s

I still have a couple more blog posts, but my internet is not allowing picture upload so I’ll get on with the text only ones. I love a list and that is the basis for my reflection on my last week here,A List of 10’s
This last blog post before I head home is a reflection and summary of my experiences good and bad here – 10 things I’ll miss, 10 things I definitely won’t and 10 things I’m looking forward to…

10 Things I’ll miss about Ethiopia
1. Predictable daily sunshine
2. The wonderful staff in OR at Axum St Mary Hospital
3. Doro Wot (Ethiopian Chicken Curry)
4. Actually injera (although it looks like carpet underlay, apparently it’s the new superfood)
5. Children being so excited to see you on the street that they run after you want to shake your hand or just continually shout ‘ferenji’.
6. Managing on £100 per month
7. More livestock on the street than people – it’s just amusing.
8. St George Beer for 10 Birr (70p) a pint
9. Not doing nightshifts
10. Taking real pleasure in getting treats such as mail from home, or finding a decent wine or cheese.
10 Thing’s I will not miss about Ethiopia
1. Ferenji prices. If you have white skin it means you have to pay more for everything including food in restaurants and public transport. Just because.
2. Power cuts
3. Being shouted at constantly on the streets – ‘hey you, give me money!’ or indeed by young Ethiopian men who have an innate sense of supreme self-confidence. I think this must be how celebrities feel 😉
4. Minibus journeys crammed in with other people, some on jerry cans for seats on terrifying roads.
5. Twin prop airplanes
6. Having to hand wash all my clothes, it’s so hard!
7. Terrible water pressure; I think I still have conditioner in my hair from 2 months ago.
8. Flies
9. The belief that anaesthesia is not a real medical specialty (although that one is not specific to Ethiopia).
10. Being quiet in the OR as I don’t understand a word anyone is saying (for anyone who has worked with me you’ll understand; particularly one consultant who commented in an MSF ‘she is very vocal in theatre, not that this is a criticism…’)

10 things I’m really looking forward to back home (other than the obvious of family and friends)
1. Washing machine
2. Decent shower (see above)
3. Haircut
4. My own bed
5. Nice white wine
6. The NHS
7. The sea/lochs
8. Unlimited internet
9. Cheese
10. Seafood
11. Planning a wedding – eek!
Oh well slightly over at 11…

Public Holiday in Ethiopia


The staff I work with
The staff I work with
The staff I work with
The staff I work with
Front of hospital with Ethiopian flag
Front of hospital with Ethiopian flag

In May I worked the public holiday to cover for the anaesthesia officers. At the start of the day, Letemariam one of the circulating nurses complained she was getting too old for work; Mulugeta another circulating nurse explained that Letemariam suffers from shoulder pain after being shot through her left scapula in the conflict that led to today’s public holiday. And so this is how I came to learn about the importance of the day, unlike any bank holiday at home. 28th May 2014 celebrates 23 years since ‘Downfall of the Derg’ and is a massive celebration throughout Ethiopia, especially in the region where I am, Tigray, where the resistance to overthrow the Derg regime began. Ethiopia is currently a peaceful country surrounded by many entrenched in conflict, but war remains a fresh memory in many people’s recent histories here.

I was keen to write a post about this as I was taught a lot from my co-workers about the history of the regime and the conflict, but more importantly their personal history from that time and why it is such an important celebration.

In 1974 after 7 months of ongoing strikes and revolts against Emperor Haile Selassie and his government, the Derg (meaning committee) regime came to power after arresting the Emperor. At that time, the military was also supported by the Eritrean liberation Front and the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front who had become increasingly militarised in an effort to resist the government. The Derg was led by Colonel Mengistu Haile Maryam, a serving military officer, who is rumoured to have suffocated the emperor, buried him next to a latrine and imprisoned many of his family members. At the time in Ethiopia there was some support for change particularly in poorer communities and the Derg proposed to offer a socialist state which would improve the lives of all, in contrast to the reputed excesses indulged by the few in power.  In the cold war era, there was also animosity by some in Ethiopia towards the US who supported Haile Selassie, and so lended support to development of a socialist state. 

However it wasn’t long before the Derg established themselves as a cruel, dictatorial regime, arresting and killing anyone who disagreed with their policies. Despite the support from ELF and EPLF, the Derg refused to recognise Eritrean independence and targeted those in favour. Opposition groups began to gather in 1975-76, most significantly the Tigraian Peoples Liberation Front who demanded a democratic government. The Derg responded with mass arrests and executions.  Some of the more popularised images of Ethiopia in times of famine occurred during the time of the Derg due to the lack of support for the people following rain failures, particularly in the Tigray region.

As I mentioned, the region where I am working is Tigray, and everyone I work with in theatre was directly affected by the conflict, either via loss of family members, or active fighting themselves, women and men. Mulugeta, one of the circulating nurses is missing his left middle finger from injury. Letemariam, as mentioned above has chronic pain in her shoulder from being shot. Bulatew one of the scrub nurses was shot in the abdomen and survived. In the morning at work, there were no cases so Mulugeta took the opportunity to explain to me what the conflict meant to him and the others in the area. He described the Derg as cruel and ruthless. The main road where we walk every day, normally filled with people having coffee, tea, food, selling souvenirs, he says was filled with bodies of people killed for being part of the resistance. Some of the more shocking descriptions are of targeted attacks on women, cutting open pregnant women’s abdomens and attacking women in such a way as to prevent further childbearing. 

In Addis Ababa I had the opportunity to visit the ‘Red Terror Museum’ marking the time of the Derg. There are walls filled with the names and pictures of those executed by the Derg and one particularly chilling room of human remains excavated from mass graves. A statue outside states ‘never again’.

At lunchtime there was a large celebration at the hospital with everyone gathered to enjoy food, beer and dancing. I sat down next to Yibralem, one of the theatre cleaners who always mothers me at work. She is very stoical usually and I realised she was crying, I asked why, concerned that something had happened, but she just pointed at the Tigray flag and another nurse explained it was because if the memories of the conflict. I looked around and realised pretty much everyone gathered there today had lived and fought through the conflict we were celebrating the end of. 

It is difficult to fully understand what it must be like to live through conflict, but I appreciate how lucky our generation is in the UK to have the freedom we have today, particularly as our grandparents fought for it. I’m sure my grandparent’s generation has a better understanding of living through a time of war.

Now Ethiopia is celebrating 23 years of a democratic government, following a successful resistance to overthrow the Derg. Ethiopians are proud of their country and it’s achievements, they are making progress towards the Millenium Development Goals improving child and maternal mortality, HIV prevalence is low and the percentage of people living in poverty has halved over the last 20 years. Ethiopia is keen to shake the image popularised in the 80’s of a poor, famine stricken country and it aims to be a middle-income country by 2015. There is still work to be done, but there is enthusiasm for progress and they’ve come a long way in 23 years.

12 Steps to Saving Mothers Lives (How to organize a training course in Ethiopia)

LunchDiscussing maternal mortalitySurgical Staff

One of the midwives demonstrating CPR in obstetrics
One of the midwives demonstrating CPR in obstetrics

So this blog post might give you a bit of an idea of what kind of work I’m up to here in Ethiopia. Training is probably my favourite part as the staff are really keen to learn and you feel like you might actually be doing something. As this post shows however there’s not a lot of glamour or life-affirming work, but I’m getting really good at admin and negotiation, skills I hope to promote in my next job interview…

  1. Identify topic for training – Note this may not necessarily be anything you have specialized knowledge in, but ultimately is determined by where the funding comes from (maternal and neonatal health being particularly donation-laden causes). Once you start researching however, you realize that the main themes for improvement are essentially the same in any area of healthcare: patient education, communication and good basic nursing and medical care.
  2. Prepare lectures – the main consideration here is how best to adapt the language for non-english speakers, some of the staff here despite completing their degrees in English, cannot speak English. Thankfully there is always someone on hand to translate; but I am always concerned when they ‘translate’ and there is laughter, particularly when I never made any jokes.
  3. Identify staff you wish to train – this is a trade off between whom you want to train (who you think will benefit most from the training due to their role), and whom the hospital management thinks should be trained (depends on who they will pay for and who is not too busy with clinical duties). There is also influence to train more women than men as traditionally they are under-represented. When you complete your reports you must count how many of each sex you have trained.
  4. Apply for funding – not actually a significant amount, just to cover manual printing and lunch/refreshments for the staff. Although you have to consider per diems (a lump sum staff expect for attending training – this is endemic in a lot of African countries as a result of NGO influence to encourage people to attend training).
  5. Funding part 2 – Haggle for a cheap lunch. As advised by the NGO; in order to secure funding for lunch I must first get 3 quotes from separate places to ensure I get the cheapest lunch. Have managed to secure lunch for 35 Birr (£1.10) per head, accepting increased costs to include meat.
  6. Print manuals – nothing like spending an afternoon in a print shop (supervision is required due to language difficulties). The afternoon is spent looking out the door, occasionally being shouted at by kids or asked for money.
  7. Putting manuals together – this covers an evening, the time shortened greatly by a helper (thanks Vicki), of placing all the handouts in order before heading back to the print shop for another afternoon of supervised binding.
  8. Confirm venue and confirm lunch provider – best to do at last minute (see point 10)
  9. Confirm names of staff to be trained – To date I have had 5 meetings with management to explain the staff I wished trained and request the list so I can prepare. I still don’t have it. Correction- I got it the day before.
  10. Double check 2 days before course on the list of names; only to find out that the weekend you booked 6 weeks ago has at the last minute been taken by another training session and so yours must be postponed. Worry that the meat you requested has already been prepared (a goat killed) and desperately try to contact the lunch provider to advise of postponement.
  11. Finally deliver the course 1 week late; and in spite of it all have a great time and successfully train 40 people how to safely manage obstetric emergencies (sadly the goat didn’t make it).
  12. Get on with the financial report, if it’s not finished within the week (before I leave) I won’t be allowed my exit visa…