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Ever since I was a child, I had a strong desire to go to Ethiopia after looking at the harrowing images of the famine. That dream became a reality when I met my relation Kathleen Conlon whom had been volunteering with the VLM for 7 years so it was highly recommended.
In July 2015, I boarded the plane to Addis Ababa ready to enjoy the experience of a lifetime. Arriving in Addis Ababa at 6am was a feast for the senses. However, the poverty that I saw was shocking, nothing could have prepared me for that initial impact when I saw people carrying drums of water back from the river or people selling fruit on the street, it was simply not in my life experience to date. Everything became a great challenge but a fantastic opportunity to learn and grow.
The Daughters of Charity compound where we stayed was so homely and I got to know the Sisters at a deeper level by eating, praying, washing dishes and living together with them. We shared the ups and downs of daily life, including the many electricity outages and shortages of water. Myself and the other volunteers struggled through as we realised that this is reality for many people in our local community.
My role involved teaching English in a summer school, I focused mainly on English grammar, letter formation, hand writing and phonics but incorporated lots of music, art, soccer and dance also. The student’s smiles and curiosity touched my heart deeply with the warm reception I received daily. They were happy, positive, enthusiastic and hardworking. They see education as their way out of poverty and thus are very aspirational with many hoping to progress onto third level education and train in professions such as medicine, engineering and banking. However, teaching was challenging at times with limited resources and large classes, not to mention the language barrier.
Being my first time in Africa, the first week was an incredible experience, however there were difficult moments as my safety net slipped away and I plunged into the full reality of the experience. Slowly I immersed myself in the culture and language, while maintaining an open mind and sense of humour which helped immensely. I loved the way the streets were so full of people going about their daily lives, buying, selling, chatting, fixing cars, shining shoes, tending animals, chanting and praying. However, the disparity between rich and poor was evident with the opulent hotels and mansions among the squalor and decay as people struggle to survive. I saw life in raw poverty stricken form but, at the same time, through every crack of hardship and despair, there was hope and spirituality. It is living proof that value in society is not defined by materialistic goods and wealth, but rather by the purist of contentedness and healthy loving relationships between each other.
By volunteering, I gave my time and skills and in return I received far more than what I gave. I received the gift of mindfulness, deepened my appreciation and gratitude and I realised the importance of spirituality in the midst of chaos. I can say, without hesitation or apprehension, that I will return for I feel the warm heart of Africa beating strongly. I felt my time there was too short, so when I boarded the plane I did not cry tears of sadness, but I smiled knowing that I ignited a spark and our journey together was not over but only just begun.