How much do we know about the real Ethiopia?
"What's an Ethiopian?" cried a 14-year-old girl during a boisterous lunch break at my Surrey school. I remember it well: my friends and I ridiculed her, yet, at that stage, none of us knew much about what being an Ethiopian meant.
Children race to school for morning lessons. Picture: Chris de Bode/Panos
Unfortunately, I'd say that's still the case. When talking about my travels, many stereotypes emerged: "Talented long-distance runners"; "Some of the world's earliest Christians"; but, commonest of all? - "Famine-stricken". When animatedly discussing our various destinations at my ICS training weekend, one girl in the group who was heading to Nepal exclaimed, "They’re sending you to Ethiopia?! Aren't people, like, starving over there?"
Well, yes, many are. Perhaps Bob Geldof’s charitable efforts in the 80s have left Ethiopia with an enduring image of vulnerability.
It is these kind of uninformed, blurry impressions about developing countries that could be changed by ICS. I personally think that it's only by living in these states that it is possible to truly appreciate that they are not 'lost causes'; that they in fact have a rich history and a fascinating culture, often coupled with a far more positive outlook than that held by many prosperous westerners.
I experienced this African optimism, and a communal way of life, when I volunteered for a month in Tanzanian schools last summer. Strangers would greet me in public in the most welcoming way; if this occurred on London's streets, the greeter would probably be considered bad or mad. The prospect of being amidst this refreshing warmth and generosity again is at the forefront of my mind as I make my final frantic preparations for departure, and was a significant factor in my decision to apply to ICS.
Yet familial and communal bonds must be stronger in developing countries: it is your family and friends, not the state, who provide vital support during times of need. Although the Ethiopian economy is currently one of the fastest growing in the world, the establishment of an effective welfare state is still a distant hope.
Despite the serious challenges posed by life in Ethiopia, I know my time there will be both rewarding and unforgettable. With a week to go, I'm still not entirely sure what to expect: although my experiences in Tanzania have given me an impression, no two developing countries or altruistic projects are the same. VSO has only given its teams a few lines about their respective projects, and told us that we will be staying with a host family: the rest, they say, will become clear once we arrive.
There's only so much that can be planned in advance, anyway: the course the project takes depends on the relationships we build with the locals. I imagine there will be much trial and error, times when we feel overworked, and times when we feel useless. But what I hope guides us through any doubt or struggle is an overarching sense that we are making a serious effort to improve the lives of those less fortunate than us. Bring on Addis Ababa.
Podcast: returned volunteers Esi, Mohammed and Ceri
Ceri, Esi and Mohammed volunteered through ICS last year. Hear them talk about their experiences in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya in the latest DFID podcast.
Listen here, or subscribe on iTunes.