I visited Dembi Dollo in Ethiopia to carry out charity work through Stand by Me and it was unlike anywhere I have ever been…
We arrived in the Addis Ababa, the ever growing capital of Ethiopia after a seven hour flight with Ethiopian Airlines. Bole Airport is a major international hub serving most of Africa and is a stop-over to many other destinations. I would recommend buying a visa advance to save delay and hassle as with many African airports there are inevitable delays, although I whizzed through without any problems.
One fact worth knowing before you visit is that foreigners aren’t allowed to hire cars in Addis, but believe me having witnessed the roads and driving, you wouldn’t want to! We had a driver pick us up from the airport (most major hotels offer this service) to take us to the other side of the city. This drive was a real eye opener – Addis is an amazing, chaotic, crazy city, there was so much to look at as we travelled through the hub of the city. From hundreds of blue Toyota Corolla’s (evidently the car of choice!), to expanding building work all over the place – mostly with wooden scaffolding structures. The roads are a mix of beeping taxis, trucks, donkeys and people, with no traffic signs or highway code it appeared! Although quite refreshingly I didn’t notice a single McDonalds which I thought remarkable given their global influence.
You really need a guide in Addis Ababa; as with many fast growing African cities there is little sense of structure and order as well as a lack of public transport. We were taken to an Ethiopian equivalent of a high end restaurant overlooking the smog filled city. I ordered the national dish of injera (a type of sour pancake) and curried meat. When cooked well it is a very good dish although somewhat of an acquired taste. In rural areas it is often cooked with just sauce or a whole boiled mutton if there is a special occasion as many locals can’t afford meat very often. Food is very cheap for westerners, a meal and drinks for six people cost £23 which is expensive by Ethiopian standards.
As in other less economically developed cities, there is clear evidence of the widening gap between rich and poor. Large houses have been built up the slopes in Addis which are situated adjacent to the slums. Well known Ethiopians such Haile Gebrselassie have made their home in the city moving away from the less developed rural areas. It clearly is a fast growing city with international investment.
As we continued our journey through the city, I spotted many people sleeping on the streets, small markets, basic shops and people selling every possible product you can imagine, even coffins! It seemed to be a city which never slept, places were open all the time and there was people everywhere! Vastly different to sleepy Wiltshire!
Our guide took us to the National Museum of Ethiopia which is fairly basic, however it does contain ‘Lucy’, the earliest human remains discovered as well as other Ethiopian artefacts and paintings.
We went to a hotel for dinner which had a very good range of pasta and pizza which most restaurants serve, due to the short Italian colonisation in the late 1930’s. Ethiopia is one of the only African countries which has never been properly colonised by the western world. We left the restaurant after nightfall and noted another reason for not driving in this country is the optional use of headlights! We stayed in accommodation which was run by the charity but there are a range of independent and global hotels such as Hilton. Even though Addis is the most developed city in Ethiopia, it is still Africa, so be prepared for power cuts and water shortages with little or no warning.
After a manic 24 hours in Addis, we flew to Gambela in the south west of the country via Jimma (the plane briefly stopped, refuelled and off loaded passengers). Gambela airport is without doubt the most basic airport I have ever been to. The heat and humidity hits you as soon as you descend off the plane. The airport staff offload the luggage and wheel it to the passengers to collect – no baggage reclaim belts here! The heat of Gambela was intense whilst waiting for our transport which eventually arrived. It is a 45 minute drive from Gambela airport to centre of the town – again you need have pre-arranged transport as there didn’t appear to be any public transport or taxi service. This drive along a dusty track (the main road to the town has not yet been tarmacked) in a 1970’s hippy style tin bus was pretty indescribable! We bounced along the potholed road in the middle of a forest with no signs of civilisation until we reached the outskirts of the town.
Gambela is a fairly large town, separated by a tributary of the River Nile. I observed one part of the river being shared by a great number of people. From a JCB being hand-washed in the public car wash, to children swimming and fishing to women washing clothes. It was a true snapshot of Africa. Although also evidence of why you should only drink bottled water in Ethiopia. It is a mosquito rich area so remember to take the necessary precautions.
We all piled back onto our tin bus to travel from Gambela to Dembi Dollo. It was an epic drive along another dirt road for the whole 200 kilometres, it felt like every bone in my body was being shaken to the core! Combined with heat and dirt, it’s certainly not for faint hearted! Having said this, the drive was spectacular and definitely off the beaten track. We drove through savanna type vegetation and carved up steep mountains overlooking the expansive landscape, past traditional Ethiopian straw houses and many baboons. We did have a bit of a hairy moment when the bus stopped for us to take photos and then didn’t restart for quite a while. The driver didn’t seem perturbed though, but as a westerner I did feel pretty isolated. Oddly there are checkpoints along the route, mainly for the police to check for contraband and possibly due to being relatively close to the Sudanese border.
We stopped in one village for the driver to pick up some home brew (!) and our bus was soon surrounded by many children, waving and wanting to shake our hands through the windows and sadly, as many Ethiopian children so, ask for money as they obviously associate westerners with financial reward. This is somewhat due to the limited tourism but mainly due to the influx of Chinese road builders. They refer to all white people by the Amaharic word for Chinese!
After bone-rattling four hours later we arrived in our destination of Dembi Dollo which is a small town of about 25,000 people. Dembi Dollo is also a major producer of coffee and more than 500,000 kilos of coffee beans are exported annually. It has a tropical climate and the city remains mostly hot and humid throughout the year. Dembi Dollo has a rich culture and the people are very religious. Moreover, the people are very hospitable and they strictly follow the code of their society. We were dropped at our hotel (don’t even imagine a western style hotel!) located in the centre of town. It was pretty basic, a double room (no food service available) and there was only running water for about 20 minutes each day as with the rest of the country electricity was intermittent. I did feel that it was proper Africa!
The main purpose of my visit was to train teachers, deliver lessons and learn about the fundraising needs at the Abdi Academy, a school financed by the Stand By Me charity. Located on a small, disused university campus, it’s incomparable to any educational establishment in the UK. On arrival I watched two women, preparing injera and sauce for the children over a wood stove. Donkeys and monkeys roam freely in the school grounds and women and children pass through carrying firewood. The long drop toilet on site is also quite an experience! There is only a basic well which supplies the school water supply which is not reliant. There are no concrete paths, therefore when it rains the claggy mud stuck to everyone’s shoes. To try to alleviate this problem, the classrooms have sawdust on the floor.
My over-riding memory of working at Abdi Academy is the happy, smiling children all desperate to hold our hands, play and talk. Poverty is clearly evident but as the saying goes money doesn’t buy happiness.
Wednesday is Dembi Dollo’s market day. In Ethiopia (particularly in area) everything is sold in small one room shops or at the market. There was a vast array of second hand clothes being sold. There were many donkeys, loaded with fruit, goats being dragged along unwillingly to be sold. I noticed many chickens – alive and dead trusted up ready for a feast as the weekend we were there it was the Easter festival. Meat is scarce in this region and usually the weekly market will be their only opportunity to buy food.
As this is the hub of the Ethiopian coffee growing area, there were many coffee bean stalls, the beans are sold unroasted as everyone roasts their beans over fires at home. It is very rare to find it in jars! We bought 4 kilos of beans for 220 Birr (£7) which you have to get roasted before leaving the country as it is illegal to export unroasted beans. I even had a go at cleaning then roasting the beans over a wood fire.
After our all too brief but amazing week in Dembi, we said our emotional good-byes to the children and teachers of Abdi Academy, who I wondered if we’d ever see again… We’d had an experience like nothing else and if you ever get the chance to visit schools in rural Africa, take along balloons as they proved to be a real hit!
We headed back to Addis Ababa via the same route and having initially thought it was poverty stricken and underdeveloped it seemed positively westernised compared to the rural areas of the country. It felt a pleasant change to eat with a knife and fork and have warm running water.
I would highly recommend visiting somewhere like Ethiopia at least once in your life as it truly makes you appreciate the world in which we live. I became significantly less materialistic and realised that you do not need much money to make you smile.