Tag Archives: Ethiopia

On a mission in Ethiopia

Never in my life I have been offered as much chewing gum as in Ethiopia. Admittedly, street vendors wanted to sell me other things as well: fake gems, guided tours and colorful baskets the size of a small elephant. But above all, they sold gum.

Some people had a more intricate plan to gain access to my money. Piedro introduced himself to me in Addis Abeba, the country’s capital. Could he please practice his English? So I asked about his age (probably 16, but he’s not sure), his background (a refugee from Eritrea) and his family (he’s an orphan). Then Piedro invited me to a party where everyone would be dressed in folk costumes. I declined politely: invitations of this type are a well-known way to get robbed.

Like me, most westerners visit Ethiopia on behalf of a development organization. They bring financial and human capital to help fight poverty, diminish hunger and improve health. Subsequently, many Ethiopians have come to confuse westerners with a walking dollar sign. This seemed to stand in the way of acquiring what Mark Twain called the “broad, wholesome and charitable views of men and things” that I usually get in a different country. Only with the medical doctors I met for work I could actually talk about matters beyond money like religion, food and relationships.

I was brooding on this when I was boarding my plane back home with 17 young Americans. They turned out to be missionaries who had spent six weeks in a remote part of Ethiopia. Assuming they volunteered for an organization, I asked what kind of development work they had done. Nothing, they replied: their sole aim had been to spread the gospel. When a local man bitten by a snake came to them for help, the only thing they offered him was prayer.

Looking at the munching missionaries, I realized I now knew who buys all that gum in Ethiopia. I also understood my trip had been a success. For most Ethiopians, I might be just another rich westerner but for sixty medical doctors and their patients, my visit had made a difference.

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Ethiopia’s future

Two five-year-olds in Gondar, Ethiopia, who insisted on being photographed and giggled incessantly when they saw the result.

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Working (out) in Ethiopia

“No problem!” My Ethiopian colleague smiled encouragingly. He had just welcomed me to the medical centre of Gondar University, in the north of Ethiopia, where I was to give a training. Then he showed me the computer room I was expected to use. I looked at the dodgy PCs and felt slightly concerned. The training’s e-learning tools were developed in the UK with the best intentions but not quite the same system requirements as in Africa. “What if we get a blackout?” I asked him. “We have a generator,” my colleague replied. “No problem!”

I work for the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research, a non-profit organization focusing on sexual and reproductive health. My colleagues and I provide health professionals in developing countries with trainings and help them conduct and publish their research. We often work together with other organizations and institutions. In Ethiopia, I represented my NGO as well as Oxford University. I was expected to gather health professionals, facilitate a digital training on a certain complication of pregnancy and reward the participants with a certificate.

There proved to be a few challenges. More people showed up than had inscribed for the trainings so there were not enough PCs available. Internet slowed down or halted completely. Plan B was to hand out CDs with the course material. But many computers lacked the software required for the training’s complicated graphs. Or the CD was not compatible with the brand-new Macintosh computers that had been donated by a well-wisher. Or passwords to allow updates were missing. Wireless keyboards and mice that didn’t match proved another problem. During my visit to Ethiopia, I became accustomed to running around in hot, stuffy computer rooms, explaining the course here, pointing out the proper side of a CD there and updating software everywhere. As soon as I had everything up and running, a blackout would mess things up. And generators never worked.

After the last training I sank to the floor. My Ethiopian colleague stooped over me. “That went really well,” he said casually. I nodded, panting and wiping the sweat of my brow. He shook his head. “Crazy Dutch girl.”

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