Diary of Ethiopia

Thursday 5th of Sept.

Myself and Himself visit Concern’s Dublin office for final briefing. Suddenly I realise how tough this trip is going to be, wish I wasn’t going and curse myself for ever saying I would. Despite their assurances that we’ll have a great time, and that there’s a lovely market just outside Concern’s Addis compound, I’m not convinced. Himself also has the fear.

Monday 9th of Sept.

9 am.
Leave for airport, to fly to London, then to Alexandria, then on to Addis Ababa. Delays in London, more delays in Egypt.

Tuesday 10th of Sept

(two and a half hours late) we land at Addis Ababa airport, then hang around the carousel for a very long time until it becomes clear that our suitcase hasn’t made the journey with us. But it’ll be on the next flight, the nice man tells us. Which is on Friday. But today is Monday, I protest. Tuesday actually, he says.
All we have are the clothes we stand up in, a copy of Vanity Fair (read) and a selection of snacks purloined from an airport lounge. Nothing for it but to go and meet our poor driver who has been waiting outside since one thirty.

4.45 am.
Arrive at the Concern compound.

Head hits pillow.

Cock crows.

Another cock crows. Then four hundred of his closest friends get in on the act. A sound system kicks into life blasting Ethiopian pop. Ah yes, the market just beyond the wall.

9.30 am.
Wake up, put on our dirty clothes and go to introduce ourselves to the Concern staff. It’s a gorgeous morning, with blue, blue skies. In the distance I see lush green hills – surely some mistake? Where are the sun-bleached deserts?

Concern staff v nice, offer to loan us clothes and suggest the market beyond the wall would be a good place to buy underwear etc. A mixture of fear and curiosity propels myself and Himself though the gates and into downtown Addis and I swear to God, it was like going back to Biblical times. A dusty red-earth road teeming with life – tall, elegant men in robes and wellingtons, women with babies tied to their backs, a man wearing a sheep around his neck like a scarf, donkeys laden with enormous bundles of firewood, mad quavery music coming from somewhere. The only non-biblical note was the mini-buses, beeping like mad as they struggled through the packed street, trying to disperse the herds of goats who were loitering in their path. Blankets spread on the roadside were offering all kinds of things for sale: onions, tomatoes, batteries, lengths of twine, chickens (live and unplucked), firewood and – oh great! – socks and knickers. The socks were fine, the knickers less so – baggy and funny looking. But what the hell! When in Rome. The price for two pairs of socks and two pairs of funny pink knickers? Twenty birr – about two Euro. Excellent value. We’d been told to haggle but how could you? Onto the next stall where we purchased two pairs of underpants for Himself, a t-shirt for fifty birr and a pair of plastic sandals for me for eighty birr.

Marian in Ethiopia

12.30 pm.
Decked out in our new and borrowed finery, we set off to see some of the Concern projects. Addis is a city constructed almost entirely of corrugated iron; miles and miles of shanty town, holes in the rotting iron patched pitifully with rush matting and polythene bags. Almost all roads are untarmaced: just bare lumpy earth like boreens, which I’ve never before seen in a city. And everywhere there are people – it’s incredibly densely populated. An estimated five million people live in Addis.

Our first stop was at a community based urban development programme, where Concern are working with the poorest of the poor – women headed households and households with more than ten members - to construct houses, communal kitchens, waterpoints, latrines and roadways. Concern provide most of the funding but the community provide the labour and become responsible for maintaining the common areas.

Marian in Ethiopia
One of the many people I met was a beautiful woman called Darma – by and large the Ethiopians are extremely good-looking. Darma has nine children, her husband is ‘gone’ and she’s younger than me. With great pride she ushered us into her new house - a ten by ten room with a packed earth floor, no electricity and no running water. With a smile she indicated the roof, – ‘no holes so no rain gets in’. Which would turn the mud floor into a quagmire. I was beginning to understand. The sturdy walls provoked another smile – ‘secure against rats.’ Gotcha.

Darma’s day begins at six when she prepares breakfast for herself and her children. This is harder than it sounds. The staple diet is injera: a bread that’s made from a grass called teff, which has to be pounded into a paste - which takes up to two hours - and then cooked. Before Concern funded the communal kitchens – one between three households - Darma had to light a fire in her chimney-less home, filling it with choking smoke and upsetting her children.

After breakfast, Darma walks half-an-hour to the wholesale market, buys potatoes and onions, then returns and sells them in her own neighbourhood. At six she comes home and once again pounds teff until her hands blister. She goes to bed at about midnight.

Marian in Ethiopia

But life is so much better, she says. She has the kitchen, the communal water point – which saves an hour a day walking to buy water – and most of all, her house. I was humbled by her positivity and I hoped I’d think twice the next time I wanted to say, ‘I’ve had a hard day.’

Before I left I was invited to admire the latrines which I did as best I could – I mean, what do you say - and then it was on to a clinic which feeds and treats thirty-six malnourished children. By the time we arrived, they’d left, which I was shamefully glad about. I didn’t think I was able for the sight of three dozen malnourished babas.

Back in the Concern house I suddenly remembered that today was my birthday. Himself’s present for me was in the awol suitcase. However he gave me a celebratory clubmilk that he’d nicked from the Aer Lingus lounge in Dublin. I was very happy.

Wednesday September 11th

New Year’s Day. And nineteen ninety five, no less. Something to do with a dispute over the date of the birth of Christ. Great hilarity (at least on my part) as Himself dons his Ethiopian knickers – very little and snug, Bruce Lee circa seventy seven. Great hilarity (at least on his part) as I don mine – baggy and mad, like a granny’s.

Visit a Concern-funded project which aims to educate and train girls. This is a very macho society and I’d been told that Ethiopian women would have a better life if they’d been born a donkey. They have much less chance of receiving an education than a man yet often end up being the main breadwinner as well as doing the ‘invisible’ work like childcare, taking care of sick relatives, cooking, carrying water and tending the animals.

Marian in an Ethiopian Market

This project nails its colours firmly to the mast with the sign on the office wall - ‘God created man before woman. The reason why? Every artist does a rough draft before creating a masterpiece.’ Right on, sisters!

We visit a girls’ school they’re building; it will provide education for 200 pupils when it opens in late September. Dozens of amber-eyed children appear from nowhere, to shake hands (even the toddlers do it) and have their photo taken.

Then onto the training project, where 30 young women are taught to sew, silkscreen and do batik. They’re also taught basic business and – best of all – computer skills.

Marian in Ethiopia

Next we went to a vocational skills training project for street children. There are an estimated 60,000 children and young mothers living permanently on Addis Ababa’s streets, where they’re at the mercy of anyone and everyone, including the police. This project aims to train them in all kinds of diciplines - from driving to metal work to office skills - and make them employable.

I was introduced to a twenty year old girl, a graduate of the programme. She looked like Lauryn Hill – like, exquisite and asked me not to use her name. Her story is that both her parents died when she was sixteen and she had to take care of her three sisters and two brothers by washing clothes and gathering and selling firewood. Her income was so low that prostitution was the next step, either for herself or her younger sisters. But instead she managed to get a place on a training course. Now she earns 340 birr a month as a cook (good money, honestly), is able to rent a house for herself and her siblings and is going for lessons in computers and paying for herself.

When I asked her what her parents had died of, she bowed her head, began to cry and didn’t answer. Later the director of the programme told me that she has never said, but he suspects they died of Aids. Despite at least one in ten and maybe as many as one in six adult Ethiopians infected with HIV, there’s such a stigma that few will admit to being affected by it.

Among the many other success stories of the project is that two ex-street children are working for Ethiopia’s previous president as a cook and a housekeeper.

It was an uplifting and energising day. Back at the ranch, we watched The Young and the Restless, an spectacularly awful American daytime soap and spent a happy hour trying to figure out which ones were the young and which ones were the restless. It was strangely compelling.

Thursday September 14th

5.30 am.
Several of us left in a packed fourwheel drive for Damot Weyde, a six hour drive to the South. This area was the scene of a famine in 2000 and this year the rains didn’t come so the maize harvest has failed and once again the people are facing a famine.

On the drive down we passed field after field of burnt dead maize. But other than that, the countryside was spectacularly beautiful: ranges of huge mountains layered against the blue sky and apart from the dead maize, it was surprisingly green; lots of trees. When I asked why they didn’t cut the trees down to use the land for food, I was told that the trees were necessary to prevent soil erosion, already a huge problem which further exacerbates drought.

Also contributing to the look of lush vegetation is a plant called Insett or ‘false banana’. It’s a slowgrowing but drought resistant plant which has the huge wax leaves of the banana plant but only the roots are edible. (After being pounded for three hours.) So although the area is facing a famine, it’s called a ‘green famine’.
Always the roadsides were swarming with people; even though it’s rural it’s extremely densely populated – 250 people per square kilometre. Twice we passed people carrying a stretcher, making their way with a sick friend or relative to the nearest clinic.

An Ethiopian Lady
9.30 am.
Stopped for breakfast in Shashemene, a town which has a large Rastafarian community. I had to restrain Himself. He’s always nursed a desire to run away and become a Rasta.

Arrive at Concern’s compound. It’s twenty kilometres off a tarmaced road and has no phone line. But there is electricity and as everyone kept telling me, their faces aglow – there’s a shower, a hot shower. And a toilet, I asked. Yes, I was told. Well, an outside latrine, which is the same thing really. I’m not really an outside-latrine kind of girl. Well, I was about to become one.

After a quick lunch we head off to visit a spring that Concern had built. However, it had been raining and the four wheel drive got stuck in the mud. We all had to get out and as I clambered down I landed on a donkey, who gave me a patient, I-won’t-hold-it-against-you look and carried on up the hill.

We turned back and instead went to visit an Animatrice - (I think that’s how it’s spelt) - A local woman who’d been trained by Concern to teach her community about nutrition, hygiene but most importantly to take care of malnourished children. Previously if a child was malnourished, the mother would take them to a Concern feeding centre where mother and child would stay until they were both healthy. This could take up to three weeks. Meanwhile, no-one was home to take care of the women’s other children and more importantly the mother had no opportunity of earning money during that time. This scheme is a way of avoiding that and by handing control and responsibility to the community. All of Concern’s work is about ‘sustainability’ – that they are enabling the community to do things for themselves, so that when they leave (all NGO’s have to move on after three years) that the locals will be well able to look after themselves.

But the Animatrice was nowhere in sight – they’d all gone to ‘the weeping’ - a lyrical way of describing a funeral. Right so, we said, girding our loins. We’ll visit the Kerchech health clinic.

Back into the four by four and after another bumpy hour on muddy roads we arrived at the three roomed clinic. At the same time a young woman called Erberke showed with her husband, Bassa and their sick baby girl, Jelsalem. They’d walked for forty minutes in their bare feet to reach us because Jelsalem was passing blood; she was fifteen months old, but she was so stick-like and shrunken that she looked a good year younger. Bassa was wearing what might have been Farrah slacks once upon a time but was now a collection of rags held together with yellow twine. I’d seen so many sad things but for whatever reason this was the one that did it for me. I couldn’t stop crying.

Doctor Degu Tinna who runs the clinic and visits patients on the motor bike that Concern purchased, examined Jelsalem and found she was 75% of the weight she should be, but she wasn’t showing signs of oedema (protein deficiency.) He gave antibiotics - the local method for dealing with a baby with diarrhoea is to burn the baby’s stomach. (Likewise eye-infections are ‘treated’ by branding the temples.) I went into the horrors at the thought that if the clinic hadn’t been there, Jelsalem would have died.

Dinner that night was the famous injera bread. It was grey and looked like a rolled up sponge but tasted nice. Had to get up twice in the night to use the outside latrine. Didn’t get eaten by leopards.

Friday September 13th

Set off to visit another spring but once again got bogged down in the mire. This time we pressed on and arrived at 9am.Yay!

The spring was a Godsend – clean water for washing, cooking and most importantly drinking. Before the spring was built the only option was the dirty water from the nearby river – so filthy that a glass of it looked like drinking chocolate.

It was all go at the spring. Ofusi, a thirteen year old stunner was washing her family’s clothes – scrubbing like billyoh with a bar of soap. Salem, a ten year old girl, was filling a five litre container of water for her home an hour’s walk away.

But what I noticed most was that a lot of the children clustering around me looked sick. Their teeth were brown and most of them seemed to have an eye infection. Flies were landing in babies mouths and some of the children’s skin was patchy and piebald looking. I though I remembered reading that this was an indication of Oedema – severe lack of protein. I was looking first hand at the effects of chronic food deprivation. They pressed closer and closer to me, but remained silent and for the first time since I’d arrived in Ethiopia I felt slightly freaked out.

On the way back we passed several women working in the fields, including one called Tefari who was seven months pregnant. Then we got to meet Itanish the Animatrice; the work she was doing with the women in her area would make sure that the malnourished children would get better. This cheered me up.

Drive back to Addis.

Our suitcase had arrived! Because I’d had a week living with just the basics I’d suspected that I’d have no interest in it, but I’m sorry to say how wrong I was. I fell on it like it was a long-lost friend and marvelled at my lovely things. My face cream! My sunglasses! My anti-malaria tablets!

An open-air concert to raise awareness of HIV/Aids among the young and homeless in the Merkato area. (A huge market that has a lot of prostitution) I thought it would be a bit worthy and crap but I swear to God I’ve never seen anything so gorgeous. On stage three slender elegant boys and three lush colleens were in traditional dress and dancing like Irish people wouldn’t be able to dance if they practiced for a million years. Imagine people receiving electric shocks but gracefully and you get some idea of how wonderful they were. And they were having such fun, it was a delight to behold. The concert (a monthly event) is the brainchild of a very energetic, intelligent man called Anania Admassu who runs a Concern funded project, which helps Aids orphans. There are a huge number in Addis - 1,000 in the Merkato area alone.

Saturday 14th of September


Visited Concern’s Street Vendors Programme, which gives basic business skills and low interest, collateral free loans to the poorest street traders (nearly always women). Hundreds of women have had their lives changed by this programme and most of them have even managed to start saving.

Part of the programme has involved the construction of several latrines and I was invited to visit a couple. Well, I don’t know about you, but one latrine is much the same as the other as far as I’m concerned and though they tried to talk me out of it I stood my ground. They was disappointed, but I think they got over it.

2 pm.
Last gig. A vist to Mekdim, an association run and staffed by HIV positive people, who provide education, medical help, counselling, home nursing, funeral expenses for those with the virus.

HIV/Aids is a huge, huge problem in Ethiopia. Because of extreme poverty many women have no choice but to become prostitutes – it’s either that or let them and their children starve. Nor is the situation helped by the attitude of the government who until recently were in denial. Now, rather late in the day, they’ve admitted that the problem has reached epidemic proportions.

Mekdim is run by Tenagne Alemu, a charismatic man who has lived with the virus for thirteen years – ‘drug free’ everyone kept telling me before I met him. Like an eejit I thought he was ‘drug-free’ to make some kind of point. But not at all. He is drug free because he can’t afford the drugs. The miracle anti-retroviral drugs that are saving the lives of the thousands and thousands of HIV positive people in the developed world are way beyond the reach of Ethiopians.

I met one of the home care givers. She was a beautiful and articulate twenty-nine year old who discovered she was HIV positive when her three year old daughter became sick and died. No-one could tell her what her daughter had died from, but she’d heard about ‘the sickness’ and suspected the worst. Her husband had been her first sexual partner, so she’d caught it from him. As you can imagine, her life fell apart. She divorced him and was going to kill herself when she heard that Mekdim were looking for people to train as home care givers.

She is constantly coming down with infections. She’s ostracised by her peers. (She wouldn’t let me take her photo because she got harassed enough, she said.) There are anti-retroviral drugs which can cure her but aren’t available in Ethiopia because they’re so expensive. And the number of those infected with the virus – particularly women – continues to escalate.

“I’m angry,” she said with vehemence. “I’m always so angry. Will you tell the people in Ireland we need their help,” she asked. I said I would.


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