In a break from our regular programming, may I direct you over to the SEAWL home-page where you’ll find my recent contribution discussing the pathological need Expat Aid Workers have to one-up each other on exotic travel tales…
I’ve recently returned from a week of work travel in north-western Ethiopia. Amhara Region has many claims, and among them, the claim to be the true ‘heartland’ of Ethiopia. Couched in the ancient highlands that were the natural fortress of old Abyssinia, it is a diverse and devastatingly beautiful landscape, full of history gone, and history still unfolding.
The region gives its name to both the dominant people group of Ethiopia, and the nation’s lingua franca- and hence the political as well as historical claim to be Ethiopia’s heartland. Both perspectives are easily challenged. Ethiopia is highly ethnically diverse, with over 80 ethnic groups, and its government carefully balances power among that recognized ethnic diversity: New Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn (who is a Wolayta, from the SNNPR) has appointed three deputy Prime Ministers, one each from Tigray, Oromia and Amhara (and have similarly ensured balanced religious representation, with one deputy being Muslim and two Orthodox, to compliment Hailemariam’s Protestant faith). Likewise, while Amharic is the state’s official language, and English has some currency as a foreign language understood by those who have completed secondary education, there are some 90 languages across Ethiopia, and native Amharic speakers make up just over a quarter of Ethiopia’s population. Geek fact: Amharic is the second most widely-spoken Semitic language in the world, after Arabic.
Amhara Region has somewhere in the vicinity of 18 million people, over 90% of them from the Amharic ethnic group (also a contested nomenclature) and most of them also Orthodox Christian. Its administrative capital is the town of Bahir Dar, which non-travellers to Ethiopia are unlikely to have heard of, but it is a pleasant and fast-growing town of nearly 200,000, with palm-lined avenues and magenta bougainvillea spilling over compound walls. It sits near the region’s centre on an inlet of Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest body of water and the source of the mighty Abbai- the Blue Nile (although the Piccolo Abbai- the Little Blue Nile) rises elsewhere in the south of the region to feed the lake, so in truth the lake is less the source, more a conduit).
Bahir Dar sits at an elevation of over 1,800m, which gives it a warm and gentle climate, just about perfect for walking around at night in a t-shirt at this equatorial latitude. Amusingly, when I asked colleagues about its elevation, I was told it was ‘very low’. I guess from Addis, at 2,500m, plenty of things seem low. In fact, Ethiopia has three main climatic zones, differentiated by altitude. The Kola, or lowlands, run up to 1,500m. The Woyinda Dega, or middle highlands, from 1,500-2,500m. And the Dega, or highlands, from 2,500m upwards. Most of Amhara Region is Woyinda Dega, but it also contains Ethiopia’s highest point, Ras Dashen, which perches at a lofty 4,550m.
Amhara Region’s better known locales, as well as Lake Tana and Ras Dashen, include the historic mountain city of Gondar, once seat to Abyssinian Emperors, the dramatic Simien Mountains, and Lalibela, famed for its rock churches. I’ve been told by people who’ve been there that the Simiens and Lalibela are two of the must-see places in the country, and I hope to get the chance to visit them someday. I did get a chance, on a late afternoon visit before my departing flight, to stop by the dramatic Blue Nile Falls. Due to a festival in Bahir Dar, an hour away, the hydro-electric power station that usually takes the river’s flow was switched off, and water diverted over the falls instead, and so the waterfall was in full thunderous flow, spray hanging in a great cloud in the evening sunlight.
The city of Gondar sits spread over several hilltops and the intervening valleys, at an altitude of a little over 2,100m. Like Bahir Dar- and many other corners of Ethiopia- it is a growing city and, deceptively, one of Ethiopia’s biggest, at a quarter of a million inhabitants. Its winding roads, forging pathways between buildings jostling for space on the hillsides, struck me at times as reminiscent of an Alpine town. The landscape has a Mediterranean dryness to it and sits beneath a haze that turns golden as the late-season sun sets behind the hills. At its heart grows the UNESCO-heritage King Fasilides’ castle, chief among a network of palaces first started in the 1600s whose remnants can be visited today- some, like Fasilides’ Castle itself, in excellent condition, others little more than ruins.
Gondar’s setting is beautiful, the surrounds of its approach moreso. Driving north from Bahir Dar, the road picks its way among rolling farmland and rocky hillocks, before climbing into the mountains proper. Before the mountain pass that leads into Gondar country, a great rock spire thrusts with phallic determination into the blue sky. Among the hills, the horizon is riven by outcrops and domes, while terraced fields and straw-roofed huts dot the valley floors. The terrain is dry, but not arid. Wildflowers bloom and grass is ripe for haying.
South of Bahir Dar, the landscape changes again. Instead of the dry hills of Gondar, the highlands are green and damp. Around the grubby crossroads of Injibara, hilltops are crowned with trees, as much as 10% of the land area in this heavily-populated and -farmed district still forested. The skyline is no less dramatic, however, with great protrusions of rock jutting into brooding clouds, while in the foreground, a patchwork of smallholdings is testament to the bustling agricultural sector. Fields are full of horses, and we pass riders in ceremonial garb, their mounts bedecked in white cloaks with red cloth baubles dangling at every trot. When one afternoon it rains, a rainbow paints itself over a spreading valley of fields. Driving back to town, the green of crops not-yet-ripened is somehow far more intense beneath the stormy clouds.
Following the road west, we pass through Chagni, a dusty outpost town with nothing to recommend itself, even to my colleagues, who commented distastefully that the place hadn’t changed in twenty years. Perhaps not quite true- construction on a large mosque in the centre of town was nearing completion, the two minarets like rockets standing against a blue sky, the dome covered in makeshift scaffolding that looked fragile enough to come down with a sturdy kick.
Past Chagni, the road winds among more hills, crosses the barrier that marks the division between Amhara Region and Benishangul-Gumuz, and plunges. Not a hundred yards past the checkpoint, it skirts the face of a great escarpment that drops into the rolling lowlands spreading out for a couple of hundred kilometres to the Sudanese border. The landscape undulates, instantly dry. Orange dust like the slappings of a chalkboard eraser coats trees at the side of the road, lending them an ochre pall.
Villages bounce by, no longer the rectangular tin-roofed homes of the Amhara, but round-walled tukuls like those found in Kenya and South Sudan. In fact even the people are reminiscent of South Sudan. The Gumuz are not as tall as the Nuer or the Dinka, but their skin is dark like coal compared to the relatively fair Amhara. The women walk barefooted in groups, sticks balanced across their shoulders from which they hang plastic jerry cans of water, or other supplies, up to 50kg of weight. Broad-horned cattle roam the countryside. Mixed brush, trees and thorn bushes, grows thick here, and in the golden haze-hung light of a setting sun, this is textbook National Geographic Africa.
There’s more to Bahir Dar- and Ethiopia generally- than its landscape. Some of this I’ll explore in later posts, for sure. But I was struck on this trip by the utter beauty of the scenery. The hills and mountains, the light and the variety of the place made it one of the more eye-catching and memorable journeys I’ve taken through the byways of this continent- and I’ve taken a few by now. Ethiopia- and Amhara specifically- does have a reputation as a tourist destination among some circles- especially the Simiens (for trekking) and Gondar and Lalibela, for the anthropoligically-minded. However it was the remote and rugged terrain in the south and west of the region that really drew me in, and I hope to go back for a longer trip soon, one in which I’m actually there to take time over the photography, and not just rush from one field visit to the next.
My wife and I just celebrated our two-year wedding anniversary.
By celebrated, I mean, we shared a 25-minute Skype chat via grainy video, which had to be curtailed fairly promptly after staff started queuing outside my office door. It was a fairly frustrating experience for me, even moreso for my wife, if the expression in her voice was anything to go by as we hung up- and I don’t blame her.
This was certainly not how either of us envisaged sharing our second wedding anniversary, even a couple of months back. Being a full hemisphere apart, however, separated by oceans and continents and eight or nine time-zones, this is what it looks like. We haven’t seen each other for five weeks, won’t see each other for another four, and even worse, my step-daughter and I will be apart for several months.
It’s more than just the fact that we don’t get to communicate face-to-face. Which is, let me tell you, horrendous enough. The time difference is brutal. Finding windows in my work day that fit windows in her routine of managing our home and looking after our child tends to rob very much spontaneity. Because I’m out here sans famille, I’m fair game for the office here, which means the work piles up without my usual incentive for boundaries, and during the [oh so short] workday itself, I’m usually dashing from task to task- but the last thing I want to do is make my wife feel like I’m penciling her in to my schedule. Unfortunately, this is what it can feel like sometimes.
As well, rather than sharing a life, we now find ourselves separated by worlds and lifestyles. My wife carries the responsibility of both of us, doing the work of two people and keeping our life together at home. Meanwhile, I’m filling my days with almost nothing but work, in a continent she’s never visited, and periodically disappearing off to one of our project sites. I know that in the past, especially while on humanitarian missions, she’s struggled to reconcile the need to raise issues that she’s dealing with at home which she feels are mundane, while I have my hands full with so many more ‘important’ things in the field (not a true reflection, but I grasp her struggle).
My wife and I are no stranger to this dynamic. When we first got together, I worked for an NGO’s emergency response team and was deployable almost immediately, anywhere in the world, traveling about six months a year. Three weeks into our relationship, I was deployed at 48 hours’ notice to a typhoon response. I was gone three weeks, back three more, then deployed somewhere else for yet another three. Shortly afterwards, I stepped away from that particular role, recognizing that such travel was not conducive to the survival of a new relationship. That didn’t stop me being deployed for five weeks during our short engagement, to Niger- quite literally as far away from my then-fiancee as I possibly could have gone. I challenge you to try and plan a wedding on two different continents.
Somehow, she still married me.
I’ve been travelling less since the wedding. Generally my trips have been three weeks or less, a total of about three months a year. Absence is still a key dynamic in our relationship, though- and in that of my relationship with our daughter. In fact, it’s a feature of many expat aid workers- and other professions that travel frequently.
It’s not a new thing for me, either. While I hadn’t been in many relationships prior to getting married (in itself part due to the fact that I traveled so much; we’ll ignore the fact that I’m a little clueless in the relationship department), pretty much all the relationships I did have were impacted, one way or another, by travel and distance. When I was a child, my own father- former EAW turned UN HQ staffer- would travel regularly. I literally cannot remember a time in my life that hasn’t involved regularly being away from loved ones.
So that’s my credentials of dysfunctionality out of the way.
I think this post has been brewing for some time. Pretty much any EAW will come up against the Long Distance Relationship (LDR, not to be confused by my supply chain colleagues with a Loss/Damage Report, although there are times you could be forgiven for confusing the two…) at one point or another in their lives, especially if they make a career of aid, and don’t do the wise thing of spending a few years in the field and then getting a *normal* job at home. The aid industry is full of people who’ve not been able to make relationships work with their transient or high-travel lifestyle.
A few months ago, @devxroads shot me a message asking for my perspective on what it was like trying to be an aid worker and a family man- unfortunately I was rushed off my feet at the time and wasn’t blogging, and I feel bad I didn’t contribute to the conversation. More recently, my dear friend, fellow TCK and very talented writer Lisa Mckay (author of two excellent books, the novel My Hands Came Away Red, and her memoir Love at the Speed of Email, about her own experiences of love, travel and EAWs) put out a question about managing long distance relationships, as part of an upcoming project of her own (that we are all very excited about), which also got me thinking.
So in brief, here are a few key pointers from MoreAltitude’s playbook on how to mitigate the risks posed by frequent travel when you’re in a serious relationship.
Let me stress that for a moment:
Communication. Communication. Communication.
As often as possible, through as many different means as possible, as much as you possibly can. Any relationship lives and dies on the quality of the communication between partners, but distance not only reduces the available windows to communicate, it also compromises the ability to communicate well, because several communication channels (proximity, physical touch, body language, even expression and tone) are compromised. Therefore you have to overcompensate.
On a good day, my wife and I will communicate via Skype (written chat), email, SMS, and still try and have at least one video or voice call on Skype somewhere in there as well. It may not happen like that every day- especially if I’m in the field- but the more we manage regular, several-times-a-day communication, the more we feel better connected, and the more we share in each other’s daily lives. Even just simple little messages about what’s going on for you right now are important and mean something to the other person.
2. Spontaneity. If possible, try not to get locked into too much of a routine with communication. Sure, some of it is inevitable- especially where you have to make two busy lives overlap with massive time-zone differences. But just like a real relationship, when communication and interaction becomes routine, the relationship will suffer. Try and change the times, places and circumstances of chats and calls as much as you can, and where you can be spontaneous, do-so. Whatever happens, don’t let your significant other feel like they’ve become an entry in your daily task list.
3. Limit time apart. This is a total no-brainer too. This varies from couple to couple. For us, three weeks is our acceptable limit- and a lot of couples I know work by the three-week rule as well. I know my parents used it too, after one particularly gruelling 6-week trip by my Dad. It tends to strike a balance between what families can handle, and what people actually need to do their work overseas. Circumstances beyond our control have meant that A. and I are apart for longer this time, but we’ve generally been pretty good (one exception) at sticking to the three week thing. It’s for both our sakes- we generally find our coping ability matches pretty well. Ten days we can take in our stride. Things get painful around the 2 week mark, and by 2 ½ weeks we’re both pretty much done. We’ll push 3 if we have to, but we don’t like it.
This particular long-haul is just terrible.
4. Agree your boundaries ahead of time. Talk through how you’ll communicate before you separate, don’t expect to figure it out on the fly. Make sure you understand what your partner needs from you in terms of communication- and make sure you communicate your needs. Are you the sort of person that really needs to read a nice juicy email from your loved one every day? Does your partner need to hear from you at least once a day, even if you’re okay connecting every two or three days? Does your relationship really benefit from visual time on something like a Skype video call, or can you deal with a few days of seperation without it being a big deal? Sure, you’ll probably need to adjust your communication as you go along a bit, but make sure you’ve taken the time to communicate what you need, and learnt what your loved one needs from you in return- don’t let yourself make assumptions here. When I was growing up, my folks actually found it easier not to be regularly communicating. Dad would head out for ten days or two weeks, and rather than deal with the upsurge of emotion of trying to talk over a scratchy telephone line several times a week, my parents would go cold turkey until he got back. It worked for them. (Though since the advent of Skype, things have changed, and now they get regular link-ups whenever Dad travels).
5. Don’t leave stuff unsaid before you go away. And try not to bring up big issues the night before you go away. If there are any major issues in the relationship, distance is a sure way to make sure they bubble to the surface. Talk early and talk deep, and get things into as healthy a place as you can so you can both leave each other in a peaceful place, knowing that the relationship is as strong as you can make it. Make sure you keep talking about intimate, serious stuff while you’re apart- you mustn’t stick to trivialities or the relationship will become shallow- but any of the big contentious issues, try not to have to deal with them while you’re away, as distance facilitates miscommunication, hurt and damage.
Pro-tip: If you happened to have been involved in an extremely serious security incident on a previous field posting, the time to tell this to your new girlfriend is not the night before you deploy to another emergency response.
6. Don’t even think about a long distance relationship unless you already have rock-solid communication skills with your partner when you’re together, and can talk honestly and transparently about things.
7. Consider the practical implications for the person left behind. This is important, because for the person travelling, although there are hardships, it can often be easier to deal with the seperation due to busyness, and being stimulated by new surroundings. The person left behind is in the same old place, but with a big hole left by the traveller. If you’re living together, what extra work is the partner left behind going to have to cope with (especially if you have kids), and is there anything you can do to help with that or limit the load? What about finances? Does the person remaining behind have access to bank accounts, know which bills need paying, and everything else required to keep life ticking over while you’re gone?
8. Try and make the last day/night together special. Do something romantic, get away, go out together- something nice that will create a memory you can both hang on to while you’re apart, and give you something to look forward to when you come back. Involve kids in this process too if applicable- but always make sure the couple gets time alone together somewhere in there.
9. Ditto for the return. In that first few days to a week, make sure you spend some good quality time together as a couple doing something you both love. Again, with kids, involve them, but also make sure they get packed off to the grandparents (or something) for an afternoon or a night, and have some one-on-one reconnect time. It’s something to look forward to, and also something to help get the relationship back into ‘normal’ space.
10. Manage your goodbyes. Every couple is different, but try not to make goodbyes a traumatic emotional thing- it doesn’t actually help anybody, and can create a certain dread around the departure well ahead of time, as well as leave both parties carrying grief after they go. If you’re the sort of people who can hang out at the airport, have a meal together, say a gentle goodbye, and leave it at that, then great. Otherwise, if goodbyes invariably lead to floods of tears and great heartbreak, think about keeping it short and sweet- catch a cab and say a quick goodbye at the front door, or get dropped off on the curb of the departure terminal.
11. Manage your expectations. LDRs are tough. Difficult things will come up. At times, you will miscommunicate, irritate each other, even hurt each other, and it will be an effort to fix that over distance. Expect to struggle and to have negative feelings emerge. Expect your partner to struggle, and expect to be surprised by the things they struggle with, because they’re not you so their experience is going to be different. Expect these things to come up when it’s awkward to deal with them, for example when you’re rushed off your feet and the last thing you need to deal with right now is an emotional issue with your partner. And be prepared to drop everything and deal with it, because quite frankly, if this is your spouse or life partner we’re talking about, nothing you’re doing right now is as important as that relationship.
Don’t expect things just to drop back into the way they were when you left. It takes time to readjust and settle back in. While you were gone, your partner was busy living the life you left behind, and things have changed. They’ve had experiences, and so have you. Depending on how long you’ve been away, anything from a few days to a couple of weeks is normal, and during that time, communication together may be strained, time together may have some residual awkwardness (even if there’s a lot of relief and happiness at being back together again). Depending on the personalities involved, intimacy may need to be rebuilt. If you travel a lot, your ‘normal’ may be that constant change, limbo, and the regular hellos and goodbyes that, depending on your personalities, may work fine, or may mean that the relationship never really develops the foundations of intimacy it needs.
Utlimately, unless you’re the sort of couple who need time away from each other (and those exist too), LDRs are not fun, so expect them to suck.
12. For the person staying behind- mix up the routine a little. Nothing is as lonely as going through the same routine as before but without your significant other. If you can, fill some of that space with other social engagements. If you’ve got kids, think about changing the routine a little for all your sake- maybe have dinner in front of the television a little more often, or have them stay up a little later from time to time, eat out, or go away for a weekend. You don’t want changes to the routine to be disruptive to them, you want them to feel like life goes on, but you also want to compensate/distract from the absence of a parent, and also let them know, hey, things are a little different right now, it’s not normal, so don’t get used to it, and here’s a few things to make it a little better.
13. Think creatively. On this particular trip, we’ve asked a friend to come and live with the girls while they’re at home alone. It helps my wife feel safer in the house, gives her some adult company, and distracts the little one too. It’s been a great move and really reduced some of the pressures. If there’s someone (a good friend or a family member) who can be an additional part of life while you’re away, look into it. They may fill some of the gaps and ease the pain a little- or at least distract from it.
14. Kids make things a lot harder. You’re not just maintaining one long distance relationship, but two or more- each one its own distinct relationship that has to be supported. As adults we can cope with a lot- and we also have an element of choice and therefore control in things, which kids lack. Kids are resilient too, in fact they have remarkable bounce. They are also incredibly forgiving, even when you do put them through a hard time- but you must never take that for granted or exploit it. With a child, the dynamic changes, and spend very much time away- or regular time away- and that relationship will suffer quickly. The child may also be very unsettled which can put a lot of pressure on the parent left behind. We’ve really struggled with this dynamic in our family when I travel. Make sure in your communications arrangements you build in time to call when the child is present and awake, and it fits within the daily schedule. Granted, it makes things a lot more complicated- but there’s a lot more at stake, too.
15. For both parties, try and find the silver linings. What are the things that you can do by yourself that you enjoy, that maybe you don’t get as much time to do when you’re around your partner? It might be indulging in reading a book. It might be going out with your friends you don’t see much (equally true if you’re left at home, or if you’re the one travelling). It might be writing, or praying, or quiet time just pottering. Maybe watching dumb rom-coms or stupid action movies that your other doesn’t appreciate. But for each of you, try to make space in your apartness for those things, and give a bit of a positive angle to your separation, minimize the cost. It’s never a substitute for the other, but try and find the good spin.
16. Find as many things as you can to celebrate in your relationship as you can. Talk about your relationship, talk about your strengths together, congratulate each other as you pass milestones apart, and identify those areas that are going strong despite the distance.
17. Compliment each other. As often as you can. Say and write affirming, loving things about each other. Just because you’re apart, that doesn’t mean communicating those things to one another should stop. Make sure the other person knows you love them, and be specific about why. It’s so easy to forget that you’re loved when you’re a long way away, and a loving word from a distance from the person you care most about can make a huge difference to your day and keep that relationship sparking. If anything, this is even more important to focus on, because the normal little ways we might find when we’re sharing life together to tell each other “I love you”- in words or in actions- are missing, so you need to be very deliberate- and genuine- about doing this.
18. If you’re a regular traveler, try and stagger trips with as much time between them as possible. It’s very disruptive to be away for three weeks, back for two and away for another three. That time stable and together is essential for rebuilding intimacy, and if you leave again before you’ve reformed it, you’ll struggle to stay connected.
19. Did I mention “Communicate”?
20. Countdowns generally make the time go slower. Avoid them if humanly possible.
21. Long Distance Relationships suck. Avoid them if humanly possible.
A. and I are lucky. We married as a slightly older couple, with life experience behind us so we know our own characters, our needs, and how to relate maturely. We work hard at our communication, and even if things get difficult, we support each other and we make it through. Neither one of us enjoys being away from the other, and this is going to be a time apart we hope never to repeat. But for now, we just need to push through it, and we’ll make it work, because we’re determined to. We are deliberate about meeting each others’ needs over distance, and while we’ve got areas we need to grow in, we’re gentle with each other, love each other, and ultimately, can’t wait to see each other again.
Let me know your thoughts. What have I missed? Any other advice for couples who spend time apart on a regular basis? And should I try and talk @MadamInsideOut to guest-blog on her perspective on exactly what it’s like to be married to a travelling EAW? I’d love to know what you think or hear your experiences. Share them in the comments below. Thanks!
Around Easter, A. and I took a long weekend in Wilson’s Prom. The Prom, as it’s known here, is one of Victoria’s little secrets. Well known in Melbourne as a getaway and a gorgeous spot for camping, quiet beaches and rugged hikes, it’s little heard-of outside of Australia- and I’m okay with that.
We were blessed with beautiful weather- neither too hot nor too cold, and (a rarity in Victoria) no rain to speak of. Patches of cloud made photography a little more interesting, and we spent several days exploring beaches, cliffs and walking trails up and down the coastline. We also got to know the local wildlife a little better- here, A. made friends with a Crimson Rosella, but the campground at Tidal River is also known for its population of semi-tame wombats, and there are roos and wallabies up and down the length of the trail. Not to mention Tiger Snakes. Oddly enough I didn’t pause to take a photo of the one I nearly stepped on, as I was busy scooting back down the track in a hurry, looking for a large stick.
Wilson’s Prom has been struck with a series of natural disasters over the last few years, including devastating bushfires that damaged much of the park and made many tracks unsafe to walk on. Flashfloods more recently have equally left much of the park’s infrastructure in disarray, and when we were there, many walks were still closed to the public and under repair. It was somewhat disappointing, and we were unable to walk some of the trails we’d been hoping to, but we still found some gorgeous scenery and some great hikes, so we can’t complain. Really, it just gives us something else to go back for. Not that we need the excuse.
I have to confess, we were a little cheeky. Some opportunities were too good to miss, and we ended up scrambling up a couple of closed tracks to find ourselves on secluded beaches and little coves that we had entirely to ourselves. The Prom isn’t exactly crawling with people outside of peak season, but it’s still a popular destination. However, being the only people in some of these spectacular spots was really quite special, and we relished it.
The coastline at the Prom is rugged- rocky and wild, with coves and beaches interspersed by tall cliffheads and rocky outcrops. It’s a dramatic landscape, and one of the most beautiful along Victoria’s southern ocean shore. The Prom juts out into the Bass Straits, a long and jagged peninsula that is one of the most exposed parts of the state. Once upon a time, a land-bridge joined Tasmania to the rest of Australia, and the Prom is its last vestige. When you look at some of the rocks around the Prom and compare them to, say, the rocks of northern Tasmania, you can see the similarities.
Our favourite walk was the one that led from Darby Saddle to Tongue Point. It’s listed as a moderate hike, which is a fair assessment- lots of ups and downs. Starting well inland at the high point of Darby Saddle (always ominous, because it means you need to end the walk with a climb back to the car), it took us a good chunk of the day to complete- five or six hours, when we factored in the exploring. The views along the way were magnificent, however, and it was well worth the effort.
Towards the end of the walk, the path splits and there’s a little scramble down to Fairy Cove. We were pretty much the only people on the track that day, so we had the spot to ourselves, and it was magnificent- a glorious and footprint-free beach where we could scramble onto the rocks and watch the breakers dash themselves against the headlands, and even a little tidal pool we were able to take a little swim in- still freezing cold, but not as hostile as the ocean itself.
One of the loveliest things about the Prom is the constant drama. With the winds coming off the straits, the clouds are ever moving and shifting the light on the scenery. The sea is restless, and you can sit for hours just watching the waves pound the base of cliffs or swash up around fallen rocks in great foamy charges.
Three things I’m keen to capture on my next trip to the Prom. First off, the night skies are magical out there, so taking a tripod to do some starlight photography is a must. Second, a spot of time-lapse to catch the movement of waves and clouds would be magical. And third, I am busting to get myself a nice telephoto lens and do some nice wave photography. The above shot is about the best of the bunch I was able to get, but I’m only shooting on an 85mm, which doesn’t really have the reach necessary to get those lovely creamy breakers at their best.
Seriously, it’s a spectacular spot, and I can’t recommend Wilson’s Prom enough. If you’re coming through Victoria as a tourist, or if you’re just a local Melbournian with a weekend to spare, make sure you get down there.
It’s 6pm. I sit on the deck on the 6th floor of the hotel while my camera perches on its tripod, taking time-lapse shots of the traffic on Road 22. The sun’s gone down, just a burnt smudge on the sky where its fleeing rays catch in the city smog. Sunday evening traffic rumbles, steady but not chaotic. The air is cool, refreshing. I’ve an Amber Beer on the table beside me, the latest release from the local St George brewery, just a few months old, and with its sweeter notes of burnt caramel and hops, one of the continents better brews. As I look out over the city skyline, it’s a muddled jumble of mid-rise towers, basilica domes and construction scaffolding, all backed by the lurking hills that ring the city basin.
The two weeks I’ve been here since starting my contract feel like two months. At least. I’ve stepped- finally- into a senior role in an HRI-affiliate (Coming to a Community Near You™). The mental overload of learning the ropes of a new job have been overlaid with learning a new city, a new country, and the nuances of a new culture.
To say nothing of memorizing Ethiopian names.
It’s November. The rainy season has been, and the skies are blue. All day, every day. A few clouds lurk in the evenings behind the hilltops, but that’s about it. One morning a smog so thick it recalls a winter fog in the home counties chokes the city. Rush hour traffic tumbles from the murk, darkened silhouettes dashing from the throat-burning, eye-tearing fug, until a brisk midday breeze sweeps the air clean. The wind is cool and fresh and fidgets with plastic bags and the airborne detritus of the city.
Poor is layered on rich here. There aren’t clearly deliniated quartiers split between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Here, a hotel backs onto unpaved tracks and run-down alotments. There, street children gather outside an expat-frequented supermarket stocked with Malaysian imports with Arabic scrawls and stamped حلال. I join new friends and eat at a fancy French restaurant that sets us back forty bucks a head- a pricey night out here where you can buy lunch for a dollar and a dead-jarring coffee for fifty cents. Through the cracked windshield of my taxi heading back, I see the homeless lying in rows beneath the overpass fifty paces from my hotel.
I spend a morning getting my medical checks done, a part of the work permit application process. It’s a slow, bureaucratic tedium that involves drifting from one department’s waiting line to the next. When I get my ECG done, I’m one part amused, one part appauled by the contraption, all crocodile clips and vacuum-bulbs wired up to a device like the electro-shock therapy machine in Return to Oz. As the doctor smears a conductive jelly over my bare torso, I’m just impressed they have an ECG machine. Three days later I still have the bruises from the suction cups beneath my nipples.
A Kenyan, a Ugandan, a German, an American and I sound like the start to a bad joke, but we head out to dinner at Face of Addis, a restaurant perched halfway up one of the hills overlooking the city. The little blue taxi of Eastern European design fails to scramble up the angle of the crushed rock street and we get out to alleviate its weight, wherein its tinny motor wails and eventually convinces it up the ascent. A glass frontage gives a magnificent view over the blooming metropolis. We watch plane after plane land at Bole International, one of Africa’s busiest airports and a hub for European access. Ethiopian Airlines is the newest member of Star Alliance, and we watch five jets come in to land in no more than ten minutes, their starlike landing lights queued out to the horizon one behind the other.
Our conversation is banter, periodically dark. We’re mostly emergency response folk. With us is the manager for one of our refugee camp responses, and three of the staff are based in Nairobi, where tensions run high ahead of the upcoming elections. Our Kenyan colleague, half Kikuyu (infamous for their business acumen), bears the brunt of our humour. We promise to hold her a spot in our Ethiopian refugee camp when she has to flee her country next March.
“How can you tell if a Kikuyu is dead?” Jokes the Ugandan. “You take a ten cent coin…” He mimes dropping it in front of the presumedly-deceased.
Growth is constant here. As with elsewhere in Africa, the Chinese are huge investors. They can be seen throughout the city. Another night we eat at a cultural restaurant, popular here as they showcase local food, music and dancing. Over a meal of tibs and gitfo (cooked), we watch a Chinese businessman lose his inhibitions over beer and tej, the local honey wine. When one of the lithe dancers invites him to dance, he gives a performance worthy of a YouTube phenomenon, one part jitterbug and one part funky-chicken. He lurches onto the stage and after embracing a drummer who goodnaturedly surrenders his instrument, animates the drum with much flailing of the arms. The dancers subsequently adopt his movement into their routine, to much appreciation from the crowd, but our table is torn between laughing at the smooth adaptation of the performers, and the cubit-lengthed rat that has emerged from the straw roof and is now picking its way along the top of a wall at the back of the stage.
The people are understated, gracious, and quietly proud. Ethiopians speak of how they have never been colonized, quietly brushing over the brief period of occupation by Mussolini’s forces that has left pasta an almost national dish and named the Mercato, the city’s market district and a national monument. I walk a tightrope, trying to build relationship and trust, while following my own instructions of pushing through change faster than any of us are comfortable with. After some meetings I come away with my head spinning from the concentration of trying to maintain a dynamic of respect, while at the same moment having to implement an unpopular decision.
I’m shown round an apartment. It’s spacious, clean, and has a beautiful view of the city. It costs a fraction of what a similar place would cost in Australia. Afterwards I sit down with two colleagues and share a cup of tea. One explains to me how he ‘adopted’ two boys, one off the streets of Addis who used to sell him cigarettes, the other from an impoverished regional town. Both are adults now, one a teacher, the other a scientist. In his own humble way, his pride both at the boys, and the difference he has made in his own country, shines in his eyes. Apparently such an undertaking- to financially sponsor and support the less fortunate in their community- is fairly commonplace among middle-class Ethiopians.
I hurtle along in one of the little blue taxis. They’re ancient, decrepit vehicles, clearly from the Communist era. Sitting in the front seat, safety belt unavailable as we hare down an empty avenue late in the evening, I’m twitchingly sensitive to a sense of my own mortality. The time of the Derg is evident here in the charmless concrete tower-block apartments and the deep respect for government authority. Posters of the late Meles Zenawi, President and then Prime Minister since the overthrow of the communist government and the war with Eritrea, are everywhere. He passed away of natural causes a few months ago, and is revered as a saint and national treasure.
An LED screen is mounted outside Edna Mall. At night time it is garish, blasting colour and movement over the gridlocked roundabout as people hustle beneath its glow, neon-tinted music videos lending a Blade-Runner-esque atmosphere to the crowd. Glass-fronted restaurants and fashion boutiques overlook the avenue. On a Sunday afternoon, Amhara youth in spray-on jeans and designer tops lounge together in cafes and browse their iPhones. I step onto the street with a friend and across the avenue, golden sunlight from the settling dusk paints the domes of the Orthodox cathedral while prayers sing from the loudspeakers. As we pull away, an old man hobbles across the street on makeshift crutches, head weighed down by a vast, grubby turban, a gold cross dangling at his neck.
The food here is good, the coffee better. I read an accurately descriptive quote in a travel article the other day: “The prefered caffeine delivery mechanism here is the macchiato.” It comes at morning-tea time without fail in a shot-sized glass, rich black coffee with milky froth on top. I watch my Ethiopian colleagues spoon two, three, even four shovels of sugar into their brew and suck it down, and feel saintly for my half-spoon concession. I buzz for the rest of the morning and half the afternoon. At lunch I join them in the canteen and pay sixty-five cents for shiro wat and injera– a tasty red sauce poured onto a bed of the spongy teff-based bread that is a national institution. The fingernails of my right hand are already stained yellow with the remnants of spice.
It’s dark now, and the traffic is steady but thinning. Come tomorrow morning, it will be a choked grind up and down the clogged arteries of Ethiopia’s throbbing heart. My commute- a brief walk from the hotel to the office- reaches its climax trying to cross the four-to-six lanes of moving metal, waiting for the right moment when I can step out and not be pulverised. A dead bitch lies swelling in the sun in the lane across from the hotel. In my brief time here I’ve already seen one man hit by a car, but fortunately not seriously.
My waiter comes round with another Amber. He sees me working away on the computer, next to my constantly-snapping camera.
“You make movies with that one?” he asks me. “What software you are using?”
I try to explain the concept of time-lapse photography and fail to find an example on my hard drive. He tells me that in his free time he does video-editting for weddings and likes to integrate photographs into the process. A short while later he brings me a plate of toasted grain, on the house because he wants me to try some. It tastes like roasted corn kernels, and keeps great company with beer.
There’s a lot up in the air here. I’m not sure how long I’m going to be able to stay. Hopefully, a long time. I’m desperate to follow through some of the changes that are already happening, and have a chance to put my experience in this industry to the test, hopefully make a difference in this office and in this program. Some things are out of my control. If there’s one positive in the limbo I’m currently in, it’s that I’m determined to make the most of every minute this place gives me. Ethiopia is fascinating. It’s enriching, invigorating, inspiring. I’m delighted to be here, despite knowing that challenges doubtless lie ahead. So I’ll share what and when I can, and hope you enjoy the journey with me.
*PS– watch the bottom left corner of the time-lapse video to see the planes coming in to land at Bole International Airport, one after the other
Donors tire of hearing about droughts and food emergencies. We know this, because we know how hard it is to raise funds for these places, and once a critical emergency has dropped off the headlines, the chronic crisis behind the scenes drops from public awareness. Following on from a disaster like the Horn of Africa famine, interest in the place kind of dries up. There’s little way aid agencies can come back to the public the next year and say, “Hey guys, guess what? There’s more starving people in East Africa”.
Which is unfortunate on two counts. First, because there are more starving people in East Africa. And second, because now we find it hard to raise support for them.
Take this, for example. This year has been a good year in Ethiopia. The rains were good, and the harvests pretty solid. Also this year, there are between three and four million acutely food-insecure people in Ethiopia. Think about that number for a moment. Three to four million. The size of a large city in most western nations. All those people, struggling to feed themselves for a variety of reasons- locally poor rains, low entitlements, poor infrastructure, lack of access to markets, displacement- there are dozens of reasons, all complex and all intertwined.
In fact, that’s only part of the issue. Because there are an additional seven million people chronically food insecure. That means that their ability to feed themselves and their families is compromised in some way in a long-term capacity. They may be able to meet some of their food needs, but not all of them. Seven million. We’re talking the population of a massive city, or a small country now. Switzerland. On top of the three to four million who are acutely food insecure.
And this is a good year.
Sound bad? It is. For every one of these ten million or so people who are either acutely or chronically food insecure, this is an unpleasant, demeaning and possible life-threatening situation, particularly for young children. And these concepts of ‘food insecurity’ are not just plucked out of the air- they are based on hard statistics, on international standards, carefully monitored by teams of sectoral specialists feeding into early warning systems nationwide.
And yet, lest you think I’m out here Ethiopia-bashing, I’m not.
Ethiopia has a population of around 85 million people. That means that across this large, diverse and populous African nation, 75 million people are in fact more or less completely food secure. We’re talking Ethiopia- the nation that brought us Band Aid and Live Aid, ghastly and inappropriate images of human suffering in the midst of famine.
More than that, Ethiopia’s government has a safety net program in place that caters for the needs of the seven or so million that are chronically food insecure. With a combination of cereal redistribution and import, bilateral and multilateral aid, the government, supported by operational partners, ensures that the seven million people struggling to meet their own food needs are catered for.
In other words, the Ethiopian government ensures that a good 81 to 82 million of its population of 85 million are in good hands.
And the balance? The balance are also catered for, through a mixture of NGO and UN aid programs, all overseen by the state. It’s not a perfect system. But it is a system. There is coordinated, nationwide monitoring and early-warning systems- which admittedly need tweaking to ensure greater resolution, but which are nonetheless present and functioning. There are welfare programs which, again, certainly require improvement to avoid over-dependence by communities on outside assistance, but which nonetheless prevent millions of people slipping into life-threatening starvation. And there is a network of response agencies funded by a mixture of outside sources who ensure that, under the coordination of the government and the United Nations, those who slip through the safety net receive appropriate levels of assistance.
The needs here are massive, in terms of simple numbers. And yet, at the same time, so is the capacity of both response agencies and the state. We can say three million, even ten million people in Ethiopia are in need of assistance, and we might be inclined to roll our eyes and voice with exasperation that question when will these African countries get their acts together and stop starving? The fact is, Ethiopia has a phenomenal capacity and has made enormous strides for the wellbeing of its population over the 25+ years since the 1984 famine. Most of the population is self-sufficient, and it is able to meet the needs of almost all people, even facing issues such as overpopulation, climate change and displacement. While the material backing for some of this assistance may come from outside, much of the capacity to implement is in fact domestic. The balance, though representing a large number of humans in absolute terms, is a relatively small proportion of the nation in context. And their needs are real.
It’s important to understand the nuances of a country’s context when calls for assistance go out. When a nation like Ethiopia declares a food emergency, as it did in 2011, it’s not because it’s some despotic failed state that simply can’t manage its own affairs. Instead it’s a nation that has made enormous strides in improving the level of support to its own people. It’s a nation in which nearly all people are able to meet their own needs, and the majority of those who are not are covered by ongoing state welfare support networks. It’s a nation facing geographical, historical and environmental challenges, and for the most part, coming out on top. But there’s still a small proportion slipping through the cracks. And for those people, we hope the world will hold back its assumptions and its impatience with what appears to the casual glance to be an intractable, unchanging problem, and provide the assistance needed.
I’m not a fan of photographs from windows- any windows- as a rule, but when you’re in the field you spend so much time in four-by-fours (see Field Visit Bingo) that sometimes, you have no choice.
Shots from car windows tend to be bland and blurry. It’s a rule of thumb in landscape photography that you don’t take a landscape from where you are, but you move into the landscape to take the photo. Very rarely do the elements line up to give you the right composition- and when they do, they’re usually shooting by so fast that if you’re late by a tenth of a second you miss the moment, and if the shutter speed isn’t high enough, they blur right out. It’s rare to get a sharp image- although by shooting more forwards and less sideways, you reduce the movement of the landscape relative to yourself.
For me, the above image, snapped from a speeding Land Cruiser several hours out of Nairobi, isn’t perfect- but it somehow works for all its imperfections. There’s no hiding what it is- a photo taken hanging out of a car window: the location of the cyclists and the little corner of road make that clear. The foreground is blurred, and the cyclists moreso. The rear tyre of the second cyclist has been clipped by the edge of the frame, and there’s even a little lens-flare catching against the low sun.
But I love the elements. It was a gorgeous sunset, and the sky and terrain were both full of drama. The cyclists- one in a football shirt- are typical of the area and tell their own story about place. And I actually think their blur adds something to the image, a sense of moving towards a brighter horizon. For all its quirks, I was pleased with how this shot turned out.