Archive for February 2009

Blogger unblocked

Ever since I arrived in Ethiopia, access to Blogger has been completely blocked across the country. This was quite a pain for anyone wanting follow Blogger blogs – they could be accessed via online RSS readers – but then you still missed out on any images. It was also a problem for those VSO volunteers who had set up blogs before they came to Ethiopia then found they couldn’t update them easily (or at all!).

The good news is that today I’ve found I can now access Blogger directly! So for some reason ETC (telecoms co) or Ethiopian government must have decided it was no longer a threat.

The bad news (from Bloomberg) is that it seems unlikely the ETC monopoly on telecoms will be relaxed – meaning ongoing outrageous costs for mobile SIMs and broadband internet connections. To quote from their article (note that is the correct number of zeros in the 1Mb broadband monthly cost):

Girma Birru, Ethiopia’s trade minister, said Ethiopia has no plans to liberalize the telecommunications and financial-services industries to gain access to World Trade Organization (WTO), Bloomberg news reported.

“Primarily we will join the WTO not to make others happy, but to make our economy work,” Birru said. “So to the extent it helps our economy we will liberalize things, but if it’s not going to assist our goals in trade and development we will not liberalize. Why do we have to?”

“I don’t see any plan” to break up or sell Ethiopian Telecommunications Corp. to private investors, Birru said. “If there are some problems it has nothing to do with ownership. It has only to do with management. Management and ownership don’t necessarily go together.”

According to Bloomberg news, Ethiopian Telecommunication charges $35 for a mobile-phone SIM card, where in neighboring Somalia and Kenya it costs less than $5. A 1-megabyte per second Internet connection costs more than $2,000 a month in Ethiopia. In South Africa, the continent’s biggest economy, a similar service costs between 600 rand ($59) and 760 rand, according to the Web site.

Newai Gebre-Ab, chief economic advisor to Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, said “the company [ETC] is “generating a lot of money and that money is being put to good use for development of infrastructure,”.

Business Process Re-Engineering

I’m now halfway through my first day on the 5-day Business Process Re-Engineering (BPR) Implementation Training c(o)urse.

BPR has been a huge deal in Ethiopia over the last year or so, essentially all government organizations (so includes just about every organization) are in the process of being reorganized. Mekelle University is (apparently) one of the first to have actually started implementing it’s BPR outcomes, and all university staff, academic and support (including expatriates) are now attending the 5 day training course- at the same time.

The first morning was held in the huge presentation hall at the memorial building, with around 1500-2000 staff attending (I feel the attendance may drop off by the afternoon! – update – yes, less than half came to the afternoon sessions!). Talk so far as involved emphasizing the aspects where the university needs to improve, for example in communication, teacher attendance, student satisfaction, teaching methods etc. They are also attempting to encourage teachers to make use of active learning principles, formative assessment and team teaching – but I’m currently unsure how easy it will be to get the teachers to change their working practices in such a substantial way.

It all sounds great in theory, but they really need to start putting some of this into practice rather than just talking about it. Leading by example would be good. At 5pm the day before the training, our department hadn’t received any information as to the time, location or schedule for the sessions – neither was any of this info included in the advertising posters (which only contained the date) – so doesn’t yet sound like a great improvement in communication yet! So will see what the rest of the training brings – there is a chance the rest will be held in Amharic so it’ll be fairly pointless me attending!

Gondar to Axum by bus – don’t do it!

Fasiladas' Palace

Fasiladas' Palace

Since we’d missed out on visiting Gondar on our way up to the Simiens, we decided to spend an extra day there on the way back instead. Gondar had a very different feel to Mekelle, much more touristy, many more people trying to ‘help’ by offering to be guides, exchange dollars, international phone calls (for crazily expensive prices).

We stayed at the Circle hotel in the centre of town, which I probably wouldn’t recommend to anyone else as it was incredibly noisy. The power was off, but their generator made a horrendous pounding noise, even from 5 floors up. When the power finally came back on, this menat the local bars and clubs could start up their music on until 3am!

The following day we visited the tourist sites, the Royal Enclosure, a walled part of the old city filled with castles and churches and the Debre Berhan Selassie Church. We decided against getting an official guide (or any guide at all), mainly for fear of being bombarded with dates, names etc that we’d forget almost instantly (esp. after little sleep).

Debre Berhan Selassie Church

Debre Berhan Selassie Church

In the evening we met up with a few Peace Corps volunteers, one of whom I’ve been in contact with since before I came out to Ethiopia but never met until now. It also gave the opportunity to introduce the new VSO volunteers in Gondar to some of the local ferenjis.

Marcel and Rene had taken the (in hindsight sensible) option of flying back to Addis (then Marcel flew back to Mekelle), whereas Andy and I thought we’d save some money and take the 2-day bus journey instead – which turned out to be more ‘fun’ than originally intended.

Arriving at Gondar bus station at 5:30am we got some of the last seats on the bus to Shire – being on the back seat. We set off just before 6 and took only 3 hours to get to Debark, which (on the map) looks to be about halfway. Unfortunately, it’s no way near halfway time-wise. After Debark the bus takes a fantastically winding route up and down through the mountains, spending most of the journey going around hairpin bends. So, nearly 11 hours after leaving Gondar we arrived in Shire. Shire doesn’t appear to be most welcoming of places, from the direction we approached we saw burnt out tanks, derelict buildings and the UN building surrounded in barbed wire. Further into town it looks slightly more welcoming.

Road through the mountains

Road through the mountains

We already decided that if we could, we’d get straight on a bus to Axum as we had a free accommodation there, rather than paying for a hotel in Shire. Again we were some of the last people on the bus, so left almost straight away at 5pm. Well, we left the bus station anyway, we stopped at the end of the road to spend nearly an hour waiting in a queue to get diesel, then we were finally on our way.

According to the guide book the bus should only take 90 mins to cover the 60km Shire to Axum. Unfortunately, the road is currently in the process of being resurfaced (or rather surfaced as it was a dirt road), meaning that our route was on a track next to the road. About halfway the suspension broke, so we stopped of a little while for the driver to remove the broken bits from under the bus before continuing.

We finally arrived at Axum bus station just before 9pm, tired, thirsty and hungry – a mere 15 hours on the back seat of buses with little or no suspension, all on gravel roads (or partially off road). But our day wasn’t over yet!

The mobile network in Axum must be one of the worst in Ethiopia, very rarely is it possible to actaully connect, send a text or even top-up with credit. Andy’s phone battery had died, mine was on one bar, we had no idea where Steve lived and we couldn’t contact him. We went to the Remhai hotel to get a drink and food, when eventually Steve managed to get through on my phone – so we had somewhere to stay for the night.

The Shire to Axum leg made the first 11 hours seem a walk in the park, though think I’d rather not repeat any part of that journey again. Needless to say we decided to have a day relaxing in Axum before the 7 hour bus trip back to Mekelle!

Next time, I’ll spend the money on a flight!

Simien Mountains

img_3980After the IT workshop in Addis, 4 of us, Andy, Marcel, Rene and I flew to Gondar to go trekking in the Simien mountains for a few days. We arrived a day later than expected as our flight from Addis was canceled. We’d arrived at the airport at 5am, but the flight was delayed due to fog/haze in Gondar. After waiting in the departure lounge until nearly 3pm, the flight was finally rescheduled for the next day. Fortunately we only missed out on a little of the walking we were going to do.

Gondar seemed so much more tourist oriented than anywhere else I’d been in Ethiopia (even Axum), but the Simien mountains (about 3 hours drive north of Gondar) were really spectacular and well worth making the effort – maybe not if you’re scared of heights, though Rene seemed to enjoy it providing we weren’t walking too close to the kilometer deep gorges!

img_3972Although we’d not paid for a particularly luxurious trip, we did have pretty much everything done for us, except the walking obviously. In addition to the obligatory armed guard, we had a guide, 3 muleteers and cook and cooks assistant. On arrival at each campsite all our tents had been put up, with tea, coffee and snacks all set out on table and chairs. Each morning jugs of hot water and soap were put out for washing. We suspect the guard (scout) was there mainly to provide employment to local villagers, rather than us needing protection from anything!

img_4046Our itinerary was:
Day 1: a couple of hours walk to Sankaber, we would’ve had a full days walking if the flight had arrived on the right day.
Day 2: Walk Sankaber to Geech (approx 7 hours), via Geech Abyss (500m waterfall) and Geech Village (stopping to coffee)
Day 3: Walk Geech to Chenek via Imetgogo (3900m), approx 8 hours.
Day 4: Chenek to Bwahit (4430m) and back to Chenek, approx 6 hours.
Day 5: drive back to Gondar

img_4060As well as seeing many hundreds of the gelada baboons and a few ibex, we were lucky enough to see one of the very few Simien foxes, or Ethiopian wolf (though apparently it’s neither a fox nor wolf). It’s common in the Bale mountains (south Ethiopia), but thought that there are only 50 or so left in the Simiens (according to our guide books anyway). We saw it about 100m from the Chenek campsite at about 3pm. The cooks, guides and guards were surprised that it had come so close to the campsite as they’re rarely seen at all. I know the picture here looks as if it’s stuffed, but I can guarantee it was alive and well!


IT volunteering

I’ve been away the last couple of weeks – hence the lack of blog postings recently, so I’ll try and make up for it this week!

The new intake of volunteers arrived a couple of weeks ago, so at the end of their training we had another IT volunteers workshop. Returning to the Red Cross training centre for the first time since I arrived in Ethiopia felt a little strange, but also made me realise how long I’ve been here for now (coming up to 6 months), even though it only feels like 5 minutes!

The number of current IT volunteers outnumbered the number of new IT volunteers 9 to 3. There were 8 IT placements available in Ethiopia for the February intake, only 5 of which got filled, then only 3 new people actually arrived. So there’s plenty of opportunities available if anyone feels like taking some time out from their normal jobs!

Impact of expanding access to university

A paper by Kedir Assefa at Addis Ababa Univeristy explores some of the problems & challenges facing Ethiopia as it tries to massively expand it’s university network. The conclusions reflect my experiences here, where there just aren’t enough well qualified and experienced staff to teach to numbers of students sent to university. Interesting reading… (paper had a mention in THE)


This may not sound particularly significant, or even that much of an achievement, but it is something I’ve been trying to do for the last few months…

I now have our Moodle server connected up to the University’s email server, so messages, forum subscriptions etc. can now be sent out to those users who have filled in their email address. This makes the whole system far more useful than it would have been otherwise. I can now do things like turn on self-registration (not worried about spam accounts yet as we’re only on the intranet) and save me the bother of creating everyones accounts.

When I was with the ICT dept sorting out the SMTP connection and relay access settings, they even mentioned that they’d be able to support the server in their server room – which is great for me, as then I know that someone will be at least maintaining the server after I’ve left.

The carpenters children were eaten by hyaenas

I’ve only been in the office for about an hour so far today but I’ve already learned a 4 new things…
No 1: I can remotely access Windows 2003 server from Ubuntu using the ‘Terminal Server Client’. I hadn’t even noticed this before, and had previously just assumed (for no other reason than ignorance!) that I wouldn’t be able to connect to a windows server from Ubuntu in the same way I could from XP. (Apologies for the rather dull picture of this in action on my machine)

No. 2: I can now print from my desktop directly to the secretaries printer. This may not seem like a big deal, but previously we could only print by putting documents onto a flash drive then plugging this into Woini’s PC and directly printing. I don’t think the printer is properly networked (her PC still need to be on), but it’s a much improved situation. Haven’t worked out yet how we’ll collect printing when she’s off on holiday and her office is locked up!

No. 3: There are 2 photocopying rooms at the uni. The one I’ve previously knew about had 4 staff (though at least half were asleep on a sofa everytime I went) and several (silent) photocopiers – they pretty much refused to copy anything unless it was an exam paper. The new photocopy room I’ve discovered has only 1 member of staff, several copiers all working flat out, and was perfectly happy to copy exactly what I wanted. This also helps to prove my theory that productivity/efficiency/cleanliness is actually inversely proportional to the number of staff (supposedly) engaged in the activity.

No. 4: The meaning of the phrase ‘the carpenters children were eaten by hyaenas’. It refers to that fact that people doing activity for work often don’t bother to do the same activity in their own home (the plumber with leaky kitchen tap etc). In this case the carpenter didn’t make a front door.