Thursday, 27 March 2008

Day to Day: Life in Gilgel Beles


Breakfast (Every weekday):

Bananas, biscuits, multivitamin tablet and coffee (all from Gilgel – except the tablets!)

Lunch (Every weekday):

One Sambusa with "Laughing Cow" cheese (like dairylea) on top.

One Sambusa with peanut butter on top.

One bombolino (a ring doughnut) which I cut in half and add strawberry jam inside.

Sambusa's are triangular-shaped crusty batter things filled with soft lentils (I think they're lentils)

Sambusas and bombolino bought from college cafe in the morning, cheese, peanut butter and jam are all from Bahir Dar or Addis.

Dinner (Various from):

Mashed potatoes with tuna mixed in. (Tuna from Bahir Dar / Potatoes from mini market here.)

Tuna pancakes (Flour and milk powder from Gigel - Eggs optional extra from market sometimes – mostly without.)

Porridge with honey or sugar (or chocolate porridge using chocolate drink powder) (oats and honey from Bahir Dar, sugar from Gigel shop.)

Lemon and sugar pancakes (JIF lemon sent from England, limes available in the wet season (12 for 1 birr (5p) - not since November.)

Hotdog sausages and beans (from Addis.)

Instant Noodles (Bahir Dar / Addis)

Hotdog and veg "soup" (tinned mixed veg from Bahir Dar - leave all juice from both tins in the pot.)

Fry-up (potatoes shallow fried along with eggs and sardines (Chagni or Bahir Dar) and possibly tomatoes (from Gigel market))

Pasta and meat (pasta – (spaghetti or shells) from Gigel or Chagni, tinned luncheon meat - which I cut into cubes - from Addis)

And that's about as varied as my diet gets.

Available from hotels:

Injera + wot - the traditional sour pancakes with some kind of meat (usually goat) in a spicey sauce.

Injera + tebs - Pieces of meat fried.

(Not much meat in the current fasting lent season, or Fridays or Wednesdays.)

Injera + tebs enkulal - (Rarely) - fried eggs.

Injera + mix of veg (potatoes, tomatoes and cabbage)

So I don't eat there much.


I mostly drink tepid (boiled and filtered) water (which is now slightly cooler as I discovered that if I put the bottle in my "bath bowl" for a while - before I have my evening "bath" - it chills it bit.) but during the day, I can get a caza-caza (cold) bottle of 7UP, Pepsi or my favourite, Marinda (which is fizzy orange,) and as all the drinks are the non-diet variety, this seems to taste the least sugary.

I usually have sugar-free drinks in the UK as I prefer the taste. At first they thought it was funny me having buna yellum seqwar (coffee without sugar) in the cafe, but now they are used to it. There's nothing I can do about the bottled drinks though!

I also enjoy instant cappuccinos and chocolate drinks people have sent me from the UK.

How I get washed in my bowl:

First, I kneel in front of my 50cm diameter bowl, and in cold water (which actually isn't that cold - about 26-28C in the current hot season) I stick my head in and wash my hair, face and neck. It's usually pretty dirty after a day, because you sweat, and as cars go by and kick up dust it sticks to the sweat!!!

Sometimes straight after, sometimes after taking my anti-malarial which needs 30mins to "go down", I add a pot of boiling water to the bowl, bringing it to around body temperature and I step in and crouch down.

I then soak a flannel and drip water down me, followed by lathering up (I still have a supply of shower gel from Bahir Dar), and finally dripping water down me to rinse, using the flannel again.

[You may want to skip this bit if you are of a nervous disposition]

Next I clean other areas, being thankful I still have a supply of wet-wipes (Addis) which I would have previously used after every "download", meaning by the time I get to being in the small bowl, nothing is too dirty - if you get my drift.

[You can start reading again now.]

Finally, I stand up and dry my top half, then repeat the washing/soaping/rinsing procedure with my legs and feet.

I have a chair near, so after drying the top half of my legs, I sit on the chair and finish the bottom half. I don’t want to stand on my un-carpeted, plaster floor or my feet would get dirty straight away again.

At this point, in the wet season when I first arrived, I would now be sweating again and wondering if it was all worth the effort, but at the moment, even though it is usually 30C in my room at night, the humidity is around 30% and I dry quite quickly.

Cleaning my teeth:

Usually using bowls and jugs as the water is never on at the time I do them. I still use boiled and filtered water to wash the head of the toothbrush and to rinse my mouth, and straight from the tap water to wash the brush handle and my hands.

Washing clothes:

Washing powder is available in the village.

I now have developed a fairly successful routine from trial and error:

Socks and trousers have to have a pre-wash in a bowl as they pick up so much dust during the day. Then I can put them in with the rest of the clothes. Shirts pick up a lot of dust, especially where I sweat during the day wearing my back-pack or around the collar. I now soak them overnight, then have to scrub them with a scrubbing brush the next morning. (My white shirt is a lost cause which I now only use on my long walks in the “outback.”

Rinsing takes a while and I usually don’t bother unless the water is on. Then I use a second bowl and take the big items one-at-a-time and rinse them. At the moment, shirts dry in about 1-2 hours in the dry hot atmosphere. Even towels are usually dry by the evening.

Cleaning Shoes:

My shoes go from black to brown during the day with the dust, and I usually sponge them with water to clean it off. Then every weekend I polish them as well.

Monday, 24 March 2008


I had my birthday yesterday (solasa sabbat (37)), and other than the few cards I got from the post office last week, and a phone call from home… No-one celebrates birthdays in Ethiopia, except for young children. I went for a long walk to the point where two rivers join again. The last time I did this, I was hacking through tall reeds and undergrowth and hitting a few dead-ends, but this time I could basically walk where I wanted as the whole area had been burnt down in the recent stubble clearing. The deforestation in Ethiopia is quite scary. Everywhere I have walked around here has huge areas cleared for crops and now with the burning, it doesn’t seem that much more than a barren wasteland. I’m sure it affects things like the temperature: without forests of trees transpiring, and now much of the land being black.

I walked up-river to the large waterfall which, using a piece of string with a branch tied to it, I measured as 9m high. Then on the way back I crossed to the other river and walked over the rocks to the rapids. If I can get to it, it’s going to be very interesting to see what the river level is like in the wet season. I crossed many dried-up streams during my walk, which will be difficult to cross after the rains.

I was quite exhausted when I returned, and even though I took and drank 3.2 litres of water, I was still dehydrated… I’ll have to take more next time. The total distance I walked according to my GPS was 18km.

As you may know, I have a kind of long-term experiment running to show how co-incidences are nothing more than chance and the human brain’s power for spotting patterns. It’s a bit like Ethiopia. As soon as I knew I was coming, I kept spotting and hearing things about it – they were always there, just that your brain tunes in to them more. Anyway, my experiment was to choose a number (I picked 37) and see how many times it occurred in my life. When you are looking for it, it does seem to appear a lot. The number of times I look at my watch and it is 37mins. The room I was in at the Akaki Campus near Addis was room 37, in one of the Psycho films, a priest says he has seen “It’s a Wonderful Life” 37 times. I was watching “Signs” the other day and a girl says she cursed 37 times. Yesterday as I was looking at my GPS on the walk, I discovered that sunrise on my 37th birthday, here in Gilgel Beles was 6:37. Now, if you were superstitious you might attribute this to some mystical power, but I know it is just random chance and this is what this experiment shows.

I had my favourite tuna-filled pancakes for dinner, and then, lined 37 candles up and took some photos – blew them out and made a wish…

At around 22:00, it rained and through the night there were some reasonably heavy showers – nothing like the “heavy downpour rain” (flashback to “The Rain Makers”) but fairly substantial. It does mean the humidity has risen this morning – sweat is taking longer to evaporate, towels are taking longer to dry.

Friday, 21 March 2008

Wrong day

Well Maulid turned out to be yesterday (Thursday) – something to do with The Moon rising over Mecca.

The thing I can’t understand (and I hope I don’t get a fatwa for this) is that scientists (and even my astronomy program I have on my computer) can predict the position of The Moon in the sky from any place on Earth and at any time from a couple of thousand years into the past and the same into the future. So, why is it that the people in Ethiopia don’t know whether the holiday is Wednesday or Thursday (and this is me asking on Tuesday.)

Anyway, I had a good walk on the wrong day, and on the correct day, I went in to work and made some teaching aids ready for the training next week. All I can hope is that the teachers in the school we were supposed to train yesterday didn’t turn up. There was no car to take me and the only phone number I had was for a shop in the wrong village!

Also, referring back to my previous entry about moon gods – the Christians and Muslims may not pray to a moon god, but they do base their religious days on it. (Christians – Easter.)

Anyway – now to find out if we train today or not…

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Public Holiday - Maulid

March 19th

It’s a public holiday today (Maulid – the birth of prophet Mohamed) so I went for a long walk following the course of the river to the North East of Gilgel – something that would not have been possible in the wet season with all the vegetation. After the dry months and the recent fires to clear the land it was easy going, but a very strange landscape. It’s quite scary how much deforestation there is. Before the burns, lots of young trees had been cut for building materials – even, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. I saw quite a few dust devils again.

After the start I was followed by one guy, then another. Being suspicious, I asked, after a while, if they were coming with me for money, but apparently it was just to see the “natural resources”. One of them turned out to be a teacher at one of the local schools. Eventually, after they had gone far enough and wanted lunch, they turned back, so I had some time on my own. I had my lunch of bananas, biscuits and a left-over sambosa from yesterday. My stomach had been a little upset in the morning and a bit later, on an exposed hillside, I had to have an emergency evacuation – the first time I’ve had to do that in the middle of nowhere. There weren’t even any bushes to hide behind but luckily no-one walked passed. Well I suppose VSO does open you up to new experiences!

I got a bit stuck at one point trying to cross a stream that, unlike most in the dry weather, was still quite deep. Luckily, “GPS to the rescue” as I had previously marked crossing points on walk I had a few months ago that I could intersect and I found the crossing was only a couple of hundred metres away.

Arriving back in the outskirts of Gilgel, I saw lots of new houses being built. I noticed it yesterday in the bus. It’s like Essex gone mad with “new-builds”. Of course, instead of piles of breeze blocks, bricks and tiles, there are piles of long logs and grasses as building materials. (I’m sure I’ve spelt breeze blocks wrong, but I only ever hear the word. I don’t ever remember seeing it written down.)

Oh, and during the walk, the sole of my boot came away at the back. We improvised by tying the lace around the sole to keep it on. Not a lot of chance of getting new boots in Gilgel!!! I bought them about 10 years ago in Kirkwall, Orkneys so I guess they haven’t done that badly. Maybe I can try UHU. It worked on the fronts of my black work shoes.

Yesterday I had another training session at quite a large school. While I was there, a group of Ferengi’s arrived with big UN 4x4s to see the new library that had been funded by UNICEF. I spoke to them, as I was setting up to train in the library. I forget their names, but I know one was a head of UNICEF in Ethiopia, and another was the Dutch ambassador so I was mixing with big wigs!

Tomorrow (if all goes to plan – so 50% chance there then) I will complete the first round of “teaching aids” training and will then begin the next round – getting all the classrooms to have basic materials on display.

Also, in the next few days, I should have some company, as a VSO Volunteer based in Asosa (this region’s capital) is coming to sort out (I hope) the Virus problem in the college. It will be good to be able to show someone around. There will also be another couple using Gilgel as a base and sorting out other computer problems in the area.

Monday, 17 March 2008

Burning, twisting and training.

The net connection has been bad recently – no contact for a few days.

The power was off for an hour and a half last night.

The water has been ok.

The sun is currently reaching 77° altitude in the sky at its highest at the moment. In London, it only ever reaches 62° in the summer. The shadows are really short here around mid-day. In about 5 weeks it will be directly overhead.

Due to the hot temperatures, I have seen quite a few dust devils recently. Yesterday I went for a walk and managed to get a small one on video – very difficult to do as they mostly only last a few seconds.

Everywhere is blackened after the recent fires. I’m still not sure how many are man-made. I think most are, so that the dead grass and crop stubble is removed ready for new grass in the rainy season.

No-one showed for two of the three English Improvement courses in college and I had to postpone the third (see below).

Training on using number fans and counting sticks continues with some good sessions. I have three more schools to go. It will be interesting when we visit again in a couple of weeks, who – if anyone – is actually using them. I have been trying a new technique right after the training saying “OK, who is going to use these tomorrow in your class” and getting a volunteer. I hope it works.

I went to Chagni (the town about one hours drive away) on Friday to collect some large packets from post office, that didn’t make it to Gilgel. There was lots of food and sweets and stuff in them which was nice (including JIF lemons – I have had pancakes two days in a row now!!!) The most interesting one was a packet of chocolate buttons that had melted into one large flat square of chocolate!!!

On the way, the driver stopped and picked up ten people in the back of the truck (quite a squash) and charged them 10 birr a piece to go to Chagni – another example of a bit of cash in hand on the side. (You know, I wonder when I write about this low-level corruption and other problems whether I should be doing it, but I believe in telling it how it is – the good and the slightly questionable. Oh, and also this website is blocked by the government so no-one in country can read it!!!

While in Chagni, we also collected an order for my next lot of training – “Every Classroom should be a model classroom”. Last year, one of the only things the CCU (College Cluster Unit) did was have a few teachers to the college for training on model classrooms, then gave them some materials to make their model classrooms back at the schools. The idea was, they would share their knowledge with the other teachers who would then put up active displays in their rooms. What I actually saw in most schools in the cluster this year were a few displays set up in one model classroom and the rest of the classrooms bare.

My plan, as with the current training is to go to each of the schools (so all teachers receive the training, rather than one teacher per school coming to the college, who will never have time to pass on the information to the other teachers). We will take materials and college student helpers and give the teachers a quick 30mins training on active displays, then spend the rest of the time with them actually making and putting up displays there and then.

Tomorrow I’m supposed to be representing the Dean in a meeting with UNICEF (Is it because I is white?). He’s asked me to ask for books for the library, a new car, a medical centre for the students…

Last week I got an offer to work in Bahir Dar next year. It would be good re: accommodation (hot shower), having easy access to Addis by plane, being able to get Ferengi food and go out for meals in hotels, buy supplies etc but the downside is being in a tourist area and having all the hassles that brings. Also, the work would be more along the English Language Improvement side at the university, working with instructors and lecturers, another step away from the classroom. My favourite parts of the job at the moment are teaching in a primary school once per week, and actually training the teachers in primary schools. I’m still a primary school teacher at heart and don’t know if I could be away from it for a year. I have a bit of time to decide.

I’m loving being on my own in the house. Being busy at work, training and being able to come home to a sanctuary (inc. a clean toilet) at night and at the weekends is great. I’m not sure how I will feel when the family return in (an unspecified number of days – as most things here). I am going to ask them to follow a few house rules re: toilet (I have bought some buckets to use to flush when there is no water) and not spitting in the sink where I prepare my food etc.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Training, Religion and small change

Training went well yesterday – the driver for the 7:00 car arrived at 7:45 (Ethiopian time) and when we got the 25km on bumpy dirt road to the school, the teachers had forgotten our training (they had chosen the date) and were at a meeting somewhere!

We’re well into Ethiopian Orthodox version of Lent at the moment. For some reason the fasting (many people don’t have meat during this time) lasts about 60 days. I pointed out (using my limited Christian knowledge – anyone back home can correct me on this) that lent was supposed to represent the time Jesus was in the wilderness which was 40 days – like Lent is back home. I suggested that perhaps the government had added 50% lent tax.

The practical upshot is that I am now woken everyday by the calls to prayer, not just Wednesdays and Sundays.

Also, a semi-racist comment by one of the instructors backfired yesterday. He said, in a sort of derogatory way, that some Gumuz people believe The Moon is a god. I came back with, “well at least you can see their god.”

I suppose it’s good that I can make comments like that in Ethiopia without being sentenced to death… I’m only a few hundred miles from the Sudan (Mohammed Teddy Bear) border!!!

Today, I am starting an English Language Improvement course with some of the lecturers and support staff in the college. 6 out of 30 “needs analysis” forms came back to me, so I will be interested to see how many people turn up. As you can see, my healthy pessimistic attitude is still going strong.

The weather is going from hot to very hot, with quite a lot of wind, particularly in the afternoons, but it’s not a cooling wind, it’s like being in a blast furnace. Also, due to farmers burning stumble in fields and natural fires, for the last couple of weeks, quite a few days have started with a sort of smog. It soon disappears when the ground heats up.

Finally for today, I found in my wallet the lowest value coin I think I have ever held. It’s a one centime piece (there are 100 in a birr.) It is currently worth roughly 0.06p which means if you wanted to buy a Snickers bar, you would need 700 of them!!!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Training, the weather and scary nedj

I’ve done two training sessions in two schools in two days to a total of 32 teachers at the moment on number fans and counting sticks. Today’s was really enjoyable as there was a good rapport between us and the teachers. That was after waiting outside the college entrance from 1pm until leaving on the college bus (which was delayed then ran out of fuel) at around 2.30pm. We arrived at the school at 2.45pm for a 2pm training session!!

At the end, the bus was due to collect us by 1700 at the latest (I’m really having to think about these times now. I was thinking 11:00 which is 5pm in Ethiopian time) and at 12:00 still nothing, eventually it arrived at about 18:30. Apparently the fuel filter was blocked – probably after running it right out of fuel and churning up the dregs!

It was fun waiting this time as we talked to the teachers (who live in little mud houses in a piece of land next to the school) and then waited on the street and had lots of children out as an audience watching me. They were really funny as they were scared of me. When I took a step forward, some ran away! (Also a baby started crying!) Eventually I got some of them to shake my hand. (Nedj means “white” – white person in this case –thus I was a scary nedj)

We have six other schools (transport permitting) in the next two weeks, then we start again with the next lot of training.


It is very dry at the moment. All the little brooks have dried up and my hydrometer or hygrometer (I always get mixed up with them) is showing between 25 and 30% humidity which is well below the UK in summer. These temperatures and humidities are like a free tumble-drier for washing, but are probably bad for my throat, and also, for the first time since I have been here, photos on my wall are starting to curl. I would’ve thought damp would’ve done that, but it seems dryness does.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Another wedding and injections up the jacksee

Sunday 2nd March 2008

So, I had been invited to the wedding of one of the staff, in Mandura. The car was due to pick us up at 10:00. Of course, arriving at the front of the school at 10:00 there was a problem – something to do with someone being ill and someone else visiting them in hospital using the car, but a problem none-the-less. (That’s the trouble with no-one being able to afford private cars.) We hung around, eventually at around 12:15 (yes, 12:15) back at one of their houses, we had a small lunch of tebs (meat) and injera (the sour, fermented grain pancake that is the staple diet out here). I think we finally left at 13:00.

The place turned out to be about 5km further on from Madura (the nearest village to Gilgel Beles with one of our cluster schools there.) It was an, at least 1km drive across fields in the 4x4. Once there, with incredible views of the ridge, the driver informed us he had to go straight back – which would effectively strand us. After a few phone calls he was allowed to stay. The place was a few round stick-and-mud houses in a compound surrounded by a stick fence – totally in the middle of nowhere. There was a small tent made for the wedding and I sat and was offered the local beer which, the minute you sip it, gets topped up. Then the wedding ceremony took place, with a few chicks running around under foot. All the local elders were on one side, a colleague had written a sort of marriage contract and had to hastily copy it out two more times – something he should’ve done apparently. It mentioned something about paying 5000 birr if they split up. This was read out and they all signed the copies. Next, pieces of toilet paper were hastily laid carefully on a plate on which the rings were placed, and then, like in the UK they both put the other’s ring on. Then the elders took a turn to speak – give advice or something – then dorowot (spicey chicken stew) and injera + an egg each, then we were off back to the college. This time, we had the bride in with the groom + maid of honour + more. The car, designed for 5 (two in the front, three in the back) which had brought 6, now had the driver, me, a colleague with someone on his lap in the front, and six in the back (two on laps.) Thoughts of the number one killer of VSO volunteers by far, came to mind – road traffic incidents. (I had managed to get a seat-beat on, on the way out, but this had left a dusty brown mark on my shirt as I think I was the first to use it in a while – no chance on the way back.) Oh, and there were another 3 in the trailer of the pickup.

When we got near Gilgel, the lap people were told to get in the trailer as there was a traffic cop in the village – nothing like health and safety!!

Next it was back to the groom’s house. Both bride and groom hadn’t spoken or really looked at each other the whole time, or looked happy – tradition apparently. There we had more wot, drinks - including a 75% proof (apparently) aniseed smelling, clear concoction – and various styles of dancing, some of which I had to join in. At one point someone came round with perfume and sprayed some under everyone’s arms – another tradition.

It shows my character that I don’t really participate with these social things, I just observe scientifically.

The Gay thing.

It’s really funny in Ethiopia that homosexuality “doesn’t exist” but men can be totally touchy-feely – straight men. You see male student friends walking hand in hand, like female friends might in the UK. Men were dancing with men at the wedding, again – straight men – totally normal here. The Dean had his hand on my knee for a while, while I was sitting – again, just a show of affection. Oh, and pink is like any other colour, so men wear pink shoes, pink hats etc. If a homophobe came to Ethiopia, they’d think the whole place was bent as a nine-bob note!!

It’s nice that people do have platonic physical contact though. It’s got so sterile in the UK that no-one touches anyone these days. I also like the way children here are much freer and not bundled up in cotton wool like in the UK. There’s probably a half-way point though as you sometimes see very little (2-3 year olds) children wandering around the village un-accompanied, and of-course a lot of young children do not attend school, they just work – maybe in the market, in fields, carrying stuff etc.


I went to the medical centre this morning (Monday) and after finding out about which cards to get and where to wait, I was seen by a nurse who offered me antibiotics (via the buttocks) and warned me it would be painful.

In the end I had two injections, one in each cheek and it stung when the stuff was going in. Hopefully my throat will get better now.

Training, Rich Italians and bowls

On Thursday we went to 7 of the 10 schools to book up training dates for them - the letters having pretty much failed. A couple were annoyed because we didn't show previously but that was beyond my control: I wrote a letter in English asking the schools for four dates when they could do training, and we would get back to them with a firm date when we sorted out a schedule. Well apparently something went wrong in translation as they sent back single dates when they expected us, some of which were when I was in Bahir Dar. Well not only could I not understand the replies, but I wasn't even there. You would've thought someone would've done something about it, but no. Anyway, the next three weeks are going to be quite busy as I will be
training in 8 schools (the other one we got a date from on Friday.) I will be accompanied by my "counterpart" who, in theory should be leading the sessions by the end so he can do it alone when I leave.

During Thursday, we had to return to the college mid-school visit as an Italian who had donated some money for a nearby building project was visiting the college. I showed him the model classroom before he continued his tour followed by all the college staff, it seemed. I found out
afterwards he name was Selene or something and he is the 33rd richest person in the world!!!

Saturday, started my washing just after seven and having now sussed the whole pre-wash thing with trousers and socks which pick up the dust and make the water go brown very quickly, I had a disaster when my big bowl fell on the floor and cracked. Now remember this is my bath as well as my washing tub and they only get them intermittently in Gilgel shops. It's not like the UK when you just drive to the supermarket and get a new one. Anyway, luckily the local shop did have one, but it's not like the luxurious 56cm diameter one I had before, it's actually 51cm and those 5cm make all the difference when you're trying to wash your whole body. I hope they get new ones soon!

In other news:

I've had a sore throat the last few days and felt a bit weird - in-fact I've been a bit bunged up since Bahir Dar.

Last night there were masses of mozzies about. As I went out of my room I could hear the cacophony of whining. The toilet was inundated so I gave a squirt of "Roach Killer" and returned a while later, cross-legged. It's one of those big decisions you have to make doing VSO: Wetting yourself, or getting Malaria!!!