The End

I wrote this some time ago but didn’t manage to put it online before handing over my CDMA dongle to my counterpart.  I’m home  – cold in Addis, Dreamliner ‘Lucy’ to Heathrow and now trying to adjust to the food, the shops, the attitudes….. I will not be blogging about all that.  Thanks for reading the blog and perhaps I’ll be seeing you soon…..

 

When you get towards the end of a VSO  placement they unleash their revenge – a mountain of forms to be filled in and clearances to be gained and umpteen pieces of paper to be stamped.  It is a daunting procedure at a time when you are trying tidy up in a civilised fashion. 

My programme manage, Yeshi, came down from Addis yesterday for my final interview and decided to run a sort of validation event involving flipcharts, post-its, marker pens and power points.  The university staff and students involved were dazzled and not a bit bemused.  I had to give a presentation about my time here but got let down by the chap who had promised me a loan of his data projector. Everyone had to look at my laptop screen instead.  They took us out for a meal afterwards to make up for the fact that the meeting had been so boringly long, so the students were well fed for a change.

This morning began with a nightmare scenario – I have just two weeks left and apparently I need an exit visa in my passport.  This involves the university writing a letter on headed notepaper to three ministries – Labour, Education and Immigration.  I prepared the letters yesterday and left them with the Vice President’s secretary to print on headed notepaper ready for pick-up this morning. 

We were late getting in as we missed the bus and had to walk through the fields.  The letters were done all right but not signed and the Vice President wasn’t in.  Neither was the President or the other Vice President.  Nobody allowed to pp either because of the official stamp.  Now I know that the Vice President has so much to do that my letters are bottom priority for him even though top priority for me.  So I spent an hour going backwards and forwards looking for the Vice President (either would do) and Yeshi and driver hung round drinking coffee. 

Eventually, he turned up, I retrieved the 9 letters (3 copies of each) from the office where the grumpy Medina had sent them for some reason, got them signed, remembered to get them stamped and returned triumphantly to the coffee-drinkers.  But, oh no, I needed the university’s super stamp that can be given only by three girls in the Archive office, one to enter each letter’s recipient into a giant ledger, one to stamp and one to write the code number on the letter.  All this just to get out of the country.

I also have to get a signature from about 12 different people around the university to the effect that I’m not stealing anything nor owe them money.  I also have to do this when I get to Addis at the VSO office as well as getting official clearance from the police (cost 10 birr).  What a palaver.

Other things are also coming to a more natural conclusion.  I’ve completed  my OU course with my seventh essay.  Well, it doesn’t really matter if I pass or not  – I’ve enjoyed doing it as it was relevant and stimulating during this year.  I’ve now completed the first year of my new undergraduate degree! I’ve also just got one more read-through of the Hyperbole newsletter – or Kenyan promotion leaflet as it’s turned out to be.   We’re going through an epidemic of power cuts and network failures so it’s not that easy to keep up with things.

A couple of nights ago I was out on the front veranda in the pitch black because of the power cuts. But actually there was quite a bit of light once your eyes got used to it.  The moon was bright, the stars stunning and the lightning flickered in the distance.  Fireflies also flared and died to the chorus of crickets and frogs. 

Standing on the same spot the following day after lunch –  clouds of butterflies and busy weaver birds this time, then an unusual sound – the burr of a plane engine.  It was a small Cessna-type plane trying to land on the old airstrip outside our house.  It came in, then pulled up as people flooded on to the ‘runway’ to watch.  The police rushed forward with their whistles to clear the strip as the plane circled round and tried again – fast and low.  The politician inside survived to make his official visit to the local area and this time none of the locals got in the way.

 

 

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Shots in the dark

Living in interesting times

The last week has been a case study of what living in a developing country can mean.  After a couple of very pleasant farewell meals, we were suddenly surprised by the sound of gunfire right outside our house.  At first we thought it was a firework as there had been a big wedding celebration going on all day, but it soon became clear that this was no joking matter.  We had Raphael and Anthony in the house and Uday went outside to work out whether it was safe for Anthony to walk home.   What we then heard was a series of explosive reports that turned out to be the sound of large stones being thrown at him but actually hitting our sheet-metal fence.  He was pulled to safety by a neighbour and found himself sheltering with others from an angry crowd attacking the next door police station. 

Meanwhile, as our house is set back from the road, we had no idea what was going on and Raphael and Manjula went searching for him in the compound completely unaware of the danger from a person or persons unknown hiding – with missiles – within the compound.  It later transpired that the trouble flared when the wedding party (Bench and Christian) parked vehicles on the landing strip and the police (non-Bench?) and locals (many Muslim?) objected.   Ethnic or religious tensions depending upon who you talk to. (to whom you talk = for purists)

The unknown is always frightening.  Having got Uday home again, we put up the shutters, locked all the doors and nobody went home that night.  There were police sirens and ambulances but I still don’t know exactly what happened.  There was anger at the police for interfering in the wedding celebrations  and the gunfire was from the police themselves against an attack by the angry mob with stones.  The following afternoon we couldn’t make out whether the large gathering of people roaming up and down the air-strip was protesting or simply still celebrating the wedding.  It’s all so peaceful again now but these tensions can flair up and escalate with alarming speed fracturing the apparently harmonious community.

Since then we ourselves have been fighting – against the inane bureaucracy of this institution.  In order to leave in a tidy and orderly fashion they have created a marathon series of hoops for us to jump through.  I thought the clearance letters were a problem but this bizarre party game procedure is completely incomprehensible.  First get the signatures – IN THE CORRECT ORDER – of all 12 people who are never in their offices because they are all in the same meeting, together, talking to each other.  These are the people who insist on the procedure and then make it completely impossible for people to follow it.  Perhaps they have secret cameras following us as we constantly knock on locked doors whilst they chuckle at our obvious frustration?

Perhaps not – but it could be a test to see if we have developed true Ethiopian patience and willingness to waste time doing absolutely nothing.  I have spent a whole day trying to get my allowance for 13 days – so long in fact that by the time I got my money they actually owed me 14 days.  The process was as follows-clearing form completed to Finance to Vice President to Finance to Records for multiple stampings to Finance for carbon copies of handwritten record to Cashier to Finance to Cashier – and all this for the equivalent of about £40.  I asked if the fourth copy of the clearance form was for the Queen but they didn’t appreciate the joke.

But today I completed everything including closing my bank account (why? because I am leaving the country, well that’s okay then) but Uday and Manjula have yet to get their flights home or their final salary so we have postponed the journey for a day.  They did, however, manage to get all the household furniture transferred back to the stores so for tonight and tomorrow I am sleeping in a sleeping bag on the very hard floor of my empty room.  I think I’m a bit old for all this.

 

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End of the road?

Capture1 CaptureI stand waiting for the service bus as usual and it’s a great place to observe life here.  The goats trot past going somewhere only they know about; I love the one with a shock of hair between its ears, a Beatle fringe that falls into its eyes.  The mad young girl is making a nest of leaves and cotton scraps a bit up the road and I don’t suppose the veg lady (who ignores us now because we don’t shop with her) and the shoeshine boy will like that as it will affect business.  An old lady wrapped in a prayer shawl stops to chat but, of course, I can’t understand what she is on about.  She has many teeth missing and apparently lives in the church.

Many people carry things to sell -a boy with a trussed but live chicken, another boy balancing his bundle of chat in false banana leaf on his head, the Bench ladies loaded down with their bundles of hay and firewood. Some are bent into the shape of an Alum key because their load is so heavy, others trot along in their bare feet somehow not noticing the weight.  These women have a kind of uniform: bare feet, mid calf skirt, cotton scarf knotted at the back, gypsy fashion.  If they don’t have a big load then they carry a large basket on their backs filled with bananas or other produce and they all seem to carry the same wicker basket with long thin handles that make it swing, and a long umbrella – not the more usual folding variety.  They are quite dark-skinned and think I’m very weird indeed and very amusing.

Sometimes there is a procession – funeral or wedding.  More often there is something rather strange – taking someone to hospital.  People don’t have cars here and I think there are only one or two emergency vehicles so if you are taken ill enough to warrant hospitalisation you are placed on a mattress on a stretcher and carried by all the neighbours down the road to the hospital.  At first I thought this was part of a funeral ceremony until the person on the shoulder-high stretcher moved and scared the life out of me.

Vehicles are varied but there is no such thing as a traffic jam – unlike in crazy Addis. Lorries regularly trundle past as do the minibuses and buses.  Land cruisers. including the occasional UN-flag waving convo, speed through on this bumpy,unmade road and I’m surprised at how many motorbikes there are given the difficulties of the terrain.  Many fathers (all male riders) take their very young children to school clinging behind or in front and not a helmet between them.  At least they don’t go fast.  Today there were a couple of cyclists but it’s pretty hard to cycle on a road of rocks and pits.  Mostly people walk.

Today has been a successful one for me.  I got two more signatures on my clearance form and managed to get the film course certificates stamped so can give them out at my final English Club meeting tomorrow.  I also managed to borrow a data projector from one of the Filipinos who has a hugely swollen arm thanks to a tick or something hatching under his skin.  My problem – a Walls allergic reaction to a new soap – looks really small in comparison.  It does make me use gel more and I have raided the first aid kit for surgical gloves for washing up etc.  It’s amazing how the two hands have identical patches – I suppose it must be following the nerve or lymph system.

This week is dragging a bit.  The highlight has been our recording of a short play called The Dentist.  We claimed it was for teaching purposes (an ELIC video production to help the students listen to native speakers) but it was just fun to do.  Anthony, John, an Indian guy who had actually come along as technical support and myself played the parts while Uday and Manjula did the technical stuff.  I plan to show it on our final English Club meeting tomorrow.

So I now have just the one week left in Mizan and then a few days in Addis getting clearance from VSO, police checks etc  I’m a bit worried about the house as it took about three months to get the rent started so it’s likely to be the same problem the other end.  However, nobody seems to be that worried about it so why should I?

It seems such a contradiction – a massive bureaucracy at every turn and yet a complete disregard for basic things like planning, meeting deadlines or abiding by procedures.  The academic calendar, for instance, seems to be a very moveable feast indeed and salaries can go unpaid because the finance officer is trying to get his per diem paperwork sorted.  I was really shocked that salaries had been withheld until I realised that, unlike in the West, most people here have no mortgage or other direct debits hovering around the end of the month.  What if you don’t get paid for a couple of weeks?  Just tell the landlord he has to wait I suppose.

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Red, red tape

When you get towards the end of a VSO  placement they unleash their revenge – a mountain of forms to be filled in and clearances to be gained and umpteen pieces of paper to be stamped.  It is a daunting procedure at a time when you are trying tidy up in a civilised fashion. 

My programme manage, Yeshi, came down from Addis yesterday for my final interview and decided to run a sort of validation event involving flipcharts, post-its, marker pens and power points.  The university staff and students involved were dazzled and not a bit bemused.  I had to give a presentation about my time here but got let down by the chap who had promised me a loan of his data projector. Everyone had to look at my laptop screen instead.  They took us out for a meal afterwards to make up for the fact that the meeting had been so boringly long, so the students were well fed for a change.

This morning began with a nightmare scenario – I have just two weeks left and apparently I need an exit visa in my passport.  This involves the university writing a letter on headed notepaper to three ministries – Labour, Education and Immigration.  I prepared the letters yesterday and left them with the Vice President’s secretary to print on headed notepaper ready for pick-up this morning. 

We were late getting in as we missed the bus and had to walk through the fields.  The letters were done all right but not signed and the Vice President wasn’t in.  Neither was the President or the other Vice President.  Nobody allowed to pp either because of the official stamp.  Now I know that the Vice President has so much to do that my letters are bottom priority for him even though top priority for me.  So I spent an hour going backwards and forwards looking for the Vice President (either would do) and Yeshi and driver hung round drinking coffee. 

Eventually, he turned up, I retrieved the 9 letters (3 copies of each) from the office where the grumpy Medina had sent them for some reason, got them signed, remembered to get them stamped and returned triumphantly to the coffee-drinkers.  But, oh no, I needed the university’s super stamp that can be given only by three girls in the Archive office, one to enter each letter’s recipient into a giant ledger, one to stamp and one to write the code number on the letter.  All this just to get out of the country.

I also have to get a signature from about 12 different people around the university to the effect that I’m not stealing anything nor owe them money.  I also have to do this when I get to Addis at the VSO office as well as getting official clearance from the police (cost 10 birr).  What a palaver.

Other things are also coming to a more natural conclusion.  I’ve completed  my OU course with my seventh essay.  Well, it doesn’t really matter if I pass or not  – I’ve enjoyed doing it as it was relevant and stimulating during this year.  I’ve now completed the first year of my new undergraduate degree! I’ve also just got one more read-through of the Hyperbole newsletter – or Kenyan promotion leaflet as it’s turned out to be.   We’re going through an epidemic of power cuts and network failures so it’s not that easy to keep up with things.

A couple of nights ago I was out on the front veranda in the pitch black because of the power cuts. But actually there was quite a bit of light once your eyes got used to it.  The moon was bright, the stars stunning and the lightning flickered in the distance.  Fireflies also flared and died to the chorus of crickets and frogs. 

Standing on the same spot the following day after lunch –  clouds of butterflies and busy weaver birds this time, then an unusual sound – the burr of a plane engine.  It was a small Cessna-type plane trying to land on the old airstrip outside our house.  It came in, then pulled up as people flooded on to the ‘runway’ to watch.  The police rushed forward with their whistles to clear the strip as the plane circled round and tried again – fast and low.  The politician inside survived to make his official visit to the local area and this time none of the locals got in the way.

 

 

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Stings and Kafka

Today we got our cooking electricity back.  Since the weekend we have had to use the kerosene stove as every time we tried the rings or the kettle the fuse went .  I’m extremely pleased that the electrician checked everything out as I was becoming paranoid about the safety of the shower. It often gets much too hot in its idiosyncratic, dribbling way and I switch it off with my wet hands – asking for trouble I suspect.

Anyway, nobody has received an electric shock but the electrician did get two bee stings and a bad facial scratch when he disturbed the bees that had been lurking inside our fuse box. He probably found the damaged stabiliser that I donated to him poor compensation for a sting on the lip. (A stabiliser is a box to control the power surges that can damage electronic equipment  but I blew mine within a week of buying it by stupidly plugging in my fierce hairdryer).

Actually, we are all suffering from insect bites.  Manjula was attacked by one of the black and white things that float in and out of the house and I have provided plenty of blood to a pesky mosquito.  It must have been when we opened the window one evening to let out the kerosene fumes.  This has been what I have been dreading – multiple bites that have come up in massive lumps.  The trouble is that the tablets that control it just send me to sleep.

The rainy season is approaching so the rain is becoming heavier and more persistent creating a brown stream outside our house that seems to tempt every mad Isuzu driver as we wait for the service bus at the side of the road.  However, avocados, bananas and mangos are all ridiculously cheap at the moment.

Raphael visited us at the weekend and he and Uday bought gin from the newly-opened bar on our compound.  Uday says it was cheaper because the bottle was already open.   We ate chicken biriani and green mango curry with coconut powder. 

We also spent some time looking at pictures of the holiday and the people we met – dhoti-expert Dr Reddi from Gondar; dread-locked Haile from the Simiens and his Polish girlfriend whom he had met in the mountains.  She recognised another Polish  tourist as the well-known actress in a TV soap opera.   There was Ffion from Aberystwyth and her boyfriend, Rahul, who had worked for the Press Association and wore Obama socks.  He hadn’t realised that he would have to take his shoes off every time he entered a monastery.   The inevitable Australian turned out to be a social worker who had been travelling around on her own for seven months.  But best of all was the delightful Shuji, a Japanese film producer who came straight from an epic plane journey onto our boat-trip to the Lake Tana monasteries .  Well travelled and a lover of company, he sought us out again in Lalibela , a Mr Magoo character always just avoiding misadventure and being completely unaware of any chaos or confusion that might be around him. 

Tomorrow I offer another two workshops for staff and anticipate the usual poor turnout.  I spent today in a Kafka-esque situation (Breaking Bad!) trying to print out material for the morning session on referencing.  What should have taken about ten minutes (print 12 pages on printer and photocopy them 20 times) took virtually all day because:

  • our printer has broken and cannot be repaired apparently even though it says it’s a ‘fuse’
  • the re-writable CD doesn’t rewrite (fake Sony?)
  • a colleague’s computer couldn’t read another CD, usb stick or my laptop files
  • my laptop couldn’t install another printer’s software

I seemed doomed though the 20-minute walk to the departmental office finally paid off even though their printer had flashing red lights.  Then I had to get 30 copies photocopied as the central unit won’t photocopy fewer than that number. 

Apart from meeting Elic-coordinator Abebe from Tepi – he with the most perfect aquiline nose- this was the sum total of my achievement today.ImageImageImageImage

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Palaces and mountains

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The university is having trouble maintaining its vehicles – they need to go to Addis to be serviced apparently.  Consequently, I have spent quite a bit of time just standing at the side of the road providing a freak-show exhibit for the Bench ladies.  But there are many freakish things that I see as well.  The shoeshine boy is currently wearing one lime green plastic sandal and one bright pink one; his friend is wearing the matching shoes.  Our scout in the Simiens also wore this kind of footwear but they didn’t stop him climbing around like a mountain goat. 

Yesterday three trucks arrived on the patch of land opposite each with an army of men standing in the back.  They spent much time flinging rocks into the back of the trucks. The rocks had obviously been stored there for the road repairs that are going on in the village.  Labour is cheap here but I noticed there were no women – they are good enough for swinging pick-axes and sledge-hammers but not for road building or stone-throwing.  Stupidly, some men positioned themselves on each side of the truck risking stones raining down on them from poor bowlers on the other side.  They also risked injury when they tried to get a lift back by sitting on top of the pile of rocks.  The drivers raised the flat bed in order to ‘encourage’ them to get out of the truck – much shouting and jumping at that point.

After just one week back, our holiday seems to have faded into the past.  We visited the ancient capital of Gondar, went around the remains of several Emperors’ palaces in The Royal Enclosure (sound like Ascot) and a couple of other fascinating sites.  We also spent some time at a hotel on top of a hill/mountain overlooking the town which had a swimming pool, terrific views and ferenji menu.  Here we met up with volunteer Jenny who was reading The Observer on her Kindle. What a different experience of Ethiopia she must have – the town is much more sophisticated and the university well-established.  I even heard people discussing academic issues with  excitement when we visited the university – and not just because they could access a budget.  My counterpart’s research partner at Mizan-Tepi has pulled out of their research because they haven’t been awarded enough money for him to get a laptop.

The last few days of our holiday we spent in the Simien Mountains.  We needed to employ a driver/coordinator, local guide, cook and a Kalashnikov-carrying scout – the last is compulsory for entry into the park.  This made it the most expensive part of the trip but perhaps the most memorable.  The mountains are stunning but the landscape is harsh and extremely cold for the local people who live within the national park.  Our guide assessed our competency and came up with a tailor-made and  fairly cautious trek – staying at two base camps and doing some shortish walks along the way.

II disgraced myself by slipping on the first day but it certainly made me more careful when we went on more exposed paths with staggering drops to the side.  At night we all slept in the same room and were grateful for the thick blankets as we were very high – the top peak, Ras Dejen is 4,500 metres above sea level.  I was glad we were in the lodge (£3 a night) rather than in tents where others were.  There were a number of visitors at the camps – a young Brit who had walked 17 kilometres from the nearest town carrying an umbrella to shield himself from the sun.  He couldn’t get a lift back so had to just walk back the following day. Two Germans whom we had met in Lilibela were doing the full trek – 10 days with a mule train.

We drank whiskey overlooking one of the many staggering views with another group – a doctor from Montpelier and her friend who is a stringer for the Sunday Times.  We also spent time watching the amazing Gelada (monkeys) with their long hairy coats and red chests.  They chatter amiably to each other like so many old men as they feed on the grasses – apparently their vocal chords are the closest to ours of all animals.  At one camp, Kate (my room-mate from our first training who had joined us for the trek)and I sat looking over a cliff in the late afternoon while two of them came closer and closer obviously considering us to be part of their group.  A David Attenborough moment.

On the way back to Gondar, we had lunch with our driver’s mother – meat (yeah! fasting is over) and home-brewed beer.  Apparently, this is very strong and though I didn’t notice it, we did see the effect that it had on a young boy of the house who had secretly been drinking it – he was completely drunk.

And so we returned via Addis and were picked up by the Bebeke people the next day for our return – through the electric storm – to Jimma and on to Mizan.  Ethiopians do not really have the opportunity to visit their own country (money, time) so many people at the university are intrigued by the notion of a holiday trip to visit cultural places.  They may think we are mad to spend money in this way, but secretly they are pleased that we have bothered to visit their heritage even if they don’t or can’t.

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Lalliela and Axum

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From the source of the Nile, we flew back in time to the town of Lalibela.  It’s built high in the mountains and is a tourist magnet because of the amazing and ancient churches that have been carved out of the solid rock.  These are not just enhanced caves but complete buildings cut from the mountains themselves.  It’s difficult to describe the network of buildings, tunnels, caves and cells that comprise the eleven ancient churches that are still functioning today.  Suddenly we had to pay tourist prices which was a bit of a shock – no concessions for our Resident’s Permits. As it was the Ethiopian Easter, we found the churches busy with devout worshippers and priests reading the bible in the ancient language of Geez.  Some of the younger deacons were not too practised in their reading and had to be corrected.  In other churches, they provided an Amharic translation for the congregation. 

Although we had an official guide, it did feel somewhat intrusive wandering around while the faithful were fervently crossing and prostrating themselves.  We returned to the most photographed church, St George’s, late on the second day and had the place more or less to ourselves – just the shoes of the old priest and the young deacon were outside. 

This was my birthday, and, as promised, I wore the salwar kameez that Uday’s sister had sent from India.  We walked to an extraordinary restaurant run by a Scottish lady of my age and her Ethiopian partner (business or otherwise, not altogether sure).  The mountain location and architecture were absolutely stunning and, round about now, they are expecting a major film crew to use it as a film set.  It was a good birthday.

The next day we moved on to Axum.  It’s strange but with this series of towns, you keep on bumping into the same people although, unlike everyone else, we were travelling clockwise instead of anti-clockwise.  Axum was the centre of the ancient Axumite civilisation and boasts a range of sites many only partially explored.  The stellae field (or ‘parkings’ as the guide insisted on calling it) has a number of obelisks surrounded by tombs and the Ark of the Covenant is meant to be housed here though only one monk is allowed anywhere near it.  When he dies, another takes over.  It was Good Friday and the crowds were at the gate and, like Rome, there was a poignant contrast between the poverty of some of the people and the treasures that the church had within the museum – crowns, ancient books etc

This was the end of the 55 days of fasting leading up to Easter and there was no meat to be had.  In fact, everything except one or two basic dishes seemed to be ‘yellum’ or ‘finished’. As we left for  the airport the sheep and goats were being led to market ready for the meat fest that Orthodox Ethiopians indulge in on Easter Sunday.   

Axum airport is small but it has a very fierce security system that beeped for everyone’s hand baggage.  They confiscated one poor man’s half bottle of whiskey and they thought Uday’s lens cleaner was a grenade.  One Australian woman began to suspect a scam saying that her friend had had her hand luggage disappear in just such a situation but we have developed Ethiopian patience and didn’t allow our blood pressure to be disturbed. 

I spent the whole flight listening to the woes of a young and pretty Canadian blonde who had been robbed three times in a month as well as being hospitalised with gallstones, typhoid and pneumonia.  Her descriptions of the incidents were so detailed that I believed everything especially as she was travelling on photocopied ID because her passport had been stolen. 

She was being picked up by the driver of a man who had befriended her in Addis and was planning to stay in his empty house in Gondar so I just hoped that another major incident wasn’t coming her way.  I gave her our hotel name just in case.

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