Flying into Addis Ababa, I was full of excitement at the prospect of starting my approximately 6 month position volunteering as a health education and communications adviser for the government reproductive, maternal and child health program. I was carrying more luggage than ever before because instead of going somewhere to travel, I was actually going somewhere to live and work and inside my luggage were little food treats from home…and when I say little food treats, my second luggage was basically food! Hilariously, I had forgotten that Ethiopia has a long history of international relations mainly through trade and religion but also past conflict with Italians with imperial intent, so many of the things I brought: like basil and oregano and dried tortellini can actually be found locally! I was travelling with my co-volunteers, which we had all met up in Toronto for our connection flight directly to Addis Ababa. The three of us, Deirdre, an orthopedic surgeon, Phil, a pediatrician and I, wheeled our luggage outside, fending ourselves from eager taxi drivers to meet up with the rest of our Ethiopia team. They brought us to the King’s Hotel near the Canadian Embassy and the Africa Union headquarters.
Entrance into the King’s Hotel is over-the-top with huge chandeliers and throne like chairs in the hotel lobby. Even though I didn’t sleep well on the plane ride over here and the dry stale air aggravated my previously healing cold, I managed to stay up all day but I was practically a zombie by the end of it. Lent is about to start soon so there are many weddings including one at the hotel this evening. Horns and drums reverberated through the three story hotel but I didn’t even hear it since as soon as my head hit my pillow, I was already asleep.
The next morning, we were sitting in the middle of the building lobby having an Ethiopian coffee ceremony. On the surface level, it seems like a social event – just the Ethiopia team drinking some coffee together where the staff was welcoming us volunteers to the country. However, like with many things in Ethiopia, the practice is seeped in tradition that blurs the line between secular and sacred. The coffee ceremony is a social opportunity for family, friends, neighbours and colleagues to spend time with each other but it is also a ritual to honour the natural forces in the world around us. I had been curious on what makes a coffee ceremony a ceremony and it turns out that there are ritualistic components to please spirits known as zar. Zar have the power to protect but also to harm and possess people and the fresh grass strewn over the floor is to make the zar spirits, normally found in nature, to feel more at home. The frankincense incense is burned because the zar spirits are said to like its perfumed scent. An extra cup of coffee may be poured for the spirits as well.
The in-country orientation is extensive and soon we were having a crash course on Amharic. Amharic is a Semetic language like Arabic but something truly unique on its own. Amharic is derived from Ge’ez, the language of the ancient Axumite empire that legend has was built by the great-grandson of Noah, and continues to be the language of the Ethiopian Orthodox church much like Latin is for the Catholic church. It has “explosive sounds” which may sound fun and exciting but actually involve almost click-like, gutteral, originating in the back of the throat sounds that I can’t seem to get no matter how I try. ‘Have a nice day’ is melkam k’an where the last ‘k’ has some explosive action that never seems completely right when I say it. Good thing, I can easily say the words buna ba watat for coffee with milk and manigo for mango. Complete that with the numbers, sint naw (pronounced sin-t-no) for “how much?” and wid naw (pronounced wod-di-no) and I’m set!
Deirdre and I had some early Amharic practice one evening when we went for a walk around a new hotel we were moved to on the outskirts of town. The King’s Hotel is one of the only hotels right by the African Union and it gets completely booked up by dignitaries sometimes for events there. They somehow seemed to have lost our reservation so three of us had to move to another hotel for first one night, which turned out to be at least two nights. Deirdre, Phil and I moved to the Blue Wave Hotel, a brand spanking new hotel owned by a Canadian-Ethiopian couple who previously had a restaurant on Commercial Drive in Vancouver! Small world! Since it was newly opened and with our shared history of Vancouver, they gave us the ‘penthouse suite’ the took up the top floor of the hotel with a wrap around balcony. The area around this new hotel was also a bit more lively and a couple of us was feeling adventurous and went for a walk around to explore. The sun was setting and the streets were filling up with vendors hawking their wares on the sidewalk from t-shirts to a pile of shoes to telephones. We went by the Abo church at the other side of the roundabout, which confusingly tend to be called “squares” here in Addis, and that is where we realized how similar Amharic can sound like Arabic. The sermon was happening outside in the courtyard of the Ethiopian Orthodox church and being broadcasted on a loudspeaker. The church courtyard kind of looked mosque-esque and the melodic sermon almost sounded like a call to prayer that we actually tried to look behind the church to see if there was a mosque back there. On our way back to the hotel, we tried to use some of our new Amharic skills and found it to be hilariously lacking. We were trying to buy some doughnuts and when we asked the vendor how much, she replied “sost hamsa”, which I had to get her to repeat a few times before I understood. Then, we thought, 35 birr? That’s like $2 for a doughnut…way too much for a street food doughnut in Ethiopia even if it was covered in delicious looking icing! The nearby vendors all came around to help us, writing out invisible numbers with their fingers on the palm of their hands in the fading twilight. After a lot of laughs, we realized it was 3.5 birr, which is much less than we originally thought. We felt that the doughnuts were extra tasty with our extra efforts.
On the national holiday of Adwa Day, we toured around the city visiting the city’s oldest church up on Mount Entoto. Entoto is on the outskirts of the city rising up to 3200m from an already high altitude city of 2400m (Addis Ababa is the third highest capital city in the world). The church and imperial palace predates the city as it was the home of Emperor Menelik II and Empress Taitu. Emperor Menelik II was known for modernizing Ethiopia including making the first schools, hospitals and bringing telephones and electricity. Empress Taitu was his strong partner who actually founded Addis Ababa, deciding to move down to the hotsprings where the city is today. She also gave Addis Ababa its name, which means “New Flower”. For the inauguration of the new Entoto Maryam church and palace, there was a grand feast where almost 6000 oxen were killed to feed 60,000 people!
However, their reign was not all fun and parties. The rest of Europe had carved up Africa and the Italians felt they had come late to the game. With approval of Britain who had little interest in Ethiopia other than ensuring that the source of the Nile (Lake Tana) was kept out of French hands , the Italians invaded Ethiopia. Menelik II and his warrior-minded wife went up north to the town of Adwa to fight. The Ethiopians outnumbered the Italians but the Italians had better technologies – it was mainly a battle of guns versus blades. According to the museum manager of St. George Cathedral, the city’s second oldest church, we visited after, it was due to the intervention of St. George resplendent on his white horse that won the battle for the Ethiopians. St George’s Cathedral was all busy in excitement when we visited it on Adwa Day. The church was commissioned by Emperor Menelik II in 1896 to commemorate his victory over Italy at Adwa and was built by Italian prisoners of war, completed in 1911. Interesting thing I have noted about Ethiopian history is that it is often a blend of legend and reality to a point that it is hard to separate the two. Ethiopians trace their heritage back to the grandson of Noah and their imperial emperors descended from the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
However, any discussion of history can not forget about Ethiopia’s amazing input to our knowledge of human evolution. Ethiopia is known as the cradle of humanity because significant finds for human evolution has been found here. One of the most famous is Lucy, an early hominid of the species australopithecus afarensis (named because she was found in the Afar region of Ethiopia and Lucy because the archaeologists were listening to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) dating back to 3.2 million years ago. The discovery of Lucy in 1974 really shook up our understanding of human evolution because she showed that hominids were walking upright about 2.5 millions years earlier than previously thought ahd her small ape-like skull revealed that bipedialism preceded increase in brain size. Though Lucy remains the most famous,
other finds of note include Ardi, a 4.4 million year old ardipithecus ramidus skeleton, who is the earliest hominid with the most extensive evidence of bipedialism. Also, of note is the homo sapien idaltu, also found in the Afar region of Ethiopia, which dating back to 160,000 years ago is the earliest known remains of anatomically modern humans! If you like bones and curious about evolution, the National Museum of Ethiopia is a very interesting visit. It was funny because others said that it was full of bones and kinda boring but the two doctors and I found the museum to be fascinating and informative. We first wondered if maybe the museum had been renovated since we found it so delightful when others didn’t but realized that perhaps we were just more interested in bones.
We wrapped up our incredible first week here running in the Women’s First 5km run. Ethiopia is known for its runners and it was really exciting to participate in a run here, especially one that promoted gender equality and women’s rights! About
7500 women ran this morning honoring International Women’s Day. In addition to having a bit of a nasty cough, dealing with the smog of the city of over 3 million people and getting over jet lag, I had been huffing and puffing by the time I finished the three flights of stairs up to the Cuso International office as an effect of the elevation, so I wasn’t completely sure about this 5km run but we had the attitude of just making it to the finish line, upright and smiling. The energy of all the women, cheering and dancing throughout the run, was so amazing.