Friday 6th December: It’s been a tiresome week.
After almost a year of conducting classes for lecturers in a shared room which, designed to be a lab in the future, had tubes and wires sticking up out of the concrete floor at intervals, we have finally gotten our own classroom. We toured the building with the contractor preparing a snag list before he signed off on the work and handed the building over to the University. I couldn’t believe it was finally happening!
Well, the lord giveth and he taketh away. What seemed like seconds after the building was handed over, the electricity was turned off in it, signalling the beginning of a mystifying and protracted dispute between the University and the contractor. Then due to a general shortage of classrooms in the University, our new room began to be used as a general classroom in the mornings for anything up to a hundred students and their chairs so that it was unrecognisable by the time they had finished with it. To cap things off, as a result of the dispute between the University and the contractor, the cleaners could not come to work in that building and curiously I was also not allowed to clean it as that would be outside of my remit. Right. So our room wasn’t our room anymore; it was overcrowded with chairs, it was absolutely filthy and it had no electricity. One step forward, two steps back.
Things took a turn for the better then this week when I mentioned in passing to one of last year’s students that there was no electricity in the building. Somehow, the electricity which had been off for three months was turned on the next day. I dunno how he did it but good man, Asrat!
Friday mornings are the time when me and my counterpart sit down together and discuss what happened during the week and what we will do the following week. This past week my counterpart had done the lion’s share of facilitation of the classes as the topic was his area of expertise. The classes had been given in a lecture style which has caused boredom and tension all round. At the meeting he suggests doing more of the same the next week. I say no. He insists. He also suggests that I should decorate the new room (which has a hundred chairs in it and is being used by other teachers and hasn’t been cleaned for three months) as Senior Management will be coming to “inspect” it. Let them inspect away to their heart’s content, I say, I’m not lifting a finger in that room until it’s been swept at least. The icing on the cake however is when he says that despite what we previously agreed he will not be in a position to cover my workload when my family come to visit from Ireland for Christmas and instead he will have to suspend the entire programme as he has been overloaded in his general teaching timetable (a fact which is undeniably true). The fact that I flagged this to everyone six months ago and every five minutes thereafter does not seem to make the slightest difference to the situation. Nothing has been done.
I am utterly exhausted from ten months of this type of thing. EVERY DAY I struggle to remain calm and cheerful. I go into my office, lock the door and cry.
Crisis lunch with David another Woldia Volunteer who is like my own personal British version of Dr. Phil. Followed by crisis phone call to Ireland, should we cancel the trip altogether?
Following the counselling session, I go back to the University after lunch with a new resolve and invite my counterpart for coffee. I tell him it’s you and me against the world, kid! Can we do it? Yes we can! He seems relieved that I can see it from his perspective. We have a wonderful afternoon making plans and even decide to go in to work tomorrow to decorate that bloody room if that’s what they want- that’ll show them all!
Saturday, 7th of December: Up early, in to work, meet him for coffee at 8am. He seems to be suffering from acute amnesia and having forgotten all the promises we made to each other the day before, insists on doing more lectures next week and that I cannot have time off from the course. We do not speak for the rest of the day. I am trapped in the University until the lunchtime bus service. I wish I was anywhere else on the earth but here. Get email in the afternoon to say my Annual Partnership Review with VSO will take place on Wednesday. Wonderful timing.
Sunday, 8th of December: “Mental health day”
Monday, 9th of December: Neighbours knocking on the door starts at 7am. I’m already up so not bothered by it merely amused. It is Zenit, she alerts me to the fact that she has “beautiful” bread for sale this morning. I tell her I have already eaten. One oversized Cuisine de France type roll later, I wonder why I ever bother arguing with them.
I head for the bus and sit with one of my students, there is some idle chit-chat and then he gets to the point and informs me, “If today’s session is another lecture, we will stand up and walk out”. My stomach sinks a few inches. He expresses how disappointed he was with the sessions last week and how he expects so much more from me. This is designed to be complimentary and in one way spurs me on to keep pressurising my counterpart to do the right thing. In another way, I need this extra pressure like I need a hole in the head. I agree with him and try to explain the context I’m working in but I fail in this, trying to explain the inexplicable, and I sit in silence like a grumpy guts until we reach campus. Not a great start on a Monday morning.
Lo! There is something heaven-sent in the air today and when I get off the bus I am greeted by my counterpart who says, “I think we are doing a new session today?” I am actually elated. Spend all morning, in my element, happily making a PowerPoint for the session with pictures, videos etc. In the afternoon, we facilitate the session together. Miraculously, the electricity stays on for the entire two hours and it is really successful and enjoyable. All is right with the world! The Gods are surely smiling down on us today 🙂
Tuesday, 10th of December: Today the English Language Improvement Programme is finally starting in the University after a year’s delay largely due to the same mind-boggling problems mentioned in the Friday the 6th of December rant. The co-ordinator of the ELIP was one of my students last year and is very supportive of me so I have agreed to be the guest speaker at the opening of his course for the Universities secretaries this morning. I make the presentation to the secretaries and get back to my office to see my counterpart and an army of minions dissembling his office. We have been given orders to move out and into the new offices adjoining our new classroom with immediate effect. We all help carrying the furniture down three flights of stairs and into a pick-up waiting below. We leave some of the furniture on the ground outside for a second trip. We drive over to the new building and I jump out ahead of the others to open the doors. I sprint back to the pick-up just before they start unloading in time to tell them that there are no handles on any of the office doors.
You heard me right; the door handles of the offices have been stolen overnight.
Several phone calls later, the situation seems hopeless. Apparently there are no more door handles in the University and no more can be got. We can’t move into the new offices and myself and the boys are unhappily contemplating having to haul all the furniture back up three flights of stairs to the old offices. It seems important that all and sundry march over to the offices to see for themselves the handle shaped holes in the doors. Nobody can make a decision about what to do next. Everyone is looking for someone to blame. I have to say we really cut a dash outside with the desks, office chairs and chests of drawers set up in the rubble, it’s like the aftermath of an earthquake or some type of modern art installation. I take out my laptop and decamp to a shaded stone to try and get some work done ahead of my VSO Review tomorrow. It is very difficult to get anything done as every time someone rounds the corner we have to explain the outdoor office again. At one stage, I hear my name. I look up to find one of the sweetest teachers on campus trying to make conversation with me. All hopes of me finishing the report vanish as he wanders away from me and into the building next door and I spend the next half an hour or so distracted by the thoughts of marrying this Ethiopian man and having his children. (This is normal, right?)
At the eleventh hour, one handle is found and we spend our lunchtime on campus moving the furniture into one of the offices we will share until another handle can be found. We complete another lovely session in the afternoon, then my VSO Programme Manager arrives at the University. We spend the next few hours together with David preparing for the review before having dinner together. The dinner descends into shop talk and unfortunately ends in disagreement before we go home to bed ahead of the review in the morning. Another strange day in Woldia.
Wednesday, 11th of December: Get a lie in this morning as the review is taking place in the College of Teacher Education near my home and so I don’t have to get the bus at 7:20. Leave home around 7:50 worried I am late. No need. Everyone is late. My line manager is an hour and ten minutes late and another member of management doesn’t even show up. Spend half day doing the Review with the University and VSO. I am disappointed with the experience as it does not seem very meaningful for me, rather a tick the box exercise and given the situation at work I really need some extra support. The participants are also asked to rate my contribution as a volunteer on a poster stuck up on the wall. This is not a nice feeling.
I ask to speak to my VSO programme manager afterwards. Not long into my heart-to-heart with him I break down in tears for the second time this week. “I thought you were strong”, he accused me. In my mind’s eye, I see myself flaking him one across the jaw a la Katie Taylor to illustrate just how strong I actually am. My irritation with him is however short-lived. He pleads with me to stop crying as it is affecting him. He is looking very uncomfortable just before he breaks down in tears in sympathy with my plight. I am stunned and feel somehow guilty for this. It is a strange experience that I will not forget in a hurry.
Have dinner with Dave that evening to unwind and work through the emotions of the day. I laugh out loud when Dave tells me that four young male students came and asked him for my contact details after they saw me at the College as they wanted to “practice their English” with me. As David said himself, “Note, they didn’t want to practice their English with me!”
Every day something makes me laugh or smile 🙂
Thursday, 12th of December: My counterpart is strangely aloof all day. I am left alone to plan the afternoon’s session and deliver it on my own also. I cannot put my finger on it but there is a dark mood brooding in the shared office which will come home to roost tomorrow.
Friday, 13th of December: Another Friday, another Friday morning meeting. There is a definite chill in the air this morning evident in the clinical way in which the meeting is conducted before yet another explosion of emotional fireworks, threats and a guilt trip. It will not be possible to cover any of my classes when my family come to visit. All I need now is a dose of diarrhea to complete this week. (It goes without saying that during all this time there was no running water and the electricity was intermittent.)
I need the intervention of my line manager (or a deity). My line manager speaks very poor English and at times is unintelligible. There is so much lost in translation and most of it all is left to the imagination. This can be both frustrating and highly entertaining. I wish I could have recorded the conversation and then transcribed it for you here. It put me in good form going home. As I attempt to explain to this man what the problem is I cry for the third time this week, it’s beginning to sound a bit like the stations of the cross I realise.
Having listened carefully to what I had to say he replied with what little English he had saying, “Do not afraid, we will eradicate him”. More tears followed, although this time tears of joy and laughter mixed with the abject desolation of earlier.
“He will change his mind”, he said. I managed to blubber in response, “I…don’t…think…he…wi-il”.
“Then I will hammer him”, came the reply. At this point in the conversation, I am beginning to seriously question why I don’t spend more time with this guy. I like the cut of his jib! I emerge blotchy and bleary from the room and not being able to face going back to the shared office take refuge in the new student’s cafe where I take out my laptop and do the only constructive think I can think of.
As I write all this down, it is like a physical weight is being lifted off my shoulders and I’m able to smile and laugh at some of the happier things that happened during the week.
These things are certainly sent to try me but increasingly I find it doesn’t matter because in three days time this special group of people will be all together again and absolutely nothing else in the world will matter for approximately two weeks.