Dear Tim and Dod, Sorry it’s been so long, eek!

Sorry it’s been so long – I’ve fallen into the ‘sure, why not!’ trap! That’s the place where mentally I know I should be declining invites and opportunities because I have an ever growing list of personal stuff to catch up on, but in the moment when I weigh up the two, I’m like ‘yeah, sounds great!’. It never feels like a trap at the time by the way, it always feels like a chance that’s too good to be true and the right call, it’s just that on every adventure my guilty conscience gets a day out too!
New Year’s Eve!

So the first thing that I have to tell you is that the date here today is Sept. 29th 2005!! We follow the ‘Ge’ez Calendar’ which is completely different to the Julian calendar typical in the West. Thirteen months in the year and approx. eight years behind the rest of the world. So Tim, when you wrote and asked how I was getting on and whether it was a culture shock, I can tell you that celebrating New Year’s Eve 2004 on Sept 11th 2012 was something very different! And the activity that day was electric which is kind of ironic because there no actual electricity for the best part!

The Goats and a Happy New Year card!

I was still living opposite the goat market at the time and the comings and goings were non-stop. The goats or, ‘the poor goats!!!’, as your Carolyn put it Dod were in high demand. Sheep and goat would form the mainstay of the feast the following day so they were being bought by families for home slaughter and preparation. I hadn’t really considered how the local folk would get the live animals home; I was soon to get an education! Taxi after taxi, carrying entire families, pulled up and excited siblings, chaperoned by elders, disembarked. After lots of debate, a decision would be made (reference us choosing a Christmas tree) and the purchase would be bound and either strapped onto the roof or placed ill-fittingly into the boot of the blue and white taxi – exactly where the next person’s shopping might go I thought! This continued until about lunch time when one little goat was left, and he sat quietly beside his owner’s bike. As I realised that it was unlikely he was sitting there with free will, I went back to my viewing point. Peering out the window, my eyes widened with disbelief as I watched a teenage boy mount his bike and the goat be hauled onto his shoulders. After a couple of false starts and readjustments, the teenager duly found his balance and picked up speed. Long after I had stopped photographing, I watched him peddle, weaving his way through the traffic and into the distance. It was incredible. That was about the height of my New Year’s.  I did you go for dinner that night and chanced upon one of the better bars which was colourfully decorated with balloons and streamers and beautiful Ethiopians dressed mostly in Western clothes. I considered staying for the count-down but on realising that it happens as 6am here – as that’s considered midnight in the Ethiopian clock – I slipped off home at about 11.30pm and fell asleep wondering what will happen on Dec 31st and whether there will be any acknowledgement of the international New Year….

MESKEL Celebrations

The next big event was ‘Meskel’. Meskel in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is an annual religious holiday commemorating the discovery of the True Cross by Queen Helena (St. Helen) and is one of the most important feast days of the year here. In Addis, tens of thousands of people gathered in ‘Meskel Square’ the evening before the feast day, as they do every year. This year Audrey and I joined them. Audrey is a Cavan girl who moved in across the hall from me in my new digs (which is basic but clean, free of bugs and closer to my office). She’s is in Addis for a month volunteering with Christian Aid and then travels to Nairobi to do a month of the same there. We moved in on the same day and have been great pals since. Ivy, who’s been here much longer, was able to plan for these holidays and so used the long weekends of New Years and Meskel to visit other places.

Anyway, decked out in purposely purchased, semi- traditional gear, Audrey and I joined the masses at Meskel square. The photos really don’t capture the scale of the celebration but basically from around 4pm onwards, processions of priests, religious orders and marching bands arrived at the square, paraded in front of the dignitary tent and then took their place around the Meskel tree. From where we sat, they were just colourful dots so the photos are all zoomed in. The main event would come at sun-down when each of the congregation would light their Meskel candles before the Meskel tree was blessed and set alight. The whole event was like a cross between Paddy’s Day and Bonfire night less the alcohol! It was fascinating to be a part of though. Apparently, the burning of the large tree/bonfire was based on the belief that Queen Helena had a revelation in a dream. She was told that she should make a bonfire and that the smoke would show her where the true cross was buried (that which Jesus Christ was buried on). So she ordered the people of Jerusalem to bring wood and make a huge pile. After adding frankincense to it, the bonfire was lit and the smoke rose high up to the sky and returned to the ground, exactly to the spot where the Cross had been buried. One of the reasons that this festival has such significance for the Ethiopian Orthodox followers is that it’s believed that a part of the true Cross was brought to Ethiopia from Egypt. It is said to be kept at Amba Geshen, a mountain in Northern Ethiopia. It is such history and culture that makes this land such a fascinating place. Did you know for example that it is claimed that the Arc of the Covenant lies here in the city of Axum?

Butijera, the Grarbet Tehadiso Mahber and New Perspectives

And it’s not just interesting, it’s beautiful too. Breathtaking – once you get out of Addis – as Audrey and I learned on an overnight trip to Butijera. Work had been going well, largely because of Abbas. Abbas is the good friend of a contact from London, Paul. Abbas had been introducing me to all sorts of contacts relevant to the Sericulture (silk worms), Apiculture (honey production) and Ecotourism projects that I’ve been working on. One of the introductions was to Professor Redda, an internationally renowned Ethiopian neurologist who along with having founded a very successful NGO, has a keen interest in Sericulture and Apiculture. Actually the two are interlinked as he first became interested in silk worming as a way to generate employment for Polio survivors in Butijera. Prof. Redda invited Abbas and I to spend a weekend at the compound in Butijera (100km south of Addis) to better understand the work that Grarbet Tehadiso Mahber (his NGO) does there. At short notice, Abbas was unable to come along and so Audrey joined us instead.

A few weeks in Ethiopia and my first time outside of Addis, the journey to Butijera and the trip in general was a real eye-opener. Audrey and I, perched in the back of the Prof’s four wheel drive, were in awe of the soft, green, rolling hills that stretched out in front of us. With the rainy season just closing, the fields were a patchwork of gold and amber and green, filled with swaying crops ready for harvest. Audrey continually announced how like Ireland it was and I smiled and nodded in agreement. We had never missed 3G/wireless so much as we were desperate to post photos so that friends and family could share the view with us. ‘People have to know how stunning it is’, she would gasp, ‘I had no idea’. Like Audrey, I had had no idea either. All the guidebooks in the world couldn’t have prepared me for these idyllic images. Nobody had ever written anything compelling enough to challenge the images that the famine in the ‘80s had conjured. Liveaid and Trocaire boxes had etched for me an Ethiopia of dusty dry lands and sad, swollen-bellied babies. Of course, I’d realised that the situation had improved and food insecurity was decreasing but I had no images to replace those desolate ones with. I felt naïve. I also felt incredibly fortunate to be here and quietly realised how this experience is altering my perspective in so, so many ways.

Out and about in Butijera; a typical homestead, some locals, one of the new wells, Audrey, the Prof and I and the workshop where the prosthetics are made.

The weekend was incredible; from seeing firsthand the remarkable work of Prof. Redda and his foundation, to visiting the wattle and daub homes of local villagers. The small, hand crafted homes reminded me of crannog’s on land. In parts, it was like stepping back in time a thousand years. Bar the very odd vehicle on the road, all that kept it current was the worn out western-style clothes worn by the local kids – particularly the little boys for whom hole-ridden tracksuits and football shirts was the local uniform. Over the course of the day we visited wells and water pumps that the Foundation had funded bringing clean water to 13,000 people. We toured the hospital and workshops that had been built on the compound on the edge of town and heard the story of how he had built the initiative up from informal weekend eye clinics to a service that now provides 70,000 eye checks and 3,000 glaucoma operations each year. We watched eye glasses being produced by polio survivors and saw the several workshops dedicated to the production and fitting of leg braces for those same survivors. Sadly in Addis, on most street corners you can see the fierce affect of Polio on those not fortunate to have such support. Even working for a major vaccine producer, I had no idea of the devastating effect that Polio was still having on communities in sub-Saharan Africa. I was pleased to hear at least the children in Butijera are now being vaccinated and that the re have been no new cases in the last five years there. That evening, after a traditional Ethiopian meal, we sat around a camp fire, drinking whiskey and roasting corn on the cob. To the soundtrack of the local wildlife and chants of the nearby Coptic  Church congregation, Audrey, the retired Professor and I chatted late into the night. I went to bed happy that night feeling that I was experiencing and learning about Ethiopian culture in a way that only living here could allow.

The Apiculture Expo

The following week was hectic work-wise, preparing for my trip to the project site of Hawzien where I am now.  Actually Addis is always seems to be busy for me but in this final week I was also attending an international Honey Expo to try to make contacts that might help us improve the Value Chain for the MVP. It was interesting too. The exhibition stands were basic (photos are of the good ones!) but the people so friendly and welcoming. Millennium Villages absolutely should have had a stand there as we’re now producing 90 tonnes of honey a year but part of my role will be to spot marketing opportunities such as this and have an activity plan around them in the future. Or so my plan is at least! I did make some useful contacts and am in the process of following up.

Brief intro to Hawzien

And now I’m here in Hawzien, 700km north of Addis, where the operational arm of MVP sits working in eleven nearby villages. This region is possibly the most beautiful place I have ever been. Scratch that. It is definitely the most beautiful place I have ever been and all the Westerners I meet here say the same. Living conditions are tough for the local people (and for me by times) but the landscape and wildlife (birds and small animals not big game) are indescribable. I’ve taken over 2000 photos since I arrived and I just don’t think I can capture a fracture of the beauty.  It’s definitely a letter all by itself so I’ll post some of the photos and buy myself some time to try to put words to them!

Dod, your wedding photos/CDs are still here with me! I’m back in London for a few days at the beginning of November so at this stage it will be quicker to post from them there. Tim, I’ve emailed you separately re the wedding, hope plans are coming together now. Please give my best to your lovely ladies, Brigie, Jimmy and all the family.

Anyway, lots of love and see you in Venice hopefully!

All the best,

Niamh.

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