An Ethiopian Recap

It’s been a while. Here’s a quick recap of the VSO team in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia over the past 12 days:


Much like our pre-departure training, we had sessions on cross cultural working, development, budgeting, safety, etc except now we had an additional 20 national volunteers to learn with! First impressions with our Ethiopian counterparts are that they’re incredibly friendly and much more ‘hands on’ with introductions than we are in the UK. It’s something I could definitely get used to, and brings an immediate sense of friendship to any normal greeting. Consequently, we’re often described as cold, when a friendly handshake doesn’t morph into a shoulder bump/hug/kiss/bear hug. Everyone appears to be at least moderately religious, with all national volunteers identifying with Orthodox Christianity, which makes up over 80% of the national population. Talking about religion or politics is never an easy way to make friends, but it was introduced lightly and the UK team learned a little more about what it’s like to live in Ethiopia.

The campus we stayed at for the In Country Orientation (ICO) is a little out of the city, and a part of South Africa University. Addis Ababa University campus occupies the old palace of Emperor Haile Selasie in the centre – more pictures of that later!

Thursday morning brought the UK team’s first experience of Ethiopian food. I’d heard a little about injera (the national staple), and expected it to be similar to chapattis or another type of flatbread. Not so. It’s an incredibly strange grey flat pancake, which is rolled into a tube and cut into slices. Eaten on its own, injera tastes a little like plain greek yoghurt, with the texture of a sponge. This is exactly what all the UK volunteers did on the first day, creating a fairly bad first impression. (Hey, we didn’t know how to eat it at first!) However, the magic occurs when you add the rest of the dish.

Ethiopian food is almost always eaten with the hands, and only the right hand in particular. It’s mostly stew/curry based, so no knives/forks are needed. Injera is rolled out onto the plate, and various curries/sauces/meat is placed on top. Using only the right hand, people tear off a piece of injera, and scoop up some of the sauce. It’s quite a feat of manual dexterity, and simply getting food in your mouth is a challenge at first. Spicy flavours from the sauce cancel out the strange taste of the injera, and all is well. Many of our UK team still haven’t become accustomed to Ethiopian food, and so opt for an Italian alternative, which is one of the biggest legacies of the Ethiopian-Italian war during the 1930’s.

Moving Out

Monday 28th Jan saw our team leave for their host homes and placements. After managing to force clothes back into my huge suitcase, it was again hoisted onto the top of a bus, and then taken for a mammoth drive around the city. We left behind some close friends from the Hawassa team who still had an extra night at the university before making their trip South. Driving into the city was our first real experience of Ethiopia. We’d broken free of the cozy comforts (ahem) of a gated compound and found ourselves in the real noisy, crowded outside world.

The VSO office is located near the centre of Addis in Haya-Hulet (22). We took a quick pit stop, thanked the lord for WiFi, then piled back in accompanied with water filters, sheets, blankets and another car carrying a load of mattresses. Apparently someone had worked out a quick route between the host homes, but it took a long while before we unloaded our first team member, and even longer for the others.

After finding out I was in the Addis group sometime in November, I was torn between wanting a more ‘authentic’ experience and regular creature comforts. Blindly reasoning that the capital city of Ethiopia would be just like any other city in Europe (with maybe fewer amenities?), I completely forgot how much housing can change from one road to the next. Gleaming tower blocks sit aside corrugated iron slums. Paved roads quickly lead to bare rocks and earth. It started to dawn on everyone that life in Addis varies immensely depending on where you live. Added to the fact that many volunteers arrived at their host home in complete darkness, without anyone they knew, emotions definitely ran high. It was a relief to arrive at my host home, which is also a national volunteers’ home, crawl into bed and slip into sleep.