A Tale of Two Taxis
Sep. 27th 2003
The Internet connection has not been working at all well. In fact, there has been almost none in the last three weeks. This is partly due to the fact that the viruses hit Ethiopia hard. I'm not sure if there was anything that they could have done to really protect themselves. Unfortunately this has had a major effect on everyone here. This is why I haven't been able to send and receive many emails.

This difficulty really bit hard yesterday. There are at least two admin things that I need to do - tax, and patent stuff. I also need to keep in contact with Sarah and M+A. However, and more worrying in the short period of actually being able to see what email is there, I picked up on important email from Sarah, but did not notice the important one from my mum. I read it today, four days later. My dad was (and may still be for all I know at the moment) in hospital with what sounded quite a serious problem. I had to read the email several times to understand what my mum had said and try to stop shaking a little bit. It's pretty easy to become powerless out here for other things in the world. I'm just hoping it's not as serious as I fear. On the positive side, there is now a phone where I live so contact should be a bit easier.

Okay, I shall try to describe some of the more positive things that have happened in the last few weeks, as much for my benefit as anyone else's. Also, if my old man is in hospital, it will give him something to read for a few hours if my mum prints it out. I have a little bit of a smile on my face now. I realise that there is something that I can do (not completely powerless), and perversely my computer has randomly chosen William Shatner's version of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds to play. Probably only Nick Sidhu could really understand that!

The new VSOs have arrived, and I now live with four of them in a very large, villa style house. We have a telephone (+251 4 40 70 15 - tres expensive) with a connection point in most rooms, and a fridge. We don't have curtains yet but they are being worked on, as is an oven which I think is much more important than a fridge, having been without both for the last seven months. It was a bit embarassing telling the previous landlady that I was moving out. I had asked finance when I had to move out. They weren't sure, and then told me the following day that I had three days. This was no good because I was going to be in Addis for an HIV/AIDs workshop. They then said that they had agreed a few extra days. However, when I returned and had a very nice dinner with my landlady and apologised that I wasn't staying and that MIT wanted me to move in with the new VSOs, they looked a bit surprised. Finance hadn't talked to them once. I'm losing patience with finance. We are taught at Harbone hall how it is often considered impolite in foreign cultures to say no. However, this wasn't saying no, this was coming up with a blatant lie.

The trip to Addis was a good break for me. VSO had arranged an HIV/AIDs workshop. I must admit that I agreed to the workshop before even knowing what it was on - I needed the trip away. I met with Wilko at Mekelle airport. Although we were scheduled for flights an hour apart we got on the same plane because of some pretty heavy delays. I had a little problem getting into the airport. I haven't mentioned it before becuase I was going to surprise Sarah with it. I have been growing a beard for quite a few weeks. Not a little beard, but a big bushy bellamy buster beard. Of course, my photo id has me clean shaven, and with a suntan, the habesha can mistake a ferenj for somebody from the middle east. They spent quite some time looking at the photo, but then eventually let me in.

Once we arrived in Addis, Wilko and I had some fun. I'm not very confident haggling over prices when I am on my own, but with another VSO I was much happier. We decided to see how low we could get the taxi fare. We knew that if we pushed it too far we would at least know the limit, and could just walk half a mile to where the line taxis could be found. The cheapest that we had heard about was fifteen birr, we set out to break that record. Many drivers were interested and were offering prices such as forty. In fact I laughed in the face of one when they said forty. They would laugh back at us when we said very low amounts, but we would just walk away and hear the price dropping. Once we had got past the main group of taxis we realised that maybe we had been pushing too hard, and argued another one down to the record of fifteen. As we were getting in, two habesha women also got in, so I said that we would not share unless the taxi was reduced in price and the driver agreed ten. I checked in Amharic (not good but getting better now) and it was definitely ten. So, all four of us went of to Addis, and street haya-hulet (twenty-two). When we got out, we paid the remaining eight birr (we had given two for the parking fee). He wasn't happy he said that we had agreed fifteen, and wouldn't give us the luggage from the boot of the car. We spent some time arguing and I asked him if there was a police man around. He had enough bravado to say 'go on then'. Well, I did find one, and fortunately a very nice one that spoke English. The taxi driver made the mistake of saying that fifteen had been agreed without any sharing. From this point on, the police man was on our side, and quite an audience was gathering. I don't know about Wilko but I found it very exciting and could feel the adrenilin. There was a pretty heated discussion between the policeman and the taxi driver punctuated by the regular swings of the policeman's baton at the encroaching audience. Eventually, the policeman said that the taxi driver had made a mistake and was now asking for two birr more. I explained that we had very little money and that we were not rich, and a deal was a deal. However, because the policeman had been so nice to us, I agreed to pay the money. Fortunately I had exactly two birr in one half of my wallet. This gave me the opportunity to dramatically thrust the two birr into his hands, opening the wallet to show him and the crowd that there was no money left. Wilko and I then walked off with an offended air until we had got around the corner and burst into giggles.

One of the great things about the conference was meeting VSOs from my induction and other regions. It was interesting to hear the differences. Two of the volunteers were having a very hard time and are likely to leave. They haven't enjoyed their placement, or Ethiopia. The constant verbal hassle can be very draining, and nobody would think anything less for them leaving. Here in Mekelle, the hassle is less severe. I have noticed it a lot more in the new house. I guess that Ferenj this far out of town are a bit of an oddity. It is a shame because it really does not reflect the majority of Ethiopian people.

One of the most striking differences I noticed is how 'good' I have it in Tigray. The people here are, compared to the other regions of Ethiopia, very industrious. I am also seeing first hand why much of the aid is wasted. For instance, in another region of Ethiopia, there is a field full of high quality tractors. The field is full not because they keep breaking down beyond repair, but because the village knows that it will get a new one donated each and every year. This experience is definitely hardening me to people who ask for help. I see so many 'chancers' everyday that I think you have to be careful who you help. They will always think that you have had an advantage or have more money or something, and they want it for themselves without the work. I am also seeing the value of VSO over donations a lot more. With us here, we can help the people who want to work to help themselves. We know who those people are. It's easy for me - they're my students. Tigray itself is more industrious and is sometimes despised by people from other regions because they see it as getting all the money. I was happy to hear from a VSO that has worked in the government and actually seen where the money is going. Tigray was far from the top. Maybe this is something I knew already, rather than something new, but things are being reinforced, that's for sure.

The workshop itself was rather disappointing. The person running it was not the best workshop leader. This might have been because he was thinking with too much of habesha head, and not a ferenj head for his audience. When he started to display some figures that didn't make much sense, these were questioned by the VSOs. This would certainly be normal in Europe or America - you wouldn't present figures without saying where they came from. In fact some of the conclusions were downright dubious. When he stated that they were from his thesis (means dissertation) in Europe, the gloves came off. I didn't say anything actually, which is unlike me. The other VSOs were busy pulling apart his data, but certainly did not take it to the finale. On the positive side, sharing experiences with the other VSOs was very good, and we could have an indepth discussion about how best to handle things like the stigma associated with HIV/AIDs infections. Again, there were definite differences in the regions. It also became clear that gender and female genital mutilation (female circumcision) were important topics that could also be drawn into any AIDs initiative. I got the impression that it would be very difficult to separate these.

From the workshop, I learnt the prevalence rate for Mekelle. It was considerably higher than I expected. Nearly a fifth of all people in Mekelle have contracted HIV/AIDs. If that carries into the students, then that means that I know twenty-one people with HIV/AIDs, and that the teaching I am doing will regrettably be wasted for some.

On the second, and final day of the workshop, we were taken out to the Red Cross Centre where my group of VSOs had been taken when we arrived. Here we met the new VSOs arriving for September. It was a very large intake, totalling about forty-five new VSOs. They at least had all their luggage but had to take a detour through Nairobi. This was particularly ironic because VSO UK is currently warning all VSOs to avoid travel through Kenya for security reasons.

I was able to meet the new Mekelle volunteers and describe Mekelle and what they should expect. Charis, who had also been in Addis for the workshop was doing the same thing, and we tried to be honest without scaring them. Compared to other places, Mekelle is lovely.

When we left the RCC, we managed to get five of us into a line taxi and to head back towards our hotel. This is a taxi journey that I will not forget, although I am trying! It was a long journey and required a detour for Charis to pick up her radio that she had left in her old house. It was in a later part of the drive, that our Peugeot was overtaken by a Lada. This forced our taxi driver to speed up, saying that the car was French and much better. Once alongside the other taxi he gestured at the other driver and then to us. We assume it was a 'look at all the ferenj in my car' gesture. The other driver was not at all happy with this, accelarated a bit more and then cut in front of us, across our bonnet. Our driver slowed to avoid a collision. It was then that the other driver started to weave, speed up, slow down and generally try to cause problems. We also noticed some bolts sticking out from his wheels and our over active imaginations though of James Bond style devices designed to shred and tear another vehicle's tyres. We did manage to lose this maniac but still had the maniac driving our car to contend with. It was a real relief to get out of that car.

Shortly after arriving back, I had a visit from a VIP. Although, it was not until some students asked for an autograph that I realised that how important the Foreign Minister was. Dr Mulu had warned me in the morning that we would have important people but it had not really sunk in. What I had found slightly funny and ironic is that he had people waiting for him when he had got home the night before after going out for a few drinks with myself and Charis. The people had warned him, and he was suited and booted on this day. I think that the foreign minister was rather pleased with MIT. When he looked at the computer lab, I was able to ask a student to show him a web page that they had created, and it was all quite impressive. He asked me whether the students could use the labs outside of office hours and seemed very impressed with the lab attendant scheme. It had almost been the prime-minister himself but the previous night they had decided to visit two institutes separately rather than together because of time constraints. If I had really been thinking, then I should have given him a note with a suggestion from the workshop. We thought that it would be good if all of the senior government took AIDs tests to try to break the stigma associated with having a test.

This is going to be far too much typing for one night, so I shall make this a two parter. Dad if you are still in hospital and reading this, then get well soon. I will try to write another one tomorrow.