Woldia: My hometown


For your information, Woldia is a place of no small significance.

A large bustling town, it has an estimated population of anywhere between 45-100,000 people depending on who you talk to.  It is the capital of this zone and as a result has many zonal level administrative offices and functions.   Host to a new University and a lower level College of Teacher Education which predates it, many school-going children also travel from surrounding rural areas to attend high-school and preparatory school here, returning home in the summer.

The town itself occupies a very strategic location being one of the few places in Ethiopia which stands at a major asphalted road junction and so also serves a critical transport function.  To the North, the road leads to the Eritrean border, to the South Addis Ababa and on to Kenya, to the East Djibouti and to the West Sudan.  As Ethiopia is a landlocked country, many goods which find their way into shops here and further into the continent originate from the port in Djibouti and have passed through Woldia in transit at some stage.

That being said, first (and subsequent) impressions of the town may be less favourable than that account.  Here’s what the guidebooks say about my adopted hometown.

Lonely Planet:

“Woldia used to be a necessary overnight stop for public-transit travelers to Lalibela.  Better roads and more frequent departures mean most people now arrive early enough to catch a connection that same day, but an unlucky few still get stuck here”.

Bradt Guide to Ethiopia:

“A medium-sized and largely unremarkable hillside town, Woldia sees a solid trickle of traveller through-traffic simply because it is the most popular springboard for road trips to Lalibela.  It lies amongst pretty rolling hills, but otherwise it might most favourably be described as humdrum and amorphous, and more accurately perhaps as a tedious and scruffy urban scrawl.”

Meanwhile, Dervla Murphy’s description of arriving to Woldia sixty years ago seems as if it could have been written yesterday and is harsher still:

“This morning Waldia stank like a neglected public lavatory”.

All jokes aside, Woldia shares many of the same social and other problems as any rapidly growing, transit town in a developing country.  Prostitution in particular is widely practiced and due to the high volume of passing “trade” and the practice of unsafe sex, the town is an acknowledged HIV/AIDS hotspot in the country. HIV/AIDS is an undeniable and desperately sad fact of life for many families in the town. Countless children have been orphaned here by the disease and many, otherwise healthy and vibrant, young persons have lost their lives too early.

Unemployment and under-employment especially among the youth appear critical, a problem which is exacerbated by the unceasing flow of jobless migrants from the rural surrounds.  Addiction and resultant mental health issues and extreme poverty are plainly evident on the streets.  Lack of appropriate employment for qualified persons is also a great challenge in Ethiopia generally and Woldia is no exception.  Many young bajaj drivers in Woldia speak perfect English, University graduates with no other prospects.

This huge expansion of the urban population is presumably one of the reasons why the electricity and water supply are so notoriously unreliable here, a problem shared by many other Ethiopian towns and cities to a greater or lesser extent.  At the time of writing the female dormitories in Woldia University are enduring a three week spell with no running water.

And in spite of it all, life goes on here as best as it can, amidst the fumes and the dust in this truck-stop town.  In fact, notwithstanding the difficulties here, we find we have much to celebrate in Woldia these days and it has been my pleasure to witness so much positive change in the town over the past two years.

The opening of the University in itself is a momentous development in the life of the town.  Located at a distance of 5 kms from the town, while the campus itself could not yet be called beautiful, it is situated in a very picturesque location, nestled at the foothills of the mountains.  Recently there have been reports of an unidentified large animal killing hyenas around the University perimeter.  Whether this is in earnest or an attempt to curb courting couples and keep the students away from the more unsavory elements of the town at night remains to be seen!  The campus itself is expanding, seemingly exponentially, and parts of it are becoming prettier.  This ongoing expansion is creating great employment in construction and administration as well as teaching and learning positions.  There is now also a café for teachers and an internet room which works when there is electricity.

The influx of 7,000 third level students and up to a thousand academic and non-academic staff must be linked I think to the development of better services in the town of late.  Within the last few months a “luxury” bus service has begun from Woldia to Addis, making the 10-11 hour journey far more comfortable and generally endurable.  Several new half decent cafes have opened, some even touting free wifi availability.  Invariably it doesn’t work but even the presence of the signs inspire hope for the future.  Like much of the rest of the country the town is experiencing a boom in construction; both retail and residential units, many of the latter condominiums or “condom houses” as one of my colleagues hilariously dubs them!  The half-finished buildings lining the streets may give a post-apocalyptic air to the town but most observers are unperturbed, like the wifi signs the unfinished upper stories are hopeful in themselves.

At first, I didn’t know what it was, it seemed to me to be some type of Marian shrine encased in glass but on closer inspection, I saw it was an ATM in Woldia, encased in a perspex box on the path!  For the first few months, it was for decorative purposes only, people would come invariably just to look, but lately it has become operational and it is certainly a rush to hear the trill of the notes being counted in the machine while observing the great unwashed masses in the bank vying to get served at the counter.

Next, to matters of soccer.  Woldia Sports Club, the local football team, have recently been promoted to the Ethiopian premier league!  We played our first match two months ago (lost 6:1, but we drew the second one) and the sports field in the town has had a rather fetching makeover.

Sticking to a football theme, did you know Ethiopia has a billionaire? Dr Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi (his actual name) is the third richest man in Africa and he just so happens to be a Woldia native, if you can believe that.  Al Amoudi has many investments in Ethiopia and is considered to be a very generous man.  His latest venture is undertaking to build a massive state-of-the-art sports stadium in Woldia with a mooted capacity of 80,000 people.  Where the spectators will come from is anyone’s guess but it has certainly created a lot of temporary employment in the town and above all it is exciting.

Sometime next year we are also eagerly anticipating the arrival of a Woldia to Addis Ababa railway.  The actual stop will be some 20 kilometres or so to the East of us but we are told it will be named Woldia.  Details are sketchy but whether it will be a freight train or mixed passenger use it is yet another welcome development.

There are other perks to life in Woldia, one thing I do enjoy is the amazing transport system.   Stick your hand out onto the road anytime from 5 in the morning til well after dark in the evening and several of these blue donkeys will be crashing into each other in an attempt to take you wherever you want to go for a tiny fee.

So, there you have it: the good, the bad and the ugly of this, at first (and second) glance, charmless town.

On this day two years ago, I left that other rough diamond, Clonmel, for Woldia and yesterday, I said my final teary goodbyes to friends and neighbours here.

It has been uncomfortable enough for me here at times so that I am really looking forward to going home.  There are lots of aspects of life here that I will not miss but it has also been such a vibrant, colourful and interesting life and there are many, many things that I will miss too.

I will miss my crazy neighbours and the staff at the University and also when I come to think about it…the strains of the orthodox hymns on the air and the distant muffled beating of ceremonial drums on holy days, the Muslim call to prayer during the day, the women by the side of the road selling roasted maize and fresh hot boiled sweet potato.  Hoards of kids in their brightly-coloured uniforms traipsing off to school.  Donkeys, sheeps, camels and cows vying with pedestrians and vehicles for space on the roads of a market day.  The surrounding mountains are breath-taking if you remember to lift your head up from the grim urban scene around you to look at them; brown birds of prey punctuate an otherwise immaculate sky-blue canvas.  And the stars at night! So many stars!!!


 “But the world is always beautiful. When it’s seen in full retreat.” 😉




People volunteer with VSO for different reasons. Some people have experienced a change of circumstances in life -bereavement, divorce, break up, early retirement, job loss- which allows them to entertain ideas that hitherto fore seemed impossible. Some people are bored and want a new challenge. Some people are looking for love, imagine! Others for opportunities and adventures. And others have a passion to do something about poverty in the world.
Truthfully, I think I can tick most of the above boxes. On the threshold of permanency in my workplace, I found this served as both a tremendous comfort to me and the crucial push factor in my decision to leave. With this looming “contract of indefinite duration” came the figurative road-map for the rest of my life; permanency at 25, retirement at 65 and forty years of teaching in between. In the economic climate of Ireland today, I should have been glad of the job (I was, immensely) but there was another internal discourse which proved just as powerful.

Forty years, I thought, spouting the same facts from the same Geography text book about other countries and poverty and trade and women and water and colonialism and social justice, speaking as an authority on the subject, as if I knew something, as if I knew anything, still trying to convince the students of things I myself had no practical, embedded experience of; a fraud. When will my time come to put my money where my mouth is?
Motivated by these sentiments and others besides, I started to seriously consider an option that I had left on the shelf to gather dust after college: Voluntary Service Overseas.

It’s almost two years later now and I’m writing this blog from a new University in Northern Ethiopia. Challenge is a word that is often bandied about, mostly as a euphemism for problem, but now I can say that I understand the real meaning of the word challenge. I’ve been challenged by so many things; I’ve come up short and been left wanting a lot of the time even though I’ve had some successes too. Now that I am here I see it is not as simple as I hoped it would be to make my little contribution every day and go home at night and sleep righteously. Sometimes, the issues I am engaged in seem so complex I despair that I can even understand them fully let alone affect change.

Inevitably, this is a common feeling amongst volunteers. Earlier this year, my family attended the 10 year anniversary celebrations of VSO Ireland in Dublin where Justin Kilcullen of Trócaire spoke honestly about his own experience as an overseas volunteer. It was with some relief that I received the news that he felt his placement could be seen in some ways as a failure. (Not just me then, phew!) In other ways though, he explained, it was the single most important experience in his own life; like a door opening into another world and he understood that his part in the fight for social justice had only just begun. His real work had only just begun.

Undeniably he is right, whatever I have done here in the spirit of voluntarism, I am, myself, the greatest ultimate beneficiary of work here. My former Woldia site-mate Dave once jokingly said of VSO’s motto, “sharing skills, changing lives”, that the life of the volunteer is the one most changed. In some ways, that is very true and the praise which is at intervals heaped upon me by friends here or at home feels awkward and ill-gotten especially when I reflect that I may be the main beneficiary of my work here. Volunteering you see is its own reward. I am just about to come out the other side of that experience, hopefully as a better person with an enhanced awareness of my obligations to others, living a life of such privilege, an obligation to engage with the world however complex it may be, starting from my own community.

Those of you who read the blog will know that Sabina Higgins and the President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, recently made a state visit to Ethiopia. Among other engagements while here, they paid a visit to “Lucy” the human race’s oldest known ancestor in the National Museum in Addis Ababa and later the President gave a key-note speech to the UNECA in Africa Hall, Addis Ababa. His speech titled “Independence and inter-dependence in Africa”, concluded with this rather elegant thought;

“In the very long term, in the multi-secular temporal horizon which is that of Lucy, we are all but migrants in time and space – transient travellers who must do our best to pass on to the next generations a hospitable ground on which they can flourish.”

We are the custodians of this earth and we have a mutual responsibility for each other and even those yet to come.

Happy 10th birthday to VSO Ireland and happy International Volunteer’s Day to all my friends in volunteering, be they scouts, buskers, singers, campaigners, teachers, doctors, or others. You might feel like one person has relatively little power in the world, but we all have our own personal power as individuals and that is a powerful thing indeed, especially if we exercise it together.

the people don't know their true power

Do something to help one another today, whatever that may mean in your context, your community.

More power to ye!




So, last week something extremely exciting happened.

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, and his wife, Sabina Higgins came to Ethiopia!  As the Ethiopian national broadcaster ran the story and was relaying footage all week, my colleagues, friends and neighbours in Woldia were aware of the visit of my President and they were all thrilled for me and proud by default.

Not simply a diplomatic courtesy call, their itinerary in Ethiopia was varied and extensive.  In Addis Ababa, they were given a tour of the museums, they visited projects supported by Trócaire and Dr. Catherine Hamlin’s Fistula Hospital which you may have heard of.  Set up forty years ago by the Australian doctor and her husband, they have been tirelessly working ever since to alleviate the suffering of Ethiopian mothers.  The 90 year old doctor is still operating on patients in Ethiopia and was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize which Mayala Yousafzai was ultimately awarded with.

Leaving Addis, they spent some time in Tigray, to the North of Woldia, a region where there is traditionally a very strong Irish presence particularly since the 1984 famine.  While there they visited schools, agriculture projects and, most significantly for me, a VSO Ethiopia/Irish Aid project on Neo-Natal Intensive Care Units which a fellow VSO Ethiopia volunteer, Jon, briefed him on 🙂

All registered Irish citizens in Ethiopia got the opportunity to meet the President at a reception in Addis Ababa.  In the room were the Irish movers and shakers of the NGO world, diplomats, missionaries, business persons and the odd crusty like myself, amazed that I was let in.  I was fairly over-awed to be in the room at all.

The Irish Ambassador, gave a short speech introducing our “poet President” to the invited dignitaries and the Irish diaspora after which the President made a speech of his own.  It was a fine speech which touched on many issues but he was most passionate and most impressive when speaking about a trip he made to Gambella in the West of Ethiopia earlier in the week.  There he met GOAL staff members and refugees from the South Sudanese conflict.  The President praised the refugees themselves, and also the Ethiopian people and their Irish colleagues for their commitment to refugees in different parts of the country.  This really struck a chord with me.  It made me think that this is a very basic act of humanity, to offer shelter for those desperately in need, and although Ethiopia is a poor country, they are doing what they can.  When I stopped to think about it, I found it very humbling indeed and was proud to be a friend of Ethiopia.

After the President’s speech finished, we all got a chance to introduce ourselves and shake hands with him.  It really was a wonderful occasion to be Irish in Ethiopia.


The “f” word


This week marks the 30 year anniversary of Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin’s coverage of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia.  The report was first broadcast by the BBC on the 23rd of October, “A day that shook the world”, before spreading across the globe.  The footage was shot in Korem, a small town, 100km to the North of Woldia, my hometown.

I had never seen the report until my sister shared it with me on the anniversary this week.  I watched, stunned, as a scene of almost incomprehensible grief and human suffering played out on the screen before me; a man-made plague of biblical proportions, in the twentieth century.  My response was visceral; my skin seemed to crawl.

***Please note, this footage was shot in 1984 and does not conform to Dóchas’ Code of Conduct on Images and Messages 2007.  People may find it distressing***


I’m sure most Irish people remember where they were the day they first saw that report.  For me, there is no doubt that it is one the most powerful pieces of video I have ever seen.  The tone, the pace, the length, the commentary and the horror.  One can only imagine the effect it had on the viewing public of 1984, unused to things “going viral” or the by now already jaded “what-he-said-next-had-me-in-tears” phenomena of today’s social media.  What an assault on the senses it must have been as this harrowing footage invaded cosy homesteads all around the world and then impolitely and resolutely refused to leave.


The footage, astoundingly effective in bolstering support for the famine victims, has become part of the discourse surrounding the ethics of such reporting.

In some ways, the report may be seen as a victim of its own success as a result of the overwhelming response it provoked.  Some commentators suggest it belongs to a genre of reporting by NGOs, development organizations and journalists unsettlingly labeled “poverty porn” which deliberately manipulate situations to illicit as compelling a response from the viewers as possible.

New Paradigm

There is a new paradigm emerging for reporting in such scenarios as articulated in Dóchas’ Code of Conduct on Images and Messaging 2007 of which VSO Ireland is a signatory.


Let us take, as an illustration, one aspect of the code:  “Truthfully represent any image or depicted situation both in its immediate and in its wider context so as to improve public understanding of the realities and complexities of development.”

The Ethiopian famine footage does not adhere to this.

The narrative of the famine broadcast was simple:  these people are, literally, starving to death because there has been no rain for three years.

Doubtless, the drought had its own effect but that explanation belies the rather more complex background to the famine, in this area at least.

A more precise narrative might have been:  these people are, literally, starving to death because there has been no rain for three years…Also, Ethiopia is a country with over 80 different ethnic groups.  Some of these ethnic groups are leading an insurgency against the central government.  Loyalty in the country is divided on both ethnic and political/ideological lines.  Food aid is being used as a weapon in this latest insurgency in Tigray.  The Tigray insurgents are being supported by insurgents in a neighbouring region where the people are ethnically almost identical but wish to secede from Ethiopia entirely whereas most of the Tigray insurgents merely want a change in the leadership of the central government and to remain as a part of Ethiopia.  The central government enjoys support from their Soviet allies while the rebel groups receive support from countries who are rivals of the Soviets.


If the narrative had been thus- less simple- would we have ignored it as a tragedy too complicated to become involved in and resign these human casualties of war to their fate?

Does the end justify the means?

The cumulative effect of this type of reporting might be that the public have grown weary of it.  There is some suggestion that we have now become desensitised to and fatigued by a saturation of such images on our screens and therefore we are less likely to act unless the scene is particularly horrific.  We are challenged to ask ourselves, have we now become mere consumers of actual human suffering in the same way as we hungrily consume box-sets of other dramas?

The 1984 famine footage did not just elicit sympathy in the viewers however; it was not just consumed and forgotten about, it rudely demanded our immediate attention.  It was so powerful that it spurred a huge swathe of people into both charity and crucially, activism.  It’s not difficult to see why it is credited with being the catalyst for the hugely popular Live Aid initiative and mobilising an outstanding response in general to the Ethiopian famine all over the world.

Oh, what it must have felt like to have been alive at this concert!!!!


Another result of the campaign may be that the imagery used then and since has become the stereotype for reporting on Africa.

This excerpt from the brilliant, satirical article by Binyavanga Wainaina sums the strategy up neatly:

“Among your characters you must always include The Starving African, who wanders the refugee camp nearly naked, and waits for the benevolence of the West.  Her children have flies on their eyelids and pot bellies, and her breasts are flat and empty.  She must look utterly helpless.  She can have no past, no history; such diversions ruin the dramatic moment.”

 For many, I wonder, is this the enduring image of Ethiopia?

Incidentally, people here do not talk much about the famine at all and I have not asked about it.  Strange as it may seem, I would wager that the vast majority have never even seen this footage even though for the rest of the world it may serve to define them.

Different perspectives

30 years on from this dreadful human tragedy, Ethiopia, while not without its challenges, is a different place indeed, largely for the better.  Its many success stories, not least as a result of the work of numerous NGOs and the Ethiopian people themselves.

In my next post, I will attempt to tell that story and focus on this modern day phenomenon called “The Ethiopian Renaissance” or “The African Tiger” which sees the Ethiopian economy expanding in double figures year on year.

Until then, let’s be mindful of the present; pictures of the area around Woldia in 2014.  It is approaching harvest time here and the sorghum is growing tall in the fields.   We have had lots of rain this summer and now the sun is shining brightly to help the crops to grow and I have gotten fat 🙂


Typical countryside scene at this time of year

Typical countryside scene at this time of year


Thanks for reading and thanks to my sisters for helping me write this post. X


For further opinion of the coverage surrounding the famine see:

In praise of Michael Buerk and Mohammed Amin http://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/how-report-ethiopias-biblical-famine-changed-world-n232126

A critical analysis of the reporting on the famine http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/poverty-matters/2014/oct/22/ethiopian-famine-report-influence-modern-coverage

A Trócaire paper from 1987 on the portrayal of the famine by the media http://www.trocaire.org/sites/trocaire/files/resources/policy/1987-ireland-media-africa.pdf

In Ethiopia with a Mule: A book review


For a generation of Irish people before me and indeed readers the world over, the name Dervla Murphy is synonymous with travel writing.  I’m ashamed to admit therefore that my first notion of her was just about two years ago when I was preparing to come to Ethiopia and I received a gift of her book, “In Ethiopia with a Mule”.

Since then I have been mesmerised by her.

A short biography

For those of you who don’t know, Murphy was born in Lismore, County Waterford in 1931.  She was an only child to her parents, both “blow-ins” from Dublin and she herself left school in Waterford city at the age of fourteen to keep house for them both and look after her ailing mother who had been ill for most of Dervla’s young life.  Sadly, by the time Dervla was 30 years of age, both of her parents had died.

When I myself think on these circumstances alone, I think how tragic it would be for me, to feel so absolutely alone in the world by the age of 30.  I think I would probably just give up there and then!  Whether Murphy experienced this as tragedy, an opportunity to do something less ordinary with her life or a mixture of both, I can only speculate.  Maybe she was always destined to live a life less ordinary.

The seeds for her later adventures were undoubtedly sown during her childhood with her parents in Lismore and her short stints cycling on the continent as a young adult but it was in 1965 that she undertook her first real super-human feat, a solo-cycle from Ireland to India.  A lone female traversing two continents on a bike in the 1960’s- fair play!

In her 1979 autobiography, “Wheels within wheels”, she says of her upbringing:

“The hardships and poverty of my youth had been a good apprenticeship for this form of travel. I had been brought up to understand that material possessions and physical comfort should never be confused with success, achievement and security.”

 “In Ethiopia with a Mule”

We can only guess that having returned from that epic Indian adventure in 1965, she had time to sit down on a chair somewhere for five minutes and had a quick mouthful of tea before setting her sights on Ethiopia in the winter of 1966.

She began from the port of Asmara (modern-day Eritrea) on the 16th of December 1966 and over the course of the next three months roamed some 1,024 miles on foot up and over one of the highest mountain range in Africa, into the hearts and homes of countless highlanders to Addis Ababa, encountering bandits, thieving priests, soldiers and Abysinnian princesses along the way with a faithful mule all the time by her side for company.

She proved just as fascinating to the local people she met along the way in Ethiopia then as she does to me now; they regarded her with suspicion and amusement everywhere she went.

“…this ‘hotel’ is congenial.  The friendly owner- an elderly, handsome Tigrean woman- thinks I’m the funniest thing that has happened in years.  She is now sitting nearby, with two neighbours, watching me write.  Apparently the neighbours were called in because such a good joke has to be shared.”

She amazed me by the way in which almost nothing she did was calculated or planned.  She generally got up of a morning and just started walking, relied on the hospitality of strangers along the way, at times camped out with animals at night and seemed to take each thing as it came at her.  Because of the style of travelling she chose to do she got very close to the local people in a way that would surely envy any anthropologist.

One can of course get too close…

“During the small hours I woke, reached for my torch and felt a disconcerting substance under my hand, it proved to be the afterbirth of a ewe who had just lambed by my ear.”

She writes the book in the form of a diary and while at times it is genuinely hysterical, at other times it is full of philosophical insights and cutting social commentary.  She never got the chance to finish her formal education and yet writes so achingly beautifully that I blaspheme to think whether any of us should go to school at all!

“Already the sun had set and two minute pink cloudlets were poised above the south western horizon.  I would have hugged them had they have been a little nearer, cloudless skies are delightful in theory, but after living beneath their perfection for five weeks an Irishwoman feels that something is missing.”

On the journey, she was often mistaken for a man due to her short rough haircut, the fact that no woman in their right mind would have been attempting what she was doing and we can only imagine, her uncouth appearance having “slummed” it for over three months around Ethiopia.  She seemed to take this sex-change all on the chin!

What impressed me most about the book was…that she indeed was a woman!  For me, 1966 is another realm, one where the last emperor, Haile Selassie I still reigned in Ethiopia and in Ireland where women were forced to give up their civil service jobs upon marriage.  A woman’s place was in the home; a message Murphy didn’t seem to get.  She came from a place in time where unmarried mothers and their babies were often thrown into “care” homes, worked to the bone and inevitably separated.  She was fierce and alone and strong and independent, all of this and she was funny too!  She bucked all the gender norms known to me.  I find her quite remarkable and now want to read all her books (from the comfort of an armchair).


One Ethiopian I know has read the book on my recommendation and felt mildly offended by it as he said it referred to an Ethiopia which no longer existed and was therefore in a way derogatory.  As for me, I read the book for the first time around this time last year, which is why I am reminded of it again now, when I was undertaking a tiny, guided trek of my own in the Tigray highlands with some other VSO volunteers and I could empathise entirely with her gruelling mountain trek, however pathetic mine was by comparison.

“On the last lap, I passed a big British war cemetery and gazed into it enviously feeling that a cemetery rather than an hotel was the obvious resting place for anyone in my condition.”

But humour and physical exercise aside, it certainly seemed to me as an outsider that not much had changed in these highland places at least since the book was first written almost 50 years previously and that was the most fascinating thing about it and poignant too.  Even if the rest of Ethiopia is changed irrevocably, these places seemed trapped in time due to their remoteness and isolation from the rest of the world.  4000 metre high mountains will do that to a place.

Later life

After her trip to Ethiopia and in her thirties, Murphy became a single mother and after a brief stint at home in Ireland, set off on her travels once more this time with her 5 year old daughter Rachel in tow!  Undeterred, they experienced together much of this world.  Since then she has written at least twenty-five books, spanning almost fifty years and probably almost as many countries including, India, Tibet, Nepal, Peru, Madagascar, Cameroon, Laos, Siberia and Cuba to name but a few.  Now aged 82, her last book penned in 2013 was based on her time spent in the Palestine in 2011.

I think I love her! ❤

The half-said thing is the dearest


It was raining that night in Cork (as it is in all my recollections of that city) when, somewhere in the Kane building, I first heard tell of Kuno Meyer.  Herr Meyer was a 19th century German scholar who for some reason took an avid interest in Celtic languages and devoted much of his energies as a young scholar to their study.  He went on later in life to do some things I wasn’t so thrilled about but…I digress.  The point is that for any learned foreigner to condescend to study our own somewhat obscure languages was flattery indeed and so I was already endeared to him and his foresight in making a study of us but I think I actually fell in love with him a little on hearing his treatise that,

“the Celts were always quick to take an artistic hint; they avoid the obvious and the commonplace;

the half-said thing to them is dearest”

Whether or not there is a shred of truth to it, I quickly identified with it and it became one of those useless quotes that stuck to my brain “like a wet leaf that clings to the threshold” (another one that I’m fond of), useless in third level exams and of small comfort to my parents and the money spent on my education.

In any case, I liked it!  It appealed to my vanity; it made us Celts seem a little more refined, a little more sensitive, a little less crude and a little less barbarous than in other representations.

But is it true?  God only knows the lively talk in homes, workplaces and pubs all over Ireland is littered with enough superlatives, exaggeration and hyperbole to rubbish this man’s claims outright but is there not an opposing tendency too?  To downplay it all, to skirt around the kernel of truth, to never say exactly what you mean especially in cases where it matters most?  Is there not something very tender and precious about the things which exist between us that we do not fully express in words?

In my experience of Ethiopia, I cannot say that the half-said thing is valued here.  People here like to S.P.E.L.L. I.T. O.U.T.  That gene which encodes an unhealthy sense of mortification in most Irish people is all too conspicuous here in it’s absence and as a result the cringe factor is dangerously high.  The majority of Ethiopians I know are polite to a fault but still retain a seemingly incongruous knack to say whatever, whenever to whoever and at no extra cost they will add on details that you never wanted to hear.  Some times Ethiopians commit these blunders in their mother tongue and at other times it is their clumsy use of the English language which brings the conversation to a spectacular crescendo.      My reaction is usually any one of- cringe- surprise- shock-laughter…I’m beginning to enjoy it actually and admire them for it!

I submit the following anecdotes for your reading pleasure.

1.)  The inspiration for this post was my recent return to work after an absence of some weeks.  I stuck my head in the door of a colleagues office to signal my return, exchange pleasantries etc.  He said, “Oh Ais!  You have become very fat!  This is very good!”  Already laughing I almost shouted at him, “No!  This is not very good!”   His expression changed swiftly and he took on a grave appearance when he said, “No. You are right.  This is not good.  Please do not add any more, if you add any more it will be too much.  This is optimum”.

That’s me told then!

2.)  At a coffee ceremony last week in the neighbours house.  A friend of theirs had just come back from Saudi Arabia and was visiting for the week.  We were sharing a plate of injera together ahead of the coffee when the women of the house started giving me some more information on her so that we could be better acquainted.  The women have never read Bridget Jone’s Diary and so the type of comments they used to introduce her probably wouldn’t have gone down too well at a cocktail party in England but were perfectly acceptable here.  “She is to be pitied”, Zenit said, “She has no children.”  The woman herself then looked at me as if to see, yes, they are right I am really to be pitied.  Then Hadiya added, “Ais, do you see?  She eats so little but still she is so fat.”

3.)  On campus I bumped into a colleague who had been absent for a number of weeks.  I was happy to see him and warmly welcomed him back, asked him about his time away and how he felt about being back.  Nothing could have prepared me for his reply, “I did not miss anything about this place except your smile.”

KER-RINGE!  At times like these I imagine throwing in the towel and whimpering with relief into the nearest camera, “I’m an Irish person: get me out of here!” before being debriefed by those rascally Ant & Dec and then pampered in a 5* hotel somewhere in Australia. Glass of champagne on hand to ease the burn.  However, this is Ethiopia so you just have to get back on the horse and take what the next day brings.

4.)  One day I had the pleasure of walking with a female colleague which is quite unusual.  We walked with two other male colleagues down the road.  We were chatting when one of the men said, “Ais, do you see this huge woman?” referring to the woman I was with.  What do you say to that?!!!  Everyone laughed for some reason.  Not getting much hop from me on that he said to his friend, “Who is stronger, the huge one or the thin one?”  Still not rising to him he suggested, “She needs your advice to lose weight.” I practically roared at him, “She is beautiful!”  Quick as a whip came the reply, “She will be beautiful when she loses weight!”  Hysterical laughter from all around including the woman being insulted.

5.)  It was during a training with first year students in the University.  It was titled, “Life-skill training” and supposed to aid the young peoples transition to University and adulthood.  One of the topics was self-image and self-esteem, the ability to see yourself as others do.  My Ethiopian co-facilitator took this quite literally, plucked an unwitting “volunteer” from the crowd and then went on to describe her physically just in case she didn’t know.

“You! Stand up!”  He sized her up carefully and said aloud, “You.  You are slim. Or probably medium sized.  And chocolate colour.”

“Now who is next?”

6.)  A lovely German girl visited me in Woldia last year.  I took her to the University and made the mistake of leaving her alone in the office for some time.  When I came back she explained that someone had passed by the door earlier and said, “Oh, hi Ais”  and then, “Oh sorry I thought you were Ais.”  She marvelled at how they could have mixed us up as we are so different looking.  I ventured to say that they are used to seeing a white girl in the office and maybe to them we don’t look too dissimilar.  My counterpart then rather unhelpfully chimed in, “You are somewhat similar but Ais you are thin, and she is…fat?” as if seeking confirmation from me.  BOOM!

I am reminded on occasions such as these of “little delicate compliments which are always acceptable to ladies” as Mr. Collins put it.  Nobody here has read “Pride and Prejudice” either it seems.

7.)  Sitting in my office one day last year and in my defence I was wearing an oversized shirt.  A colleague passed by and looked in the door.  Forgoing the usual pleasantries, he cut straight to the chase.

“Ah! So! As you become overweighted, you will join us for the runnings?”  No hello, no nothing, just -BOOM!- you’re fat.  Reeling at having been just labelled as overweight by a practical stranger in my workplace but I was also equally excited at the thought of joining a club for physical exercise!

8.)  On returning from a trip to Addis Ababa, I met a colleague on the road.  He seemed surprised, looked me up and down and said out of the corner of his mouth in a strange almost creepy way, “You seems attractive. Addis is suitable for you…you become pretty.”  I was feeling a bit feisty that day so I perhaps cheekily remarked that maybe I was always pretty and that it was a case of “absence makes the heart grow fonder”.

“No”, he replied.

Fair enough so!

9.)  On the way home from work one day, walking down the road with two colleagues.  They started a conversation about me.  Number one said, “She is thin”, number two disagreed, shaking his head and said “No, she is strong.”  Number one replied, “Well I think she is thin.”   No need for a lengthy debate as number two finished with, “Then observe her when she’s wearing trousers.” (Just to confirm I was standing with them when they were saying all of this in the third person about me!)

10.)  It was at work one day and we went for coffee, three or four of us.  While waiting for the coffee to come, one of the group started to regale us with a cautionary tale about promiscuity.  The story went that there was a college in Ethiopia and the head of the college was a good man.  He particularly looked out for poor students and actively looked for ways to give them an income.  One such opportunity presented itself as the Head’s own daughter was failing in her studies and so he asked one male student of meagre means if he would like to tutor her for a fee.  The male student agreed and went to meet the girl.  My colleague who was telling the story was almost salivating when he went on to tell us that shockingly it soon became clear the girl had no interest in studying at all and she “started rubbing the boy’s sex organ!”  At this stage I was almost wetting myself with laughter when he finished the story with, “Her single interest was in reaching climax!”

I’m not sure I ever laughed so much in all my life!!!!!!

11.)  One of my colleagues has a bad kidney infection of late and is in quite a bit of discomfort.  It’s a delicate issue or at least you might be forgiven for thinking so.  His doctor advised him to drink lots of “packed water” (bottled water).  Thirst is really a desperate thing but having to drink huge quantities of water is surely almost as bad?  After the first few litres the water begins to be somehow unpalatable and this is the predicament my colleague was in, also having trouble “getting rid” of the water.  Anyhow, one morning in the office, my colleague was on his fourth litre of “packed water” and with a pained expression on his face, he looked up from his next unhappy mouthful and protested to me in English, “I take this water, but how can I urinate?”

How indeed!

September 2014- Come at me bro!


I’ve seen my fair share of graduation ceremonies in school over the past few years.  You’d think they wouldn’t get to you anymore; that they’re formulaic to a large extent and that you’ll have to feign the required emotion when that time of year comes around again the following year…but nine times out of ten, the occasion gets to me. 

The ceremony will usually begin innocuously enough with a few speeches.  A number of anecdotes are trotted out; there might be a few good-natured digs, some slagging, an inspirational quote or two and a measure of advice for the little birdies about to fly the coop.  At this stage a single tear might escape but in my experience it’s when the student representative starts choking on her words with emotion that the thing really starts to get out of hand.  Not long after this about a hundred young women are blubbering in their seats, attempting in vain to stem the tide of hot, snotty tears leaking out everywhere, ruining their “smoky-eye-look”.  Control is well and truly ceded to the stars of the show now and there’s a whiff of anarchy on the air.  They’ve taken over the stage as the teachers and dignitaries cautiously retreat.  They’re swinging out of each other, wild with emotion and the tears are flowing freely now.  That fantastically cheesy Vitamin C Graduation Song (Friends Forever) is blaring out of cd player somewhere in the cavernous assembly hall as the graduates caterwall in unison, clutching each other for support and grimacing through the tears.  It’s the end of their lives as they know it and they behave accordingly.

And we shouldn’t forget that for every student that graduates there are numerous stakeholders too- proud teachers, management, cheer-leading relatives, the community- who may be just as invested in the process.  Graduation is a momentous occasion in the life of any person and a cause for much celebration and congratulations for the whole society! 

From a teacher’s perspective, graduations also have a handy knack for helping you to forget and forgive much of what precedes them.  We look back together as one, with rose-tinted glasses.  No longer us and them, staff versus student.  The ceremony itself goes a long way to healing our perceived grievances against each other; after all, we were all working towards the same thing all along but somewhere that fact got lost along the way.  Photographs are taken, tense, awkward conversations are had, where both student and teacher regard each other, as if for the first time as…people!  Disagreements, misunderstandings, strikes, unpleasant encounters, mediocrity, personal slights, failures, small fires started in classrooms- all the ill will is blurred away.  This is revisionism of the highest order.  And for teachers I may suggest that such end of year celebrations are the only way going back to work again for the next onslaught is at all possible.  Tricked again!

It is in this spirit of revisionism and in the aftermath of a fairly successful graduation ceremony of my own that enables me to almost forget and/or forgive many of the fiascos that have befallen me at work this year and contemplate the upcoming semester and the last six months of my placement with a little renewed energy.

At times during the past 18 months, I have despaired of what I am doing here.  There have been many moments of quiet despair, the type of despair which comes creeping in some evening when you are sitting alone and satisfied at having done your meager best that day, you smile to yourself at first contentedly as you must be, and then smile but less brightly as you acknowledge how very meager indeed your best was, and then the smile disappears altogether when you admit how insignificant your impact may be, how diluted you have become in your efforts, how pathetic the fruits of your labour seem.  You worry about the sustainability of the work, the resistance from certain quarters, the one-step-forward,-two-steps- back nature of change…

…and then what happens is you have a graduation ceremony and you get a bit sentimental about the whole thing 😛 Damn graduation!  Also as this time next year I should be sitting pretty at home in Ireland, these are the first and last teachers I will ever see graduate from the teacher training programme I am working on and there was a small element of emotion for me as a result of that too.

Ours was a simple affair (complete with obligatory coffee ceremony you understand) but it was a lovely evening.  Curiously, I was the one chosen to read out the names of the graduating teachers, my new counterpart claiming my Amharic was better than his!!! Lies! But a nice gesture.  

And when all was said and done, reflecting with my fellow volunteers and staff I thought, what an achievement for us all to have succeeded in even some small way through the many obstacles!  What a sense of togetherness and comradery there was that evening, no us and them, only us!  What dedication to improvement and professionalism was shown by those teachers who graduated!  Because they didn’t just merely graduate, what they have done is quality work

Three facts about the Higher Diploma Programme in Woldia University

  1. 85 teachers successfully graduated since 2013
  2. The teachers’ portfolio of work was voted best in the country by our peers at the last two Annual National Moderation Workshops in Addis Ababa
  3. According to a source in the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, “good practice was identified at Woldiya University last year because not all candidates automatically achieved graduate status” (!)




And above all what a privilege, an honour and a pleasure for me to have been given the chance to work so closely with the next generation of Ethiopian teachers and to have been trusted to do so.Thanks VSO Ireland for affording me this opportunity and everyone supporting me at home and abroad 🙂


September 2014- come at me bro! (February 2015, also “come at me bro”…just six months to go!)