Archive for September 2008

Starting a new job…

Yesterday morning I met my new boss (Samson) for the first time and also got to see the university campus and my new desk. The campus is only a short (10 min) walk from my house, so really convenient and think it’s the first time I’ve ever lived within walking distance of work!

I’ll be working in the Computing Faculty, which has about 25 staff, although 12 of these left over summer, so they’re trying to recruit at the moment. An extremely high turnover of staff is another common problem in Ethiopia, staff move on to get degrees & masters to increase their earnings. The staff who are in place then tend to be quite young and inexperienced (though not in all cases).

Samson took me to the staff lounge for some tea and described the how the project has been going and where I’m expected to fit in. The project started in 2005 with funding from the World Bank to develop an elearning system within the university, with study centres in towns around Tigray, which students could visit to access the materials. The university already has a distance learning programme (and department), with students coming to the university only for 2 weeks (2 x 1 week) each semester for tutorials and face to face tuition.

A Moodle server is in place for the courses to be loaded into – they’re currently converting the word documents (from the lecturers) into SCORM packages, then loading these into Moodle, concentrating on the business and accounting courses. The lecturers for these courses have received some training in Moodle, but the system isn’t yet released out to students.

Basically my job will be to get the system launched and support the lecturers and students in using Moodle and promoting the system. It will be the first elearning system available in Ethiopia and they’re hoping to use this as a selling point to entice new students – especially those in Addis who have better internet access. Other parts of my job will be to help get the study centres set up – all the computers have been purchased, quite new ones by the look of it, all flat panel monitors – and also, if I’m interested, to do some teaching, most likely in website development, HTML, PHP etc.

My first impressions are really good, the university sounds much more up together than some of the stories I was hearing from the other IT volunteers last week – though also sounds like I’ll never be short of work!

Meskel (Wicker Man?) Festival

Found out today what the Meskel festival is all about… to celebrate the finding of the true cross and we went along too. Just outside Mekelle they’d built a large bonfire, with a cross on top. When the fire is lit, the direction in which the cross falls predicts the outlook for the next year, north = war, east = peace, south = famine, west = (?) – apparently the cross is usually slightly tilted to the east!

About an hour before sunset, we (and most of the rest of the Mekelle population), walked up the hill with bundles of sticks to use as torches on the procession down the hill after sunset and the bonfire had been lit. Once at the top, people were getting themselves into a bit of a frenzy, groups running round in circles and chanting – tribal rather than Orthodox Christian.

Despite the chaos we managed to get quite near to the fire (before it was lit), though this was more to do with the police allowing us (as ferengi/foreigners) to – the police were using sticks to keep people back. Made us all feel quite uncomfortable that we were being treated very differently from the locals – but think that’s just something else I’ll have to try and get used to.

After lots more chanting, pushing, shoving, dancing and the sunset, a few fireworks went off and the fire was lit. Everything became even more chaotic as 1000’s were lighting their torches from the fire. Then the procession down the hill began, a procession makes it sound organised and sedate – it was anything but! Several 1000 people running down a hill, chanting & carrying burning torches – UK health and safety would have a field day! At times it was quite intimidating, being pointed to and shouted at for being a foreigner, plus there we few pickpockets around, a few of us caught people trying to get their hands into your pocket. Apart from that it was a great experience.

Back down in town, after a couple of beers, we headed to a restaurant with some people from Red Cross, though as it was Friday (a fasting day, so no meat) and being a little late (after 9pm is late here), there were only a couple of options left on the menu. This seems quite common, you’re lucky if restaurants have half of what’s actually on the menu!

Internet Penetration in Ethiopia

Have been connection-less for the last few days as the PCs we’d been using at the Red Cross Centre have been taken away and have then been finding my feet in Mekelle, so I’m making a few posts all in one go…

(22nd Sept)
Got my hands on a copy of ICT Monthly – which is the main (only?) IT magazine in Ethiopia, and its got some info on the internet penetration in Ethiopia (0.2%), which is extremely low, in Africa only Liberia is lower, even Somalia is higher (at 0.8%). More stats are available at (though not had chance to have a look myself).

Not sure exactly what is meant by ‘penetration’, but *think* it’s related to the number of accounts with ISP relative to the total population. Also the reasons as to why Ethiopia should be so much lower than other neighbouring countries (Sudan – 8%) are unclear.

We’ve spent the last couple of days in a IT workshop wich some of the other VSO volunteers who’ve been here for the last year or so. Has been excellent hearing about their experiences, but also some horrendous stories about wasted money, lack of planning, poor connections. Just one example is that fact that they’re building 12 new universities in Ethiopia – all to the same design – but they haven’t made any provision for IT installation, which means the nice new buildings will now need to have holes cut through walls and all the cabling installed for any form of network or computer room to be installed. I’m guessing that this isn’t the last of these sort of stories that I’ll be hearing over the coming months!

Fun and games with new home in Mekelle

Very early start this morning to get the 6:30am flight from Addis to Mekelle. A couple of Land Cruisers turned up to collect us at 4:30 and the airport is very close to the Red Cross Centre, but they hadn’t brought Vicky’s box (blankets, stoves, water filters etc) so the truck I was in had to go back to the VSO program office all the way back in town to pack a new one for her.

Once we’d arrived at the airport, the others had all gone through check in into to departure lounge, but we found some of Ynke’s luggage was sat next to the check-in desk. It had all
been tagged with her destination, but not put through onto the baggage carousel. Andy spent a lot of time trying to convince the check in staff to put it through, which they did eventually – else Ynke would be without half her luggage when she got to Gondar.

It was quite a relief to be on the plane and en-route to Mekelle, only a 45min flight, when Mike and Tashika picked us up at the airport. To the surprise of Marcel and I, a driver had actually also arrived at the airport to collect us, though they had no clue about where we were going to be living – so unsure how they were going to get us to our new house if it hadn’t been for them following Mike.

Mekelle has a very arabian feel to it, very dry, dusty and lots of dry stone low rise housing. The city centre seems far more up together than Addis was – we’ve seen pavements for the first time since arriving in Ethiopia!

The new house is really big, we’ve got a huge lounge, with spare room/study, then a main bedroom (with ensuite!) and a slightly smaller bedroom with another bathroom next door, then a small kitchen. Unfortunately, I lost the coin toss for the master bedroom, so Marcel has got that one. The house is within a little compound of 3 houses, well, our house and then 2 bedsits which share a bathroom – apparently the bedsits are luxurious by Ethiopian standards, so who knows what they think of our house.

From what I’ve said so far all seems good, but now comes the ‘fun’ part… it’s obvious that the guard has been living in the house (in the spare bedroom) for the last couple of months whilst the house has been empty – so we needed to make sure that he moved all his stuff out there plus giving us any keys. The landlords nephew (Kiros, confusingly the landlord is also called Kiros) and the guard (Tsegay) came round in the early evening and we tried to get things sorted out with them. Doreen (VSO volunteer who used to live in the house & still lives in Mekelle came round too to help sort things out, Kiros and Tsegay (although in their mid-20s) were acting like small children being told off when we were explaining that they shouldn’t be living in the house. They we both very good about it all and moved everything out there and then, and also swept all the floors and mopped up.

Doreen explained that Tsegay is a teacher by day and guard by night – he lives in a small shed type thing within the compound (so it’s understandable that he would live in an empty house when he had the keys) and his sister lives in a little shack built at the far end of the carport. If the whole compound arrangementssound confusing then thats because it is! Apparently it’s common for men here to have their sisters come to live near (or with them) to do their cleaning, washing & cooking.

Marcel and I will also be getting someone in to do all the cleaning and washing – again this is common for people to have someone come in everyday do to the housework. But not sure what this will be like & think it’ll take some getting used to!

Mike and Doreen have been absolutely great today – helping us with so many things – from collecting us from the airport, to sorting out the nght guard, so we’re really grateful to them. Hopefully we’ll be able to buy them a few drinks at the Meskel festival tomorrow evening – not quite sure yet what the Meskel festival is all about, but seems to be quite a big thing…. sure I’ll find out soon.

At the end of the day neither Marcel or I fancied cooking, so we headed out to a local restaurant. It’s the first time I’ve been anywhere that has UN 4x4s driving around the restaurants have guards with AK-47s (Mum – don’t worry it is safe really).

Hope all the above make sense – I’m feeling really exhausted at the end of today!

Markets & bars

In todays language session we started to learn how to tell the time, which would be so much easier if Ethiopia didn’t use a different system – their day starts at 6am. So 2pm in ferengi (foreigner) time is 8 daytime in habasha (Ethiopian) time. Even our teacher was getting confused when he was asking us to translate one time to another. Plus the calendar is different too, so 3am on Jan 1st 2009 is 9 (nighttime) on 23rd Tir 2001 in Ethiopia!

We were given our equipment allowance to head off and spend in the shops/market in Addis today, our houses are set up with the basics (bed, table, chairs etc), and were given blankets, kerosene stove etc, but we need to buy things like pots/pans/cutlery. It’s a good way to get practicing our Amharic and getting used to haggling. Things were a bit easier for me as Marcel and I are sharing a house so we can split the costs. In Mekelle we should be able to buy most things, but they might not be great quality. Some of the pans in Shola market, especially the frying pans, were made of really thin aluminium. I managed to find a non stick frying pan for 90 birr (around £4.50) and a stainless steel pan for 60 birr – I was unsure about using aluminium pans for boiling water.

Being Friday night, and the fact we’re starting to get a little stir crazy staying at the Red Cross centre, some of use headed out on a little pub crawl. All the places were very friendly, though one tried to charge us too much. It’s difficult to tell if this is because they’re trying to get a little more money out of you, or if it’s just because their maths isn’t great. We managed to get to the right price in the end, and had some practice with our Amharic numbers. Most of the bars here have butchers next door – which consists of a side of beef hung up on a wooden pallet. Not sure I’ll be buying much meat here as I’m quite unsure of their hygene standards! The toilets in the bars are quite disgusting, you’re wary of even touching anything in them!

Education in Ethiopia

Had a briefing about the education system here and its been expanding rapidly over the last few years- going from about 4m children enrolled in 2000, to over 14m in 2006 – this is about 80% of all children. The state of the education system varies greatly from region to region The universities are also expanding fast, there are 9 ‘old’ universities (including Mekelle) and 12 new universities have opened recently.

Surprisingly (to me anyway) nearly all the teaching is done in English, only Amharic is taught in Amharic, with very old text books. We’ve seen some of the books for sale in the market, and it’s not very encouraging – one of the books we saw was titled ‘English in Simple Way’ (sic)!

Settling in

All is still going well, have now got rid of my tiredness from the travelling and a little bit of altitude sickness. We’ve been having language training for couple of hours every morning and then been out trying to practice it in the market and shops around – with a fairly good success rate, haven’t been over charged too much yet. Most things are very cheap here, about 12p for kilo of bananas, 30p for bottle of beer and a ride in a line taxi (local bus) is about 4-7p. The roads are appalling (Ethiopia has one of the highest fatality rates in the world), potholed and muddy (due to loads of rain recently) – so there’s no chance of wanting to get a bike – we found a goats head in the road yesterday and various other animal remnants.

We had a scavenger hunt around Addis yesterday, sent off with long list of places to get to and things to find out and buy (with a little bartering). We’ve another couple of days on our in country training, then an IT workshop, before heading up to Mekelle at the end of next week – when I’ll be able to start settling in properly. I’ll be sharing a house with a guy, Marcel, from Tasmania, who is also working at the university.

This afternoon I had a meeting with Belay, my programme manager, so have a much better idea now of the work that I’ll be doing. Apparently the university had funding from the World Bank to set up a distance learning programme and the website for this is almost ready to launch. Some other towns in the Tigray area are in the process of setting up computer rooms which students can use to access the materials, so I’ll probably be helping out with this.

Thanks for all the messages from my last posting 🙂

Arrival in Addis…

Touched down in Addis Abeba at about 2am this morning, after a slightly delayed flight. The plane was pretty full, but we stopped in Amman (Jordan) where most people got off, so there was pretty much only VSO volunteeers left on the plane for the last leg, plus 10 or people from Vision Aid.

So far I think I’m the only person whose bags weighed in at under 20kg, our limit was 46kg each and there was no way I was bringing that much, though some people even manged to be over this limit. I’m wondering if there’s either lots of stuff I’ve forgotten, or they’re nt used to travelling light(ish)?

After a bit of faffing around with loading the bus up with our bags (maybe the weight of them had something to do with it!), we arrived at the Ethiopian Red Cross Training Centre at 4am, so almost straight to bed, though I didnt feel that tired, good job too as was woken up almost every hour by various things going on in the street outside, firstly call to prayer, then dogs and cockerels, and finally a football game in the street outside.

The rooms here are nice, clean and comfy (even hot showers) and we’ll be here for just over a week on our ‘in country training’ course, then the IT volunteers have a 2 day workshop before heading to our placements around 26/27 Sept.

The training center is in a little compound, so I took a little walk earlier as hadn’t had chance to see much from the bus in the dark. Have figured that we’re in the south east of Addis and quite near Bole airport. The streets around seem fairly chaotic (though nothing like I’ve seen in Cairo or Hanoi), reckon you could buy pretty much anything you want or need within a few minutes walk. I know the stereotype is for Africans to carry things on their heads but I didn’t expect to see a guy carrying a single bed on his head, followed by another guy with a mattess. Not sure if this is coincidence, good planning or worrying, but the local fire extinguisher shop is between 2 petrol stations.

I still feeling quite calm and relaxed, looking forward to getting up to Mekelle, which I guess is a good thing!

The internet connection is incredibly slow – 3 of us are sharing a 33kbps connection – so not sure how regularly I’ll be able to keep blogging!!

Final day in UK

Today is my last day in UK before flying out tomorrow morning, so have been doing my final bits of packing and getting stressed about my house! I’ve got tenants moving in next week and the boiler broke down on Wednesday. I’ve had to arrange a new boiler to be fitted before Wed next week – something I could really do without – but at least it’s taken my mind off getting anxious about going away.

The photo above shows everything I’ll be taking with me – doesn’t seem like much for a year. There are some fairly random items, such as rounders bat & ball and frisbee, plus more practical stuff like passport and malaria tablets. All weighs in at just under 20kg, so not too bad (and mainly due to various power leads/chargers) – I’ve traveled with more for a 3 week holiday!

Visa, tickets and packing…

Am very pleased that my passport, visa and tickets have arrived – quite a relief as I’m going in only a week!

The last few days after leaving work have been a bit strange, basically getting everything packed up and ready to go, so now sitting in a virtually empty house. Getting my house rented out has been a bit of hassle, the agents I first had only sent 1 person round to have a look – this was after having it advertised for about a month 🙁 so earlier this week I changed to another agents and they’ve already had someone interested. I guess my advice from this would be to check up on how extensive the agents advertising is.

I’ve had lots of kind messages from colleagues at the OU who I didn’t get chance to say goodbye to last week – so thanks for those 🙂