Birtukan Bikinis
Dec. 26th 2004
We have just had Ferenji Christmas. Just like last year, it was a rather low key but thoroughly enjoyable affair. Having a different time for Christmas is quite convenient. People do know when Ferenji Christmas is, and wish a Happy Christmas to us, but it's mostly ignored. Having said that, this year there does seem to have been quite a lot of tacky Christmas decorations for sale (and to think I once dreamed of owning a Christmas decoration shop, aged 6). Plastic trees stand outside shops with purple and silver tinsel hanging from the awnings. This being Ethiopia such tack would probably be seen as a status symbol. Come to think of it, why is it so excessive in the UK if there is not a bit of status symbol connected to it?

Christmas eve was spent at the house of Rob and Jackie's. Much alcohol was consumed and dodgy DVDs were hidden. There was a lot of food and later in the evening there were a few Elvis impersonations. Myself, Ali, Terri and Wilko left early in the morning. We know Mekelle well enough to be feel safe enough to do this. At one point I offered a piggy back to Terri which she accepted and, as an observer from behind, Mekelle saw more of Terri than it should have, according to Ali.

Christmas day was a bit more mellow with everybody cooking food and bringing it to Jan and Ian's house. We played party games and just had good fun together. I can say without a doubt that the thing I will miss most when I leave are the other VSOs. Granted, I am the recluse of Mekelle and I don't go out very often but it is so nice to meet up with them. I definitely believe that a shared hardship makes better friends.

There was something else that made for stronger friendship amongst the VSOs. Just before Christmas, we'd had our annual conference. Last year I was unable to go to the conference because I had just returned from New Zealand so it did not seem to be fair to take more time off. This year I was able to go and was much happier because my dad is off the danger list. I didn't include this in a diary entry at the time but it seems that no one has gone back on the revised diagnosis.

The Christmas conference provides an opportunity for VSOs to meet one another, exchange ideas, and to compare notes. It also allows VSO to prepare for the next year and to decide how to best meet the needs of the volunteers. So, it does have a serious, work-related purpose. The fact that it had a swimming pool had nothing to do with everyone's willingness to attend. The venue was ideal. We set off on the 120Km drive to Sodere in two buses arranged by VSO. When we arrived we found a smart (by Ethiopian standards) hotel complex and grounds. As usual, smart by Ethiopian terms just means that things are looking a little old. I would not have been upset by the facilities had I been in England. Of course, England doesn't have monkeys playing on your balcony or an olympic sized swimming pool filled with warm water from a nearby hot spring. It started off as a good conference and it did not fail to deliver in conclusion.

During the day-time, all VSOs were busy attending workshops, presentations or helping to organize the conference. The evenings were spent with more frivolous activities. On one night there was a pub quiz and on another night there was the 'talent' show. We were also joined by an old friend. Keith, the Donkey Doctor, had been told that the VSOs were in Sodere. With the usual Keith application of charm he had got himself to Sodere and once there we just pretended that he was one of us. Keith just seems to be able to move effortlessly wherever he is and with whomever as well. He also never seems to really 'leave'.

I really wasn't looking forward to the talent show before going. I have an innate distrust of having to sing. For Tigray, we had brought some sheets and arranged to perform synchronized swimming on the stage. We were going for the surreal aspect of it all. At one point it looked like we were going to abandon the idea. The other regions had been practicing for weeks before and we had only done a couple of dry runs (literally). However, the idea of a strip-tease had been raised and Wilko and I kind of volunteered. We practiced in the afternoon and had a lot of fun. In fact, it was the most fun I have had in ages. We were never going to remember everything that we wanted to do but we knew that it would be alright on the night. We had borrowed bikini tops from two of the girls and lacy underwear (don't worry that wasn't worn but was due to be thrown into the crowd). Both of us knew how to get a bikini top off someone else but putting one on yourself was a different story. Sharing skills, changing lives.

Come the night of the audition, our colleagues didn't actually know how the strip-tease would work. The whole thing was a shot in the dark. Wilko and I came on with the first routine for the synchronized swimming and then dashed off to get bikini tops, t-shirts and towels on. Lacy underwear was tucked into the back of the towels and then we were on, milking the crowd for all we were worth. We were going for the lowest common denomintor and the birtukan (oranges) in bikinis were proving a great success. We managed to remember most of the routine and finish without showing too much.

In the end, Tigray won. Arguably we had a slight advantage with Keith and Jon's fiancee (Mulu) on the judging panel. Keith had us as his second choice and the Awassa based judge had us as number one. We're not sure how the performance was accepted by everyone. We know it was a bit of an odd one. The new country director didn't look particularly impressed, nor did the programme staff. I think the country director didn't really know what VSOs, or VSOs here at least, are really like.

Regardless of whether we had won the talent show or not, the evening was fantastic. Heidi (Daniel from the Omo trip) was attentive with his jugs of punch and all seemed to have a good time. It is moments like this which I will miss when I leave. You know that somewhere there is a group of people just relaxing having fun, sharing something special. It's nice to be on the inside. It's not the same as a party in the UK. We are all outsiders, from many different countries and many different skills. Yet, we are all drawn together and can work, play and sing together (Heidi helped me get over the singing deficiency). Looking around so many faces had open, relaxed, unhidden smiles. So different from the way myself and my friends often look. VSO can be special in many ways.

We were, of course, jubilant about our victory and tried not to rub the other area's noses in it too much. However, the talent show wasn't the only great thing about Sodere. Early one morning I left the hotel area in search of animals to photgraph. In the morning sun, close to the steep bank leading down to the slow moving river, I met a troop of monkeys. They were not worried about my presence so I squatted down and took the lens cap off the camera. One monkey seemed to want some space from his peers. He moved close to me and sat looking out over the river with his back to me about 1m away. He seemed to know that he was safe. In the nearby trees young monkeys were chasing and playing with one another. Although none of them were coming up to play with me, it was clear that they weren't worried about me, and nor were they trying to steal anything or take anything from me.

When it came time to leave Sodere I think we could all have been happy with another day or two there. However, it was probably the ideal time to leave to kepp all the memories good. The bus took us back to Addis passing huge piles of water-melon by the sides of the road. After a bit of a dispute with the driver with finally got him to take us to the hotel where he snagged the hotel's telephone lines.

Although nothing to worry about for us yet, there seems to have been a renewal in activity near the border of Eritrea and around our immediate area. There are several military bases of different kinds around us. Jets have been screaming and practicing overhead; tanks have been on manouveres in front of our buildings; and other vehicles have been mobilized. The prime-minister of Ethiopia has entered into a new peace initiative which seems to be a brave move for him. However, it does not seem to be well accepted on either side of the border. Subversives are spreading leaflets in the bordering towns according to a recent security release from a similar organization to VSO. Having lived close to military bases for much of my life, all the troop movement and practicing seems normal to me. I have no idea about the political stuff. Of course, even if I had lived here for another five years I probably couldn't form an opinion on the political issues. We have to be careful at MIT because universities should not demonstrate any political leanings. I wonder if I can even get into trouble for writing about it?

Back to a slightly different topic: Chickens. How do you kill yours? I thought that I was going to be on 'chicken killing' duty for Christmas. As it turns out I was not required for this task. I am interested in doing it, not because I want to kill chickens, but I do think that if you eat meat, then you should be willing to have the blood on your hands. I was going to try wringing the neck. Ethiopians prefer cutting with throat with a knife. I would be worried about cutting through the nerve quickly so the chicken cannot feel the pain. Maybe it feels it from the cut upwards though? I put the question to my parents and the reply I got (not performed by either of them) was to hold the chicken by the feet upside down and lump it one with a piece of wood. Sleep well.