The Gauntlet


Woldia University is located about 6km from the town of Woldia. This, while inconvenient for the students, is actually a good thing as the further away we can all be from that town is for the best (but I’ll give you the low down on that in another post).

A bus service runs to the Uni three times a day to take the teachers and admin staff to and from work. So every morning I get up, leave home and make the five minute walk to the bus stop. On my way down the road people of all ages stop, slow down, turn around, suspend their cup of tea of coffee in midair disbelieving and put down whatever they are doing so that they can get a really good look at me. Some of them giggle nervously, some of them whisper to their friends, I greet some of them, some of them greet me and some of them shout at me.



“FERENJ!” (foreigner)




One day while standing at the bus-stop I heard a call of “MOTHER!” from behind. It soon became apparent after the umpteenth time that this insult was being waged at me! “MOTHER! MOTHER! MOTHER! YOU! MOTHER!” I turned around to identify the culprit so I could tell him in no uncertain terms that I was most certainly NOT his mother! I have since come to understand that addressing any older woman as “Mother” is usual.

Another interesting one is “CHINA! CHINA!”. The first day they shouted this at me I burst out laughing, how could they mistake an Irish person for a China-woman?! But to the ordinary Ethiopian all foreigners are white and all white people come from a mystical place called…”China“. Interesting! This is because in recent years there has been a lot of Chinese workers in Ethiopia road-building.

The other day I was walking past a fruit stall when one of the merchants bellowed across the road to me, “WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?”. I’m not sure whether I was looking particularly sullen or whether what he was actually trying to say was, “How are you?” but it caught me off guard anyhow 😉

Anyway, depending on the tone of the situation I will either completely ignore them or, to their delight, answer them in Amharigna. The Amharic option always diffuses this potentially irksome situation; they are bent over double laughing at the fact I can speak a few words of the language and I continue on my merry little way with a smile on my face.

Within five or ten minutes I arrive at the bus stop. There follows a genuinely interminable wait for the bus to come- it is impossible to predict when it will come as this changes on a day-to-day basis.

This is my most dreaded part of the day.

When mobile it is somewhat easier to shake off would-be-clingers-on but when stationary it is an absolute nightmare. The situation is made worse by the fact that where I wait for the bus is, in the most unhappiest of coincidences, also the place where jobless young men wait to be picked up for a day’s casual labouring work. So just me, the only young, single, white female (in a town of 60,000 people at the latest estimate) and about a hundred spailpín fánach with nothing better to do than to stare and stare and stare. I have also nothing better to do than wait for the bus which is like waiting for Godot and so nothing to distract me from the discomfort of being purveyed unashamedly from every angle. It is easy to ignore someone who is staring at you from afar. It is more of a challenge when you are besieged by a group of teenage boys and men who are standing (and staring) at a radial distance of about two feet away from you. Add to this that most of my fellow University teachers are unhelpfully elusive creatures in the early mornings and seem to me just like spiders who crawl out of their hidey-holes only when the bus comes into sight.

One of the teachers in the local college commented to a fellow volunteer the other day,

“Mr. David! I saw Miss Ais at the bus-stop this morning!”

“Ah, very good, how did she seem?”

“She seemed fine. She was surrounded by criminals.”

Good synopsis!

Eventually, the bus comes around the corner, like an apparition to me, and I get on, relieved.

The situation at the bus stop is bad but it is a similar enough story elsewhere in the town. I am a source of absolute fascination. In the beginning I found it very limiting, I found I could go nowhere on my own and do nothing for myself in any comfort. Over time it has gotten easier as I have become more accustomed to life here and the culture. I can now go to most places on my own if I wish and do some things on my own. People still shout and stare but I am more confident. I could say that the experience has been a good lesson in humility for me as I am ordinarily fiercely independent, refusing all kind offers of help or assistance, but now I am forced to rely on the kindness of others, particularly two male volunteers who live nearby.

In truth, children are my main fans and they are largely harmless. They demand money and new footballs from across the road but are more than satisfied with a little individual attention, a smile and a handshake when they get up close to you. The children here are the same as children the world over- they are curious and bold and I am so strange looking so I can understand their interest. But for me, it is harder to fathom a group of teenagers or grown men, following me, cat-calling at me, even trying to touch me, everything just shy of wanting to sit down on my lap.

It’s because I am so different; I know this. And I often wonder at it from their perspective and try to imagine what kind of a reception a young single Ethiopia woman would have received arriving to a town in Ireland, say in the 1950s. Would she have been swarmed and harassed by the local ne’er-do-wells and down-and-outs? Well, I don’t know really but when I think of this I remember to try and be more patient.

For your information, female volunteers with blonde hair seem to have the worst time of all and some claim to have been chased down the street before having a lock of their amber hair unceremoniously ripped out of their head by an overzealous admirer! Almost all female volunteers have been proposed marriage at some point or other. As yet, I have been disappointed in this regard and patiently await my first chance to refuse someone considerately 😉


12 responses »

  1. the “surrounded by criminals” comment made me laugh. It’s good you’re trying to see it from the way they see it, we are just weird white people made of money. I wish my skin didn’t glow so much, lol. Can’t believe you get called mother! I saw suzie recently and people called us sisters – I corrected them, no not sisters, gwadinya – then one guard asked hinted that that meant one of us had to be a wandim….

    • Ha! I have unwittingly gotten into a lot of bother with the gwadinya thing too. One day the neighbours asked me “gwadinya allesh?” I thought they were worried about me so I tried to allay their fears by saying. oh yeah I have loads of friends in the University- needless to say I raised a few eyebrows with that one! 😉

  2. I too laughed aloud at the “surrounded by criminals” bit! I’m sure a more sisterly response would have been to be very worried but I couldn’t help it!

  3. I’m a little disturbed by the lack of marriage proposals as you’re obviously doing something wrong – maybe you should flutter your eyelashes or try a winning smile occasionally – that “What’s your problem?” was perhaps a clue. Here in the Gambia one of my young female colleagues receives offers so frequently (sometimes even from people she has met before!) that she now tells all comers that she is head hunting, not accepting applications. Please try a little harder Ais, I’ve not been to a wedding for a while.

    • My poor father might have said the same thing Martin, with four eligible bachelorettes in the family and ne’er a sign of any of us giving him a day out! I promise I will try harder 😀

    • Martin, “sometimes even from people she’s met before”? Several times from people I’ve met before. I now categorise them into serious (met before, have been told my real name) and not serious (passing by, started with the phrase “I want a white wife”, think I’m called “Asecret”).

      Ais, I tried the line “I need a husband like a fish needs a bicycle”. The following week a man offered to sacrifice a goat to identify my husband. My Dad and Mr Watts won’t be getting any days out from me either. First time I’ve read your blog – it’s great and good to see very familiar experiences.

      • Hey Helen, how’s it goin?! I never saw your blog either and from a quick look i seems like you are getting ready in a strange way to finish up?! I’ll sit down with a cup of tea and read it when I have some leisure time now, I love the blogs, they’re a great treat 🙂 I had to think for a while about what you meant by Asecret- ha haha haha- that’s gas! I am not that ballsy, probably part of my problem. The other day I thought I was getting ballsier, this guy on a bus asjed me what is your name, where are you from, what are you doing here and then followed up immediately with, “Can I have your number?” I was thinking to myself- right this is it I have enough! He says three sentences to me and now wants my number so I thought I was being really bitchy and replied, “For what purpose?” Unfortunately it was a case of ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer. He says, “For communication!” JESUS!!! ROFL about the goat sacrifice by the way! 🙂 Hope you’re keeping well, seem to be in good form anyway 🙂 x

    • Aw thanks a million Claire and thanks for the encouragement. I really hope to keep it up 🙂 Thanks for reading and glad you’re enjoyin it 🙂 x

  4. Oh Aisling, just not fun. Think Vol com could do to work at insisting on a workplace mentor whose role is to travel with you. Barbara

    • Hey Barbara! No, definitely not fun but that’s life. Had to travel to Bahir Dar on my own yesterday for a conference which was…interesting let’s say and included me being unnecessarily frisked at a police checkpoint…by the mini-bus driver! Grrrr! Anyway, I’m here smirking at the idea of having a chaperone to take care of me 🙂 Thanks for reading x

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