cultural differences and similarities between Ireland and Ethiopia

I’d really like my mam and dad to come to Ethiopia. I think they’d be reminded of their childhood or stories from their own parents. I really believe there are many similarities between the people here and the Ireland of old (and hopefully of new, post-tigers). People are genuine. They want to share their stories and homes and food with you, even if there isn’t much food in the house. I think the living conditions of the poor may be similar to the poor in rural Ireland of the 1950s/60s. People live in sparsely furnished dark homes, of which most are made of wood and mud, then plastered and painted. They live in them with large families. In the rural areas they share the space with animals.  People here are devoted to their religions, much like we were in Ireland. There is very little street lighting and most of the roads are unpaved making the dry season tortuous with dust and the wet season a game of balance in the mud.


Another similarity I find is both nationalities are non-confrontational. However they deal with it differently. In Ireland we use banter or in-house jokes to blow off steam rather than face a person directly. In Ethiopia they use intermediaries as a go-between the two bickering parties. It seems to work for them though!


In Ireland we have the freedom of choice. Freedom and choice are not words I would use to describe the country of Ethiopia. The Ethiopian government have made huge progress towards the MDGs but there is a question of personal freedom here that comes up often in discussion with my colleagues. After spending close to eight months here it has become clear to me that there is no freedom of press, no freedom of choice here in terms of vote, occupation and even the location of which you live. As bad as our politicians in Ireland can be, at least we can safely make our way to a voting station and vote for who we like! 

photo shows a student parliament in Jatoo schoolImage


What are the people like and what are the conditions they live?

People here are warm, curious, generous and proud. I am always invited to my colleagues’ homes to share a lunch or dinner. When I travel by line taxi (minibuses which whizz up and down the streets) or bajajs it is not uncommon for someone beside me to insist on paying for me (“You are our guest” they’ll say) and certainly if a colleague is in the same taxi as me they will insist on paying. The same happens when you go out for tea, coffee or a drink with Ethiopians. They rarely let you pay.
If I am walking to a school I do hear calls of “ferenji ferenji” but it’s usually from little kids, lads with nothing much to do or old women! If a local walks by me they may look at me with their eyes but are generally too shy to say hello. If I greet them first a big warm smile comes over them and they are delighted to hear you make the effort to speak their language.
Most teachers and directors in the schools are very pleased to see me coming and welcome my skills and efforts to share them. Ethiopians are proud in the sense they have never been colonised (except for a 5 year stay by the Italians) but they are very eager to learn from westerners and improve themselves through education. Almost all the Ethiopians I know are enrolled in a college course or university course that they attend in addition to their jobs. They want to bring about change for themselves and to have better lives for their children. This makes my job easier!

When I first arrived I would have said the conditions that people live in are indescribably horrific. But you adapt and things that horrified me at first are now everyday things. Cafes, shops, restaurants are all words that convey images of places like Starbucks, Supervalu and Café Bar Deli. Here a shop is an enclosed small building, counter top at the front where people are served. They are a source of great amusement for me personally as I tend to have great chats and a laugh with the shopkeepers and customers. A café or restaurant is a small, somewhat ramshackle space with tables and chairs, usually not the cleanest of establishments (in comparison to home) but where you are served great macchiatos (God bless the Italians) and local fare. Here in Nekemte there is a growing market for ‘ferenji’ style food as there seems to be an ever increasing middle class with more disposable income. Therefore Saturday nights out in restaurants or Sunday visits in cafes for a coke and cake are gaining popularity. But for the majority of the people living in Nekemte (pop. 95,000) clean water and sustenance other than bread or injera (Ethiopian staple food, flat sour pancake) is hard to come by.


An average Jo day

I get up at 7. I make porridge if I have power. I’ll have a banana if not. I head to Sunshine school to teach my English class at 7:30 if I decide to walk with Liz, the third VSO volunteer in Nekemte. I will teach the class and sometimes I’ll sit and have shai (very sweet tea served in a small glass, very hot and difficult to hold without burning your fingers!) with the director but usually I’m rushing to another school so I leave at 9 and catch a bajaj (small vehicle powered by motorbike, can carry three people in the back) back into town. I’ll then either catch another bajaj or line taxi or walk to my next school, depending on its location. When I walk people call out to me “ferenji ferenji” they know me now but they just want the attention. I sometimes ignore the calls and sometimes I’ll greet them “Akkam bulte? Fayyadha? Naggadha?” meaning good morning, how are you in various ways. Most of my schools are a little off the main roads. Some take up to half hour to walk through woods and up hills while others are a short ten minute walk through buzzing neighbourhoods. I might be visiting a school to check up on the CPD developments of teachers but more likely that I’ll be meeting with a specific department to discuss ways of improving the teaching. This may involve a discussion or workshop or observation. After the meeting a teacher will usually ‘invite me’. This means we go for bhuna (coffee) or shai and possible a biscuttii which is a deep fried ball of dough. Actually tastes really good but so so bad for me!

I may visit another school if there is one close by and if not I’ll then had back to town and check in at the post office for parcels. My family and friends are great to send me stuff. I know all the staff at the post office now. When I walk in they’ll just say “Yes Joann you do have” or “No, nothing”. Great service, I don’t even have to check my post box anymore!

I might grab a juice for lunch. Nekemte has great fruit juices. They are served in a tall glass with avocado usually forming the base and pineapple, mango, papaya or whatever fruits are available will come in different layers on top. So delicious!

In the afternoon if I have my 0 class and grade 1 teacher’s workshop we all go to the cluster school (a ‘model’ school). The latest thing we have made is bottle number lines. It was a funny sight for locals watching the ferenji walk around with two hundred plastic bottles hanging from her! It was worth it though. All the teachers made a set to bring back to their classrooms. We demonstrated how they were to be used and the next workshop we will practise this as I haven’t had time to observe them in class using them.

Following this I will return home and maybe check my emails if the network is up or do some preparation for another workshop or continue with writing up the special needs programme. By 6 I’m preparing dinner-soup or tuna pasta or the local shiro wot (similar to a curry).Or I may be joining some local colleagues or friends or the VSOs for dinner and a drink in a local restaurant or bar. After dinner I might watch a movie, read a book, practice the ukulele, skype home or if necessary do a bit of catch up work. I’m in bed, usually by 10 if not a little earlier!  The photo is of me with Antonii, one of the special needs kids.Image


My home in Nekemte

I live in an area called Bord. It’s a small community on the eastern side of Nekemte town. There is a small market around the corner from my home and this is where I buy my vegetables (potatoes, carrots, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, chillis, garlic and ocassionally beetroot). I have a couple of favourite market ladies who I visit and chat for a minute or two and buy my goods from. This is where I get to practice the local language-Afan Oroomo. My house is in a small compound. By compound I mean a small area surrounded by galvanized sheeting as a wall. My landlady, her elderly mother, two small children Bontu and Lombi and two lodgers live in a separate building to mine. They live in single rooms and usually all cooking, washing etc is done outside. Their shared toilet is small shack with a ‘hole in the ground’. I have a night guard who comes around 8pm and stays the night. I don’t feel it’s necessary but it’s a job for a local so I don’t mind. The family do my laundry and I pay them for this. There is a church right beside my house which keeps me awake on Wednesday nights and helps me wake at around 7 on Sundays. One thing I have noticed about Ethiopia is it is rarely quiet. There is always music or noise coming from somewhere-the calls to prayer of the Muslim churches, the beating of drums and shouting of the Protestant churches, Ethiopian tunes blaring from speakers in shops and juice bars or moving vans advertising a college course and very late at night the barking and growling of the packs of dogs that roam the streets. 


What work do I do here in Ethiopia?

Here in Ethiopia I am a CPD trainer/advisor. Basically this means I help teachers in the primary school improve their professional skills in order to improve the quality of education at primary level. There is a toolkit/manual to help you to set up CPD (Continuous Professional Development) in the schools but I soon found out it was not entirely a workable system i.e. A somewhat western manual for an African context. So over time you tweak it and adapt it in a way that works best for the schools.

When schools plan their CPD needs I help to implement activities. For example, if ‘making maths in grades 1-4 more practical’ is a CPD need I observe teachers teaching and then devise a workshop or training based on the needs. I will ask staff of the maths department of the Teacher Training College to come and give a workshop. I will seek out ‘model’ maths teachers and ask them to give a demonstration lesson. The less involvement I have in supplying the training the better as it develops a more sustainable programme of training. However if I’m being honest it is a challenge  to find support in giving workshops in the schools so I find it easier in many cases to give the training myself. Though the more time you spend in a placement the easier it is to make the right contacts so I’m hoping I can involve more and more local teachers in facilitating workshops.

ImageI’m working on a weekly basis with 0 class and grade 1 teachers to introduce more active lessons for the children. I do this by making resources/teaching aids with the group of teachers, demonstrating how to use them and sending the teachers off with their resources in hand. When I visit schools I pop in to observe them using the new teaching aids and if more support is required I give it.

 There are many things I do outside of my role as CPD trainer in areas that I have a personal interest in. For example I am helping to write a programme for the two special education needs units in the town. There are great things happening here in Nekemte in terms of vocational skills for the learning disabled children but there is little expectation in terms of academic work. So I’m trying to bring about a change in this area. I also teach English three times a week to grade 9 students in the Sunshine School, a local HIV/Aids orphans’ school. It is a lovely school to work in. Usually we don’t do ‘gap-filling’ jobs but this class helps me to understand the challenges faced by teachers. They must use the government owned textbooks in their classes while trying to improve their teaching in terms of making lessons more student-centered.  In my opinion, the standard of the textbooks are graded too high for students so it’s a difficult task to teach using them! 

The picture shows visitors from Exeter Ethiopia Link, a charity which is involved in lots of small scale charity work in Nekemte, joining the kids from the Mekane Yesus special needs unit in a reading circle.


My life as a VSO volunteer in the western highlands of Ethiopia has taken a strange turn towards luxury for the upcoming weekend of St. Patrick’s Day.

Power and water shortages, the absence of cheese, the regular scurrying of rats in my attic and the countless dust-filled walks to and from my primary schools have given way, if only for a day or two, to the bright lights of the most decadent hotel in Addis. Yes, I’m a hard-core volunteer…most of the time…but bring on the comfort!!!

 Tonight,Friday night, 16th March, the Ambassador of Ireland, H.E. Ms. Sile Maguire requests the pleasure of my company (and all Irish living in Ethiopia!) at the National Day Reception at the Lalibela Patio in the Sheraton. I’m truly looking forward to this night as our ambassador looks after her VSO citizens very well. She knows we come to the big shmoke to let our hair down. She tends to give us the nod as soon as the buffet is open and drinks are being served and ensures us a safe ride home after one too many drinks. Ferrero Roche would disappoint us! The following night I’ll have to get the glad rags on for a second night, how tiresome, to attend the St.Patrick’s Day Charity Ball, again, in the Sheraton!

 A ticket to the charity ball on the night of the 17th has cost well over one third of my monthly salary with part of the ticket going towards two deserving charities based in Ethiopia and the rest towards our meal (including salmon…salmon! Haven’t tasted it since I left home last September) the music (a band from Ireland are travelling for the event) and the free gargle on the night. It’s a pricey ticket by my standards of wages here but I do wonder if the hotel will actually manage to cover their costs…a ballroom full of Irish people, away from home, with a free bar. Time will tell!

 I did consider staying in Nekemte and attempting a St.Paddys’s celebration of sorts here in the town and I may very well do something next year. Maybe I can organize the Kerry football team to come play with a local team (Sure the Kerry lads won’t be doing much anyway…). But when I speak about St.Patrick and explain his importance to us in Ireland it’s difficult for me to feel a sense of excitement about the day here. This is totally understandable. Only 1.7% of people in Ethiopia are Catholics so they’re not all that interested in hearing about St.Paddy, the Welshman, bringing Christianity to our wee island. And more to the point, which directly affects my mood for this occasion, is that Ethiopians don’t celebrate events quite like we do in the west. We’re a self-indulgent bunch and our celebrations know no limits at times. And we Irish can be the kings of excessive partying. So hand on my heart, St.Patrick’s Day is a day when I like to be self-indulgent. I’m one of those eejits you see dressed as a leprechaun swigging out of a bottle of beer dancing a jig in a packed sweaty bar! This year I may be dressed a little differently but I’m hoping for a bit of the Riverdance at some stage over the weekend!

 Speaking of dressing, the challenges I face as a volunteer in Ethiopia involve bringing teachers together for workshops, the lost in translation language barrier, the regular ‘stomach problems’ and getting accustomed to the annoying local custom of endless calls for attention when I walk around. But suddenly a guna for the upcoming ball has become a source of stress for me! What shoes will I wear? I don’t have any shoes with me! I am reminded immediately of life back home. I haven’t thought about clothes or fashion so to speak in almost 6 months. It has been quite refreshing.

So though I look forward to my weekend of luxury celebrating our Patron Saint of Ireland I do so with slight trepidation of a different sort. The kind I have not yet experienced in my role as a VSO volunteer in Ethiopia. But rather one that has been pressed upon me, by my own need, to party the night away with fellow countrymen in honour of St.Paddy.



Addis turning green?

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Posted by on March 16, 2012 in Uncategorized


market in Konso

market in Konso

busy busy busy

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Posted by on February 26, 2012 in Uncategorized