Debbie goes to Ethiopia! A VSO volunteer in Assosa. Here is my blog.

Nations Nationalities Day December 9, 2014

Filed under: culture,People — debzif @ 18:39

Yesterday is probably going to be one of the most memorable days of my entire life.

What do you think of when you think of your nationality?  Being “Ethiopian” is somewhat vague.  Within the country, there are people from around 80 different “nationalities”, with different languages, beliefs, clothes and ways of living.  Every year, representatives from each ethnicity come together in one place for a celebration and demonstration of the varying cultures across Ethiopia.

I’m not gonna lie, a significant proportion of the event seemed fairly focussed on government propaganda.  Businesses were told to close, to be able to give full attention to the arriving dignitaries.  The main event was held in the new but not quite yet completed stadium in Assosa.  The most spectacular thing that happened seemed to be a helicopter arriving, delivering a trophy, and then flying out again.  That’s pretty impressive any where, let alone Assosa.  We were late arriving and were not able to gain access into the stadium itself, but that turned out to be a good thing.  Firstly because we didn’t have to sit through all of the speeches, but mainly because where we ended up wandering to, was where all the ethnic groups were waiting, lined up, to go in.

Lined up on the side of the road were hundreds of people packed in, watching, photographing and enjoying seeing the brightly clothed people.  I’ve never been overly comfortable with taking photos of people, and human tourism in general, so I originally stayed on the sidelines, crushed around the others, all cramming to get a good view.  However, as a group of four, one of my friends bravely stepped out of the crowd and into the road, and started snapping away.  Another friend, an expert linguist, saw some people who she had previously worked with on their language, so went and had a chat.  I plucked up the courage and relied of the power of my smile, (and of course my ferenji skin) and followed the others out of the crowd and into the queuing ethnic groups.  I feel a bit bad that I got away this this because I’m a ferenji, but I’m also incredibly grateful.

It was amazing.  The atmosphere was incredible, with everyone lively, positive and in a good mood.  They were dancing, playing their instruments, and this was before they were to “go on stage”.  The general vibe was that they were proud of their culture, and wanted to share it with whoever was interested.  They eagerly posed for photos, getting our attention where possible, and more often than not, grabbing the ferenji to pose with them, snapping away on phones and cameras of their own.

I could go on writing about it, but I’m pretty sure the pictures will do a Ethiopia Ethnic Groupway better job than my words.  I’m going to start with my favourite photo – sometimes I’m guilty of seeing people so different in appearance from what I’m used to, and a part of me forgets that they are just people too.  I’m not denying that their lives might be somewhat different to my own, but they’ll still work, have friends, family, and in many cases, need to arrange where to meet their friends using their mobile phones, no matter whether they have a ginormous spear or not!

It’s amazing just how varied being an “Ethiopian” is.  It was such a privilege to be part of the celebration.


Meskel Revisited September 29, 2014

Filed under: culture — debzif @ 08:54

I blogged about this last year (see posts here and here).  So this time I won’t repeat myself by writing, but here are some videos and photos.



Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Shenasha Meskel Assosa Shenasha Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa Meskel Assosa


Eid Mubarak July 29, 2014

Filed under: culture — debzif @ 12:05
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For the past month, Muslims have been observing Ramadan.  This means, that during daylight hours, they cannot eat or drink anything at all.  At all!  However, between the sunset and the early hours of the morning, they can eat, and do eat, hopefully enough to get them through the next day.  The date of Ramadan moves by about 11 days each year – thankfully in Ethiopia daylight hours are fairly standard throughout the year, but it must be tough when it falls in the summer time in the UK.

Ramadan and the main fasting came to an end yesterday, in the celebration called “Eid-Al-Fitr”.   This is a big celebration, where many people visit each other, and enjoy, of course, eating!  When you greet someone on the day of Eid, you can say “Eid Mubarak” which means “blessed Eid”.  It is forbidden to fast on the day of Eid itself, but some Muslims will continue to fast for another 6 days after it.

The day of Eid is decided by when the crescent moon can be sighted.  This meant that at only about 8pm the previous day did anyone know for sure that it would be the following day – it could have been the day after.  Imagine what chaos that would cause if that happened in the UK for Christmas!  The market day on Saturday was crazy busy with people getting ready and preparing a magnificent feast, for whenever it arose!

In Ethiopia, the celebration was a national holiday with government offices closed.  In the morning, many people gathered together in a communal place for prayer and celebration.  At lunch, I was invited to my friend’s house and had a lovely meal there.  Although, the family I was visiting had eaten a lot before I arrived, so weren’t hungry enough to eat with me again!  It’s not actually strange at all to be given food at a friend’s and eat on your own in this country.  They had also made a lovely drink called burz (sp?!) which is honey and water, delicious!


Ethiopian Travel Continued April 29, 2014

Filed under: Out and about — debzif @ 07:24
Tags: , , ,

Debre Zeit

Bishoftu, aka Debre Zeit, was our last stop in the eastern tour.  The town itself didn’t seem anything special.  We were driving through it, when we turned down a tiny side street, and then suddenly hit upon a beautiful lake!

There are I think about 5 crater lakes within the town itself.  I didn’t realise the area had such volcanic history.  Each lake was absolutely beautiful; a reflective mirror with the green mountains rising up all around it.  At different lakes we did different things (eating, going on a boat, drinking) and then the last one we visited we slept by.  The accommodation was fantastic – a treehouse, with stepladders and a trap door to enter, and then the whole front of the cabin glass only.  Amazing, amazing views.


After Debre Zeit we visited Assosa for the easter celebration of Fasika.  It is not the most visual festivals, i.e. no parades through the streets or anything, but consists of visiting your friend’s houses, and eating a hell of a lot of meat.  Which we did!  It was a less touristy part of our trip, but hopefully enjoyable for the others nonetheless.


3 days was enough in Assosa, so then we headed to Addis for the last part of the two weeks.  And tourists we became!  We visited the two main museums (ethnological and national), went to a cultural restaurant to see the incredible dancing, and also did something new for me – visiting the lion zoo.

The zoo, as always, caused a range of motions to stir.  Yes, it was sad, as the space for the lions was pretty darn small.  However, somewhat selfishly perhaps, it was just amazing to see amazing lions so insanely close.  They are ginormous!  With massive feet.  And huge mouths……

Sadly my friends then departed the country, them heading back to normality, and me, well, wondering what my normality is!



Timkat January 25, 2014

Filed under: culture,Out and about — debzif @ 18:11

Timkat is a very big celebration in the Orthodox Church in Ethiopia.  The named celebration day is the 19th January, but it’s actually a three day event.  It is to celebrate the baptism of Jesus.

This year the celebrations kicked off on the Saturday.  All of the Orthodox Churches in Assosa paraded through the streets.  As usual, the people wear white to symbolise purity – the shawl, a natella, is a beautiful fabric with colourful embroidery on the ends.  The priests are at the front, underneath gorgeous umbrellas and carrying a Tabot, which is a model of the Ark of the Covenant.  The church groups follow behind, followed again by congregation members.  When the churches meet each other at crossroads, there is some singing and drumming and then they join together to continue parading.

We all reached the designated spot together – a huge area of land owned by one of the churches.  And it needed to be huge, there were a lot of people!  The priests addressed us from the stage (mostly in Amharic – one short stint in English, I’m pretty sure just for the sake of the few ferenjis…!), where there also sat a very large water bath, and a painting of Jesus being baptised.

The formal part ended, and the priests retired into the small church on the land, brightly painted in the colours of the Ethiopian flag.  Dancing and singing continued, for the dedicated, they stayed all through the night.

Sunday morning, those who didn’t stay, headed back bright and early.  Even more people than on the Saturday, and it was lovely to see streams of people, all dressed in white, heading in the same direction.  More preaching and prayer followed, and then finally, the BIG EVENT…!  A few priests on the stage took water pistols, coming from the water bath, and sprayed the congregation, symbolising the baptism.  It was great fun – everyone was so excited, whooping and cheering and pushing forward.  People at the front pushed plastic water bottles up to be filled by the holy water.   This somewhat annoyed the people waiting to still be sprayed!  It took a long time for the priest’s to “get” everybody.

After this, everybody left as a procession, and went back into the town and around the streets, visiting the different churches.  Monday coincided with a month celebration of St Michael’s Day, and the procession continued on to St Michael’s Church.

Overall, it was an amazing festival – lots of the holidays seem to be about visiting family and, of course, eating a lot!  But this was more visibly a religious celebration.  I love the sea of people in white, and I love the priest’s umbrellas.  I was nervous about coming as a foreigner, and more worried about taking photos – I didn’t want to seem insensitive or rude.  At one point during the priest speaking, someone tapped me on the shoulder and spoke to me in Amharic – I was sure it was going to be something about stop taking pictures, but no, it was “move here and stand right in front of me – you’ll get a much better view!”


Christmas – Ethiopian Style January 9, 2014

Filed under: culture — debzif @ 10:58
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Ethiopian Christmas is called Gena, and is celebrated in the 7th January in our calendar, or Tahisas 29 in the ethiopian calendar.

Some people fast for 40 days before Christmas, avoiding all meat, dairy and eggs.  So Christmas day is definitely a day of eating meat!

It’s customary to visit your friends and neighbours throughout the day.  I have no idea how this is all organised – do we come to yours or you to ours?!  I arrived at one friend’s at the time she specified, and she was out for another hour.  It’s hard to coordinate!  Thankfully us ferenjis aren’t expected to host.  But we are expected to visit everybody we know, and eat a full meal at each place.  Life is tough.

On Ethiopian Gena, I visited 6 different houses.  It was all so lovely, and it was a great way to spend the day.  I tried to start off wise, by eating enough but not too much, at each place.  This is easier said than done, as food is piled on by the host without a choice in the matter by the eater.  By the third or fourth house I really had to refuse food, explaining that I would really love to eat it, I’m not being rude, but really, my stomach may explode otherwise….!  It was all delicious though – sheep tibbs, doro watt, homemade bread, popcorn, coffee after coffee after coffee…!


Westernised Christmas seems to have not yet made Assosa.  There are a few shops that sell tinsel but I’ve only ever seen it used as decorations for bicycles.  It is spreading into Addis though, with trees and santa costumes appearing in a few shop windows and on advertisement boards.  Yesterday though I was very surprised – I visited another friend’s for the day-after-christmas celebrations (quick link to time management discussion – she is a teacher in the local school, and missed her class to serve us the food.  But it’s ok, her husband is the vice principle and didn’t mind at all, he was happily enjoying all the festivities with us!).  The food, as always, was delicious, and she did a lovely coffee ceremony complete with traditional dress, incense, popcorn and, of course, coffee.  But I was so surprised to see a decorated Christmas tree in their lounge, with Christmas cards around it (and premier league on the tv!).  Such an interesting mix of cultures!


Meskel – Shenasha Version September 30, 2013

Filed under: culture — debzif @ 11:35

One of the most amazing things about living in Ethiopia is that everything I thought I knew about it, and all the stereotypes that I learned before coming out here, are not true at all.  However, I will now contradict this entirely, by telling you that yesterday I spent a lot of my time dancing around a bonfire with men wielding spears.  And it was brilliant.

As mentioned in a previous post, Meskel is a big celebration at this time of the year.  Now, in my region, there are 5 indigenous ethnicities.  One of them is called Shenasha, and they celebrate their own form of Meskel.

For about three days, the Shenasha people come together (along with Ethiopian spectators and crazy ferenjis who want to join in) and celebrate Meskel together.  The dancing is fairly simple; people running in a circle, with your hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you, and then at random intervals jumping up and down all together.  This was fairly easy in the day time, but by evening, and darkness, it got more hectic, and, well, fun!

Traditionally, people are dressed in white with the men holding spears.  The men dance around the outer circle with them, shaking them so they wobble and look threatening.  Trust me, they were sharp.  They wouldn’t let me keep one.

Sometimes I go to cultural events and feel out of place – I don’t want to be the centre of attention as a ferenji, when it really has nothing to do with me.  But so far, everyone has always been super welcoming, and it seems that they’re even proud and impressed that I even made the effort to go.  So after joining in the dancing with my work colleagues (many from my bureau are Shenasha), I got 50 birr plastered to my head in a sign of appreciation, and then we were escorted to the food house to get raw meat (second time that day!), araki (75% alcohol) and tejj (honey wine).  Actually, maybe that’s what made the dancing more difficult in the dark…