Having worked as a finance manager at Link Ethiopia for 18 months, I was finally on my way to Ethiopia – from spreadsheets to reality. As a hard bitten traveller (ahem), a putative Masters graduate in Development Management and a Link Ethiopia veteran, you may have expected that I knew what I was letting myself in for – well think again. Here are a handful of pointers I carried in my rucksack back from Addis Ababa International airport.
1) No expectations – When I arrived in Ethiopia, the Link Staff would often ask me what my expectations of Ethiopia had been and whether they had been changed. I found this a really difficult question to answer. Obviously, I had some expectations. I expected Ethiopia to be a bit like other African countries I have visited and I built up expectations from my work with Link however, there were a lot of complete revelations: I wasn’t prepared for donkeys trotting up the dual carriageway or school children with a few phrases of Hindi as well as English. The rock hewn churches of Lalibella were (figuratively?) miraculous.
After various mumbling attempts to articulate this, I switched the question, asking my friend Haile what his expectations were when he came to Britain earlier this year. ‘I had no expectations’, he said. ‘I tried to be open minded’. Ah…. How wise you are!
2) Making a difference – As a charity worker in the UK I am somewhat addicted to the phrase ‘making a difference’. I have a habit of appending it to website entries and facebook updates. It was great to move beyond the cliché and see that at Link we were (and more importantly, our supporters are) really making a difference to the lives of children in our link schools. Not just seeing the classrooms and toilet blocks we had funded but further, having the school principal show me the uptick in attendance – and especially girls’ attendance – after they had installed Link Ethiopia a water station.
3) Face to face communication – One of the most important aspects of my job is to have good communication with our offices in Ethiopia, to ensure projects are on track and that donations can be accounted for. I rely on email for this communication…but what a difference it makes to work face to face. First, to understand things which were not on my radar to track from the UK – the intricacies of the Ethiopian tax system for example. But, second, to allow full communication a broad ranging conversation on life the universe and everything rather than just the pounds and pence.
4) Secret successes – Our Ethiopian conference was held over three days in Bahir Dar: a great chance for the staff from our Northern and Southern offices to meet each other and to share ideas about how to do things better. An important part of this discussion was the successes and challenges faced by each department head over the last 12 months. Now, the human mind has a potential to become fixated on problems and set-backs ahead of opportunities and successes and at moments are discussion became negative. But our Projects Manager Shree had some words of wisdom, ‘Don’t forget the secret successes – the things we’re not talking about.’
5) Take a breath – Looking back on my three week trip the memories that seem the most vivid are the beautiful vistas – the drive from Bahir Dar to Gondar, the view from the plane flying into Lalibella. I always fail to ‘seize the day’ and ‘live each day like it’s my last’ but I can at least take a breath and remember how lucky I am.
As Christmas approaches and things get a bit crazy, I’ll be closing my eyes and dreaming of Ethiopian sunsets.