Jessica Warner - General Care Projects in Ethiopia
It’s always hard to decide which country to volunteer in, there is such a vast scope of cultures, climates, peoples, and projects. Luckily, for me it was easy; as soon as I knew I could go to Africa I knew exactly which country was going to be expecting me. I had been hearing about Ethiopia for years before I finally arrived in Addis Ababa this July. I remember hearing endless stories about the city, the countryside and the military coup in the 60s. My father and his family lived in Addis from 1956- 1962.
My grandfather was headmaster of the General Wingate secondary school, which I have since discovered was one of the best schools in the country at the time, and is still held in high regard locally. It is a strange experience to travel across the world, to an entirely unfamiliar continent, and to end up walking the same streets where my grandparents and their children walked 50 years ago and taking weekend trips to places they visited on summer holidays all those years ago.
My grandfather used to tell us stories about parties in the palace of Haile Selassie 1, the last king of Ethiopia. Selassie was very fond of foreign teachers and my family was well received, they were good friends of the Emperor, who is also considered the second coming of Christ by the Rastafarian religion. My grandfather’s thatch cottage in southern Ireland was full of African souvenirs, from rhino-skin shields to strange spices, all gifts from local tribes in thanks for his contribution many years ago.
Before leaving Ireland, I was plaguing my poor father, aunt and uncle for details, names, places, pictures, anything! It was difficult because, having been so young at the time, (my father was just 12 when they left Addis for Austria) they struggled to remember more than a knee-height perception of this fascinating country which has changed dramatically in the last half century. So armed with my myprojectsabroad page, my Lonely Planet and copies of Dad’s old projector slides, I took off for East Africa to see just how different the country was from the scrambled mental picture I had built up.
As soon as I arrived I knew I had to readjust my preconceptions, this country had a lot to teach me. Addis is a massive sprawling city 2500m above sea level where every corner has another surprise in store, be it a herd of goats patiently waiting at traffic lights, a shared-taxi stacked high with sacks of vegetables and other goods for Merkato or a church overflowing with people dressed head-to-toe in white.
A month flew by, my work in Kidanemehret and Safe House was great, every day we’d have art & craft lessons (I learned a lot!). I wasn’t sure how much use I was going to be but I found there was always something to do; the kids would give us a run for our money!
So one Saturday instead of shopping in Merkato (renowned locally as the biggest open-air market in Africa) or visiting one of the many beautiful places outside Addis, I took a shared-taxi out to Wingate, it is still a landmark in the west of Addis. The school is now a technical and vocational college, a lively place bustling with students. I met the current Dean who, although much too young to remember my grandfather, showed me a warm welcome and was intrigued by the story of how I ended up there. He gave me a tour of the school and showed me the headmaster’s house, where my family had lived many years ago. It has changed greatly, unfortunately not entirely for the better. The gardens, previously so well kept, were overgrown and unkempt. Regardless, it was a great experience. The Dean told me about a guard who had been working in Wingate for many years and might remember something. He wasn’t on duty that day so the school driver came along in his pick-up to bring me to the guard’s house. So I said my goodbyes to the school and the Dean kindly gave me a “General Wingate” champagne glass, designed by the textile department. A great gift which has is now centre-stage on my dad’s mantelpiece.
The driver had no English and my Amharic is eh, lacking. We arrived in a quite run-down area of West Addis and the driver called for the guard at his home. When the guard came out he certainly looked like he had been around a few years, but still had spring in his step. I managed to communicate who I was, at first the guard was confused but at the mention of Mr Warner his face lit up. The happy tears in his eyes said it all, he definitely remembered! The language barrier prevented a deep meaningful conversation but I feel so lucky to have met him and his expression said it all.
My family were delighted to hear all about it when I got back to good old overcast Ireland. It definitely brought back long-forgotten memories and they were amazed to see all the changes in their childhood city.
In Addis, the locals were so welcoming and the family I stayed with- well, it’s enough to say that I have never met more open, genuine and wise people anywhere. The local Projects Abroad staff, Sami (Country Director), Bikesegn and Weini were so welcoming and helpful, my trip would not have been the same without them- thanks again guys! Although you do attract attention on the street as a foreigner, everyone was so friendly and wanted to show me all the national treasures the country has to offer, things we unfortunately never hear about in Western media. There is a fascinating historical circuit in the north and the south is an anthropological goldmine. With over 80 cultures and 80 million people, a month only gives a glimpse at what is one of the oldest independent countries in the world. If you want to volunteer somewhere genuinely worthwhile and well off the tourist track, which will challenge all your preconceptions about the developing world, Ethiopia is a must see!
It is such a shame that neither of my grandparents are alive to have seen me follow their roots but there were times in Ethiopia where I felt close to them. My placement was a rewarding, eye-opening journey and more, it was a tribute to Paddy Warner (1914 – 2003).