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Lea Jacobsen - Physical Therapy in Ethiopia


For me, Ethiopia was just a place on a map with a unique history and a wide variety of cultures. Projects Abroad was able to turn this piece of geography into a large number of faces and experiences that I will never forget. Everything about Ethiopia was different from anything else I have ever done or seen. My Ethiopian family, work experiences and traveling all contributed to one of the most life changing experiences I have ever had.

I was lucky enough to arrive around the time of the Ethiopian New Year and Maskel Festival. The festivals and parades were spectacular and full of large fires, colorful costumes and larger amounts of food and music. Living with an Ethiopian host family was especially nice because we were able to experience not only the daily activities but also the major family events, such as weddings and birthdays.

Local school

On one such occasion my host family had a sheep tied up by the front door and my housemate from England made the mistake of naming it Sean. Later Sean disappeared from our house and was discovered in a large amount of the amazing dishes our host mother prepared for the holidays. “Poor Sean” my host brother sighed. “Yes, poor delicious Sean” I agreed as we hungrily ate all the amazing spicy dishes.

My time working in Ethiopia was split between working at a private clinic helping nurses working with kidney dialysis patients, and helping physical therapists at an NGO working with children who came from difficult backgrounds. At the clinic I was extremely lucky to be put with some very hard working and generous nurses who went out of their way to make me feel welcome. They taught me a lot of Amharic and at the end of my stay gave me a wonderful coffee ceremony to say goodbye.

With work colleagues

One day Addis, a nurse, told me to call Rachel, another nurse a “rat face” in Amharic. I did so without knowing what it meant and Rachel in a voice of mock pain asked me in English why I thought she had a rat face. I quickly covered by responding “anchee konjo i-eet feet” which meant that she had a beautiful rat face. They all found this extremely funny and every day we would all eat lunch together and they would bring lunches from home that would be put on one large tray. Everything was very communal and friendly and I learned a lot about the friendliness and comradery of the Ethiopian people this way.

Working with Brothers of Good Work was a very different experience than working at the clinic and I am so grateful I got to experience both. The clinic serviced wealthy patients who could afford the service of kidney dialysis while the physical therapy center was working with the poorest of the poor. I spent most of my mornings working at an orphanage doing basic exercises with sick children and working with field workers who taught mothers how to do exercises with their children. The organization also sent the field workers to people’s homes, so I was able to get a glimpse of the lives of people who lived in very poor conditions. Working with children The clinic did a lot with disability awareness, HIV prevention, nutrition programs and education for mothers so they can get jobs and earn their own income. It was amazing working with this organization and seeing the large impact they had on the lives of the people they worked with.

Luckily, working in Ethiopia did not limit my travel opportunities. I was fortunate enough to spend time outside the capital city up North to Lake Tana, where the Nile River starts. Together with some other volunteers we traveled by bus to spend a long four day weekend at Bahir Dar. Projects Abroad recommended a wonderful tour guide who met us at the bus stop when we arrived, showed us our hotel, and took us on a boat to see the historical churches on the islands of Lake Tana. He also took us to see Blue Nile Falls, which was my personal favorite part of the trip, and was kind enough to answer all my questions about, well, everything. “whatkindofbirdisthatohlook atthatbughowoldisthattree WOWlookatthatflower!” As a biologist, I was very lucky to have him as a tour guide.

Rock church

My roommate from Australia was working with an extraordinary woman named Eldona who started several of her own schools and who had made her life work to help children receive an education. Eldone took Amy, my roommate, to Axum, Adwa and Lalibela to help set up a sponsorship program for the children going to schools in Axum and Adwa and was nice enough to let me tag along. The children at the schools were so full of energy and character that I regretted only being able to stay for a short time. We stopped in Lalibela to see the historic stone churches and also were able to see the famous St Mary’s church in Axum and the place where they keep the Arc of the Covenant. For anyone who is fascinated with the glorious and rich history of Ethiopia, Axum and Lalibela are places you cannot afford to miss.

Daily life in Ethiopia is full of fun surprises and exhilarating challenges. From fighting over getting a spot on a taxi, haggling over goods at the markets, getting coffee at a café or going to an event put on by the wonderful Projects Abroad staff, everyday you go to bed with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction. My only regret is not getting to stay longer. It was a wonderful and enriching experience where I helped so many people but also had so many people helping me.

Lea Jacobsen

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