My First, Second, and Third “First” Day of Work

The first official day of work for everyone was the Monday after orientation week, on June 7th. After a 7am Amharic class, Gina and I headed to Addis Ababa University, with the help of our friend and interpreter, a university student named Thomas. He helped us with the commute to Sidist Kilo, the main campus. We took one mini-bus to Kasanchis and switched over to another. We then hopped in another mini-bus, amongst countless others on their daily commute. Gina and I sat in the front seat, with an unhindered view of the chaos that the driver was unphased by. He bobbed and weaved through packs of donkeys, cut off oncoming traffic, and religiously crossed himself when passing a priest or church (no pun intended). The stickers of Jesus, crosses, and various saints covered the windshield, reducing his visibility and increasing our anxiety. We arrived miraculously at the University, grateful and a little on edge; slightly different than a New York commute.

The Center for Human Rights, at the University, was a bit quiet, as we passed only one other person before finding a familiar face. Eager to start, we entered bubbly and ready for work. It turned out that the communication was lacking between the professor who organized the course we were going to teach and anyone in the center. With a blank look on the only familiar face we found, we hesitantly entered his office.

The man we spoke to was completely “in the dark” about what we would be doing and was “very busy,” making it an obviously inconvenient time to be bothering him. Professor Yitayew, was apparently out of the country until June 15th. We had mentioned receiving academic journals to edit and he suggested we work on those until we hear from the professor organizing the class we “will be teaching.”

Everyone involved including Mark, Yosef, Professor Yitayew, Gina, and myself were also “in the dark” about the details of the course. We now learned that the summer long course we had been preparing for would be a seminar-like workshop covering different topics, over the span of just one week, starting June 20th. To make matters worse, we were only responsible for one of those topics. It was June 6th, and I leave July 1st, so I was internally fired up. Had I come to Ethiopia to edit journals that I could easily do from a coffee shop with internet in Manhattan? I’m now here to potentially help teach a few days of “class” instead of a few weeks like we had been told?

We didn’t voice this to the man we had spoken to, because he was too busy. We went to the library to continue editing the journals we had been working on. In between editing we took sufficient breaks to complain. By edit, I mean to say completely restructure run-on sentences, five lines long, with words pulled from a thesaurus. Our job was to edit these, to be published in an academic journal and the work was far more tedious than either of us had anticipated.

After seminar that day, Gina and I sat down one on one with Mark and Yosef to voice our concerns. We didn’t see promise in the project we were supposed to work on at the center and were hoping to find a solution or alternative to make our remaining time worthwhile. I was emotional and frustrated and felt I was sitting and waiting for time to pass while crying out for my “skills” to be utilized. I wanted so desperately for my time here to be worthwhile and to make a contribution by the time of my departure. We discussed certain alternative options while still keeping the center in mind, scheduling a meeting with someone else later in the week.

Second First Day:

I spent the entire week feeling incredibly sick. I had a sinus infection coming on and was extremely exhausted. On Monday, after registering at the UN library in an exhausting beauracratic tug-o-war between buildings, I came home to nap for hours before walking down the street to find some injera to eat with the Shiro our housekeeper had made for us. I found a tiny shop with injera, feeling like I had hit the jackpot. Mistake.

I woke up Tuesday morning with an even more intense sinus headache and sporadic stomach pains before getting ready for the “real” first day of work. Jackpot, huh? I had indeed eaten overly fermented injera, the staple I had consistently put all of my trust in during my stay so far here in Addis, and now I had gotten sick from just that? We spent our time at work in the library again editing journals. Gina got the bulk of her editing done while I tried reading one line an hour through the fog in my brain and the pain in my stomach. It’s safe to say we left early.

Third First Day:

Gina and I headed to the center to work in the library yet again. I plugged my extension cord adaptor into the wall to charge my computer. The only way it would work was if the cord was pushed up, and stretched over my bag. No longer than two minutes, did I smell fire and look over to find smoke coming from behind my backpack. The chord had completely melted and burnt. That obviously caused a scene. I was bright red and flustered, trying to prevent unintentionally burning down the center.

We ended up completing the journals by the end of the day, working through an intense rainstorm that cut off all of the electricity except the computers luckily. The rain was pounding down in a cris-cross pattern I didn’t know was possible.

We got a taste of how it is to work at the center, especially during the rainy season. The electricity is incredibly unreliable and you need to be able to work through the inconveniences. It was a challenge working with the standard of internet and electricity that I take for granted and often expect when home in America. I have experienced the frustration of slow internet and lack of electricity in many parts of the world, but never before have I been responsible for getting work done in those conditions. At home we are so incredibly lucky for the reliability of our resources and it is often not until you experience the obstacles others go through just to get work done, that you can appreciate what you have.

Takeaways from work in Addis:

             There are many aspects of work in Addis that I continue to try and dissect. The stark contrast from the work ethic and pace in America was constantly brought to attention during my time in Addis. The communication is disjointed and often frustrating when it comes to trying to get work done. I learned that in order to get things done, I needed to be proactive in seeking out work and staying on top of communication. If I wanted anything to come from the experience, it was in my hands to do so. Ethiopians are often lax with time and while I may be overly excessive showing up 20 minutes early, I would never be 20 minutes late. Never 20 minutes late that is, without having to navigate Addis streets and traffic of course.

I don’t have much prior experience working in development besides a brief stint in (an incredibly organized) leadership training in Rwanda. It is my struggle now, trying to decipher if my heightened awareness of the difference in the way things work in Ethiopia and America, is because of Ethiopian culture or because of the resources in a third world country. I do believe that humans are created to adapt to their surroundings. To that degree, I believe that culture is shaped in part because of that. Working with what they have, Ethiopians have adapted from a rural existence to continuously restructuring their lives to the rapidly developing Capitol city. Even having lived in the Capitol their whole lives, I spoke to many people who explained to me how it constantly evolves. Every day must seem like a “first” day to them.

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