Why On Earth?

By Marianne Van Camp, Selamta Ambassador,

When I told everyone I was going to spend six weeks in Ethiopia, every single one of them gave me the ‘look’. The ‘look’ that says ‘Why on Earth do you want to go to Ethiopia?’.

I have always been a keen traveller, opting out of the rat race, and choosing to explore the world and trying to revel in all its beauty. And although you have to take the good with the bad, overall I managed to do just that.

But of late, my choice of destinations have been changing. I was growing tired of seeing similar cities, with a few differences here and there, but basically being clones of each other. And I was getting more and more intrigued by the indigenous cultures that were trying so very hard to survive in westernised countries. So I decided to go and learn as much as I could from the historically rich cultures. And if the Ethiopian culture isn’t the richest in history, then I don’t know what is!

My time with Selamta...

I wanted two things: 1. go to Ethiopia and 2. do something worthwhile. So I did my research and I decided I wanted to become an ambassador for Selamta: the project sounded perfect to me, and it turned out to be perfect! It uses a common sense approach, but it really works! Children who were on their own, get to be part of a family again. They’re being cared for by the mothers and aunties and, of course, the very devoted project staff, and that is how these children get the chance to be children again.

The whole project is based on this simple principle, but it’s the enthusiasm, love and hard work of the mothers, aunties and project staff that make it work. I am very much in awe of them, because even though they usually stay in the background, they are key to the happiness and no-doubt bright futures of the Selamta children. Of course, I fully understand why they do what they do: to see the children smile is one of the most beautiful things to see! I say ‘children’, but most of the Selamta children are growing up fast!

One week after I had arrived, there was a big to-do at Selamta. That Friday there was going to be The First Sleepover and I was invited!!! Now, I probably have to admit I am perhaps getting a bit too old for teenage sleepovers, but more likely is that my Amharic was basically non-existent at the time and I didn’t understand much of what was being said. But this has its perks – I didn’t have to participate too much in Truth or Dare *sigh of relief*, and I got the chance to devote all my attention to see the girls smile and giggle! Having fun, playing Truth or Dare and giggling non-stop: that’s what girls their age are supposed to do. It was wonderful to see, and I hope there will be many many many more sleepovers for them!

Take my advice and eat a banana for breakfast

The Habesha people are renowned for their kindness and generosity, and they don’t disappoint! I was privileged to join the Selamta families for dinner each night, and got to be part of their families. Not only could I get a taste of Ethiopian food (I love Injera!!) which the mothers and aunties prepare with love and care, but I could take the time to play with the children (I love Injera Wood!! Not the food, but the card game :) ).

The food is absolutely glorious! One of the mothers took the time to explain to me how to make Injera and even let me have a go at it! It seems easy enough, but it’s an art that takes a lot of practice. Under strict supervision from the best teachers I could wish for (but who couldn’t help laughing at my clumsiness) I made two slightly square and uneven Injera... I promised I would practice with water, and hopefully I won’t make such a mess next time!

One of the first Amharic words I learned was something the mothers kept saying to me, namely ‘bi!’, meaning ‘eat!’. Because the food was so delicious, I needed no incentive, but I quickly learned another word: ‘bakka! bakka!’, meaning ‘enough! enough!’! After a couple of days I had changed my eating habit to allow me to have dinner at the families’ home. I am not kidding, a banana for breakfast and a very small lunch, so I could brace myself for dinner!

Back to school

Part of the volunteer program, was teaching English at the local school, which some of the Selamta children attended as well. I have to admit I was nervous going to the school, but someone from the project staff used to teach there and on my first day he took me to school and introduced me. Everyone at the school welcomed me, especially the students who were very excited to see a faranji at school every day!

I taught conversational English to 2nd, 3rd and 4th grade classes, and even though I was studying very hard to improve my Amharic, I think the language barrier improved the students’ knowledge of English even more. I did not know enough Amharic, so if they wanted to explain something to me, they would have to use either English or their hands and feet :)

It has been quite the experience, and I am convinced it has made me a better teacher. I am deeply indebted to everyone at the school who took the time to help me and make me feel at home. I am happy I can call them my friends.

Melkam Fasika! Melkam Ye Tinsae Beal!

A couple of weeks into my ambassadorship, Easter was upon us. Another treat! Everyone was bursting with excitement and I quickly found out why! As a Belgian, I ‘ve got many fond memories of the Easter mornings, waking up at dawn to look for chocolate eggs which the flying Church Bells from Rome had brought to us. (You can imagine the faces of the children when I told them this :) )

But Easter in Addis is completely different, and just as charming! A true celebration, remembering the sacrifices made, and as a faranji a delight to experience from the front row. Granted, it´s not easy if you are a vegetarian like me, but seeing the families happily enjoy eating the meat they have missed during lent, it felt like they were enjoying it on my behalf!

Why on Earth?

I am not a physicist, but Einstein was right. Time is relative.

My time with Selamta flew by. With a heavy heart I flew back home after six weeks. Of course it didn’t take me long to start missing the children and my friends in Addis – I think I was still at Bole airport when I already started reminiscing. And even though I didn’t take the time to go to Lalibela, Gondar or anywhere outside of Addis, I don’t regret it. It is the perfect excuse to go back as soon as possible.

Besides, I was now fully armed with so many fond memories to convince the people, who had given me the ´why on Earth do you want to go to Ethiopia?´-look, to go there themselves.

Why on Earth? To experience the Habesha way of life, eat the food, watch Amharic movies with the families and trying to understand what is happening, see the stars at night, ... The list is endless. But the most important reason why on Earth I wanted to go to Ethiopia, is to do something worthwhile. And seeing the children smile and laugh at me, is definitely doing something worthwhile.