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Monthly Archives: June 2011

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 6

16th June:

Early morning, after breakfast, we all board the bus and are ready to roll for the day. We have to go to Bioeconomy Africa, we are told. It’s about an hour’s drive and we are moving towards the outskirts of Addis.

On way, I am noticing the scenes whizzing past. A rainy day, slippery muddy roads, slums which have tiny houses with makeshift curtains of old pieces of cloth used as doors for a semblance of privacy and roofs of tin sheets. Men and women, in equal numbers, walking around busily on the streets. And children. So many children! The numbers of abandoned, orphaned and vulnerable children in Ethiopia are alarming. A ticking time-bomb. A by-product of poverty. A collateral damage of what this country has gone through and still is going through. In any catastrophe, sadly, the children are the most vulnerable group and suffer the most, may it be a bad marriage, a drought or a war.

My thoughts come to a halt with the bus. We are in a hilly suburb and the bus is entering a small compound. Happy children chirp around. The energy in any educational institute always energizes me! This is the Yeho Science and Technical Academy. The school is built as a multi-story building. Our conference session is on the 4th, may be 5th floor….I lose count while climbing. The building also serves as the office for Bioeconomy Africa. The vision of this organization is “to see peaceful, green, prosperous and eco-friendly trading African nations.”

As we sit around the conference table, Selamawit introduces herself. Impressive and amiable, she is the Executive Director here. After we are introduced to the many feats of this NGO, our focus for the day is the plight of the fuel-wood carrier women in Ethiopia.

In Addis Ababa, some 60% of the residents live below the poverty line, we are told (and I wonder, inwardly, what would be the statistics for Karachi if we take away the posh localities in which we smugly live, with feelings sometimes bordering on apathy). In Addis alone, there are some 15,000 fuel wood carrier women, ages anywhere between 10 to 60 plus. But their general life expectancy, due to the health hazards of their work, is around 37 years on an average!! That is because they develop spinal complications due to carrying 50 to 60 kg or wood every day. Their day starts at 5 am and includes a lot of trekking, to and from the forest. Often, forest border guards rape them, as they are picking wood without legal permission, and use the rape as a bribe. They may acquire HIV or other STDs. And if they carry their babies along with them in the absence of someone to babysit them, many a times animals in the forest eat the babies alive!

Saddened beyond belief at their plight, we are all a bit gloomy, till we are taken to Bioeconomy Africa’s project where they have helped better the lives of around 450 of such women. The Gurara Women’s Association. Here, we meet many of these women farming vegetables – weeding, ploughing, planting happily. 
They also have some cattle and chickens. They are now able to sustain themselves as well as their families, and are freed from the torturous routine of being a fuel-wood carrier.

With a few others of my group, I talk to Ehet Wolde Mariam, who is the Chairperson for these women, and has been a widow for 14 years. In a black and white dress, Ehet is inspiring! She shares her life’s story – her tumultuous past life as a fuel-wood carrier, her thankfulness at this new and better life and her dreams for her daughters that they may be empowered women with better lives – Ehet shares her past, present and future with us.

This meeting has made us all happier. Once back at the Bioeconomy office, an amazing feast awaits us. But before we enter, in true Ethiopian tradition, we walk over freshly cut fragrant grass that has been laid in our path to welcome us. Once in the dining hall, we are made to smell burning incense, another welcoming gesture. I love the idea! Others in my group have allergies triggered by the fumes.

The traditional coffee ceremony, as is the custom, is preceded by popcorn being passed around. The lunch is sumptuous and has many courses. We eat, talk and enjoy it thoroughly. The lunch ends with the strong, rejuvenating coffee.

Once back in the hotel, we have our session with Charlotte and Debbie, an important “critique” or feedback session in which a chosen sample from the work of each one of us is displayed in front of the entire team for positive criticism, suggestions and encouragement. I personally think it is a brilliant idea. My head is overflowing with ideas of all I want to write about, observing closely the work of my brilliant colleagues. While all year round, we do share our work on an e-group, having the writer or creator of that piece in front of you, explaining the background and willing to take feedback is a different experience – a very value-adding one.

As it is the second last day and we know the last day will be very hectic, we all exchange tiny gift tokens. It is lovely to get gifts from each other’s country – Scarves Kounila got from Cambodia, wooden necklaces Rose got from Nigeria, jewelry boxes Shai got from India, small and cute purses Rina got from Philippines, to name a few. I love the wallets Montessori got from Nepal the best. I give them all Hashmi kajal, a trademark kohl Pakistani women put in their eyes. Girls will be girls, I think to myself, enjoying how they all immediately open their kajal wrappers and start applying it in their eyes with tips from me.

We all know that this is our last chance to shop for souvenirs. Into the bus after a cup of tea we all are. I find the tit bits I need in the first shop only – a few items of silver jewelry and some wooden handicraft pieces. 
After that shop, me, Kounila and Shifa head back to the hotel in a cab. Interestingly, we feel safe in a cab at night in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia, according a latest study by TrustLaw, is not one of the 5 most dangerous countries of the world for women. Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia are.

On return, after visiting Kounila’s room for a bit, I head up to mine. That evening, the lashing torrential rain in Addis is a treat for me. I am enjoying it from the balcony, fully aware that I will not enjoy this in Karachi except the July monsoons. The feeling has begin to gnaw at me inside that this amazing week is about to come to an end.



My Sojourn To Ethiopia – Day 5

It is nearly ten days ago that I experienced the 15th of June, 2011, in Ethiopia.

Eva Merriam’s quote somehow comes to my mind as I sit down to write about my 5th day in Ethiopia: “I dream of giving birth to a child who will ask, ‘Mother, what was war?’”


Today, as I open the tv at noon, I again see 2 incidents of bombing in the last 24 hours in Pakistan, one at Multan and the other at Dera Ismail Khan.

Simultaneously, reading a story in the Human Rights Watch page on the internet, these are some of the statements I am seeing: Ethiopia is the largest recipient of western development assistance in Africa. Ethiopia is a de facto one-party state masquerading as a democracy. It’s a country where half of the population lives below the poverty line and many are dependent on food aid. (http://www.hrw.org/en/news/2010/11/23/ethiopia-aid-politics-trap)

Yet, Ethiopia, in many ways, is a success story in how it is battling its poverty and inherent problems. As I begin writing this blog for Day 5, I consciously nurture a hope inside me: One day, and that day is not far, when my Pakistan gets a break from all this chaos, there shall be a new dawn. Often out of chaos comes order. I wait for that to happen. I wait for my Pakistan to be a success story too. InshaAllah.

15th June:

Early in the morning, frantic knocks on the door by Kounila wake me up. I am hoping it’s a dream. But it’s not!! She is my wake-up call, at the marching orders of our leader for the day, Brenda, to wake up all the sleepy heads. I look at the time and decide I have about 7 more minutes I can stay huddled in the 4 blanket-layer that saved me from hypothermia on that cold night in Fiche.

A hurried get-ready session is fun, but I am missing my lazy-paced mornings back home in Karachi. Being a freelancer allows me these relaxations. In Karachi, my mornings will begin late, with my first cup of tea, and the second cup of tea and breakfast will follow much later, interspersed with flicking between tv channels and Facebooking, before I finally get down to writing.

After breakfast, we head off to the lodge where our other team members are staying. It is raining again. We are all humming along, enjoying the weather and the pristine landscape of Fiche.

The lodge, once we reach there, has a spectacular view. We overlook a gorge. A bit of downhill trekking on perilously muddy and slippery paths, and we see an old stone bridge (near the monastery of Debra Libanos), at the head of a gorge that cleaves its way through the plateau towards the distant Abai (Blue Nile) river. It is also called the “Portugese Bridge” and many believe it was built as early as the 16th century. The bridge is an impressive testimony to the masonry skills of that time.

Those moments we spent near that bridge seemed to stand still in time. 
Beautiful silence. A treat for city-dwellers like me, who often do not have time to listen to even their own thoughts. Whose lives are a cacophony of sounds, sounds and more sounds. Amidst untouched nature, it was a detox moment for all of us.

We head back to Addis Ababa, and reach there in time that allows us half an hour before the next conference session begins. I swiftly inform my family via Skype that I am alive and kicking, as we had no way of staying in touch while we were in Fiche.

Me and Shai head for the dining area and excitedly order a “Green Thai Curry with Tofu and Steamed Rice”. They get us chicken instead, which I cannot eat! Shai also sacrifices eating the chicken for me. We both head for the conference. Tired, hungry, grouchy and crabby, me and Shai feel better after Charlotte graciously arranges that the mid-conference tea and snack break be pre-poned. After a couple of cups of tea and delicious little croissants and tuna sandwiches, our brains start to work again.

The session is very interesting: “Numbers in the Newsroom”. Debbie is the ace mathematician who is totally into it, and is having obvious fun giving us small math quizzes and tests, that help us practice how we can use data and statistics in a more audience-friendly way in our reports and features. That session taught us a whole lot.

I have announced to my friends that I am not going to any market or shopping. I need some “Me-Time” (which, I confess, is second to oxygen to me). Once I am more in my senses, me and Shai head to the restaurant and hungrily devour and finish a huge vegi pizza between the two of us, and head back to my room’s balcony for cup upon cup of tea in all varieties – Addis tea, flavoured tea, Pakistani Tapal tea. We discuss the varying yet similar dynamics of India and Pakistan – in our media, art, culture, family values, social norms, social taboos. We now know each other’s kids by heart. She narrates anecdotes of Bollywood happenings. I tell her all about how Pakistani women are improvising the shalwar kameez these days. We give each other lists of stuff I need from India and she needs from Pakistan.

Friendship – one of the greatest joys in life. No two ways about it. 

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 4

14th June:

Fiche (pronounced Fee Che, not with a ‘sh’ but a ‘ch’)…..that is where we are gonna spend the night, we are told. It is a high altitude area in Ethiopia, and even colder than Addis Ababa. I stuff my shawl and sweater and sweat shirt and whatever woollies I have in a tiny bag bursting at the seams. We set off by bus, early morning.
I have taken a seat next to Shai, knowing that the 3 hour journey will be spent chatting away feverishly. On way, the pouring rain reminds us that we all need umbrellas. The bus is stopped in a small neighbourhood. 

While a few volunteers go down to shop for umbrellas, Shai craves Ethiopian coffee and cajoles me into getting down. Montessori joins us. We are in an Ethiopian Dhaaba. This is my first taste of Ethiopian coffee…..in a tiny, terracotta coloured cup, I have a shot of the coffee. Strong beyond words. No milk. No sugar. For someone used to Tapal chaai and Everyday creamer, coffee is not generally my thing. I take pride in being a discerning and heavy tea-drinker. But after a few sips, the coffee grows on me. My batteries are re-charged!

Twisty, meandering roads like twisting and turning snakes. But we are all too smitten by the beautiful landscape to notice the roller-coaster effect of the drive! As far as the eye can see, the mountainous region has pastures that are a mix of green and brown. Cows and other cattle graze lazily. It is reminding me of a trip by road in England’s countryside.

But something is strange. Something is amiss. Something does not seem quite right. The roots of the few trees we spot are so exposed that the next downpour could pluck them out. There is land and rain but not enough plantations. And not enough soil. This is actually what deforestation and soil erosion at the hands of climate change and torrential rains looks like. Clear pastures with very few trees and not enough soil for agriculture. Ethiopia, apart from its other struggles, is also fighting this.

Our bus finally halts at Girar Jarso Woreda, some 112 km away from Addis Ababa. At its highest point, the altitude in this area is some 2195 m!! Mogues, a lean man with very short cropped hair, warm and dedicated, from LEM Ethiopia, an NGO, welcomes us and we get down. Some 25 to 30 village women are standing there in a very disciplined manner, wearing their cleanest and best clothes, all of them draped in white cloth over their normal clothes. We are told they have been waiting for us for a couple of hours.

Children passing by and a few villagers have halted to see what’s happening. I spot a few girl children tightly clutching books in their hands. They seem like a friendly people and it seems they are used to visitors, as they smile back radiantly when I smile at them, and some are kind enough to allow me to photograph them. They are uninhibited and pose readily. A photographer’s delight. I can sense that they are equally fascinated by us…..they observe me from head to toe when I go closer to take a snap, but they do not ogle. They are respectful, but, well, simply fascinated to see a somewhat different looking woman who is clearly not from the neighbourhood.

The faces of the women intrigue me – weather-beaten, hardened skins tell tales of a life of hard labour. But the expressions are not hard. Every once in a while, they smile, and their sparkling white teeth stand out against their dark complexions…..a lovely sight. Aster Birhenu, a stately and graceful woman, is the village women’s spokesperson and gives us a wonderful welcome, which we gather partly from the words of the translator and partly her clear warmth.

The whole team now has to trek towards the school we have to go observe. For city people who at most use the treadmill to ward off the guilt of being couch potatoes, the hike is not easy. The paths are muddy due to recent rain. Every now and then, one of us will take a “panting” break, and vow to be more regular in exercise on return home to build some stamina.

The secondary school is spread over sloping hills. Here, Mogues gives us a detailed talk about the holistic approach being applied to improve lives of people. The school is not just a secondary school for the local people. It is a centre for so much more. The children are taught life skills in addition to quality education like how to protect themselves against diseases, the health side-effects of early marriages, HIV prevention and awareness etc. Agricultural skills are taught here to village youngsters so that in spite of erosion, they can plant enough to sustain themselves and their families. We meet the pretty young girl called Bogalech (her name literally means ‘the brightest light’) who has a tiny one room health centre in the school premises. According to Mogues, she is a fireball of energy and dedication. She is a lady health worker, traveling on foot to villages on mountains in her catchment area to provide basic health facilities, especially to women and children.

On way back, we visit a couple of homes who in their backyards have small farming areas, where they are growing enough fruits and vegetables to eat themselves as well as sell some in the market, with the help of NGOs. One of the prominent village families leads us to their home to formally welcome us with the traditional coffee ceremony. Sitting in that small mud house, I notice the similarity between the humble homes I have witnessed in my ancestral village in Khairpur, Sindh. They have stacked up their numbered, brightly coloured plates and cups on niches in the mud-made walls as prized possessions. Articles of worship are stacked up too. Here it is the cross and symbols of Christianity. In Pakistan, I will notice the Quran and frames with “Allah” and “Muhammad” written in them. But the most startling similarity is also the most amusing – posters of Indian Bollywood stars Salman Khan, Amitabh Bachchan and Madhuri Dixit on the walls J. I tease Shai about India’s biggest export, their film stars.

Tired and hungry, at about 4 pm we reach the hotel where we will stay for the night, and are shown our tiny one bed rooms where we leave our bags. The lunch is a feast. Traditional bread (or rather, pan cakes) called “Injera” make it to my plate for the first time. There is vegetarian variety as well, which they call “fasting food”, which I am happy to eat voraciously in the absence of halaal meat.

As the sun sets, we go to the lodge where some of our team members will stay as the hotel did not have enough rooms. In their central dining area, atop a hill, we all sit around a huge bonfire that is our savior on that freezing, rainy evening. We have an interesting discussion about Ethiopia and how they are fighting their obctacles, with Mogues, and Jason who is our spirited team member from USA but travels often to Ethiopia and knows a lot about it. After a traditional barbeque dinner made over the same bonfire, we head back to the hotel.

There is load shedding. No electricity. Tiny rooms. Cold weather. Slight homesickness. Soon there is a knock on my door, and then another. Kounila and Shai are in my room. They can’t seem to fall asleep, like me. We sit and chat for hours, with me and Shai educating Kounila about the intricacies of marriage and parenting, and giving her unsolicited advice, till the poor little girl starts to yawn. That night in that tiny room at the hill station Fiche in Ethiopia – that’s a night I doubt I will ever forget. And I say that in a good way J.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 3

As I brace myself to blog about day 3 which is the first day of the conference, I pre-warn that this particular blog will be longer, a little less fluffy, a tad bit tedious, somewhat profound, and richer in information. Just like that first day of the conference was. And yes, it will be interspersed with hope, I may add.

13th June:

The wake-up call wakes me up, and I do not laze in bed. I spring out of bed. Excitement and anticipation is a great adrenalin rush. An exciting 5 days are about to unfold. I have nearly memorized the itinerary by heart. I think I know exactly what we’re gonna be doing over the next 5 days. I discover, in the next 5 days, yet again, that there is a stupendous difference between the theoretical and the practical.

I get ready and change into my more “conference-friendly” attire. I check, for the umpteenth time if I have with me my notepad, my Dictaphone, my smaller notepad, my many many pens (what if one of them refuses to work?) although I know conferences always have pens aplenty. I check myself in the mirror many a time. The kajal I put in a hurry is a little too dark for a professional meeting, but I give up on the idea of reducing it…..it’s too messy and complicated, apart from the fact that my kajal defines me. I’m just being a little nervy and overly-critical of my appearance…..classic signs of my being excited.

In spite of all that effort of rushing, I barely get ten minutes to gulp down a tiny bit of the amazing spread of the buffet breakfast. But at breakfast, I’m happy to finally meet my two other colleagues I have not met until now on this trip. There is Rina, our most senior team member, a renowned columnist. Disciplined and in total command of her work, she inspires awe. What I am pleasantly happy to discover over the coming days is also Rina’s great sense of humour and playfulness. And then I meet Rose. Spunky, smart and strong – that’s our Rose. Women should learn a thing or two from her.

Once we are in the conference hall, we are greeted by our 2 co-ordinators from USA, Debbie and Charlotte. Two truly amazing women whose dedication to the betterment of the reproductive health and well-being of the people of the world is unflinching. Debbie is dependable, kind and a brick. Charlotte has a calming effect, is a wonderful conversationalist, and I particularly enjoy her company as she and me share a special interest in gender issues. Together, these two handle this sprightly group of journalists, and make sure we go home safe, having learnt what we came to learn.

As I am writing this, I wonder if my reader is thinking why I use such superlative praise-filled adjectives for each one of my team members. But the fact is, I am just fortunate……fortunate to have met these amazing women who are much more than what I have described them to be.

The conference begins. There is an orientation. We review our agenda for the coming week. Our first speaker of the day, who we saw a lot more of in the coming days, is Negash, representing the PHE (Population, Health & Environment) Integrated Development Approach in Ethiopia. Negash’s talk tells us a lot about Ethiopia – that this mountainous country is the 2nd largest in Africa, that it has more than 80 ethnic groups, that the urban growth is twice as much as the rural, that there is unemployment and poverty and some 5.5 million orphaned/vulnerable children in the country. And one of the biggest problems is soil erosion, climate change and deforestation. PHE has a holistic approach in which they come up with integrated, ingenious solutions to solve each one of the problems of the people of this country – Health, education, food, shelter. As one of their catch-lines says: Harmonizing the link between People and Nature.

After this session, I know a little bit more about Ethiopia. I realize that the problems of this country are as unique as the country itself. I also find myself realizing that there is so little that we know about a country or a culture when we google it before a trip – climate, currency, capital city, tourist attractions. That is all we know. Little do we know about the intricacies of their problems and solutions. Developing countries are very 
similar yet very different in many ways, just like their people.

I am constantly thinking how these solutions can be applied to problems in my country. Ethiopia has problems but it is fighting back. There is hope for better futures. If they can do it, so can Pakistan, says the idealist in me, who truly believes so.

Young and smart, Dr Adnew is next. He is representing Pathfinder. He tells us about Addis Tesfa, a Cervical Cancer Prevention Project among HIV-Positive women in Ethiopia. We bombard him with eager questions. He patiently answers. Cervical cancer, as we all hopefully know, is a cancer that can be contracted by coming in contact with HPV (Human Papillomavirus). Screening in time can save precious lives. Cervical cancer is the leading cause of cancer among women deaths in Ethiopia, with more than 6000 lives of women claimed by it yearly. Later in the week, we are to visit the centre where the project is running, we are told.

On my return, I instruct myself, I need to write more about this, as more awareness is needed about Cervical Cancer prevention in Pakistan. Even if a single person learns something out of a write-up, my job is done! People will sometimes ask why journalists only bring the problems to light. Why don’t they write about happier stuff? There are already so many problems in the world; why add to the misery with more melancholy details? To them, I say that journalists bring both problems AND solutions to light. Awareness is part of the solution in any given situation. Brushing issues under the rug is never the solution, whether the problem is of a country or of a relationship, at home or at work place.

We get a lunch break in which we rush for lunch, then to our rooms to freshen up. Everybody has to meet in the hotel lobby at a designated time. But it is not easy to get the group together. The last minute delays, the waiting up for one of us who forgot something in the room or decided to visit the washroom one last time…. It was all part of the experience. So was the look on Charlotte’s and Debbie’s faces which said: “will you all be seated in the bus already? We have lots of ground to cover today”.

On the bus, I am seated next to Charlotte. We share a lot of interesting details about gender-related issues worldover, and what is being done about them. Issues like rape, domestic violence and FGM. She gives me invaluable input. As the bus moves on the winding roads of Addis, I am spending that time learning from Charlotte.

Our destination is the world famous Hamlin Fistula Hospital, Addis Ababa. I have heard so much about it from Dr Shershah Syed, an unsung hero of Pakistan who has set up a hospital on the same lines in Koohee Goth near Karachi. Dr Shershah had sold all he had to travel to Hamlin and learn Fistula-repair surgery decades ago. He raves about it. I am about to find out why.

For those who do not know, Obstetric Fistula is a severe medical condition in which a hole develops between either between the rectum and vagina or between the bladder and vagina, usually due to prolonged obstructed labour. The result is incontinence. No control over urine or stool results in social alienation and shame. The patient suffers immense psychological trauma and social ostracism. These women smell, leak and are subsequently often deserted by their own families. They are stopped from hugging their children or mingling socially. They are often driven out of homes, forced to stay in small huts as outcasts. They are afraid to leak so they reduce food and water intake drastically and become malnourished. The psychological impacts are of course severe.

In 1974, God-sent for the patients of fistula in Ethiopia, the husband and wife team of Drs Reginald and Catherine Hamlin set up this hospital. They were pioneers of the corrective surgery for this disease, and here they performed and taught the surgery. Hilary Clinton was to visit it the next day. Oprah Winfrey was one of the major donors with a hospital wing bearing her name on it. Hamlin is quite a glam-celeb place and a favourite of the bold and the beautiful, we discussed as we reached the gates.

Once inside, we are spellbound for a few minutes. Sprawling over hills, with a river running nearby (which is why Dr Hamlin’s book about this hospital is titled “The hospital by the river”), this place had a serenity and beauty about it that cannot be explained. It can just be felt. Bougainvilleas, honeysuckles, lavenders……….flowers were abundant. Just standing there was therapeutic. The stench of the suffering of women with fistula who were still awaiting surgery and who walked around the gardens with tiny plastic bags carrying their leaked urine must be sucked away by these trees and flowers and the love of these doctors. A voice inside me said this is what hospitals should be like.

The tour revealed that the hospital was fastidiously clean. Women often come here in very bad conditions, with their limbs curled up and shriveled due to malnourishment and lack of normal routines due to alienation. Apart from corrective surgeries, the rehabilitation includes their physiotherapy to make them walk again. Their nutritional requirements are taken care of. They are taught skills like embroidery and handicrafts so that once treated, they go back to normal lives as self-respecting, empowered and independent women. They are taught basic maths and home economics to help them in the days to come. All of them seemed busy in some form of activity. Some of them had little children with them. They are given psychological counseling as well. A holistic approach to patient care. The affection of the doctors and nurses was so genuine for the patients that it was touching beyond words can convey. As Shai aptly said : “ This is what healing should be like”.

On return from the hospital, we are all too awe-struck to chill and giggle. We also have an early morning departure for Fiche, a mountainous rural area, for a night stay. I pack a night bag for the trip the next day. Breakfast and lunch was heavy enough. Biscuits, chips and tea will do, I say to myself. I had bought these lifesavers from one of the usual tiny general stores in Ethiopia, which they sweetly insist on calling “Super Markets”. Whining and self-pity about non-halaal meat and missing Pakistani food hardly seems appropriate after having met the women at Hamlin. Once in bed, I sigh with satisfaction. A day well ended. A day well spent.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 2

12th June:
In the early, wee hours of the morning, I get a wake-up call from Kounila, my colleague from Cambodia, a 23 year old brilliant journalist who has a contagious laughter, whom I call the “li’l one” as she is the youngest in our group. She, graciously, calls me “pretty one”. Kounila announces she has arrived, and tells me she is now dozing off as she was traveling all night. I wake up, a tad bit lazily.
The balcony it is again. And what a view in daytime! I view the many churches, and spot a couple of minarets of mosques as well. A deeply religious people, the Ethiopians throng churches on Sundays. On this Sunday morning too, I see the hustle and bustle around churches, and the air resonates with sounds of hymns being chanted. On Fridays, I discover later, the government offices close down around noon to allow Muslims to go for Jumu’ah prayers. Peaceful co-existence of different faiths.
The cars in the parking lot of the Hilton are smaller and less luxurious than the ones I see in Pakistan. A mint coloured Beetle (Volkswagen) catches my eye. A lot of tin-roofed, tiny homes in a slum-like area are in front of me. Green hills are in the backdrop. I get a light, heady feeling. May be it’s the high altitude of Addis. Or maybe I’m feeling a light-headedness to experience this new world….and a new world inside me. Time on my own is a rarity, after all. Maybe this is the effect of that.
Once ready, I head down to the bustling restaurant for breakfast and find some more of my colleagues. We reunite after six months amongst excitement and hugs. There’s Brenda, whom I call “tech guru” for her talent for milking the internet in unique ways for journalism. Kounila calls Brenda “the mother of African journalism”. There’s Tetee, strong and inspiring in a gentle way. There’s Shifa – young, fiery, feisty, and not afraid to speak her mind, whose write-ups are worth reading. There’s Montessori – calm, cooperative and sweet. And there’s Shai from India, a genuine, smart, wonderful woman……Shai I am the happiest to meet. I have known from the day I met her that with her I have the makings of a lasting, deep friendship.
These women, and others who will unfold in the blog, and myself – we are the “Women’s Edition 2010-2012” members, which is a program organized by PRB (Population Reference Bureau), funded by USAID. Senior women journalists chosen from developing countries, who have a special interest in reproductive health. Some 13 women chosen from a pool of 200 plus applications. Women fortunate enough to meet each other, experience different countries and cultures and the problems and solutions of these countries, so that they may go back to their own countries and hopefully make a difference by sharing these success stories. A tiny but important step towards making the world a better place. And having some fun while doing all of this. After all, girls just wanna have fun J.
The breakfast has many many courses that day….not just the food but the tier upon tier of subjects that keep unfolding in our chat. Cup upon cup of coffee, great food and loads of catching up. Women from different worlds, with the same concerns at the end of the day. We discuss potential shopping in Ethiopia. We discuss the men in our lives, lambast them collectively, and eventually submit that life ain’t easy without them either. We have already begun to miss our children, and we all animatedly talk about our kids with sparkly eyes, whether our kid is 20 years or 20 months old.
Unanimously, Brenda is anointed our unofficial tour guide, as she has traveled to Addis many a time. We aimlessly start to walk on the streets of Addis. We stop at a handicraft shop to take a look. The young boy at the shop offers to buy dollars, in a clandestine way, offering a better rate than the bank. Some of us take up the offer. The Ethiopian “Birr” is 16 to a dollar, in whopping contrast to the Pak rupee being 80 something to a dollar. Inwardly, I squirm.
The boy, polite and helpful, agrees to be with us for the day as a guide. He firmly puts on a yellow cap, and guides us to the taxi stand, where we hire a small, rickety mini-van. Votes are taken. We head to the museum. A modest museum with a few interesting sections, showing visibly the pride this nation takes in its roots.
Suddenly, rain begins to pour. Thunder rolls. My first taste of Addis rain. My heart soars. My mind is brimming with the millions of “barish” songs I have heard all my life. My spirits are elevated even further. I hum. And I dash, along with the others, back to the van, loving the fact that I am sloshed with rain drops.
In the evening, the adventurous women that we are, we end up at the traditional Addis Ababa restaurant. What seemed to me to be millions were realistically hundreds of Ethiopian people gathered in a hall, sitting around round tables, chatting, singing, eating and drinking. We find it too crowded. I do not see any sign of halaal food here. I take a drop back at the hotel while the others continue to check out another restaurant. Eating vegi pasta all alone on a table in the hotel restaurant, I miss home a little, and the home-cooked chicken karhai a whole lot. Once back in the room, I Skype with the family, do my daily rituals, and prepare for Day One of the conference the next morning before going to slumberland.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 1

7 Days in the heart of Africa……..a new world opened unto me every day. This is what this blog is all about. One day at a time, I look back at each of these precious days that have impacted me and taught me so much.

This blog post is about Day 1, the day I arrive in Addis Ababa.

11th June:
What is Ethiopia going to look and feel like? I wonder most of the time I am on the flight to Addis Ababa. Addis Ababa…. A name I have heard in books and stories and sometimes even as a source place of ancient wisdom literature. This is my first real visit to real Africa, apart from an impactful visit to Egypt what seems like eons ago. And the word Africa conjures up images owing mostly to Nat Geo shots….of safaris and zebras and giraffes and lions, of the earth cracked mercilessly by drought, of malnourished children, of beautiful and defiant people with a sensibility all their own.
The flight is eighty percent occupied by women. I am surrounded by friendly looking Ethiopian women, mostly workers in the Middle East, flying out to Addis for a vacation to see their families, as they tell me. They are mostly wearing head scarves or head wraps. The most striking part of these women is their eyes. Big, expressive, often doe-shaped eyes which give you the feel that there is so much lurking behind them. Chiseled noses, heart-shaped faces. Glowing dark complexions with a tinge of the colour purple on the lips. These women are beautiful. Well, every woman of every part of the world is. But these women are distinct, as apart from physical features, their body language tells me they are comfortable in their skins. Planted firmly in their culture, yet willing and ready to spread their wings.
As we touch down, a metal-trolley staircase is rolled in for us to get down the flight. No fancy ramp. Welcome to the third world! Stepping out, a gush of crisp, cool mountain air beats against my face. Puddles of water on the ground as I wheel my roll-on through them tell me it has just rained a while back. It rains in Addis nearly every day, especially in the evenings, I am told by another passenger. Coming from Karachi where we are rain-starved and thus associate every idealistic and romantic emotion in the world with rain, I am thrilled!
The airport is big but a bit run down. But the “visa on arrival” process is smooth. I notice a lot of foreigners……busy looking, with fast-paced gaits and a sense of purpose on their faces. Ethiopia is teeming with NGOs, both local and foreign, as I find out expectedly over the coming week.
One thing I notice at the airport that day, and in the traffic on roads and wait-ups in banks….everywhere….is how patiently Ethiopians wait for their turn in queues. A tiny bubble bursts inside me. A bubble in which I believed that breaking lines and other forms of unruliness are a by-product of poverty. Poverty is larger than life in Ethiopia, so how come………? My chain of thoughts is disrupted. The immigration officer beckons me. I’m done in a minute.
Near the conveyer belt, I see my colleagues Edyth and Emma. Beautiful, vibrant African women I met in Washington DC during the last seminar. Edyth is warm, composed and a writer with a heart. Emma, a wonderful person, a woman of few words, who I have grown to cherish knowing. We hug and excitedly chatter as we walk out of the airport. Eager porters are in the hundreds. So are beaten taxis in white and blue, artifacts of the ‘70s. We get to the hotel’s shuttle where another colleague, Kwamboka, a new member of the team, awaits us. But instantly amiable with infectious warmth, she makes us feel we’ve known her all along. An eventless, pleasant drive on that first evening in Addis and we arrive at the hotel.
My room is on the 10th floor. The view from the balcony is spectacular, even at night. Isolated glimmers of lights are spread out on the hills I look at. I tighten my shawl around me, with a cup of coffee in my hand, and stare out at Addis by night, standing in the balcony for as long as I can stand the chill. This is going to be interesting, I say to myself.
Exhaustion is setting in. I inform my family on Skype that I am safe and have reached. I Facebook for a bit, a ritual for me, I confess. I say my prayers, and too tired to go down or order room service for food, suffice with crackers I put in my handbag from the meal on flight. Snuggling in under the comforter, I am as usual trying to reflect upon the whole day that has sped by in sequence, another ritual for me. I am unable to do that. I sleep.