Moving on…and Going back

Our two years in Mekelle came to an end in August. Despite ups and downs, we felt lucky being in Mekelle and Ethiopia. So much so that we signed up for another year here–this time in Bahir Dar.
Mekelle was a good place to be and, compared with some of the remote placements, a relatively easy place to settle into. There were adjustments – how we spend our time, what we eat /drink, no long summer evenings, but no long cold winter nights either. Work has always been a challenge, but with enough positives to balance it out. A big positive of Mekelle was the people.  Being a University town and regional capital, it draws people from all over the world. Friends and acquaintances come from different parts of Ethiopia, USA, Holland, Israel, Sweden, Germany and India as well as the VSO mix of Irish, Canadian/Ethiopian diaspora and other Brits doing a range of other things from building schools, running circus workshops, farming and volunteering in small NGOs. And of course John has joined the “Brits doing farming” group with the dairy he and a group of Ethiopians are working on.

What next then? Having great tenants in our house in the UK made us think it would be stupid to go through the disruption of going back, then leaving again, if that was what we’d decided to do. But no real plan came to mind. Being able to see the sea would be welcome, maybe a grey gap – Australia etc. Timing for John was bad – leaving the dairy at a critical time, so when VSO came up with a placement in “the Riviera of Ethiopia” Bahir Dar, that was the answer. By the way, Bahir Dar means the shore of the Sea, that’s Lake Tana and it’s huge. Since the decision, life has been incredibly busy and remains so.

Colleagues in Mekelle gave me a good send-off and I left them with pages of suggestions as to how to improve teacher attitude and motivation (an uphill struggle I think).

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Outside work, life generally was a stream of welcomes and leaving dos. Some of our friends had already left, newcomers were just arriving, so it was our Ethiopian friends (who don’t get globetrotting opportunities) who were the main ones to say goodbye. After a great summer break (Tanzanian Safari and Zanzibar – direct flights from AddisJ) with Pat and her John, it was time to move on.

Inevitably we’ve accumulated quite a lot of stuff (a bookshelf and bicycle as well as the rest!). Also, Ephrem, our wonderful friend and landlord for the past 18 months had to move some of his furniture out too, so it was quite chaotic.

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Although August is the rainy season we decided to combine visits and sightseeing with a four day road trip, south then west to Bahir Dar. Our first destination was a farm in the Rift Valley managed by an English guy called Peter. We’d randomly met him on a Mekelle/Addis flight and were fascinated hearing about the farm. It’s massive (1000 ha), has Indian owners and produces vegetables entirely for the UK market. It raised all sorts of culturally and economically complex and sensitive questions. Should land be granted to foreigners to produce food none of which goes to local markets or to feed local people? Should fences be erected in the way of regular thoroughfares? Should the water table be further lowered to grow food for export…? We saw the crops (mainly onions and squash) and witnessed a meeting with the local cattle farmers. Peter is trying to extend benefits to the local community in addition to providing employment and had offered grazing on parts of the land. He hadn’t expected 2000 cattle to turn up and was in the process of negotiating a more manageable number! We had a muddy and great evening with him and his key staff, a Kenyan and Ethiopian guy.

The next day was the one we feared – dull and raining for the drive from the Rift Valley back up to the mountains. It should have been spectacular. Actually it was spectacular going through thick cloud/fog with zero visibility on winding unsurfaced mountain roads knowing there were huge drops, especially when we met a bus towering down on us (these “buses” are actually open backed Isuzu trucks. The local nickname for them is ‘Al Quaeda’ because they travel by night and are responsible for a lot of road deaths).

It was market day at Maichew, the next town, and still raining. It’s amazing how you can deceive yourself into thinking country life is an idyll when you see it in sunshine. The same scene in the rain looks anything but. People still take their goods to market, and tramp slipping and sliding barefoot (any shoes you might have would be lost in the mud), weighed down by sodden clothes and sacks of grain tied to their backs.  Few have the opportunity to travel by vehicle, so our four-wheel-drive stuffed with more possessions than most local people have in a lifetime, with the bicycle tied to the front like a mascot, was an embarrassment at times.

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We’d hoped to stop by a lake, but the weather forced us to change plans and we continued to Woldia, further south, about halfway between Mekelle and Bahir Dar. We booked into a hotel and checked things were in working order. Our main grumbles – extra light bulbs needed, you could hardly see it was so dimly lit, then had to change room as the shower head flew off as soon as we turned it on.

Having found ourselves in Woldia we met up with Aisling, a young Irish VSO volunteer there. She put us in the picture about electricity and water (a sobering reality check for us after our grumbles). The whole town had been without mains water for five weeks and electricity for three; we’d arrived on the first day for both. No surprise then that the room looked dim and running water was clearly a shock for the shower! The staff had responded politely and calmly to our requests – no “you don’t know how lucky you are…..” retorts at all.

The next day was sunny so Aisling joined us for a trip further south to Lake Hayk. Hayk means lake in the local language, so we’d gone to Lake lake or Hayk hayk! Barbecued fish sitting by the hayk/lake was the order of the day and a real treat. The final day was also sunny so the 8-9 hours from Woldia to Bahir Dar were magnificent with fantastic mountain scenery throughout, magnificently green after the rains. It included a meeting with an Australian guy, who has long-standing connections with Ethiopia and described locally as the pre Bob Geldolf aid worker – now running a charity providing wheelchairs in Mekelle.

Now the going back!

We had 2/3 days to unpack in Bahir Dar, before flying straight back to Mekelle. “Ashenda” is celebrated in the north of Ethiopia at the end of August and friends insisted we witness it. We’d no idea what to expect  but been told that girls dress up, make themselves look really beautiful,  then go round town asking men for money. We weren’t sure about this. Apparently, in times past the money was given to the church, but more recently not. The photos partly tell the story. Given that white is the colour for most “occasion wear” it was such a contrast to see so much colour. Some also add accessories like shoes, headbands and waist scarves and to complete the outfit lovely hairdos, all looking very beautiful – with masses of make up too. The advice to local men is not to propose at Ashenda, because all the women look so beautiful. 

Before we’d even left the airport we met our first group of girls, chanting and singing and beating a large drum. Such groups were everywhere. The car couldn’t pull up by our hotel as it must have been 20-30 deep with different “girl groups” spilling onto the road. Friends’ children feature in the photos. The whole Ashenda celebration lasts 3 days and it was great to see the girls happy and independent. It is just a pity that this celebration is when the rains are at their height, so their lovely dresses frequently got soaked and muddy.

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But, the final word on “moving on” should go to Kat Lloyd, a self funded volunteer who worked at the Mekelle charity, “Mums for Mums” last year and her film-making friend Mark Baron (website He put together a record of their journey from Mekelle to Bahir Dar last summer. It also includes Addis in the post Meles’ death days and those who love the Gheralta will recognise some of the shots.  Click here: – A short film chronicling my visit to Northern Ethiopia.

We really did move on from Mekelle after Ashenda. First, back to the UK for 10 days, great, but not really long enough, then Ethiopia again ready for “New Year 2006” in mid September and ready to start the new job in Bahir Dar. 

The views expressed in this blog are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of VSO.

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  1. Rob

     /  20/10/2013

    What an exciting time you had! Thanks for the report that made me being back there!
    And are you settled again now?

  2. Thanks Rob. Yes, thanks, settling well. We feel very fortunate to be in Bahir Dar, though we miss the many friends we made in Mek’ele. How is life back home?


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