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Monday, February 23, 2015

Good Morning, Addis Ababa

When we drive through Addis Ababa I don’t have enough eyes to take everything in. It is early morning as we drive through this city of 4 million people. I can spot only one skyscraper but many buildings of 5 or 6 stories - many of them in various stages of construction, showing bamboo scaffolding and unfinished concrete floors. Some buildings have shiny glass and chrome, other seem sad leftovers from a Soviet era.

The road is meant to be 2 lane, but cars at least 4 wide try to navigate in the same direction, dodging pedestrians, dogs and piles of gravel. The sidewalks are broken and dusty. Women in clean white shawls scurry along, some with baskets on their heads. Children in impeccable clean clothes, carrying backpacks, are on their way to school. Schooling is free here, all the way through highschool. Yet only those who can afford a school uniform can go.
Among the more modern buildings, tiny shacks of plywood and corrugated sheet metal lean drunkenly shoulder to shoulder. They look like they were built from a deck of cards and if you move one card, they all might come tumbling down. 

A cluster of some twenty goats await their sale. If you buy one, you take it home by either slinging the live goat across your shoulders, trying to lead him on a rope or simply tying him on top of your car roof…
Men pile tomatoes on wooden wheelbarrows. Shopkeepers squat outside their stores. Their products dangles outside the store from roof to floor: plastic baskets, flip flops, shirts, bananas and much, much more.

A group of men in crisp, colourful soccer shirts plays a game of soccer. A straight, long queue of people quietly waits for a bus - no pushing or shoving here. A Muslim in long white robes rubs elbows with an Orthodox Ethiopian. 
Cars of world wide NGO’s push their way along the road, together with beat-up blue taxis, brand new Landcruisers and mopeds. 

Young men cut boxes, fold open the cardboard and use it to set up their shoe polishing stand. Many people have their shoes polished, here on the dusty streets.
One of the most frustrating jobs, I imagine, is that of street sweeper. The women, wearing tall wicker hats, seem to merely be rearranging the dirt with their handmade brooms. But it’s a job.
The security guards at stores, banks, hotels and any other building - spend 12 hour shifts sitting on a plastic chair, chatting with passerby’s or reading a newspaper.
A salesman carries a large bundle of mops over his shoulder, the wispy white strands of fabric waving as he walks along. 
I spot 6 large dogs peacefully sleeping on a pile of rubble. I wonder what they did all night.

Slowly the sun climbs in the sky and starts to warm the sidewalks. Addis Ababa is awake, although I don’t think it ever slept.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Dinner Time in Ethiopia

 Last night I joined a wonderful group of teachers for a traditional Ethiopian dinner at

What an experience! We all sat in a large room, adjoined by Ethiopian families with children in all sizes. The small tables were like woven baskets with beautiful designs and a round, wooden table top. 

Before eating, a waiter came by with an ingenious tin jug of water, soap and a basin that catches the waste water. He offered this to each of us to wash our hands. An important move since the entire meal is eaten with the right hand.

A large round platter of food was placed on each small table - serving 3 or 4 people. We each received injera, a very thin rolled up ‘bread’ that looks exactly like a tea towel, and is just as soft and pliable. You use your right hand to pull off a piece and then you use the injera to pick up a little bit of food.  

Colourful patches of food, displayed in a palette of colours - 
  • minced beef with capers;
  • Gomen Kitfo - local cabbage with cottage cheese
  • tikur
  • fento
  • zemamujet (cheese with cabbage)
  • kocho (bread wrapped in banana leaf)
  • gored gored (beef)
  • yellow peas mashed with meat 
Much of it was very spicy, other things were smooth and mild. I think I tried them all… And I did need my lemon flavoured Ambo to put out a fire once in awhile…

While we ate, young men and women played interesting instruments on a stage and danced… and danced… and danced. I don’t know how they kept going all night. Using head and shoulder movements, they kicked up a storm showing us traditional dances, some with spears, from around Ethiopia, including this bizarre head twirling dance that makes you sick just watching it. You can watch it here:   
I think it was filmed in the same restaurant I was at. 

After eating, we all washed our hands again and were served coffee that was prepared in the same ceremony as I described a few days ago - the beans roasted right there and ground by hand with a pestle. It was served with fresh pop corn and plenty of incense - the smell of coffee mingled with that of the frankincense sprinkled liberally on glowing coals in small stone pots on each table.

A fabulous, rich experience. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by kind, smiling Ethiopians and such hospitable hosts here.       

Amesege’nallo' everyone!

Friday, February 20, 2015

Ethiopian Artisans: Spinning and Weaving

 Driving along busy roads, past shops made from tin sheets, and broken sidewalks - I see women in long flowing skirts, wrapped in white shawls. I see men wearing a fez, or a baseball cap. Scrawny, dusty dogs try to find food under carts piled high with oranges, tomatoes and bananas. Donkeys wait patiently with loads of cement bags and bricks.
Eri silk worms
Suddenly our driver turns onto a short, dirt road and honks at a gate. A wizened old man with hands like gnarled wood, opens the gate and we park in the shade in a little oasis.

Among the cobblestone paths and lush green vegetation are different stone buildings. We have come to Sabahar, a workshop of weavers and spinners that was initiated by a Canadian. 

Inspired by ancient weaving traditions of Ethiopia, Sabahar creates exquisite scarves, table clothes, blankets and much more using locally produced silk and cotton. Ethiopian women have been spinning cotton on drop spindles for centuries while men have been weaving fabrics for their traditional clothing as well as the famous Ethiopian ‘gabi’ blankets. The company buys Eri silk cocoons from rural farmers, often women. The Eri silk worm eats castor plants, which are environmentally friendly plants that grow all over Ethiopia. The raising of silk worms is done to supplement income and primarily managed by women. The silk produced by the worms is then hand spun, a craft that has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

Silk cocoons

The silk thread is dyed in natural dyes, producing richly colored fabrics. The dyeing process, too, is ancient but often forgotten. Sabahar helps to preserve these traditional skills. They experiment with flowers, leaves, bark and roots to create gorgeous colours. They even use coffee, tea and flowers to dye the thread.

The thread is then woven on traditional looms, in an age-old technique passed down from father to son. I watched as the men skillfully slid the trundle and thread through the silk lines, creating patterns as they moved the loom. Smiles all around as they take pride in their skills and in the final products, that can be bought in a small shop.

Sabahar not only helps to preserve traditional skills, they enable artisans to work and receive fair wages. The company employs around fifty people at the workshop I visited but also employs another 100 or so artisans who spin and weave in their own homes or in cooperatives around Addis Ababa.

Sabahar emphasizes it philosophy respectful, ethical and sustainable work opportunities for artisans in Ethiopia. 

If you visit their website you can see where you can buy their gorgeous woven scarves and more, in the US, Canada and in Europe, including a store in Victoria, BC. And, yes, I did buy some weavings!

For great photos and more info, look here:

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Coffee Time!

Altar to coffee
 I often wonder who the first person was to discover that something is edible… Like, who was the first soul brave enough to taste blueberries and then wait to see if she would keel over dead? And rice… who figured out to collect those tiny seeds and cook them? 
I can see that tropical fruits were easier to figure out. A banana, a coconut I can see how you might figure out to open them and sample the inside. But who was the person to pull the first carrot out of the ground and say ‘Oh, a carrot!’? [BTW did you know that carrots were not orange until some Dutch royal loyal tinkered with it?]

Who first stepped on a walnut and then put the mushy insides in his mouth? And corn - would you figure out how to shuck and cook an ear of corn if you had never, ever seen one?

Tea, also, is understandable. I can image a Chinese family, sitting around a fire with a pot of water ready to boil. Some dry tea leaves flutter down from the bushes on a breeze. Some land in the pot and, look, they color the water and… hhmm… it doesn’t taste bad. Maybe even better than plain water. Let’s try that again.

But coffee? It took a whole series of coincidental accidents to figure that one out! Legend has it that a 9th-century Ethiopian goat-herder by the name of Kaldi, noticed the increased energy of his flock. They didn’t want to sleep and happily jumped around the field. He checked the area and found that they had nibbled on the bright red berries of a certain bush. He chewed on the fruit himself and felt a surge of energy and excitement. This prompted him to bring the berries to a monk in a nearby monastery. But the monk disapproved of the berries and threw them into the fire. A most tantalizing aroma rose from the ashes, causing other monks to rush over and investigate. The roasted beans were quickly raked from the embers, ground up, and dissolved in hot water, yielding the world's first cup of coffee! The rest, as they say, is history. I haven’t seen any Starbucks here yet, but a popular coffee chain is called Kaldi, after that original shepherd.  

Ethiopia's coffee ceremony is an important part of their social and cultural life. When I first spotted the ceremonial area where coffee is brewed, I took it to be a religious altar. And I guess, in a way, drinking coffee in Ethiopia is a bit of a religious experience.
The ceremony is usually conducted by a young woman, dressed in the traditional Ethiopian costume of a white dress with coloured woven borders. The long, involved process starts with the ceremonial apparatus being arranged upon a bed of long scented grasses (or plastic artificial grass indoors). The roasting of the coffee beans is done in a flat pan over a tiny charcoal stove. This is how it is done even in the lobby of the small hotel where’s staying… The strong smell mixes with that of incense which is also burned during the ceremony. The lady washes the coffee beans on the heated pan and stirs it, shaking away the husks. When the coffee beans have turned black, they are ground with a pestle and mortar. The ground coffee is stirred into a black clay coffee pot locally known as ‘jebena'.
Can you just smell it?!
The lady finally serves the coffee in tiny china cups to those who have waited and watched the procedure for the past half-hour. Pouring a thin stream of coffee into each little cup from a height of one foot without an interruption apparently requires years of practice. You then drink the coffee with plenty of sugar but no milk. It is also tradition to eat fresh popcorn with your coffee. 

In parts of Ethiopia, the coffee ceremony takes place three times a day - in the morning, at noon and in the evening. It is the main social event in the village and a time to discuss the community, politics and life in general. You must have at least three cups, as the third round is considered to bestow a blessing. And, I must say, its flavor is heavenly and smooth without the acid taste so often found in coffee elsewhere.
I’m told the full ceremony can take three hours, so never complain again if your workers want a 15 minute coffee break!

I highly recommend watching this sort video of the ceremony:

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Ethiopia Reads

Many years ago, my friend and colleague Jane Kurtz, a children's author from the US who was born in Ethiopia, was part of a group of both Americans and Ethiopians wanting to put books in the hands of children here. They were instrumental in starting up a library program to help bring literacy and a love of reading to children in Ethiopia.

Their vision blossomed into a solid organization: Ethiopia Reads.

With an administrative and fundraising headquarters in Minnesota and a local office in Addis Ababa, the program now runs some 65 libraries across Ethiopia.

Their mission statement says ‘Ethiopia Reads collaborates with Ethiopian communities to build schools, plant libraries, teach teachers, boost literacy and provide youth and families with the tools to improve their lives’.

Ethiopia Reads’ projects include starting and running libraries at local schools that did not previously have books. 

The school has to make available a space suitable for a library. 
ER than supplies books and a librarian and helps to foster a love of reading in local children and their families. They help to train teachers to be librarians and organize programs such as story time.

A few of the libraries are community libraries, open to anyone who wants to come and read. Often the children, and adults, don’t actually borrow the books, but come in to read and to listen to stories.

In the countryside, some of the libraries are not located in buildings. These unique, horse powered mobile libraries deliver books to remote villages.

In the US Ethiopia Reads offers a consistent program to help with their fundraising. You can sponsor a book or an entire library. You can attend events, donate and even come to work as a volunteer. I know I enjoyed my visit to a small community library yesterday, where the kids were eager to hear stories. I can’t wait to visit a school library later this week.

Check out the website for many details on how you can be involved (with your students!), to watch videos and more:

Ethiopia: It's About Time

Every time again, I am amazed at the things you learn when you travel.

For instance, did you know that Ethiopia has its own calendar? And even its own time?!
Orthodox Church and bougainvillea

Our western calendar and our manner of counting days, months and years is the Gregorian calendar. It dates back to Pope Gregory XIII in 1582, and features 12 irregular months. Some of our months have 30 days, other 31 and then we had to make up the difference by calling a leap year every four years.  

Ethiopia, however, did not change to the Gregorian calendar but stayed with the system that was used before: the Julian calendar. The Julian calendar has 12 months of always 30 days, and then one month of 5 or 6 days. Because of this difference, the years add up differently, too. So I am discovering that it is not 2015 here but 2007 or so..

And not only are the days, months and year different, Ethiopians have a different way of keeping time!
They use a 12 hour clock with 2 cycles. One cycle starts at 7 AM, or sunrise. That is the first hour. After 12 hours, or at sunset (they are close to the Equator so a day and a night are pretty much 12 hours) they start counting again. So 7 AM is 1 AM and 12 noon is 6, while 6 PM is 12 in local time… 
If you ask for a wake up call, or set a meeting time, you need to emphasize that you mean Western time or you might have to wait a few hours… 

Donkeys transport heavy loads, even in the capital city
Confused yet? Add to this a 13 hour flight and an 8 hour time difference with home, and I’m not sure how old I am anymore.
HOWEVER, I was delighted to be told that I am now 7 years younger here than before I left. I think I shall return to Ethiopia many times until I'm 21 again…

If you want to learn more about Ethiopean time keeping, check out these web sites:

New buildings are made with concrete but still supported by a scaffolding system of bamboo...

Addis Ababa has 4 million people and is at an elevation of over 2,300 meters.
Surrounded by volcanic summits it is on the edge of the Rift Valley where Lucy, the oldest human bones were found.
They are now in the museum here.