Ethiopia: Letters home 1

In 2011, I spent three months traveling around Ethiopia to conduct research on the country’s polio eradication initiative. Chris met me there at the end of my stay and we took the opportunity to do some personal travels. It was a life-changing experience that has profoundly influenced our views of the world. Some of my experiences are captured through letters home, which I am posting here.


I’ve been in the field for the past week, east to the Afar region and south to the Oromiya region. Very very rural, and no internet. I didn’t run into a single other foreigner (“ferengee”) the whole week, so my conversation has been somewhat limited and I am really looking forward to telling you all about my adventures! So, here is a long update that somehow manages only to cover a small portion of what I would like to write. I hope it gives you at least a snapshot of the country and my experience.

On Monday morning I left Addis bright and early for my field research, equipped with a 4WD land cruiser and accompanied by a driver, a translator, and a staff member from the organization I am working with. It was like having three experienced tour guides along for the ride. Our first destination was Awash, in the Afar region, most famously known for the discovery of Lucy, the 3.2 million year old Australopithecus skeleton (who ironically is on loan to the US for 3 years). We drove out of Addis on the one and only road in the entire country that goes East, and is therefore the lifeline for the country’s exports because it leads straight to Djibouti, where Ethiopia’s main port lies.

Noticing that the road was only two lanes wide and we had already passed two major accidents, I wondered out loud if anything had ever closed the road, thinking how disastrous it would be for the country.  My companions told me that while nothing had happened to the road itself, a few years ago the truck drivers had all gone on strike and stopped their trucks in the middle of the highway, backing up traffic from Addis to Djibouti.  The reason for the strike was because so many nomads would herd their packs of camels (the furry kind) across the road that the large trucks would inevitably strike them from time to time.  The camels are their owners’ prized possessions, described as dearer to them than their own children, and when a truck driver would kill one, the owners demanded the driver to pay the equivalent of the value of a vehicle for each dead camel. This is an outrageous sum that many drivers couldn’t pay, and if they couldn’t pay, the camel shepherds would immediately shoot the drivers.  This happened so many times that the drivers went on strike, and now camels are ordered to be 500 meters from the road and police are intermittently stationed to handle disputes. Intrigued by the value of these animals to their owners, I then asked if women had to provide camels or livestock as a dowry when they get married? I learned that no, the woman does not usually provide anything, but the man does. For example, in a large tribe in Afar, beginning as a small boy the men practice lining up 30-40 cows and oxen in a row, then running on their backs from one end to the other. When they want to get married, they have to complete this task for the woman’s parents and if they fall they cannot marry her.

We arrived in Awash, a small town mainly comprised of hotels because it lies on this main road East.  The following morning we set out to begin focus groups and interviews with the Health workers and community volunteers. The Afar region is divided into many districts, and each district has 18-30 “towns” in it. Awash is a pastoralist community, meaning that most of the residents of its “towns” are nomads that herd livestock and wander around the country with them to find water spots, setting up temporary shelters. Because of this, their settlements are very rural, very spread out, very hard to reach, and extremely basic. No water, no electricity, straw huts, no transportation, and one medical facility (a health post), if you can call it that, every 20-40km. Each health post is run by two health workers, and each health worker oversees 4-10 community volunteers who are supposed to go house to house educating and looking for signs of illness and improper hygiene. I am specifically looking at the collaboration between the health workers and community volunteers.fullsizeoutput_8e4aIMG_1317

We set out with two additional passengers in our now very full car, a translator who could speak Afaric (the local language) and the director of the local Amref (African Medical Research Foundation) office there who was familiar with the area. Our first destination was 42km from Awash on dirt “roads” seemingly made to break cars – it was more or less like off-roading through vast fields whose contours have been interpreted as trail markings. It’s really hard to believe that people live out here in such isolation. We passed people bathing in the irrigation ditches, 5 year olds herding goats and donkeys, and a 3-year old carrying a goat on his back!!! The people I met here were so beautiful, both inside and out – smart and charismatic, with so many interesting things to say about their work, life, and the world.

On the drive back we saw a mother and baby warthog on the side of the road (which Ethiopians refer to as “little rheenos”), and our car scared the baby so much it fell into the irrigation ditch!  The ditch is lined in black plastic and very steep, so it seemed a little hopeless. The mother left her child and took off, so we stopped the car and all got out to see where it had floated.  The current was very swift and it was struggling just to keep its head up, so our driver started throwing rocks in front of it to try and scare it enough to make an attempt to climb out.  It kept trying, and failing, and was finally swept under a bridge. On the other side was a small uncovered patch of gravel, probably its only chance, so when it came out they threw more rocks in front of it and everyone cheered on the side, and after 5 attempts its foot caught and it made it out!

The next day we repeated the adventure to another village, and on the way we got stuck behind a flock of goats using the road.  The owner and shepherd of the goats turned out to be a very young girl, maybe 13 years old, in traditional dress, whip in hand, who was ignoring our honks because she was on her CELL PHONE! Talk about incongruity…no running water, electricity or health care, but they do have cell phones. However, the Afaric translator still maintained that for this area, their system of running into people on the road on foot and passing along news by word of mouth is still faster than communicating via cell phone.

Yesterday afternoon was wonderful because I experienced my first coffee (buna) ceremony.  The young girl at our hotel first roasted, then ground by hand, then brewed the coffee over a small charcoal stove.  She served me three consecutive cups, each one a little weaker than the last, while inhaling a special lemony incense.  Such an amazing way to savor the flavors and appreciate the hard work that went into the process.

Now I’m back in Addis after one last stop in the Oromiya region in a town called Alamtena to do some additional interviews.  Two more regions after this (one south, near Awassah, and one north called Debre Abran), then back to Addis for the duration to write up my findings.



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