Monday, July 1, 2013

Addis Ababa: The First Week

Well, I made it to Addis Ababa safely about a week ago, and I have had very little time to sit and write about all that I’ve experienced in 6 short days.  In less than a week, I’ve become familiar enough with the city to get around on my own using the shared land-taxi system, find good restaurants to patronize, communicate a [very] little in Amharic, and adapt to different cultural concepts. 

My previous experience in India prepared me in so many ways for life here in Ethiopia.  Although coming to a completely different country will always result in some culture shock, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been.  I was prepared for the attention that I draw, for the inability to communicate fluently with most of the locals, and the general chaos that accompanies living in a different society.  In India, I learned to embrace this chaos, to keep in mind that everything will work out and that small setbacks and inconveniences could be shrugged off.  And although I’m still determined to be as independent as possible here in Addis, I am much more comfortable asking for help and guidance than I was four years ago.  In contrast to India, I am very much on my own here in Addis.  The Young Adult Volunteer Program provided a program director in country, a community that was prepared to accept and teach me, and readily available resources for helping me adjust to living in a different country.  Here, I’ve had to make connections, explore, and figure much of life out on my own.  Not that I’m complaining, it’s been a great experience so far and I’m looking forward to the next 7 weeks.

 Getting around in Addis

This past week, for me, was all about orienting myself to Addis Ababa so that this week I can hit the ground running for my work with the International Organization For Adolescents (IOFA).  Addis is a rapidly growing city, construction projects are everywhere and many areas of the city are dominated by new, gleaming buildings.  The city itself is only 125 years old, which makes its development even more amazing.  Addis is divided into different sub-cities, each with a distinctive character.  Kera, where my guest house is, is near the African Union and is a densely populated area filled with homes and shops.  From Kera, I can walk to Mexico Square (so named for the Mexican Embassy nearby), which is one of the land-taxi centers.  From there, I can catch a ride to any of the other areas of the city.  Arat Kilo and Aminst Kilo are near to Addis Ababa University, the Hilton, Radisson, and Sheraton (super fancy hotels).  The restaurants and cafes in this area are great, and there are many young people, mostly university students, around at all times of the day or night.  West of Aminst Kilo is the Piazza, one of the shopping centers of Addis.  You can find anything in the Piazza, jewelry, clothes, electronics, etc.  This is also where the Taitu Hotel (the first hotel in Addis) is located—a good thing to know because they have a vegan buffet lunch every day for just  $4.50.   On the far West side of the city is the famous Merkato:  an outdoor market that deals in EVERYTHING.  In the South part of Addis sits Bole International Airport, the hub of Ethiopian Airlines.  The Bole area is also where many NGOs, international development organizations, and international business offices are located.  As a result, most of the buildings and businesses there are more “modern” and Westernized.

Of course, it would have been pretty impossible for me to figure all of this out by myself.  I am eternally grateful to Amy Gilbert (a previous IOFA intern) for connecting me to Nahom, a business student here who has been extremely helpful.  Nahom helped me navigate the land taxi system, took me to many of the tourist sights in Addis (Entoto Hills, the Ethnographic Museum, the National Museum, the Merkato, etc.), hooked me up with an Ethiopian SIM card (difficult to get), explains different cultural quirks, teaches me very basic Amharic phrases, and gives advice on where to eat.  Without his help, I would know only a fraction of what I do now.  I am also lucky in that the manager of my guest house, Tutu, lived for several years in the United States, speaks fluent English, and has a good understanding of the challenges Westerners may face in Ethiopia.  

 The Merkato in Addis

Already I can see how my work with IOFA is going to be challenging, rewarding, and much needed here.  Ethiopia already has a reputation in the West for being a country with many orphans and children in need of care.  From what I have seen so far, this is indeed the reality.  There are many street children here, some with their mothers but many unaccompanied.  This week, I will visit some of the children’s homes in the city and learn more about their work and the needs of children in Ethiopia.  Through my conversations with Nahom and other locals, I am beginning to understand the extreme disadvantage that youth without supporting families face in Addis as they transition to adulthood.  Higher education is not guaranteed, and even if youth test into college programs their tuition is not covered by the state.  Once young people graduate college, they often must live with their parents for a few years before they find a sufficient-wage job.  Young people who do not attend college also live with their families until they are able to provide for themselves, which may take many years.  If these youth have no families to take care of them, and they have aged out of care provided by institutions, where can they go?  What can they do?  The rest of my time here in Addis will be getting the answers to these questions and identifying ways in which care institutions and other organizations can provide support to young people who cannot rely on family as they transition to adulthood.  IOFA will use this information to develop programs and curriculum to decrease vulnerability for the orphaned population.  As always, you can contribute to this work (aka, my unpaid internship in Addis) by going to GoFundMe.  And, of course, if you have any questions about my work, my experience, life in Addis, or Ethiopia in general please post in the comments and I’ll do my best to find the answers!

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