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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.