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I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move. – Robert Louis Stevenson

Senegal – A wonderful Slice of Africa

See Senegal through these photographs before you read this travel blog:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/farahnaz_zahidi/sets/72157629950698529/

Of eleven splendid suns
The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal
By Farahnaz Zahidi Moazzam

Pakistan has no embassy of Senegal. The visa processing takes months, if at all one gets it, that is. It’s an 11-hour flight from Dubai, that’s how far it is. And I must, must go there for a really important conference. Only, till the last day, I don’t know whether I will get the visa or not. Net search has told me that Senegal is sunny, beachy and hardcore Africa.

On the day I have to fly out, November 25, 2011, I reach Karachi airport with a fuzzy mind owing to the lack of sleep and simply too much going on in life. After a 3-hour layover at Dubai airport, a delightful surprise is in store —I have been upgraded to business class. I see that as a sign that the upcoming trip will be joyous. My seat is sandwiched between two nice gentlemen, one a Senegalese who is the same age as me but respectfully calls me “mama” just like our shopkeepers say baji or aunty. This is my first taste of friendly, amiable Senegalese people.

Senegal is 94 per cent Muslim. This is apparent when I see the tiny Dakar airport, antiquated, over-crowded with people returning home after Haj on packed flights. I hardly spot any computers. Everything is done manually. The visa-on-arrival and the long-awaited arrival of baggage takes hours! Finally out, I have my first chit-chat with the shuttle driver as we drive towards the hotel.

Pretty quaint little buildings, French architectural influences, a winding drive along an upscale road alongside the beach, and I reach the hotel. Ngor is the area, pretty, clean, with very little traffic. The same whiff of moisture-laden air that is typical of beach towns, but thankfully lacking the pollution of Karachi. I am in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

I get a room with a view, literally. Most of the hotels in Dakar are situated along the sea. Beautiful, clean beaches with abundant sea shells strewn along, not just in white but in dark ebony colour too.

Dakar is relaxed, as are the people. I can feel my inner pace slow down, a pleasant change after Karachi. The crashing waves, the birds swimming in the air, the breeze ruffling the leaves, humans scurrying around on their daily routines, everybody in their orbits. Tranquil. That’s Senegal.

One of the things you notice instantaneously in Senegal is the size of living beings (yes, I choose my words carefully here). The people are really tall. The birds are really big. Even the insects are bigger than the ones I see at home. And the birds are a treat for bird-watchers. Particularly the Senegal parrot is a sight to behold.

If anyone plans to go to Senegal, it is time they brush up their French, because English is rarely understood or spoken in this purely Francophone part of West Africa. By the end of my 11 days in Senegal, basic French started to make sense to me again, especially when spoken in an African accent. Influences of French remain on every aspect of culture, and continental cuisine is readily available, though local Senegalese food is known for its aromatic delicious flavour. Availability of halaal meat made life easier for me. Baobab is Africa’s popular fruit, and its milky juice is a refreshing welcome drink often served in Senegal. A popular main course specialty is Yassa chicken, which is grilled chicken served with sour spicy onion curry, and either steamed rice or plantains on the side. Seafood was always fresh, simply prepared and often served with assortments of cheese. Thiof fish was a personal favourite, fresh from the ocean, melting in the mouth.

Shopping in Senegal is a joy, simply because it is affordable for Pakistanis. In addition, this is a talented nation when it comes to arts and crafts which reflect their rich culture and many struggles. Street art in Senegal is breathtaking. Vendors on foot with amazing pieces of painting will come knock on your cab’s window. And you will be blown away by the vibrant colours, the finesse and the symbolism in the masterpieces these untrained artists churn out day after day. Craft pieces not to be missed include leather-bound boxes, bead and shell accessories, silver jewellery and baskets made of palm. If in Dakar, do visit the local Sandaga market. The sights, sounds and smells in this place gave me a true taste of Africa. But watch out for con artists and be ready to get followed around by persistent and annoying wannabe “guides”. Bargaining is a must. And make sure you remember the words “non, merci” as the eager sellers can literally harass you and follow you around.

A visit to Senegal is incomplete if you do not visit Goree Island. Reaching the ferry station by cab and then taking a ferry to it is easy. But me and my friend from India, both widely-travelled media persons, got conned into paying a non-existent tourism company for a trip to Goree Island, waited for hours for a bus that never arrived, laughed on our own stupidity, and ended up going to Goree on our own and having an awesome time. So when in the developing world, be a little smart smart!

Situated near Dakar, Goree Island is a quaint little tourism spot now, where old buildings including a slave house have been preserved in original form. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Only seeing it can do justice to its beauty. The Portuguese and Dutch architecture and the vibrantly painted small houses with bougainvillea in abundance makes Goree an eerily beautiful place to visit. It seems I was catapulted into the past.

It was a Sunday. The Muslim community of Goree had gathered that day for a congregation of sermons and they recited verses of the Quran and praises of Allah so beautifully in unison that I had a beautiful, spiritual experience, sitting under the trees at sunset. I will never forget that moment.

Built in 1776 by the Dutch, the Slave House at Goree Island is one of several sites on the island where Africans were brought to be loaded onto ships bound for the New World. The owner’s residential quarters were on the upper floor. The lower floor was reserved for the slaves who were weighed, fed and held before departing on the transatlantic journey. The Slave House with its famous “Door of No Return” has been preserved in its original state. Thousands of tourists visit the house each year, and celebrate the freedom of the human species from the clutches of slavery by re-visiting the past.

As part of my work, I had a wonderful chance to visit Thies which is the third largest city in Senegal, and two adjoining villages, as guests of “Tostan”. Tostan means “breakthrough” in the West African language of Wolof, which it certainly is. Tostan is an international non-governmental organisation with operations in over 500 communities across Africa, with a mission to empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation. Molly Melching, Founder of Tostan, made the visit to Senegal all the more meaningful. Her work as a human rights activist has helped almost eradicate the centuries-old custom of Female Genital Cutting (FGC) from Senegal. One of the villages we visited was Keur Siambara. Here we met Village Chief and Imam Demba Diawara, who according to Molly Melching is “a PhD in wisdom”! The one mantra Demba kept repeating that had much to be learnt, especially for activists, was: “Beautify Your Words.” Demba’s wisdom and that of other community members helped Tostan in achieving its aim. This has now led to over 6,200 communities choosing not to cut their daughters. It is entirely possible that Senegal could have ended this practice completely by 2015.

Apart from the learning experience, the hospitality and warmth of rural Senegalese people was a joy. We were welcomed among drum beats, merry dancing, and pretty girls twirling bowls made of gourd, as we were seated under a huge Neem tree. It was so unlike, yet so similar to Pakistan.

Senegal was amazing. I remember most the Belle soirées par la mer à Dakar (the beautiful evenings by the sea in Dakar), and the serenity I witnessed in that country. Eleven splendid suns, beautiful ebony complexions, serene azure waters and a wonderful slice of Africa — Senegal, you will be missed.

My Sojourn to Ethiopia – Day 7

As I sit down to write down my blog for that last, eventful day in Ethiopia, I am getting all “EMO”. Emo, short for emotional, is a term my daughter Iqra has introduced me to, and my friend and mentor Zofeen has labeled me with – an apt label, and one I quite like 🙂. Emo because of nostalgia. I miss those wonderful days. Writing this travelogue makes me re-visit all those days, one at a time.

I started writing this basically for myself, trying to experience an iota of what my favourite travelogue-writers and “earlier” bloggers experienced when they wrote memoirs – writers like the Mughal kings who each wrote a “Tuzk”, like Ghalib whose letters are forever fresh, like our own Mustansar Hussain Tarar whose travelogues have given me the inspiration to travel Pakistan from Karachi to Azad Kashmir by road. And then the women travel writers like Freya Stark and the more recent Elizabeth Gibert who stole my heart with “Eat, Pray, Love”!

I have enjoyed this journey of writing this. Many of you have accompanied me on this journey. Thank you for reading it through, from the beginning till the end, and for the encouragement you have given an amateur traveloguer.

Thanks to Women’s Edition, in a few months, I hope and pray another travel-blog will soon be written by me. Another country. Another experience. InshAllah 🙂.

17th June:

Debbie and Charlotte have warned us the day before that the last day will be back-to-back, full of lots of activities on the agenda. And the day begins with our visit to the office of Pathfinder International, an organization said to be a global leader in reproductive health.

Ethiopia: second largest country in sub-Saharan Africa with a growing population that is currently at 82 million people—more than half of whom are under the age of 25. 84% of Ethiopians live in rural areas where access to modern health care is often limited and harmful traditional practices, such as early marriage and female circumcision, are prevalent. Organizations like Pathfinder are fighting the odds with programs like the Integrated Family Health Program, HIV and AIDS care, Family and Reproductive health support, Fistula repair services, Family Planning services and many others.

So much work being done. But never enough. Work in the development sector always has a catch phrase: It’s never enough, yet you gotta do what you gotta do.

With Dr Adnew as our guide, we head St Paul’s Hospital, to visit the Cervical Cancer Prevention Unit working under Pathfinder. St Pauls is a typical general hospital. People queuing up, waiting for their turn to be seen by the messiahs. Nothing fancy. The typical smell of disinfectants. Clean, surprisingly. An old building. Flooring that has been smoothened out by the thousands of feet that have tread on it, as they entered the premises in search of healing.

Going around in labyrinth like hallways, we reach our destination….a tiny 3 room unit with the simple most equipment, and an old steel bed for patients. A very welcoming and warm-faced woman is there in a white lab coat, waiting for us. Haragewoine Garedew, Senior Nurse Professional, answers our curious and excited questions gently, as we stand around her, 15 of us cramped in a tiny room….a room that smells of disinfectants, is highly non-fancy, and yet to me seemed to be emanating some kind of symbolic light. This is the room where early detection of the earliest signs of cervical cancer of so many women has taken place, and has in turned saved their lives.

Cervical Cancer is one of those rare forms of cancer the cause of which can be contracting (refer to blog about Day 3 on this site). Early detection is key, because by the time the patient starts showing signs, it has already progressed considerably.

Pap Smears can detect it, but Pap Smears are expensive. And people in Ethiopia or Pakistan are generally not only unaware but also poor. At St Paul’s, they are using a far less expensive method to screen women for signs of cervical cancer. The method is one of direct visualization with acetic acid and has gained popularity and proven itself as an adequate alternative to PAP smears in developing countries. In visual inspection with acetic acid (VIA), 5% acetic acid is applied to the cervix with a large cotton swab and left for 30-60 seconds, after which the cervix is visually examined with the naked eye and a lamp. Pre-cancerous lesions, with a higher ratio of intracellular proteins, turn white when combined with acetic acid. Normal cervices without any precancerous lesions, do not change colour. It is low-cost, requires fewer visits to the physician and the efficacy is about 5 years. Women with pre-cancerous lesions are treated with cryotherapy. Women suspected with cervical cancer are referred for advanced care. Haragewoine and her team are performing this test on 10 women or more on an average at this unit in St Paul’s…….Potentially, saving ten lives a day!

My mind, expectedly, applies the knowledge I am gaining to my own country, my home, Pakistan. As it can be sexually transmitted, my observation and gut instinct leads me to the thought that the incidence of Cervical cancer in Pakistan is much more than we like to believe. The taboos linked with screening for STDs (sexually transmitted diseases) and the lack of awareness even among educated, urban women that a simple Pap Smear test can be a life saver….yes, Pakistan needs more awareness on this issue, like most developing countries.

On return from St Paul’s, we join a group of Ethiopian female journalists for a meeting and a lunch. They have what I sense in all African female journalists I have met – an inner strength and an inherent defiance that comes from having fought many battles.

Our last session together is interesting. We talk excitedly about the upcoming session in the Fall season. Suggestions are taken about which countries would be value-adding experience, and some of these are short-listed. Debbie and Charlotte gently remind us that we have to be “intrepid women” to be able to enjoy Women’s Edition and all it has to offer. We also discuss the work we all plan to do and issues we need to advocate through our writing or any other form of media in the months to come.

Habasha 2000. We are told that this is the name of the traditional restaurant where our farewell dinner will be held. Dressed to kill, all of us start gathering in the hotel lobby. We shriek excitedly upon seeing each other looking nice in formal clothes, and compliment each other. Kounila, Rose, Tetee and Montessori look beautiful in traditional Ethiopian clothes they have bought on their shopping sprees in Addis. We click away endlessly from our cameras, and have to be reminded that we must leave for the restaurant for the grand finale.

The restaurant is indeed a tour into traditional, cultural Ethiopia. The perfect ending. Great company. Amazing food. A cultural show that was a treat. Rich Ethiopian coffee. Laughter. Conversation. Nostalgia. Anticipation for the next conference. Hugs. Good byes. Promises to email each other the photographs, and stay in touch. And hugs and good byes again.

Back in my room, I pack frantically. There is a knock on the door. I know who it is. Shai, all pragmatic and practical on the surface, is already missing Addis, the team and me. We relish our last few cups of tea in Addis Ababa, in the chilly weather on my tenth floor balcony. Once the good bye is over, I am enjoying that last bit of time on my own in Ethiopia. Ethiopia – what a beautiful country. And how much it has taught me. Will I visit it again, ever? I wonder. I hope.

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.