Learn conversational Amharic especially for ordering at restaurants, and pricing for public and private taxis. Private taxis are relatively cheap compared to New York, but take public taxi as much as you can because the cost is no more than 25 cents. That being said, be prepared for a bumpy and sometimes squished ride. Your language skill will go a very long way, especially when you are gentle and courteous. (except when crowding around a moving taxi to get the only available seat). Cheger yelem – it’s no problem, and eshi – okay, are used frequently and in a multitude of situations, and appear to make people more comfortable.
I discourage eating salad, unless in very small portions, even if you prepare it at home yourself. I do recommend trying one of the raw beef dishes – like kitfo, even if you have been nearly vegetarian for 15 years…..Also, the peppers stuffed with chopped onion and tomato – carria (ba timatim), are really wonderful, and are a perfect example of how to eat the right portion of raw vegetables.
Be prepared for some inconveniences, like not having internet even when you are 100% sure you will have internet after you have spent $40 USD on the rechargeable data cards. For the most part, I check my email only at work if the power and/or cable internet connection are working. I use the weekends to find or pay for wifi to chat with friends and family on Viber. The data disconnect might increase your connection with life in the present.
Explore Ethiopia as much as possible, the country is vast and extremely diverse. So make certain weekends available, or weekdays if you have the time, early on. The time goes by very quickly, and it may feel difficult to leave, especially after developing a fondness or intense love for the country.
Diagram of life
After the last session of the international business conference, I met Ana, German-born
resident of Ethiopia, who works in the private sector in Addis Ababa. I learned that she settled
here after an internship and doesn’t have plans to leave even after a five-year stint. I told her that
I was (almost) prepared to do the same: live in slightly uncertain circumstances as a foreigner,
learn the language(s), and focus on personal and professional development.
I queried her about advice to a newcomer. For a moment, she seemed very philosophical in her
approach to living a full and decent life. She splayed her fingers on the left hand and with the
right hand holding the cigarette she pointed out her thoughts on the needs we have. She
described a game of micro-economics where the ability to choose your preferences in life and
what the consequences decide your happiness and the course in life you choose. Of the five, she
said, you should at least have two: a) a satisfying climate/environment, b) financial stability or
acceptable means, c) a purpose or involvement in your passion, d) solid family/friends, e) a lover
I’ve been contemplating these categories of life satisfaction and how the diagram would fit
according to the benefits and potential I see for myself in Addis. I see New York as a cement-
grey small pentagon with an enlarged roof signifying engagement in a life’s purpose and
involvement in my passion. Conversely, I envision a life in Addis as a robust rose-colored
pentagon whose points pull equally and positively in each direction. The New York
configuration sits inside the Addis structure like a small window with the shade drawn and a dim
Part of what forms my impression at this stage of my visit to Addis is informed by my perceived
identity inclusive of my appearance. Most of my daily interactions with locals, especially in the
past several weeks, have been in Amharic as they assume I am Ethiopian or Habasha. There have
been very few times throughout my life thus far in America where I have been treated as part of
the whole. The exceptions have been only in extremely diverse cities that burst with many
“mixed-race” people like in San Francisco or certain parts of Manhattan. I spent the last semester
discussing social inclusion policy, race-wealth disparity, and wealth accumulation (or the lack
of) in the US. I identify as African (American) and felt so much pride that this course was
attended by mostly black women, and the professors were also black, well-respected and
influential in their distinctive fields. I had some incredible moments of intense anger, soul
searching, and deep reflection about my current condition as a mixed-race woman in the US. I
now am able to live within a society that doesn’t question my background, or question my
struggle, or if I ever had to question or fight for my identity.
Ana and I connected on this experience of shifting identities since we have been in Ethiopia.
What does race mean when it doesn’t bring you positive or negative consequences? What does it
mean when race doesn’t define your birth place or social status or morality? We agreed that
although we are sometimes asked if we are half-caste (a seemingly derogatory term), that
appearing Ethiopian in all of its forms, and respecting some cultural norms and learning the
language are positive additions to their society. I guess this might be called assimilation by
individuals who already appear to blend seamlessly in with the people.
Ultimately, I want to achieve at least three of the satisfactory life categories and be accepted for who I am in a culture where I appear to blend in or not, be valued for what I contribute to society and experience
enjoyment in a journey towards personal fulfillment.
Skeptics in development
Two weeks ago I attended the UN Financing for Development conference, as a volunteer for the
International Chamber of Commerce.
Juxtaposed with the attendance of this conference, I relate a story about advancement of the
modern world shared with me by my one of my advisors, PhD of macro economics.
An investor comes to a small village with a lake. He speaks with a fisherman in a small boat,
catching one fish at a time.
The investor says, why don’t you get a bigger net so you can catch
more fish? The fisherman says, and then what? The investor said, so you can sell more fish.
The fisherman then replied, and then what?
So he said, to make more money…to buy more
nets,….to catch more fish…to buy more things,….to see the world. The fisherman, after each
insistence by the investor, replied “and then what?” The investor said, finally, “to enjoy your life.”
The fisherman looked at him and then at the few fish, and said, “what do you think I am doing
Ethiopia is hailed as one of the fastest growing economies on the African continent, with great
strides in eliminating extreme hunger, as praised by President Obama during his and Ethiopian
PM Hailemariam Desalegn’s address at the American Embassy in Addis Ababa. For the past 10
years the growth rate has been between 6 and 12%. Industry has come to Ethiopia, primarily
in agricultural food processing, but also in pharmaceuticals, clothes and textile manufacturing,
and most recently, contracts with automobile manufacturers were initiated. The generation of my
peers (mostly 1980s babies) are establishing themselves in academia, business, and natural
science or politics and recognize that they have more opportunity and wealth than did their
parents or even older siblings. I’ve heard in a multitude of ways how difficult life was during the
1980s and prior. And yet most of my peers were not born during this time, there still is a
collective memory emanating between the youth recollecting the challenges of recent times
One young colleague described the growth in terms of an analogy to a leg stricken with
gangrene – the leg appears to be growing stronger, but is just bloated, corroded, weak beneath
the surface. Another colleague insisted that Addis Ababa, “New Flower,” is now really the new
flower, having not lived up to the “new” portion of its name until now.
Skeptics and pessimists abound in Addis, but optimists flourish, particularly when they leave
Addis. The brain drain is an excepted part of the educational economy, where highly educated
individuals find maximum opportunity in another part of the world. However, I’ve come across of
a number of youth and peers educated elsewhere that have chosen to return to Addis after
earning their graduate degrees or gaining years of professional experience. More than ever,
there are reasons to stay in, or return to Ethiopia.
Mizan-Tepi University Workshop and Eight-cent Avocados
I bought three ripe-as-can-be avocados for a total of 25 cents in Mizan-Tepi this week. This simple yet exhilaratingly confounding experience made me feel very removed from New York – more removed from home than I experienced on this entire Addis IFP journey.
And I was very far away…from New York, whose status as my “home” is dropping rapidly as each day passes here in this country where many things feel new but also refreshingly familiar as well. The one-hour plane ride southwest from Addis to Jimma and subsequent 4-hour drive to the lush tropical mountains of Mizan, and the surrounding SNNPR towns made it seem as though I was in a very remote place, by the time we reached our hotel near the Mizan-Tepi University. Within the seven hour door-to-door transportation time I had flown into dense, fog-covered mountains. I saw tribes of endemic baboons ducking into the brush on the side of the two-lane highway and visited the hundred-acre budding tea plantations. I estimated the percentage of women carrying bundles of grass, wood, or a baby who was without shoes (as compared to men – about 50%), and spied for wild forest honey barrels hanging in the top layer of the forest canopy.
I didn’t travel to Mizan-Tepi on a whim; I was asked by my advisors at YIED, where I intern, to attend a week-long lecture series on project management and research methods for the lecturers at Mizan-Tepi University. The topics included qualitative and quantitative research analysis, econometrics methods, monitoring and evaluation, STATA, and writing in research. I attended three class sessions each day from 9:30 to 4 PM, with breaks for lunch and coffee. I learned a lot about errors and assumptions in the econometrics portions of the course, but I pause to elaborate more about the coffee….
Mizan is in the heart of the Kaffe region of Ethiopia. Kaffe is the origination point of coffee. Coffee = Kaffe, or “boonna/bunna” in Amharic. It grows wild here, and though I saw some signs for coffee cooperatives, I never saw coffee plantations because it grows as the underbrush in natural forests, among other fruit-bearing trees. The coffee was served to the 40 or so students, (I was one of four women attending), by a short man employed by the university. He set up a folding table with two trays of stacked porcelain cups, tiny spoons, cane sugar, and plates full of kolo (Kolo is a snack of roasted barley, and soy peas.) I had a small cup of bunna with two spoonfuls of sugar each break period, sometimes two. I’m not sure how to describe the best coffee I’ve had in my life thus far, but this was it. Velvety, slightly sweet, rich, a bit cloudy (meaning the beans were roasted lightly, and maybe still a bit green), chocolaty, and not bitter at all. My advisors teased me about the amount of coffee I consumed over than the six-day period, and nicknamed me “tinish bunna jibena” – little coffee pot.
I’ll devote this next paragraph to my observations on women in Mizan, as I’m learning that using gender to address issues is a positive trend seen in international and Ethiopian projects and politics – and less polarizing than I expected. I’ve witnessed men say frequently that women work harder than men. Then the statement was repeated for emphasis, almost jokingly, because it is more than apparent that women in this country, if not all over the world, not only have more work than men in most dimensions of daily activities, but complete them with much fewer resources. I have already mentioned my counting exercise of who did and did not wear shoes while carrying loads of material up and down the snaking mountain roads. Women in Mizan carry loads of eucalyptus on their back wrapped with banana leaves and rope around their shoulders – without shoes. Or large woven barrels full of mango or avocado or corn to take to the market morning or evening – without shoes. Or bundles of straw to rebuild a thatched roof – without shoes. On the other hand, the only material I see men responsible for is khat – the herbaceous drug legal here, a few bundles the size of kale parcels wrapped with a straw cord, or cement blocks which the donkeys lug up and down muddy hills – these men all have shoes. The disparity is disheartening, both in terms of gender equality and resource access (rural vs urban).
Even with the inequities of all sorts, I experienced an unusual but also beautiful experience in a nearly all male event. In a celebration for the Mizan-Tepi graduates, musicians and female dancers of traditional Ethiopian music were flown in from Addis. The attendees of the night of music were mostly men, aside from two well-heeled women with their families, and myself. The music lasted three hours where circles of men danced around each other to traditional and modern Amhara, Tigray, Oromiya, Sudan and local language music. (Mizan is estimated to have more than 30 distinct languages spoken). I was familiar with a few of the dances but the other men, mostly from the university delighted in showing me their local dances. In this instance, I found that I was again one of few women present. I was brought into their world where the separation or paranoia of the sexes was absent.
This blog can’t capture the emotional attachment I have to Mizan – but the coffee, dance, price of avocados, gentle mist, hospitality, and incredibly beautiful natural forests have made an intense impact on my outlook on life and reassessment of what my needs in life are. The life is simple but beautiful, where my favorite things (coffee, mango, avocado, honey) abound for ridiculously cheap prices. I want to return to Mizan, not just for personal motivation but because there is also a lot of need. I am brainstorming for a research project on environmental conservation and livelihood diversification. There are some published papers on Mizan, and mostly because of the slight presence of international NGOs; these organizations are more visible because they own the majority of the cars on one main (paved) road aside from those belonging to business or the university. Ultimately, I think I found my niche in this deeply remote tropical massif village.
Social and Climate Resilience in Lake Ziway
I left Addis four days ago to drive to Lake Ziway in the heart of the Central Rift Valley (CRV) in Ethiopia. My host organization with whom I intern, Horn of Africa Regional Environmental Center and Network (HOAREC), provided transportation and accommodations for the workshop on Climate Resilience Program Dialogue. We drove four hours from the high elevation of Addis through the mid-altitude valley in heavy rain and fog – typical of this season, but created an eerily dark landscape which magnified the land use degradation through overgrazing and deforestation. A main goal of the workshop was to discuss and develop solutions to ecological damage through livelihood innovation, institutional synergy and capacity, gender mainstreaming, and knowledge and learning. This global resilience program is anthropogenic in nature, meaning that the human element of climate adaptation is prioritized over ecological aspects, but acknowledging that human survival in the CRV is inextricably dependent on the sustainability of the natural resources.
Participants in the workshop were managers, business owners, and representatives from local government offices, were educated and decision makers in their communities. The majority of them were very obviously in a higher income bracket than the locals we saw around Haile Resort. (The resort is an expansive and manicured establishment with a pool, wifi, multiple gardens and banquet areas, but borders a main pathway to the edge of Lake Ziway where locals harvest branches for firewood and papyrus, fish and bathe.) Most of the stakeholders in the workshop were men, about 30, and the women were about five from the community. During the discussions on gender and livelihoods, the group I most frequently attended, we emphasized that we cannot just have a women focused discussion, but use the lens of interaction and relationship of men and women in the public and private spheres but also of boys and girls in and out of school. Though the norm for the Ethiopian culture is that of patriarchy, many men were outspoken about the need for more women to be in decision-making positions, policy, and local law enforcement, and also to advocate for their own empowerment in the community.
The main issues the GRP works to address are overpopulation, gender, inequity, land-use change, water access and poverty through an integrated land management (ILM) system. The sites are in Lake Naivasha, Kenya; Lake Ziway, Ethiopia; and Djibouti. I had conversations with team members from the Kenyan Wildlife Service about the similarities between the Lake Naivasha and Lake Ziway communities and landscapes – payment for ecosystem services and methods for water and soil conservation were some suggestions from them for the CRV community. The GRP is a very dynamic ambitious project, and attending the workshop helped me to better envision how such interdisciplinary goals can be achieved even over a wide territory and thousands of impacted people. I saw a slice of the project, in one of three landscapes, in the second of four stages. What I participated in and observed was a linkage of stakeholders in the goals and outcomes they helped to create together — part of the process that is very crucial in developing success for any project, but often under-appreciated.
The sort of dependence on natural resources and poverty was one I had not yet witnessed until this trip. On the way back to the hotel with Helen, the monitoring and evaluation consultant, and Drew and Adane, the project facilitators, we saw a pair of children roughly aged 3 and 6 who were carrying between them large water buckets and cooking pots and metal trays on their heads while each holding a handle of another basket filled with random objects. The little boy kept dropping the large water bucket from atop his head and we helped replace the bucket as we got closer to the children. I think of the micro situation I witnessed in macro terms; what the community is dealing with collectively are changing climatic conditions and resource availability, but they also have a social knowledge and capacity to manage some shortfalls. This sort of social and institutional resilience is extremely difficult to duplicate in other environments where advanced technological skills and tools are available. Without this social intimacy, climate adaptation and resilience becomes an imposed but unsustainable objective.
Swaying like sea foam on an amiable equatorial ocean, the women circled the floor. Dipping with one shoulder and then the next we held our gauze-like cotton skirts just inches from the ground and moved with the palpitating rhythm of Amharic traditional music. Twelve years ago, Seattle held this experience for me, yet today when I walk down the avenues in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia I seem to experience the same shifting movements that I did before. Experiencing the change in physical movements is more than just adjusting to new sights, sounds or smells, those experiences are ingested and temporal whereas movement with your body makes the system totally readjust. Maybe unity is a symptom of densely populated developing economies like Addis Ababa – people move closer together as if by a gravitational force on foot, by car, and especially in the small public taxis used to get around town.
In New York City, where I have lived for the past five years, I had to change my physical system too. I walk, nearly run, to move faster than the other people in my lane on the streets, not to be surpassed or outdone in this very competitive city. My eyes and neck twitch to each side nervously to watch for creeps, aggressors, and thieves. I feel only pupil pause when I stare down an unfriendly gaze or celebrate the sight of a cheerful toddler. I learned to dance faster and harder in New York, taking the powerful steps of hip-hop music more seriously and deliberately than I ever have.
I find the streets of Addis seem to riot up from a few feet below the sidewalk so that the pedestrians climb over the newly pitched piles of dirt and rocks from the water infrastructure trenches below. The subterranean mounds easily become part of the walkways and roadways, the soil and cars and people all merging into the single undefined space. And this is the transformational point, where all of the elements of this moving machine connect. No place for silos of parts, all of life is happening at once in the streets and you must adjust. The young women coolly strut to the café or work places, rubbing sides and shoulders with men shuffling in the other direction.
Fine tuning my physical bearings is a process I experience at a heightened level in Addis Ababa, 8,000 feet from sea level. Melding the pace of my walk with the others – slower, small steps, perfect posture, I still wait for my breath to catch up with me. The thinness of the air and wonderfully excessive coffee drinking keep my need for inhalation at a high level. Ehfwah, the exhale is pronounced but rare, while the inhale, sharp and frequent, even while taking the last bit of breath to finish the sentence in a soft whisper. Addis is gentle in its approach to morphing the visitors to the cadence of living here. Even with rapid development of the high rise buildings, train and energy infrastructure, the most challenging transition is shielding my thoughts from the superiority complex of New York.
A comparison between my living situation in Brooklyn to my current accommodation in the Sarbet (“Grass House”) area of Addis Ababa would not do justice to the overall experience thus far. However, I can say that the intermittent lack of hot water, electricity, internet and phone use are becoming normal. My American status and abundant resources have excluded our group from becoming intimately aware of what life is like for most Ethiopians. It appears that we have interacted with the slight minority involved in the government or high wage jobs in an urban center. Yet this is of intentional design. I chose to attend a pre-eminent New York City university for a post graduate degree for the ability to work amongst international policy pundits. The International Field Program provides such an experience. Concurrently, our professional arrangements expose us first hand to the challenges which locals face.
Two days ago our group visited Debre Zeyit, where roughly twenty women were involved with a successful self help group program. They reported economic gains, increased education and professional skills, but mostly the improved quality of life via their new close knit community. Their experiences were translated through our country program director Yosef Akalu. They shared their homemade bread and coffee with us as we sat under young mango and banana trees – it was truly a beautiful experience. I felt that while I could empathize with them through Yosef’s description of their successes, I also could not have had this experience on my own because I do not know Amharic.
In my desired career in international environmental policy, I feel confident in my command of English, and have studied Spanish and French necessary for international work, but lack language to speak with people who I am supposed to be working to help. This highlights the remoteness of the policy world. Practitioners often are steps removed from the lives of the communities they hope to serve, one such step being face to face communication in the same language with the vulnerable or poorest of the poor people. My goal is not just to have proficiency in UN working languages, but also of the people of which the projects serve. This summer, I will focus not only on the project, but Amharic language of Ethiopian people as a means of understanding and creating more informed policy.