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Sarah Murphy took a career break from her work in the accounts and finance sector to spend six months in Ethiopia with VLM. Here are some of her memories from her time there.
‘Those first few minutes driving down Bole road are tinted brown like an old film flicking, passing underneath palm trees lining the exit road of the airport, I hear beeping horns, shouts of an unfamiliar language and the rush of a city I am now joining. People, lots of people. 3million in Addis alone. There is an overwhelming sense of stepping back into a time zone- the 70s; all Lada cars, cream range rovers and adventurous fashions. I hear we are going to be based on the poorer side of the city, Addisu Gebeya.’
The above, were the first notes I had written about Addis, months on and it became a second home. A place I cannot even try to forget. Today, back home, I’ll call them, ‘altitude cravings’ shoot around my lungs and I never breathe as I used to. Most people who live in Africa say its just one of those places you instantly warm to or you don’t. I did.
I spent a little over three months in Addis (Central Ethiopia and the Capital) and a little over two months in Mekele (Northern Ethiopia) I feel very lucky that I got to see two distinctive areas of the country; opposites by nature and opposites by tribal history, both providing me with brilliant experiences, one a rustling busy city – and the other a closer knit rural town, both sharing an overarching spirit.
I worked with so many lovely Daughters of Charity and their local staff, met the kindest families, taught amazing children, worked with the best teenagers and met people from around the world during my stay. I was a little nervous before departing because I had made a decision to go for six months – six months on, and I would do it all again in a heartbeat.
It can never be a bad thing to live and experience a new culture, you will find they get hungry and sad, just like you, they like celebrations and they love cake, just like you, but most of all, our sarcastic humour is on a par with their sarcastic humour –a reserved yet chatty demeanour – just like the Irish. Although you are a volunteer, you can be yourself and the charity provides a gentle separation of these roles, allowing you to work at your tasks in a safe and diligent manner and also freedom to explore the city. As a volunteer, everybody has something to offer, whether that is a smile or a skill – just you being there brings a lot of joy to the people you meet.
We arrived in on the first direct flight from Dublin to Addis (a super handy 7.5 hours!) we had most of Sunday to adjust and then started preparing for the four-week summer school, starting on Monday. It would be running in the Addis Kechenie area, in the Atse Ghiorgis Catholic Church Primary and Secondary School. It was – a truly enriching experience, and I hope you too will get to experience the sheer exhilaration of 130 kids running towards you – so happy to see you, enthralled by you before you even lift a piece of chalk! They make you feel so special, and really give you more in the exchange. I particularly remember them all lined up saying their morning prayers wobbling in and out of the line to get a peak of us, smiling and curious, then getting told off for not concentrating in prayers, ooops!
The kids were aged from 9-16. So there are 7 classes altogether, 5A, 5B, [9-10yrs] 6A, 6B, [11-12yrs] 7A, 7B, [13-14yrs] 8A [15-16yrs] The younger ones are in the morning and the older classes are in the afternoon. I taught Maths, Science and English, the other girls taught English, Singing, Dancing and P.E with us crossing over subjects too. ‘What is Dublin like? Who is the president? What’s the population? So you no American? What is your father’s name? Are you married? You don’t have a husband! But you are so old!!’ were some things the children would ask me in the playground!
For my remaining weeks in Addis, after the summer school, I worked in the office with the exceptionally hard working women, Sr. Tiblets, Sr Felekech and Sr Abeba. I helped to sort out the library by filing all books and office documents onto an online system, grouping and organising different projects under detailed headings, which was great at the end to look back and see how much easier things were to access now online instead of manually searching.
Before I knew it, it was time to pack up ship to Mekele, and that ship was a nice one hour flight to the north. There I was based in St.Vincent’s house which was right in the centre of town, near internet cafes, shops, juice bars. I worked alongside the best people – Sr. Medhin, Sr. Tiblets, Sr. Zebib in the Street Children’s Project, as well as with Gebrisha, Teddy, Ato Waldo and others there. I did ad hoc assignments, budgets and reports here. I also helped out Sr Lemlem in the Women’s Development Centre, together we worked on a pressing proposal for Human Trafficking. I was so impressed by the energy of their small team in Mekele. Getting to know the teenagers in the projects was amazing too, a wonderful bunch of individuals, Zenebe in particular struck me by his fantastic English and desire to be a lawyer. He worked by teaching English and saved up cash to buy this bike!
I am deeply thankful to each sister for their genuine kindness and hospitality to me, the sisters are an empowering force to be around, all the time, you are aware of how many obstacles they have crossed in the pursuit of providing services to alleviate hardship in their communities.
I hope I have shown a glimpse of how amazing my time was in Ethiopia. I barely touched on security but I found being in Ethiopia very safe, saying that I was always with people, friends or the sisters, but I did venture out on my own during the day, knew my bus numbers, knew my routes, and sometimes didn’t! Getting lost is the best way to learn (unfortunately). Like anywhere, take care, say ‘Amasayginalow’ when you can – brownie points instantly. It is so valuable to go out and see all the blessings that Ethiopia is – whether that is the men chopping wood using home-made axes, a group of mechanics under the bonnet of a worn down mini or just watching life pass by through a coffee shop window – enjoy, live like the Ethiopians!