Walking the streets of the Ethiopian capital will most likely, even in this rainy season, bring you to encounter some of the foreigners who have come to explore this place of beautiful nature, strong coffee and spicy wot, writes Emilie Maarbjerg Mørk.

By Emilie Maarbjerg Mørk |

Foreign volunteers come here to Ethiopia for all sorts of different reasons. However, they have one thing in common when you speak to them: They are all very keen to be here.

Why Ethiopia?

The Sele Enat Orphanage’s courtyard greets guests with walls bluer than the sky. As kids of all ages begins their day running around playing football and whatever games come to their minds, a group of Addis Ababa’s many volunteers arrive. They all do humanitarian work in different orphanages, but today the group join to do a much more hands on practical job: Painting the inside walls of Sele Enat.

Anna Hendricks, Emily Ellis and Femke Robays are part of the group, and they are all spending their summer holiday away from their home countries traveling thousand of miles to Addis Ababa where they can help the less fortunate children from the city’s many orphanages.

Asked in the sun, during their lunch break, why they chose to come to Ethiopia they explain that the country is in different ways not that foreign to them:

For Femke Robays it is not the first time in Ethiopia. “When I was little I lived here for two years because my parents work for Doctors Without Borders so I wanted to see Ethiopia again to see what I remember, and what I don’t. I told my mother, and she suggested that I could help out in an orphanage. I have only been here for five days, but so far I can say that I definitely remember the look of the streets, so that has not changed. But I did not expect so many tall buildings. Addis has become very modern since my last stay.”

Emily Ellis has been here before as well, but her first time was only two years ago. “I have done it three times so it’s more like home for me than like volunteering. I keep coming back because I love it here, and I can’t see my Ethiopian host family and friends and the kids at the orphanage where I volunteer if I don’t come back,” she says in her strong British accent.

Anna Hendricks never put her feet on Ethiopian soil before she landed in Bole Airport five weeks ago, but her little brother was born here and spent the first three years of his life in an orphanage just like Sele Enat.

“I wanted to know more about the country, and I wanted to know more about the life in an orphanage. That way I can help my brother in his struggle when he is asking questions like: “Where did I come from, and what is my background?” Now I will hopefully be able to give him some answers in the search he is going through,” she says.

An unknown country

Though the only one who has not visited Ethiopia before Anne Hendricks is also the only one of the three to come here completely by her self. She had not made arrangements with any volunteer organizations before she boarded the plane from her hometown Brussels in Belgium but she never worried about going.

“I could not see what I should worry about, and my father and stepmother, who adopted my brother from here, were not worried at all because they know Ethiopia, but my mother’s family was really scared,” she says and laughs shaking her head. “Everything scared them, but probably the fact that their little girl was going off to Africa all by herself was the biggest scare. It is the unknowing – it is always when people do not know how it is that they are scared.”

Emily Ellis had the same disadvantage of knowing very little about the country prior to her first visit, and she experienced the same insecurity.

“I worried because I came here with purely English people, and I did not have locals with me all the time so I did not know what was what. We were traveling around the country, so we saw many parts of Ethiopian culture, and obviously every culture differs in their behavior etc, so we did not know how to react in each situation, because no one had taught us,” she says. Despite of that she was not at all scared away by the many new traditions. Being in Addis Ababa for the third time the pale skinned and red haired Englishwoman now thinks of her Ethiopian host family as a second family, and she is planning to settle down here as soon as she graduates from social science in London.

Addis from a foreign volunteer’s perspective

Emily Ellis claims she feels more at home here than in England, and that her ties to the Ethiopian culture are stronger that the ones keeping her home.

“The main reason I want to come back to live here is the people. They are more polite than the English people, and they do not complain about small things. In England if the power goes off people complain that there is no wi-fi, but if the power goes off here the Ethiopians just deal with it. It is more relaxed, and they do not complain about little things. Also, they are all so friendly and willing to help you,” Emily Ellis says.

“Yes, that is crazy,” Anna Hendricks adds. “They are really willing to help you everywhere. I was with some friends on the bus back from Debre Libanos, and we did not know where to get a taxi to go back to Bole where we live. There was a guy who heard us speaking English and offered to help us. He guided us all the way to Piazza and from Piazza to Bole – he even payed for the taxi. You never see that in European countries. In the beginning you feel a bit worried when people are pushy, but they are actually just so insanely friendly that they are always willing to help.”

Come for the tempo and the food

Sitting in the worn out courtyard of Sele Enat where a football is lost forever if a child kicks it over the sky blue walls all three girls say without hesitation that they would at any time recommend going to Ethiopia as a volunteer.

“For me, the time is a big difference and a reason to come here. Not just that the time is different – because it is”, Anna Hendricks says with a grin, referring to the fact that Ethiopian time is six ours behind other countries, “but people here live in a different rhythm than we do in Europe. We are always rushing, but here it is the complete opposite. I have to cross Mexico Square to get a taxi on my way to work, and in the beginning I was walking really fast and bumping into everyone, but now I realize that everyone are slow here”.

“If you are late, you are late,” Emily Ellis says.

“Yes, exactly,” Anna Hendricks agrees. “Ethiopians do not care if it is ten o’clock, or ten-ish. Even ten thirty is also okay. That is something I really like. The hurry is gone.” She interrupts herself with an important remark: “Oh, and the food is also a big plus here. Especially injera is good”.

“Yes, for me that is quite nostalgic because I had it, when I was a child, so I remember the taste,” Femke Robays says, looking like she would rather have had that than the egg sandwich she has just finished for lunch.

Enjoying the sun and scratching some light yellow paint squirts off their arm and faces, the volunteers look like they have settled in with the Ethiopian tempo. However, the walls of Sele Enat do not paint themselves, so they return to their brushes and cover the last bits before they can concentrate on the young kids constantly coming by for hugs and games. Return to Addis Ababa, they probably will as well.

Source: The Reporter
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