My last days in Ethiopia were unforgettable, and I’m not exaggerating. We wrapped up the course with student presentations of their final qualitative projects. They were well done overall and very creative—one group is interviewing street youth, another asking people why they prefer injections over oral meds, another asking health workers about media campaigns concerning female genital mutilation. It made me proud to watch my students talk confidently about qualitative methods and analysis and to critique each other.
Thursday evening I was ushered to the faculty lounge, where they had created a “program” for me, which was really a going away party. My co-instructor and the department head gave speeches, a couple of students gave their thoughts on the course and the collaboration with CDC and JHU, and I got up and thanked all of them for being such attentive students and making this such a worthwhile experience for me. We then ate tibs (marinated meat bits) with injera. My co-instructor fed me 2 bites with his fingers, which is a custom to show friendship or respect for someone (feeding just one bite is bad luck). We then had a huge cake that said “We love you Dr. Michelle.” A
student fed me 2 bites of that. They then gave me a beautiful traditional white Ethiopian dress and clapped their hands rhythmically while I opened it. 2 students motioned for me to go behind a curtain and put it on, so I did, and they were thrilled when I came out and did my best to do a traditional Ethiopian dance. J This was followed by dozens and dozens of photos. I was absolutely beaming!
Friday I flew back to Addis and then to Lalibela early the next morning. Lalibela is a collection of 11 Ethiopian Orthodox churches created out of enormous pieces of volcanic rock. They were built over 1000 years ago with funding from King Lalibela, and it’s estimated that it would have taken over 25,000 people to finish it. Collectively they are now a UNCESCO World Heritage site and considered to be the Jerusalem of Africa.
I met an American (who’s actually been living in the Czech Republic for the past 22 years) on the shuttle from the airport to our adorable little huts called Tukul Village (Bill Clinton stayed there at one point). The American was with a Czech guy and an Italian, who
is a diplomat posted in Addis. They invited me to join their tour, so after grabbing breakfast the 4 of us went with our guide named Shambel through all 11 churches. We climbed up and down steep staircases carved into the stone, and carefully went through pitch black tunnels connecting one church to the others, through which the priests would carry the supplies for Communion.
Lalibela is in a very remote area of northern Ethiopia. There are no cars except for a few shuttles for tourists, one paved road, and very little running water and electricity. As we drove the one paved road to our hotel, we had to slowly navigate through the villagers going to and from the Saturday market with their mules and goats and chickens. They were very thin, and sometimes very dirty and poorly clothed. It was clear that life is not easy by any means in this part of the world, and that your wealth is in the number of livestock you own. It reminded me a lot of being in the Himalayas when you would watch villagers quickly pass you in very worn shoes, carrying all of their supplies on their backs. In Ethiopia they carry on their backs and heads, or if lucky enough, you load down your mules and just make sure they keep moving in the right direction (which was often in front of our vehicle).
The excursion also reminded me of hiking the Himalayas in that you quickly get to know the people you are with. The 3 men on my tour were much older with families and a couple of ex wives, but we spent a lot of time talking about travel and culture and life in general. They were nice company.
Monday I gave a presentation at our office in Addis to the staff—a crash course in qualitative research methods. I gave advice on projects for a number of people who came up to me afterwards with questions as well. And then in the late afternoon the director, project manager and I had a meeting with a guy from the CDC, which also went well.
Monday night one of my colleagues took me out to dinner in Addis—a very famous Italian restaurant called Castelli with homemade pasta and an extensive wine list. Such a treat after weeks of injera! We then went to a place call Yod Abyssinian where they do traditional cultural dances on a little stage for a very large room of both tourists and locals. We drank St. George beer, and I sampled tej, a local wine that was pretty tasty.
On the way back to him dropping me at my hotel, he pulled into a very small local place which wasn’t more than a hut with some tiny woven chairs and benches. It was poorly lit and had a dirt floor. But oh, the band! One guy was beating on a drum, another guy was playing some sort of traditional instrument with one string, and they took turns singing and dancing. A woman came out in a long black strapless dress a little while later, belting out what apparently were some very sexual lyrics in Amharic. Just before we left, a group of dancers came out and were doing some traditional dances so fast (but so skillfully) that it made me a little dizzy just watching them. There I was, sitting and clapping along with the locals in this dimly lit little club in the middle of Addis Ababa, having an amazing time. And I remember thinking this is one of the many reasons why I love Africa.
They say the first continent you travel to outside of your own country is the one you fall in love with. And each time I go back to Africa and learn a new country or culture, the more enchanted I am with it. I absolutely love Nepal as well, especially the people and the breath-taking mountains. But I have so many special memories from Africa—from the first time I went to a jazz club in Cape Town back in 2001, to my first time seeing an African slum, to watching lions pursue baboons just last fall in Tanzania, to being invited into the homes of various Tanzanians. And now add to that all of the fond memories from my class of 25 students in Jimma, Ethiopia.
But I think what is so captivating about Africa is the pride and love of the people. They are so incredibly proud of their culture (especially Ethiopians) and want to share it with you and show you what it means to be a particular type of African. Sure, I’ve met a lot of urban people who want iphones and Gucci sunglasses and Hummers, or who beg me for letters of support so that they can pursue jobs and education in the US. But in spite of that you can see the energy and pride of these cultures when they get together to watch football games or to dance or eat. And you can see the love they have for their families and communities in the ways they tease each other, show affection towards friends and loved ones, and are protective of their families and tribes. And when you’re lucky enough to be welcomed into that family despite being a “faranji” or mzungu”—a foreigner, it is an experience that changes you.
So no, Ethiopia is not just another country to check off my list. This experience is one that I will look back on fondly. I thought that I was past the point of travel having a profound impact on me as a person—that I had seen and done enough that it would be hard to feel blown away when visiting a new place. But every time I eat injera or watch The Gods Must be Crazy
or have Ethiopian coffee, I will think about those 3 weeks where I lost a little weight but gained some lifelong friends and beautiful memories.
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