Rediscovering Ethiopia

Whenever I travel I realise how little I know about the world and that is exactly what inspires me to travel as much and as often as I can.

One of my first adventures on my own was a trip to Ethiopia. This was a three-month voluntary programme where I lived with a host family who didn’t speak much English and I earnt an Ethiopian wage. I was 19 at the time, and went with a group of English volunteers all under 25.

This trip was incredible and I would recommend something like this to everyone, of any age. However I do feel that due to the nature of the trip and my lack of a comparative, I drew a skewed vision of the country. As a volunteer, I spent my days working in an orphanage teaching art, drama and English to young girls. I also helped to coordinate events on things like street children, female genital mutilation, disability and HIV. Although these are all incredibly worthwhile initiatives and I truly enjoyed my time on the project, at the time it created a negative perspective of the country.

We were a group of young people, many of which had never had a full-time job or travelled abroad, and the project gave us a sense of righteousness, as though we knew better and were going to help those in need. Although we doubtlessly did help with the projects we worked on, I wish there had been more of a chance to learn of the great things of Ethiopia, the beauty, strength and spirituality of the people and the history, landscapes and wildlife, rather than such a focus on what needed to be improved.

Since I went on this trip I have travelled to Europe, America, the Caribbean and India and revisited East Africa on a trip to Kenya. I also started working in the travel industry which has taught me so much and every day I feel like I discover something fascinating about a place. It has given me such a thirst to revisit Ethiopia and see it from the perspective of a traveller rather than a volunteer. I want to talk to the people just to learn, rather than challenge their values. I feel like the country continues to teach me so much, years after I returned.

Ethiopia is a place with problems, severe poverty is very evident and there are many cultural beliefs and traditions which can be hard to digest as an outsider, but that is true of many places and it doesn’t take away the great things just because there are bad.

One of the most valuable life lessons I learned while volunteering is that every single person you meet can teach you something. This lesson came to me from a child called Lantu.

Lantu was born with a variety of physical challenges, and was taken into the orphanage age five visually impaired, severely malnourished, very small for her age and unable to walk. During the short time I spent with her I realised the incredible strength and ability she possessed. I taught her (basic) braille lessons each morning and would take her for a walk around the block with my counterpart, Sena. Lantu spoke three languages; her mother regional language, Amharic (the professional language in Ethiopia) and English, and I was teaching her to read braille in Amharic and English. She was only eight or nine years old and was able to speak fluently in three languages and learn braille in one which wasn’t her mother tongue. Everyone who came into contact with Lantu felt lifted, she brought with her a sense of hope and is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met.

Sadly a year or so after I volunteered I found out that Lantu had passed away which broke my heart. But during her short life with so many obstacles she inspired and touched so many people. She reminds me every day that when I feel there is so much in my way, that I can overcome it, and not to underestimate the abilities of anyone.

Unfortunately there is currently FCO advice against all-but-essential travel to Ethiopia, but as soon as I am able to, I hope to go back and learn more about this unique place.

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