The last loop

Like many of the bus journeys on this trip I was once again greeted by stunning vistas across unspoilt countryside.  Ancient terraces, still in use, cut into mountainsides up steep valleys, wrecked lorries and buses lying crushed a few hundred metres below where they had left the road.  It occurred to me that these had been missing on the road to Axum and somehow it seemed the lack of tarmac made the drive safer – perhaps drivers are more cautious there.  After a few hours driving we started our descent towards a large town.  It was too soon to be Mekele and there were no other large centres of population on the route so I knew that I had successfully boarded the right bus- ahead of me was Adigrat It would have been a great to stop and take a few pictures, but one of the trials of public transport means that that is not an option – for the driver this was work not a guided tour, Mekele beckoned.  Once down in the town I alighted and began to soak in the atmosphere watching the bus fade into the distance.


The Catholic Cathedral in Adigrat

The Catholic Cathedral in Adigrat

Adigrat had a special draw for me.  Early on in the stages of preparation for Ethiopia this was the place I was supposed to go.  It seems distant history now, but I had invested a lot of time and energy in finding out about this place and its surroundings as well as investigating the local language, Tigrinya.  Naturally I was extremely curious about the place.  As with so many of my stops I was lucky to be able to visit a fellow volunteer and the local knowledge as always proved useful.  My time in Adigrat was short, but it was enough to get a feel for the town and to visit a few places.  I wandered down to the Catholic Cathedral and running into a member of the local clergy asked if I could be let into the locked building.  Obliging and even providing some information about the building I entered into the tranquil calm of the church a far cry from the bustle of the Adigrat streets.  It was a fairly modern building and the priest was clearly extremely proud of the ecumenical work and spoke of a recent funeral where members of a variety of denominations and religions had been in attendance together as well as a weekly ecumenical prayer session.

Inside Adigrat Cathedral (Entry = 0 Birr - Take a hint Ethiopian Orthodox Church)

Inside Adigrat Cathedral (Entry: Free – take note Ethiopian Orthodox Church)

There is also a painting above the sanctuary which includes symbols or buildings connected to all the Abrahamic religions.  One of things that Ethiopians seem to be very good at – at least publicly is religious tolerance.  Most, if not all, of the countries I have visited previously could learn a thing or two on this front.

Adigrat Street Scene

Adigrat Street Scene

One of the things I enjoyed most about Adigrat was just walking the streets.  Since the war with Eritrea this former border town has suffered economically from the border remaining closed and gives the impression of a former glory now slightly decayed.  However, it is also a town under construction and perhaps has a brighter future ahead.

The new growing behind the old

The new growing behind the old

It was also the first place I managed to get the elusive “doro wat”.  This is the famous Ethiopia chicken dish that in spite of seeing chickens everywhere and the name featuring on numerous menus no restaurant seems to have.  It lived up to its reputation of being a fine dish and one that is definitely worth hunting for.

Which came first the chicken or the egg? - well here they come together.

Which came first the chicken or the egg?    Here they come together.


The volunteer I was staying with was, by coincidence, heading to Mekele the final place on my tour and I was fortunate enough to be able to join her in the hospital car that was taking her to the city.  As the car pulled out of the city I found myself hoping to return because there was one thing I had not had time to do.  When I had been doing all my research I had read about the rock churches of Tigray and one of the biggest draws when I thought I would be working in Adigrat was that I would be able to take trips out to see several of these.  On this occasion I had not had enough time to do see even one.  This is the one thing at the top of my Ethiopia “to do” list before I leave.

Is this doro wat made with nestlings?

Is this doro wat made with nestlings?

Mekele is quite the city and in many ways more developed than many of the other places I have visited in Ethiopia.  Apparently this has happened over the last 20 years or so.  I had no particular plans of anything I wished to see there – most of it is modern anyway, but again it was good to wander the streets and just get a feel for the place.  It is also the launching point for those who wish to head out to the Danakil Depression – the hottest place on Earth (I think its claim comes from having the highest average temperature) and also to where the remains of “Lucy” were found – everyone’s great, great, great, etc., etc., grandmother; this leading to the claim of Ethiopia being the birthplace of modern humans.  However, more recent discoveries have led to several other countries nearby countering this claim.  The reality being that this was now so long ago we’ll never know for sure.

Streets of Mekele

Streets of Mekele

From Mekele I broke my land only rule and took the plane back to Addis, mainly because the bus seemed to be permanently booked for the next “x” days.  I had unsuccessfully tried to get the bus from Addis to Mekele previously and then heard, while in Axum, of another volunteer unable to take the bus from Mekele to Addis for the same reason of it being booked out leading to a convoluted and difficult several days travel.  It didn’t seem worth the hassle and I get a glimpse of the Afar region as the plane flew via that way.  Definitely glad that I hadn’t been posted there, although it may be worth a brief, very brief, visit one day- if I have time.

Addis chaos

Addis chaos

Addis was Addis; the same hustle and bustle and craziness as ever.  I stayed a few days before heading back south with just a brief overnight in Hawassa and then an early morning bus to Adola.  There was something pleasant as the bus turned off the main highway onto the side road to Adola and began to climb up into the green hills.  Yes, the north had the majestic beauty of the Simian Mountains and Nile Gorge, but it didn’t have the life of the mountains in the south.  Both have their charms and the trip north was unquestionably amazing, with special thanks to all the volunteers who accommodated and helped me out.  Still, it was good to be heading home.

Ancient Empires

Peering through the murky window reveals spectacular vistas as the bus climbs its way up and down the sides of mountains.

Yes, the bus did go down that road...

Yes, the bus did go down that road…

When the tarmac gives way to dirt tracks it comes as some relief that I am doing this particular journey in the dry season and that unlike many of his countrymen the driver of the bus has a healthy fear of his own demise; taking the sharp bends with steady caution.

One at at time - thank goodness for the dry season

One at at time – thank goodness for the dry season

One of the most striking differences between Tigray (the region where Axum is found) is the buildings.  As soon as the bus crossed into the region the houses started to be built from stone rather than mud (or the rarer wood).  It gave a different feel to the area along with the starkness of the landscape – the mountains steeper and barer and with dry season starkness absent in the green south.  It is undoubtedly impressive, especially in the contrast to the lush mountains and hills around Adola.

Historic sites of Axum 1 - the stelae field

Historic sites of Axum 1 – the stelae field

I have done the journey now from Gondar to Axum by road – I don’t need to do it again.  I am not sure if I will have the chance or inclination to visit Axum again, but if I do the plane seems a far better option.

The one the Italian's took

The one the Italian’s took

This is not to say that Axum is not a place worth visiting, but the sites available for public visitation are rather limited, although not without interest and once again the historic sites of Ethiopia trump the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  But a handful of Birr, about the price of a coffee, is enough to get in to see most of the historic sites of the town and nearby and even without the local residence card it comes in at only 50birr (less than £2).

Tomb at stelae field

Tomb at stelae field

underground at stelae field

underground at stelae field

St Mary’s -the “most famous” church in Ethiopia, where it is alleged the Ark of the Covenant is held, is 200birr to all of pale complexion.  For a visitor this is not much, but to a humble volunteer surrendering two days allowance it is not unreasonable to expect something more than this compound offers.  If you ever find yourself passing by Axum way, give this church a miss- it will only disappoint and the remains of the Axumite empire that have been uncovered so far are infinitely superior to the internal view of a modern church with not much going for it and a lame museum.

Inside the church - consider it 200birr saved

Inside the church – consider it 200birr saved


There is some evidence to suggest that the Axumite empire, in its day, was the equal of its contemporaries, such as the Persian and Greek empires.  The difference being that everyone has heard of those and the countries connected have made a huge effort to cash in on the tourist money that flows.

Historic sites of Axum 2 - The Queen of Sheba's bath (allegedly)

Historic sites of Axum 2 – The Queen of Sheba’s bath (allegedly)

Here in Ethiopia I have been shocked at how little interest history seems to have for people.  Perhaps the recent past has too many bad connotations or the sense of living for today is more important.  There is nothing wrong with this, but the danger lies in the repetition of past mistakes.

Historic sites of Axum 3 - the Queen of Sheba's palace (only a few hundred years too recent...)

Historic sites of Axum 3 – the Queen of Sheba’s palace (only a few hundred years too recent…)

Just from an economic perspective this could be a massive source of income for the country and lead to huge strides in its development especially of financial independence – however, like the 40 year old child still living at their parents’ house there is a lack of desire to give up the easy aid money that flows into Ethiopia and which has seeped so far into the local culture that the assumption is that any foreigner of European heritage is going to just dole out money to anyone who asks, because that’s where you get money from.

Historic sites of Axum 4 - King Kaleb's 'Tomb' (they forgot the body - actually he is buried in a monastery)

Historic sites of Axum 4 – King Kaleb’s ‘Tomb’ (they forgot the body – actually he is buried in a monastery)

Unfortunately this is a particular issue in Axum and something that may well hinder the tourist trade – the constant hassle there is unlike anywhere else I have been in Ethiopia, with the possible exception of Addis.  Although to be balanced it is only right to say that is nowhere near the level of some of the other countries I have visited.  That after so many years of receiving aid they are still putting out their hand suggests that something hasn’t quiet worked.  I will return to this theme.

A few days in Axum gave me a chance to wash my clothes and take a bit of a breather before heading on to see more of Tigray.  And my thanks to my hosts who have been fortunate to be given a rather nice place to live… all placements are not equal!

How the other half live

How the other half live

Getting a bus to my next stop presented more of a challenge than I had anticipated.  The use of buses does not show the hospitality of Ethiopians at their best; if there were a contest Axum bus station would be at the head of the league table for toughest bus to board – and firm favourites for the world cup.  I failed to get and stay aboard the early bus although perhaps my error was in my failure to employ a small boy to rush on and grab a seat for me – a tactic employed by several older ladies.  The one seat I managed to get, I surrendered to an American Peace Corps volunteer when I was told the bus wasn’t going to Adigrat – my intended destination.

Axum library - an interesting place to visit

Axum library – an interesting place to visit

Finally a little later in the day, reinforced by breakfast and in the daylight I returned to the station and managed to get the bus first to Adwa, a town famous for being near the site of the defeat of a European power by an African nation an unexpected victory for the home team that ended Italy’s hopes of colonisation and left Ethiopia able to lay claim to be the only African nation that wasn’t colonised.  I saw only a little of the town and mostly the bus station from where I finally managed to get a bus heading to Mekele and which was probably going via Adigrat.  With a sense of adventure I set off wondering where I was going to end up – my destiny in the hands of the driver.

Escape from Addis

No doubt several of you are wondering if the lure of a place called Mojo led to the end of my journey.  Sadly the place does not live up to its name and I was happy enough to continue on to Addis in the early hours of the following morning.  We left the hotel at 6am.  This was the time set by the dean and this time he meant it.  He had a meeting to get to!

Addis was but a staging point and that very same day I headed to the Selam bus office to book the bus to Mekele – preferably for the next day.  The office was crowded and it quickly became clear from the enquiries of others that there would be no chance to take the bus to Mekele until Sunday.  Staying in Addis the extra time would significantly impact of my great travel plans for the North of Ethiopia.  I quickly switched plan B.  My intent was to do a loop around the north so the logical thing was to go clockwise instead of anti-clockwise.  Switching to the company’s back office where suitable buses could be found I was able to get leaving Thursday.  It meant an extra day in Addis, but was preferable to waiting until Sunday.  This wasn’t the only bonus it also allowed for a delightful trip up to Entoto, one of the hills surrounding Addis with one of the people from the VSO office.

View from Entoto

View from Entoto

The bus journey to Bahir Dar, the new first stop of my circuit, was not for the faint hearted.  At places the road dropped away with no barrier to stop an out of control bus and indeed we passed at least one bus that had taken a short cut down the side of the Nile Gorge.  Sadly this type of accident is all too common here.   If you can look beyond the terror, however, the scenery is spectacular, if difficult to capture by photograph; the path the Blue Nile has cut through the mountains creating magnificent vistas that remain on view for over an hour thanks to the roads winding nature as it makes its way first down to the bridge crossing the river and then snakes its way back up the other side.

on the road

Naturally my arrival in Bahir Dar couldn’t run totally smoothly.  The bus did not pull in where expected and the fellow volunteer with whom I would be staying was at one place while I was at another.  After a number of text messages and phone calls he managed to pull on his more local knowledge and came and found me.

With Dr Matthew at Lake Tana

With Dr Matthew at Lake Tana

Bahir Dar is a pretty lakeside town, similar in many ways to Hawassa, but seemingly taking greater advantage of its lakeside nature with a much more built up lakefront.  There is perhaps more on offer for the tourist than Hawassa, with, in addition to Hippos and birds to see, a number of monasteries on various islands and peninsula on or around the lake.  Being in tourist mode I thought that I should venture out to explore some of these with the best manner to do so going by boat.  Given how much I enjoy being out on the water the boat option was a clear bonus.  Setting out with two other travellers – a German lady and an Ethiopian working in South Sudan we left from the hotel where the trip had been booked and walked down to get the boat at a landing area a short distance away.  When we arrived the boat had turned into a minibus and we were driven half-way across the town to a different landing area.  Not the most auspicious of beginnings perhaps but things improved from there.

Typical Church Painting.  This one of St Michael.

Typical Church Painting.

One of the challenges of being a foreigner here is the assumption that you sweat money.  When we got off at our first stopping place we were approached by someone who wanted to be our guide.  When we asked if it was required that we use this guide’s service there was a lot of twisted words, behind which the answer was basically, “no”.  So we head off on our own, with the person from the boat leading us in the right direction.  Had a come on holiday direct from England I may have been more inclined, but was reluctant to pay more than a day’s allowance for someone to not really tell me an awful lot – my fellow travellers seemed to be of a like mind.  In any case, entry to the monastery itself was a day’s allowance, as long as you are not Ethiopian – then it is a fraction of the price.  Being a volunteer means nothing to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  I tried to negotiate, but to no avail.

Antique books; handle with care!

Antique books; handle with care!

In the end I choose to go into only two monasteries and don’t regret the decision. Both were interesting enough with the main feature being the paintings as well as some old religious books, clothing and other items, but I didn’t feel another place would have anything more to offer.  In any case the third monastery we visited was fairly modern and didn’t have much going for it according to the guidebook.  The Ethiopian in our party went in for 10Birr (10% of the foreigner price) and the German lady and myself went to have a coffee in a small shack.  We had barely sat down by the time our companion re-joined us.  I think we made the right choice.

A long way from home.  What was this doing in Ethiopia?

A long way from home. What was this doing in Ethiopia?

Bahir Dar was most enjoyable, mainly thanks to the company of fellow volunteer Dr. Matthew, but more of Ethiopia awaited and I was soon on a bus heading further north to the town of Gondar – one of the early capitals of the country and famous for its castles.

Italian influence can still be seen in Gondar

Italian influence can still be seen in Gondar

The journey was fairly sedate and a mere 4 hours by minibus.  It didn’t feature the spectacular scenery of previous journeys and unfortunately the road does not go close enough to the lake to be able to enjoy views of that.

Welcome to Gondar

In Gondar I was on my own, the local VSO volunteer helped me to find a hotel and landed me with a local, who 24 hours later he sent a text to be wary of!  A bit late, but actually the local was very helpful and arranged an excellent guide for the following day.  By chance the German I’d met on the boat trip was in Gondar at the same time and so we shared the cost of the guide.

Outside of Church

Outside of church…

We started in the morning and having had some help getting my bus ticket for the following day to Axum we headed up to the oldest church in Gondar.  This had survived the onslaught of raiding dervishes some centuries before thanks to bees attacking the assailants – or so the story goes.  Most churches in Ethiopia seem to have a circular shape, but this was more basilica style.  Again the features were some amazing artwork with an extremely tranquil compound surrounding the church.

and inside

and inside

On our way back to the town, the church being on the outskirts (and probably someway outside of Gondar when the marauders came) our guide stopped us where a woman was making Injera, the local staple.  My German companion, being a woman, was offered the chance to make some injera – a picture can show the results better than any description.   Just in case you were wondering, it doesn’t normally look like that.

Injera- German style

Injera- German style

What Injera should look like

There are two other significant sites in Gondar.  The next we visited was in another part of town and features a large pool, empty at this time, where at Timkat several people will jump in as part of the baptism process.  It is linked to one of the former monarchs as a bathing place.

Bath - but no water (typical!)

Bath – but no water (typical!)

The last place is the main draw of Gondar – the royal compound.  Contained within this area are several castles in varying condition.  Some remain quite intact, one was taken over by the Italians during their occupation and consequently fixed up with concrete and one had a big hole where the roof used to be courtesy of British bombing when trying to get the Italians out.   Having the guide was a definite bonus and he was able to offer a fairly frank and honest perspective.  He told the legends, but made clear that they were legends and explained what the historical facts really suggested.


All in all an enjoyable day with the bonus being that I was able to get in at a local rate as a volunteer.  Historical Sites of Ethiopia 1 – Ethiopian Orthodox Church 0

Next time – The Heart of the Axumite Empire

A Christmas Blog – Part 4: Christmas Finally Arrives!

It finally happened.  Christmas arrived in Ethiopia and it was certainly very different to my prior experiences.  This story begins a little way back in time… No, I am not going back 2000 years, but rather to September, when I first arrived here in Adola.  I had heard rumours of some small element of Catholicity in the town and to put things a little into perspective- about 1% of the population here are Catholic and for the most part they follow a different tradition more similar to the Orthodox rite.  So arriving in a town with a catholic church was quite amazing.  I kindly local took me from the Missionaries of Charity (Mother Teresa) compound to the location of the church, somewhere on the back streets and over the months I have come to know a little the community and the three priests that work there.  Once I had got over the confusion of when Christmas was actually going to be celebrated, one of the priests invited me to join him on Christmas Eve at a church out in the countryside.  The five sisters from the Missionaries of Charity were also going and he had told them that it was a huge church, much bigger than the one in Adola.

Church decorated for Christmas in Adola

Church decorated for Christmas in Adola

A pleasant late afternoon drive out into the countryside, much of it on the dirt track that led out to the rural community we were visiting.  The sisters were probably wondering where this large church they were promised was as they pulled into a compound with only two small huts in evidence.

Rustic Church

The tiny ramshackle church had space for about 20 to 30 people, but for this occasions about 50 crammed into the confined space, wooden beams and thatch brushing the heads of those sat near the side walls.  Shortly after dusk the mass started and although it wasn’t midnight mass I had come to know in other places, it was really something very special.  There was such a strong sense of community amongst the locals who made the foreigners interlopers feel really part of it and one of the great charms about churches here in Oromia is the joy that they have when celebrating.  Everyone joins in with the singing, which is beautiful, and are accompanied only by a drum, usually played by one of the ladies.  Those in the know will appreciate how disappointing it is for me that there is no one playing an organ!  For those not in the know, I prefer organs to be played, just once, preferably with a sledgehammer or hatchet.

At the end, one of the sisters made a short speech comparing the setting to that of Bethlehem, and there was certainly a rustic charm to the place that made it easier to imagine.  However, for me the greatest part was the welcome from the community, which even extended to their offering us food at the end.  Somehow this made Christmas extra special this year.

Cooking Goat

Cooing Goat

Christmas day itself (Genna) you will be pleased to read that I ended up feeling overfull in true Christmas dinner tradition, although not in the conventional way.  It began with servings of goat cooked up in a huge pot and dished out after the morning mass in Adola.  Just as they were about to start serving this the dean called and requested my presence for a ‘ceremony’ up on the college campus.  So eating quickly I rushed back up to the college.  The ceremony was… a meal at the dean’s house.  The vice-dean had already invited me for lunch, but that was fine.  I could go there later!  It soon became apparent that I would be eating at several houses and given the farenji stomach is not geared up for copious amounts of injera (the local staple) I was feeling extremely full by the end of all these meal invitations.

Christmas Dinner number 1!

Christmas Dinner number 1!

It is this hospitality of inviting friends and sometimes strangers to share what you have with that is one of the greatest things about Ethiopia and religion is not an issue – Muslim colleagues are also welcome to join in the celebrations, for example, and I believe it is the case for Muslim festivals too.

One of my little buddies on the college campus - The vice-dean's youngest son.

One of my little buddies on the college campus – The vice-dean’s youngest son.

It all made Christmas worth waiting for.

A Christmas Blog – Part 2: A ‘typical’ day

I know I like to make you wait for my blog entries.  Let’s pretend it has something to do with building the anticipation and leave it at that.  However, on this occasion I feel the need to share, but a short time after the previous entry.

So much happens here that it is impossible to put it all down in a blog and don’t worry I will have forgotten most of it by the time I come back and shall hopefully avoid boring you with endless tales of Ethiopia (although it has been a truly amazing experience so far – see I’m getting it out of my system now).  Note I am not making any promises!

So Christmas day, by which I mean that celebrated in the Gregorian calendar and not the Julian one… Let’s keep it simple, the day that everyone else on the planet recognises as Christmas day started (as predicted yesterday) as a normal everyday day (hmm, can I fit “day” into this sentence a couple more times?) here in Adola.  It was bright and clear and I awoke at 6.45 having planned to be well awake and ready for the arrival of my new serategna at, as I anticipated, about 7.30.  In true Ethiopian style she didn’t arrive at that time; contrary to Ethiopian style she arrived at 6.50.  I coped.

For the first time since arriving in Ethiopia, I had injera for breakfast.  Injera is the local staple – sort of like their bread although it is a more a sort of thin spongy product, which I realise I am not selling as particularly appetizing.  However, at times it can be positively delicious and at others not so much there seem to be several factors involved in this which I won’t go into now (bet you can’t wait for the Blog all about the wonders of injera).

Now, the thing about injera is it’s incredibly filling- like nothing else I have known.  And there were two of these served up for my breakfast (along with a sauce called wot – no jokes please).  I managed to get through about 1 ½ and felt quite proud of myself.

I had a busy morning observing lessons from participants on the course I am running here.  They have four sessions in the morning and someone I managed to be observing in all of them.  Lunch time came around and I wasn’t really hungry – still full from breakfast.  However, my lunch had been prepared and so I tucked in, wisely only taking one piece of injera.  I managed to eat most of it, but subsequently felt extremely full.  Suddenly I realised that inadvertently I had managed to fulfil one Christmas activity – eating until you can’t move.  Perhaps I was getting into the Christmas spirit after all.

This evening I was expressing disbelief at how anyone could eat injera twice in one day, only to be cheerily informed by my colleagues that sometimes they eat it three times.  I told them they were crazy and refuse to believe it possible until I see it with my own eyes. I haven’t had dinner this evening – I probably won’t need to eat until sometime next week now.

Back at the office (usually a two minute walk, but took about ten) I gave some feedback for the morning’s observed classes and then headed at 4.30 to the ICT classes I had agreed to give.  Probably not a wise move, but somehow I have picked up the Ethiopian habit of never saying no things (don’t worry I will relearn by the time I am back in the UK).

Within a few moments of arriving I realised that something was missing, and something that was really rather essential to the successful delivery of the lesson – namely the students.  The local, who has been assigned to work with me on the ICT project, arrived shortly after and delivered the startling news: there was a protest by the students and they were refusing to attend classes.  Now there had been some issues about spaces available for the ICT classes and several students had missed out.  At first I thought this was the problem, but it transpired that the situation was much more serious – someone had written an inappropriate message in the toilets.  The police were summoned (seriously) and the students were demanding that the college find out “who dunnit?” There are over 600 students in the college and despite some attempts to match handwriting there has been no success.

By now my curiosity was piqued – what could possibly have caused such an uproar and involved so many students.  Initially I was only able to find out that it was some comment about the Guji Zone – the best way to describe this as the local ‘county’ where Adola is situated.  Applying my finely honed investigative skills I was able to discover an approximate translation of the phrase, which I won’t repeat here; my blog is not a toilet.

In Ethiopia I have been frequently been shocked at the way they refer to each other- they are quite happy to call each other “fat”, “gap-toothed” and other such personal comments that would be totally unacceptable today in the UK and some of which would be considered racist.  It has really taken some getting used to and I suppose that my surprise at the reaction to the graffiti was increased because of this.  Clearly the students from the Guji zone were the most offended, and because of the location of the college they make up a significant number of the students.  However, the response to the incident has probably actually given the rather stupid person who wrote the comment the fuss and attention he or she wanted.  In addition it seems a bit extreme to refuse to attend classes because of this as it only damages their own education (and I am not just talking about the ICT classes here – which incidentally they do really need since almost all of them have never even used a computer before – but also all the classes for the evening sessions and that’s just today).

I don’t envy the college management having to deal with this situation.  This evening, when heading out with some colleagues to a local coffee shop a large group of students were holding a meeting in a nearby field.  They were being watched over by several police officers and a contingent of soldiers.  As we passed the meeting broke up and they started making their way back to the college.  May companion suggested we cross to the other side of the road and as we did so I told him not to worry as he was with me and the students seem to like me!  Still VSO tell us to avoid such gatherings – not sure how I am going to do this since tomorrow they will be gathering on the campus and that’s where I live.

In unrelated news Father Christmas made a delivery to the guards at the gate.  As we went out I noticed that they had acquired semi-automatic rifles.  At first I thought this was in response to the “developing situation”, but was told that they had been waiting for them since the college opened 15 months ago and it was just by coincidence they had arrived today.  It made me think of the series ‘Dad’s Army’ and how they started out with a variety of home-made weapons until their rifles arrived.  Then I realised that was unfair; these guards are much older.  Funnily enough it’s actual made the campus seem less safe – still they seemed to be quite excited to have them; maybe that’s why!

A Christmas Blog – Part 1

‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through Adola

There wasn’t a sign that Christmas was here at all!


One of the pleasures of being in Ethiopia is that I have not been bombarded since sometime in October with Christmas music, and shops trying to sell me all kinds of rubbish for Christmas (they have plenty of rubbish to buy without needing a special occasion!).  One of the most impressive contrasts is the lack of advertising everywhere and the complete absence of supermarkets here in this rural town.

Ethiopians don’t like much to plan too far ahead (usually no more than 10 minutes or so) when I gave a class focussing on time-management, the listed most things they had to do as important and urgent!  This is probably true because everything gets left to the last minute so it becomes urgent.  However, I quite like the spontaneity of things here and once you get used to it and expect it, it is possible to cope with it – even if it does mean frequent last minute changes.  One of the benefits that came from this was a recent trip to Negele Borena, the main town of the Guji Zone (the area of Oromia Adola is in).  Friday mid-afternoon, the vice-dean walked into my office and asked if I wanted to join him on a weekend trip there where he was giving a workshop.  Naturally I accepted (after all it is considered very impolite to say “no” here!).  His main reason was for watching the Ethiopia match on the Saturday – he seems to like my company for this.   I think I have watched more football in the last 3 months than in the rest of my life- sometimes as many as 3 matches in one afternoon.  If I’m not an expert by the end of time here, it will have been time wasted!

While it was pleasant to visit a new place Negele was not the most exciting town in the world and had little more to offer than Adola and without the comforts at home.  Still the drive was beautiful and at times nerve-racking; the rains had made the unsealed sections of road a little challenging and seeing a bus sliding towards you, sideways down a muddy mountain road is quite an experience.  Fortunately it was dry for the return trip and seemed like a different road and I had been that little bit closer to the Somali border :).

Tomorrow is Christmas day, but I will be at work.  Don’t worry, this isn’t because the college is some Victorian institution run by an Ethiopian Ebenezer, nor is it because I am being more than usually “humbug” about the whole thing.  Rather it is because Ethiopia doesn’t celebrate Christmas on 25th December.  It is for them just a normal day in the week.  Here Christmas, called Genna, occurs on the 7th January and this is not to be confused with Epiphany, because they have a separate celebration for that on the 19th January, called Timkat.  And this is why this blog is just Part 1.  For several reasons I have decided I will celebrate along with the locals; mainly because as the lone foreigner it would be a little strange to be walking around singing jingle bells, but also because I am here to experience Ethiopia and so it seems more fitting to celebrate with them.

Actually for a brief period I did have a companion here in Adola, a volunteer from the Netherlands who had come to work at the hospital.  I guess this town was only big enough for the one of us and she made her way on to pastures new in less than a week.  I feel the need to defend the town here to say that it wasn’t a fault with the wonderful local people, or the beautiful setting, rather it was a problem with the accommodation with which she was provided.  Photos have made me appreciate all the more the place I have here on the college campus.

I have no idea what to expect from the Ethiopian celebration; certainly not turkey, mince pies and Christmas pudding.  However, it will be the differences that will make Christmas, or Genna, this year something rather special.

Hi ho… Hi ho…. It’s off to work we go.

For those familiar with the TV series "Teachers", Donkeys are regular inhabitant of schools, along with cows, goats and a variety of other animals.

For those familiar with the TV series “Teachers”, Donkeys are regular inhabitant of schools, along with cows, goats and a variety of other animals.

If you don’t already know, the reason for me being out here is to help introduce a more student-centred and active learning approach to teaching here.  Yesterday, 2 weeks and 15 minutes after the initial planned starting date, the Higher Diploma Programme finally began here at Adola Centre for Teacher Education.

“But what”, I hear you cry, “have you been up to then, Mr Silver?  You have already been there for 8 weeks!”

Fret not.  I have not been idling away the hours twiddling my thumbs, relaxing in hot springs, or partying in Hawassa.

When I first came to Adola, I wanted to get an idea of what school life was really like and to this end I requested that I be taken to visit a few local schools.  The Vice-dean was most accommodating and within a few days of my arrival in Adola we were off to visit the closets school, which, incidentally, was also where the Vice-dean’s children go.

Students gather at the end of the day to sing and watch the flags being lowered.

Students gather at the end of the day to sing and watch the flags being lowered.

Some of you will be more familiar with the typical English classroom.  30 attendant pairs of eyes gaze eagerly to the front of the class ready to assimilate the great wisdom of their teacher… well maybe that’s not quite the image that immediately comes to mind, but certain features such a walls decorated with student work, large windows, whiteboards, tables and chairs may well come to mind.

Before I came out here I was expecting large classes and basic facilities – in particular in the more rural schools.  Fortunately my first visit was to a school in the town and Adola is a fairly large place, even if a little remote, so I knew that it would be some mud hut in the middle of nowhere.

Here is an example of one of the schools we visited.

Here is an example of one of the schools we visited.

The first thing that struck me was the setting.  The school seemed to fill quite a large area and there were a number of single story buildings that I presumed were the classrooms.  The outside space seemed very pleasant and dotted around the place were a number of physics equations.  How wonderful, I thought, good to see they are promoting the most important subjects. Our first stop was a fairly basic office where the Vice-dean introduced us to the vice-director of the school.  It would appear that our visit was not expected, but nevertheless we were able to have a tour, once the initial niceties were completed.  I entered my first Ethiopian classroom.

As my eyes slowly adjusted to the dark of the room, they widened as I attempted to count the number of students staring back at the stranger who had just walked in.  Needless to say foreigners are rare in these parts.  I must have come as quite a shock.  I lost count somewhere after 90, but was told there were over 100.  I was almost as shocked as the students.  The lesson naturally had come to a grinding halt- the teacher had had no warning of this English invasion of his class.  I dread to think how he managed to get them back on task.  The only comparison I can think of is as if a circus, complete with clowns, acrobats and a lion or two had just traipsed through an English classroom.

Child-filled room with low lighting levels.

Child-filled room with low lighting levels.

Naturally, it was not enough to distract one class in such a manner, we had to interrupt another teacher mid-flow, presumable to see if our results could be reproduced.  They could.  After we toured some of the other parts of the school – a locked library with a scattering of outdated text books and clearly unused; a resource centre that was more death trap than storage space for teaching aids and sparse staffroom.  As we made our way back to the college I gingerly suggested that it would be useful to actually see a couple of lessons.  “No problem”, said the vice-dean,” we’ll go back this afternoon.”

Well, we’d ruined the morning shift, why not ruin the afternoon one as well?

And this was only the beginning.  We visited three other schools over the next few days and then I got called into the Dean’s office.  I wondered what huge faux pas I had committed.  I fretted over who in the community I had offended. Prepared for a dressing down, I was surprised to discover that instead the Dean of the college wanted me to visit more schools, including the local High School and Preparatory School (this is roughly equivalent to a sixth form college).  I had been given a mission… from the local education board.  Sadly there was no super hero costume or badge to go with the role and as I didn’t really fancy the idea of wearing tights I was quite relieved.

A P.E. Lesson?  This one didn't seem to involve much movement beyond clapping and singing.

A P.E. Lesson? This one didn’t seem to involve much movement beyond clapping and singing.

And so, the month of October was put over to visiting a number of schools within the local area and handing out questionnaires for the directors and teachers of the schools visited.  It was quite an experience.  At one school, it was break time as I approached and jumping out of the 4WD I was mobbed by the entire school.  I made the mistake of shaking one hand and that was it, every child within a mile radius seemed to want to have a turn.  I needed more hands.  Finally I was hustled into the relative sanctuary of the director’s office.

There is a huge range between the schools and not just those in the countryside and those in the town.  Some schools have basic libraries with a few books, some have a library with no books and some have no library at all.  Many of the classrooms are dark, with light coming in through small windows, whereas others have airy classrooms with large, glass-filled windows.  Some are mud constructions, some are wood and others concrete and the class sizes seem to vary with some as small as 40 and one which had over 130 students crammed 5 to a desk.  The average was probably somewhere about 80.  My fervent wish for smaller class sizes back in the UK, felt somehow foolish now.

A library, with books.  This was the best one we saw and one that was actually being used.  Most of them were locked.

A library, with books. This was the best one we saw and one that was actually being used. Most of them were locked.

The range in teaching was huge too.  In some places the teachers ran out of material to teach and just stopped.  A couple of times I whispered to the vice-dean to ask what was happening.  He was as clueless as I was.  On the other hand some teachers really made an effort to engage their pupils, but use of active learning was rare – which is sort of how this ties into my being here.

This class had over 130 pupils.  I don't know where the 20 who were absent the day we visited would sit.

This class had over 130 pupils. I don’t know where the 20 who were absent the day we visited would sit.

However, I also had a parallel assignment.  My mission to identify any needs and make proposals to suggests solutions and who would be responsible.  The last visits took place on Thursday 31st October, only some of the questionnaires had been returned.  Could I finish my report by the end of the weekend so that it could be presented on the following Monday, enquired the Dean.  This of course meant finishing it by the end of the Friday so that one of my colleagues here could translate it into Afan Oromo, the local language.

It is quite common for the classrooms to have the outside walls decorated with educational materials, but no the inside.

It is quite common for the classrooms to have the outside walls decorated with educational materials, but no the inside.

Friday was a busy day.  13 pages of formal English later, I was ready Saturday morning to have a meeting with the Vice-dean and the head of the Education department at the college, who had drawn the short straw of having to translate.  The meeting took 4 hours and I am still not convinced that it was clear what I had written.  I inwardly cursed my training in report writing that encouraged the use of the passive voice and writing in the third person.  Still, I managed to raise a laugh with my proposal for a mobile library to bring something to the rural schools.  They left it in though – after all the officials at the education board should get to share in the joke.  I tried to not be offended, I felt that this was one of my less crazy suggestions.  Maybe they agreed and had just been polite on the others.

Monday came and went with no meeting.  Wednesday has come and gone with no meeting.  I have learned that such delays are common place.  I think the translation is finished now.  I expect to be told 5 minutes before –“We’re going to the meeting with the local education office now”.  A little part of me hopes that they will forget to take me – I am happy to miss the glory if it means avoiding a long meeting in an unfamiliar language… the ones back home in English were bad enough!

So, as you can see, my time has been filled with meaningful work.  Maybe they will take on board some of my suggestions.  Maybe when my time here comes to an end there will be a bus driving around to the rural schools with a load of books on board.  I don’t expect anything, but I do keep hoping.