Thursday, 5 December 2013

Running with the Best

A few weekends ago I did something I wanted to do ever since I arrived in Ethiopia. I took part in the Great Ethiopia Run. In light of the increased security measures the city has been experiencing over the last months there was some trepidation about being in large crowds, but I figured there is no point in living scared. And I am so happy I went. 

The Great Ethiopian Run is a 10k road race that attracts more than 35,000 participants each year. Despite the beautiful mountain backdrop you are breathing in all the dust and diesel of Addis as you pound the pavement. Combined with numerous hills and an altitude of 2300 meters it was not the easiest 10k I've ever run but it was definitely one of the most fun.

Your ticket to the race is your t-shirt and as we entered the closed off roads marking the start of the race, we became one of a sea of yellow shirts.

Standing in the massive crowd of people waiting to start there was singing, dancing, some group stretching, and an amazing party atmosphere.

 With no way to see the starting line (a newspaper has helpfully shown me it looks like this)
the race started with the surge of the crowd behind us telling us to start moving. The race proceeded a bit like running through a market place, you zigged and zagged through the various speeds of the crowd, intermittently joining in with a cheer and hands thrown in the air. As we crested a hill and started a descent, you could see the mass of yellow bodies ahead of you - it was pretty incredible and definitely motivating. 

A quick photo op 1km in - everyone was doing this!

A couple of kilometers into the race, I was already watching my breath and monitoring my pace. But the Ethiopians around me barely noticed the hills, they were laughing, chatting, speeding up at will - they are clearly people born to run.

At the end of the race, I laughed when someone asked me if I met my goal time. I had no idea how long it had taken and running through a crowd of 35,000 is definitely not inducive to beating personal bests. But that wasn't really point. Sure there were some elite athletes who walked away with some prize money but the rest of us were there for the experience. An opportunity for the whole city to get together on a Sunday and do what Ethiopians can do like no one else - run.

Thursday, 28 November 2013


A few weeks ago we escaped the city to the Simien Mountains. We spent five days hiking, sleeping in tents and enjoying Ethiopia's great outdoors. Courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines recent tripling of flight fares for non-residents, the adventure started with a 13 hour bus ride from Addis to Gondar. And despite the number of hours spent sitting, twists and turns of the road, and our bus driver's avid use of the horn to clear a path - the ride was relatively painless.

Our group of five was joined by a sixth in Gondar and the next day we were off on our mountain adventure.

We walked through incredible landscapes, peered over the sides of cliffs, and trekked up steep mountain slopes to heights over 4300m. After months of breathing in the dust and diesel of Addis, walking all day and breathing in the clean was mountain air was incredible.

What was also incredible was that at the end of each day, we would arrive at our next base with our tents already set up and a tray of coffee and snacks sitting ready. This is the first time I've ever done an organised hike and while at first I was skeptical - what's the reward without doing all the hard work? - it was pretty wonderful experiencing this other kind of trekking. 

Sure the tents were often pitched in the one spot where they were guaranteed to receive no warming morning sunshine, but when all you have to do is convince yourself that if you climb out of your warm sleeping bag there will be a hot pot of coffee waiting for you, there really isn't too much left to complain about. 
So we spent our days wandering up and down mountainside, seeing some of the local wildlife and passing through a few of the remaining villages.

Ethiopia is in the process of reinvigorating its park protection schemes, and as a result, most of these villages will be moved. It's controversial and sad - I feel bad for the locals who will be moved from what is arguably one of the most beautiful parts of the country to much less pleasant towns where it will be harder to raise livestock and continue their present day lives. But on the other hand, having natural protected spaces is important. And I'm pretty sure all national parks were created by first removing the locals, its just that so much of it happened so long ago we don't have to think about it anymore. But regardless, it's sad that these villages will soon be gone and too bad that Ethiopia isn't trying a little harder to come up with a better compromise.

With our food made and our tents set up, we had little left to do in the evenings except watch the sunset, stay warm by the fire, and enjoy the wonderful company of the little group of travellers I was sharing this adventure with.

There were sun burns and bug bites. Freezing cold nights and tents set-up on rocky ground and sloping hills. An unforseen ascent to above 4000m with the only reward a freezing cold lunch while sitting enclosed by fog on the tip of the mountain. We lost our guide to some type of sickness, leaving us in the hands of our local (ie. non English speaking scout). And the nights were incredibly cold.

But I had like the scout better than our guide since day one when he noticed I was uncomfortable walking on a rock wall/bridge to our first lookout and offered a hand. He quickly won us over with his smiles and encouragement to greet and say goodbye to the baboons and walia we passed. The sun was bright, the air warm, and there is a pure pleasure to falling into an exhausted sleep, cosy in your sleeping bag at the end of the day. And my hiking mates wonderful company and the views breathtaking. I wouldn't have changed a thing.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Missed Connections

There was no internet at work today. In reality, this should not come as a shock. There are power outages and the internet goes down frequently all over the world, but especially in many developing countries. Other places I've lived and worked it has been a common occurrence to be without internet for days or weeks on end. But my experience at UNDP in Addis has been different. Miraculously, the internet never goes out. And it’s fast. This is an anomaly in Ethiopia where internet access is sub-par at best. I’m not sure how they manage it (most likely a direct satellite connection), and despite the numerous firewalls and passwords to prevent staff from using it for personal use, I’ve been grateful for its reliability. And so today, I’m at a bit of a loss. Email, the intranet, online research, etc..  are all part of my daily work activities and I am finding myself quickly running out of projects I can complete offline. Anywhere else, I would have already had documents and reports downloaded on a USB, prepared for the frequent occurrence of days spent offline, but I’ve been spoiled and have been caught off guard.

Having read this recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about cell phones, the internet and IT in development. I’ve always had a strong interest in health focused development initiatives and MHealth (improving health outcomes through the use of cell phones to improve access, adherence, attendance and awareness) is a constant topic of conversation in discussions of new initiatives and ways forward. The same holds for monitoring and evaluation, my other main area of interest and the reason behind my current role at UNDP. Cell phones and tablets are being used to improve accuracy of M&E in the field, to crowdsource surveys, and be faster and more responsive in planning, monitoring, and reporting on initiatives.

But while all these new innovations sound great on paper – I’m not sure how successfully they always play out in the field.

When I was in Lesotho, trying to use a cell phone in rural areas often required walking to the top of the closest hill. The families we visited weren’t receiving the text messages the service providers kept sending me about getting my child immunized. If they had the luxury of having a cell phone within the household, the battery was probably dead and there was no way to charge it anytime soon.

In Ethiopia, you may not speak Amharic but you can definitely recognize the sing-song voice of the Ethio-telecom operator telling you the network is busy and to try again later. Less than 2.5% of the country has access to the internet (compared to 40% in neighbouring Kenya) and those who do pay for it at a premium. In the past VoIP technology – such as Skype – was banned and today you are lucky if you can find an internet connection with enough bandwidth to handle it. Over the last few months 3G SIM cards have only been available on the black market. I’m not sure any kind of mobile/IT development initiative will work in Ethiopia anytime soon.

But it’s still exciting to explore the potential, and see the success stories happening in well-connected African nations like Kenya and South Africa. Hopefully with all of Ethiopia’s promising economic growth, they will be able to pick up the pace with the lagging IT infrastructure as well. 

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Squeezing It In/Photo Recap

Addis is all sunny days and blue skies recently. Work is busy and I find myself keeping tracking of just how few weeks I have left at UNDP. The sun here is setting earlier and on days where I leave the office late I'm left making my way home in the dark. Picking my way through the construction sites and dug up roads is a bit more of a challenge when you can't see the rubble under your feet.

Alongside work, I've also been trying to do and see as much as possible before I leave. In light of Ethiopian Airways' recent doubling of domestic flight prices for non-residents (who doesn't love a two-tiered system?!), I'm feeling grateful I managed to squeeze in as much as I did over the last month.

First, there was the Meskel celebration on the eve of September 26. Orthodox Christians from across Addis and outside the city flocked to Meskel square to celebrate the finding of the 'true cross'. There were processions into the square, a religious service in Ge'ez (an ancient language now only used by the Ethiopian Orthodox church), and a large bonfire. Everyone was decked out in traditional clothing, there were crosses and prayers being sold in the crowd, and we all waited patiently with our candles in hand for the big moment.As the sun set, the bonfire was set ablaze and the crowd lit their own candles - turning Meskel square into a truly beautiful site.

After the Meskel celebration, we boarded a flight and flew to one of Ethiopia's most well-known sites in the North: Lalibela. We spent the weekend exploring the UNESCO protected rock-hewn churches, wandering through the local market, and enjoying the incredible views and general tranquility of the town.

A few weekends after Lalibela, I took the opportunity to visit another Ethiopian UNESCO site - the walled town of Harar. Harar had been on my list of must-see places in Ethiopia ever since I arrived. Located in a predominantly Muslim part of the country, descriptions of the city immediately reminded me of the medinas in Morocco - a country I have loved travelling in in the past.

Harar definitely did not disappoint. It has a decidedly different feel than other places I've been in Ethiopia. I felt like I could have spent days wandering the old cobblestone roads.

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

more than half way

It's true what they say, the acronyms do start rolling off your tongue. SOP, AWP, DIP, CRGG, EDP, GEF, NIM, NEX and the list goes one. They have all become embedded in my brain and I find myself referring to them in conversation without skipping a beat. 

I have developed a fierce coffee addiction to rival my graduate school days. Not so much out of need but due to the availability of someone coming by my desk at least twice a day to offer me some. There are so many excuses: if a colleague invites you its rude to turn it down, it only costs 50 cents, it’s important to give the coffee cart people regular tips to help bolster their meagre income -but in reality, I just don’t have much will power when it comes to espresso.

The city and I have come to a compromise. I may not always like it but there is much about it I am grateful for and returning from weekends away feels like coming home. 
Coffee in a take-away cup from Ethiopia's Starbucks: Kaldis. One of the many perks of the UN compound.

Sometimes I feel like I have been here a week, other times a year, but in reality its been over three and half months since I arrived in Ethiopia. My placement is now more than half way over and with the rain slowly subsiding I can feel the time slipping through my fingers. I feel certain the second half of my placement will be done before I know it.   

My role with UNDP Ethiopia has been challenging and rewarding in expected and unexpected ways. I have learned a lot about monitoring and evaluation, UNDP, Ethiopia, partnership building and myself. I have advised, analysed, reviewed, edited, collaborated, planned, developed and produced and aimed to make as much of a positive contribution as I can in a limited amount of time. This role has been unlike any other in my career to date and I am appreciative of the experience, the opportunity to apply my skills in a new context, and the insight I've gained on where I might like my career to take me next.

There is still so much I want to do and see in Ethiopia and work I hope to accomplish at UNDP. I feel excited for the next few months, apprehensive of what might be next, but determined to make the most of the little time I have left.

The Africa Hall Mosaic on the first floor of the building where UNDP is housed.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013


Reason 237 I wish I spoke Amharic: Our house has been without water for two days.  

But it’s not just us. Much of Addis is also dry because the city has turned the water off for a few days for maintenance work. Apparently, this was announced on local radio and tv so people could prepare . We missed the message – and I feel like we really only have ourselves to blame.

There’s an ongoing joke amongst expats in Ethiopia that the only Amharic a ferengi needs is Ishi, Beka, Ciao – ‘Okay’, ‘Enough’, ‘Bye’. And while these words will get you pretty far –and it would probably be smart to throw in amaseganalo or ‘thank you’ for good measure- there are many days where I lament not knowing just a bit more of the language.

So far I have managed to learn some numbers, some greetings, enough vocabualry to buy vegetables, take minibuses and shoo away persistent street vendors and beggars. I hope to keep learning more before my time is up, but sometimes I think my obliviousness to what people are saying as I walk by them on the street may be a blessing.

Some of my favourite things about Amharic so far…

The quickest way to get a smile from an Ethiopian is to use an Amharic word. It doesn’t need to be in a sentence or pronounced correctly but your almost always guaranteed a positive response (although happiness might take the form of them laughing at you).

Ethiopian greetings sound like the world’s longest run on sentence. Greetings are rapidly said one over another, neither person waiting for the other’s response but rather repeating ‘how are you’ in various forms, alongside some references to God’s grace/will. As a result I have also started doing this English, responding to my colleagues questions of how was your weekend by repeating multiple similar inquiries, with neither of us ever actually answering the question.

My name in Amharic is Rahel – and Ethiopians love to inform me of this fact and are thrilled when I respond to the use of this name. From my side, Rahel sounds much nicer than when they try to pronounce the hard ‘a’ that most non-native English speakers turn into a harsh ‘ee’. It is also considerably easier to remember than my Sesotho name from my time in Lesotho: Nthabiseng.

I cannot read any of the 350+ characters in the Amharic alphabet but I love seeing it anyways. I remember on my first big backpacking adventure around Europe I was thrilled when I reached Bulgaria and had to start navigating Cyrillic script. It felt like travelling was finally starting to a feel a bit more challenging, everything was a bit more lost in translation, and it was exciting. Most days, I still associate this feeling with Amharic writing. The only exception being when I am trying to catch a mini-bus at rush hour and all the locals can read the destination on the small sign fixed to the top of the blue and white van. By the time it has come close enough for me to hear the route being called out a crowd has swarmed the door and there is no chance I am getting on.

Ethiopians will use a quick intake of breath to say yes. As a result they often sound excited and/or surprised about the most basic sentences. And no matter how many times I hear it, I don’t get used to it. Conversations are much more exciting when it feels like people are shocked by everything I say.

Learning the word for intersection – ‘chaf ’ –has dramatically changed my morning commute and ability to pay the correct fare and describe where I want to get out. One word can be a powerful thing. 


Thursday, 12 September 2013


When I move somewhere new, the thing I always struggle with the most is missing family, be it biological relatives or close friends. I've been lucky to have been able to live many places, the downside of which is that some of my most important people are scattered around the world. Living in a new place it always takes a while to start building up a new support network - something which can be particularly frustrating when dealing with all the other challenges of uprooting yourself.

New Years in Ethiopia, like most holidays I've had the joy of celebrating on the African continent,  is all about spending time with family. And so the past few days have really given me the chance to recognise the little bits of family I've been able to acquire over my short time here.

There are my lovely colleagues at UNDP. To celebrate the holiday we shared cake, multiple rounds of coffee, and a lunchtime feast at a local Ethiopian restaurant. Not a single day goes by without someone asking me how Ethiopia is treating me. While I may still be seen as a guest, I'm endlessly appreciative of the kindness that I know I will find in the office each day.

New Years was also celebrated with the staff at the Ibex Hotel - a place that I have come to realise is a bit like my second Ethiopian home. You see, internet in Addis is a hassle. It's expensive and slow and is often not even there. As a result, I have spent a lot of time trying to connect to wifi at the hotel one street over from my house. It's also the location of the closest macchiato, where I had Amharic lessons, and my favourite location to buy alcohol for take-away. So basically the staff know me and my housemates pretty well at this point. On New Years day we ventured over to try to access some free wifi and soon found ourselves the recipients of the lovely gift of a traditional coffee ceremony. The women were wearing traditional clothing, the owner blessed the food, there was incense, delicious coffee, plates of popcorn, and the best bread I've had in Ethiopia. Warm, fluffy and chewy, and swirled with berbere.

And then there is my family of expat friends. We all have different backgrounds but are sharing the experience of being a foreigner living in Addis. They are the people who you can vent to about every tiny thing that drives you crazy about this city without having to worry about offending someone. They are the ones who want to go on weekend adventures, think its a great idea to make a mexican feast for ethiopian new years, and will soon be some of those important people who end up scattered around the world.

Family in Ethiopia seems to be coming in many forms and I grateful for every bit of it.