Archive | December 2011

The Ethiopian highlands


When plans come undone

I had planned to spend a relaxing Christmas at Jane Goodall’s chimpanzee sanctuary in Northwestern Tanzania, but these plans came undone at the last minute by bad weather, washed out roads, and cancelled flights.  Instead, on Christmas day I fought with a guide over the source of the Blue Nile, traveled for five hours in a bus crammed with sheep and goat herders, came face to face with a Kalishnikov rifle, sat in the shadows of a castle built four hundred years ago, and looked up to see a hundred angels floating above me.

I spent the week before Christmas on the phone with Precision Airlines and cursing a slow internet connection as I tried to plot out bus routes to Kigoma on flooded roads only to realize that the journey would be prohibitively expensive, time consuming, and frustrating.  When a friend cancelled her plans to meet me in Kigoma for Christmas, I booked a last minute flight to Ethiopia.

On December 23, I set out for Addis Ababa with my backpack and my guidebook.  It has been a few years since I last traveled by myself, and I had forgotten the joy of open horizons on my own schedule.

Early on Christmas Eve, I traveled to Bahir Dar in Northern Ethiopia, which is a wonderful city set on the shores of Lake Tana, with wide palm-tree lined roads, colourful back alleys, and fresh coffee beans roasting on nearly every corner.  Shortly after I arrived, I made arrangements with a guide to ride by boat to the source of the Blue Nile the next day.

On Christmas morning, I waited for the guide in my hotel lobby.  He walked in about an hour late, talking to five other tourists and trying desperately to sell them a more lucrative tour of the nearby monasteries for that morning.  When he denied all knowledge of the planned boat ride to the Blue Nile, I decided to catch the next bus to Gondar and exact my revenge on Trip Advisor.

I was packed into a small bus that was already crammed full of sheep and goat herders dressed in long white robes.   Chickens squawked under my feet and I held my backpack on my lap.  All conversation ceased as soon as I climbed onto the bus, as the herders stared at me with thinly veiled curiosity and I stared back at them with the same.  The countryside blurred through the open window, winding hills of vivid green and gold.  The man next to me turned and said, “excuse me, but do you speak Amharric?”  Although I don’t speak the language, we mimed a conversation.  When he turned to leave, I glimpsed a kalishnikov rifle buried under his robes and noticed that a few of the men on the bus were armed, presumably to protect their cattle.

I arrived in Gonder in mid-afternoon, a town that has been made famous because it is home to the only castle in Africa.  The castle is the focal point of the town, crumbling pink and brown stones surrounded by guides, storytellers, incense, and coffee shops.

As the afternoon stretched into evening, I walked away from the town, up the hills and into the sunset to stare at a spectacular church with a ceiling of a hundred angels.  I stayed until the sun faded and I could see the lights of Gondar flicker below me.

It certainly wasn’t the Christmas day that I had planned.  But the magic of traveling in Africa is that when plans come undone you can have a Christmas with twelve goat herders, a four hundred year old castle, a hundred angels, and a perfect sunset over the Ethiopian Highlands.

Monastery Hopping in Bahir Dar

The town of Bahir Dar lies on the shores of Lake Tana in Northern Ethiopia.  The region is home to hundreds of monasteries, many of which are located on small islands sprinkled across the lake.

I spent Christmas Eve rowing from one small island to the next, chatting with friendly monks, sipping on Ethiopian coffee, admiring the brightly coloured art that adorns the monasteries, and thumbing through 800 year-old texts written on goatskin.

For my family at Christmas

It’s Christmastime in Dar.

Shoppers Plaza in Mikocheni has been decorated with a thousand flashing Christmas lights, tiny plastic Christmas trees are for sale on narrow dusty roads, and there are parties where shortbread and hot drinks are served and we all try to conjure up the Christmas spirit by pretending it isn’t 35 degrees outside.

Still, it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas.

For me, Christmas is once-a-year church with Oma, an omelette and cinnamon bun brunch prepared by my mom, daad’s lattes, and grandma’s Christmas pudding.  After dinner, the Christmas pudding is doused in cheap alcohol and lit on fire before it is served.  Every year until this year, my grandfather has been responsible for lighting the pudding on fire.  A smile on his face and laughter in his eyes, he always used more vodka than necessary, feeding larger and larger flames until my grandmother spoke up to object that the flavour would be ruined. My grandfather enlisted my brother and I as conspirators and we encouraged him to make the flames dance over and over again.

Someone else will have to light the Christmas pudding this year.  And pour on too much vodka like my grandfather would have wanted.  Grandma promises that she will save a piece of the Christmas pudding in the freezer until I get home.

The more I travel the more I realize how lucky I am.  In some ways, life is one great game of chance, where opportunities are given and taken depending on where and when you are born.  If life is a lottery, then by all measures I have won the grand prize.

When I told my parents that I was quitting my job in Vancouver to move to Tanzania for seven months to work for a legal aid clinic they were, as always, supportive and enthusiastic.  Great idea, mom said.  I’m proud of you, dad said.  How lucky I am, I thought.

This year marks my first time away from home for Christmas.  My family is in Edmonton and I am traveling.  I will miss them, but I want them to know how grateful I am.

Merry Christmas from Dar.

When it rains it pours

Last night my computer broke down and this morning I made the mistake of trying to make it to the computer store in Shoppers Plaza.  I ended up knee deep in water.

It has been raining heavily for the past three days.  According to media reports, the rains are the heaviest that Tanzania has experienced since 1961.  Roads are flooded out, an estimated thirteen people have died, and hundreds have lost their homes.  It’s scary.

This morning I made a quick trip to the bank in my neighbourhood and, when the roads seemed okay, I decided to continue on to Shoppers Plaza in a bajaj.  I would have been better off in a boat.  Cars were stuck, a bajaj in front of me had tipped over, and many people had parked their cars at the side of the road and were walking.  The scene resembled a post-apocalyptic disaster movie.

I mentioned to the bajaj driver that I was worried about making it to the airport tomorrow. He laughed and said I had nothing to worry about.  “The trip to the airport will be quick.  There will be no cars on the road.  There will be no roads, but at least you don’t have to worry about a traffic jam”.

Not terribly reassuring.

The sun came out for a few hours this afternoon, but now it looks like it is clouding over again.  We all have our fingers crossed there will be no more rain tonight.

The pictures below are of a neighbourhood close to my house.  More information, as well as pictures of the areas most impacted by the floods, can be found here and here.

It happened again

It happened again.  Another weekend, another uninhabited tropical island, another boat  almost missed.

Mbudya Island is a half-hour boat ride from Dar and the last boat back to the mainland leaves at 5 pm.  When the boat pulled up to the island on schedule, four of our friends were missing, having wandered off in search of a more perfect beach.

We waited.  And stalled.  And negotiated.  And explained to the boatman that our friends would be only a few minutes more.

The boat was about to leave when our friends appeared, explaining that the path to the more perfect beach had been unexpectedly treacherous.

At this point, I’m beginning to think that I am fated to live on a beautiful tropical island.

Kissed by a giraffe




When I woke up this morning, there were about 300 notifications from WordPress informing me about new subscribers and asking me to moderate comments.  A few more comments than I usually get from my five loyal readers.

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500 pictures of baby elephants

Last weekend I visited the David Sheldrake Wildlife Trust which is located just outside of Nairobi.  The organization raises baby elephants that have been orphaned, often due to poaching or hunting, and releases the elephants back into the wild when they are between eight and ten years old.

The process of raising a baby elephant is surprisingly difficult.  Baby elephants form intense emotional attachments to their mothers and can die of sadness when separated from their family.  Human keepers at the organization act as substitutes for the orphan elephant’s lost family and spend 24 hours a day with the baby elephants, even sleeping alongside them at night.  Bonds between a baby elephant and a keeper can be so strong that keepers are rotated between the different elephants each day so that a baby elephant does not become depressed when a specific keeper takes time off work or leaves the organization.  Psychological grief is life threatening to a baby elephant.

I have restrained myself from posting all 500 of the pictures that I took of these baby elephants, but here are a few of them.

Women in Kibera are heroes

Shortly after arriving in Nairobi on Thursday evening, I was introduced to KV, another Canadian who was also in the city for the weekend.  KV invited me to come with her the next morning to visit an NGO located on the outskirts of Kibera.

Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world and is home to somewhere between one and two million inhabitants.  These millions of people are packed into an area that is roughly the size of Central Park, making the slum one of the most densely populated places in the world.

Life in Kibera is difficult.  Statistics published about the community provide one measure of just how difficult life can be.  The average life expectancy in Kibera is 30 years.  I am turning 30 next month.  Only 8% of the girls living in Kibera will ever have the chance to attend school.  No high school, no university, no law school.  Most homes do not have running water, and residents share 600 toilets.  This means that, on average, there is one toilet for every 1300 people.  It also means that residents have to walk long distances to reach a toilet, which is particularly dangerous for women after dark.  The apartment I rent in Dar es Salaam has three toilets for two people.  By the age of sixteen, 66% of the girls in Kibera routinely trade sex for food.  For some, this begins as early as the age of six.  Unthinkable.  Women living in Kibera have an HIV transmission rate that is five times greater than their male counterparts.  Another thing that is in the realm of the unthinkable.  (Statistics from:

Sieraden 4 Life, the NGO that I visited on Friday, trains women from Kibera to make beaded jewellery, which is then sold to upscale boutiques in the Netherlands.  Employees are paid a fair wage, and profits from the jewellery sales are used to fund schools for their children.  The NGO also employs a social worker and counsellor from the community, who attend at the workplace each day to provide the women from Kibera with support.  There is a waiting list because so many women want to work at the jewellery workshop.

When I arrived, the employees were in the middle of a meeting.  An order had recently been placed for 25,000 bracelets and some of the beads had not yet arrived from China. The NGO tries to source products locally where possible, and some of the beads are made from animal bones by residents of Kibera, but unfortunately most of the beads that are sold in Africa are imported from China.

One of the employees showed me around, another told me about her children and taught me the Swahili word for rabbit (there were a few hopping around the yard), and a third tried to teach me how to make a bracelet.  AK, who is one of the supervisors at the workshop and who lives in Kibera, offered to give me a tour of the community.  He soon realized that he was too busy to take the time off work and called his friend BK to show me around instead.

The houses in Kibera are packed tightly together.  Most have mud walls and corrugated tin roofs.  Dirt roads weave between the homes, too narrow for a car to pass through.  Railway tracks bisect the neighbourhood and, between trains, provide a space where vendors can sell shoes, electronics, food, and toys.

There is no formal waste disposal system in Kibera and the smell in the neighbourhood is, at times, overwhelming.  Community hygiene is a problem.  Because there are so few toilets, and because it is often not safe for women to be outside after dark, residents resort to the use of  “flying toilets”, which entails defecating into plastic bags which are then thrown onto the nearest roof or road.  The practice contaminates the community’s water supply and has led to outbreaks of cholera and typhoid.

Standing on a hill that overlooks the slum, I noticed that the roofs of some of the houses in Kibera have been plastered with large photographs of women’s faces.  The effect is haunting.  The photographs are part of anonymous graffiti artist JR’s exhibition called Women are Heroes.  As part of the project, JR covered 2,000 square meters of rooftops in Kibera with photographs of women that live in the community.  The photographs are made out of vinyl to help waterproof the homes during the rainy season.

JR discussed the project with a reporter from The Guardian:  “I was interested in women because I realised in the projects I’d done before – most of the time in the kind of places I was going to – it was men on the street, but it’s actually the women who are the ones holding the community together”.  BK, my guide, explained that for him the art project is meaningful because it reminds those who look down on the slum that real people live in Kibera and that the community is more than the sum of its statistics.

BK is an electrical engineer.  He grew up in Kibera and moved back to teach science and mathematics at the Kibera Girls Soccer Academy.  The Kibera Girls Soccer Academy was originally conceived as a soccer team that would empower young women in the community.  The project evolved into a school where there are currently 120 students and 14 volunteer teachers.  Due to a lack of resources, the school can only accept 40 students each year.  Demand is high.  BK told me that the teachers conduct interviews and visit applicants at home to try to assess who would benefit the most from attending the school.

BK speaks articulately and eloquently about his community.  He explained to me that interventions in Kibera tend to exclude girls on the basis that they become wives and mothers rather than active agents in the community.  BK told me that this is precisely why it is so important to educate girls and emphasized to me that in Kenyan society it is the wives and mothers who shape future generations.  He spoke with conviction about the role that his mother played in his own life.

BK invited me into the school, which is located in a small two-level building in a residential area.  There is one classroom for each grade, and a library with three computers and a wall of books.  Even though it was Christmas break, there were about fifteen girls in the library studying chemistry and physics.  BK explained that students view the school as a safe space and come there to study when it is not safe for them to be at home.  The teachers all live near the school, and escort students home if they study past sunset.  It is not safe for girls to walk outside after dark in Kibera.

I don’t know how to end this post.  I could say that I left Kibera feeling inspired.  That would be true.  It is hard not to feel inspired by girls who risk rape just to reach the public toilet but also manage to make it to school every day.  But it was more complicated than that.  I also felt sadness and loss and hope.

Instead, I am going to close with a toast.  Last Saturday was Human Rights Day and I am reminded of a song by Ani Difranco which celebrates the hard choices and sacrifices made by people living in unthinkable conditions.  So, here’s a toast to the women living and working in Kibera, to the 8% of the girls who make it to school and to the 92% who don’t, and to those who are helping the girls from Kibera to find their voices.

so here’s a toast to all the folks who live in Palestine 
El Salvador 

here’s a toast to the folks living on the pine ridge reservation 
under the stone cold gaze of Mount Rushmore 

here’s a toast to all those nurses and doctors 
who daily provide women with a choice 
who stand down a threat the size of Oklahoma City 
just to listen to a young woman’s voice 

here’s a toast to all the folks on death row right now 
awaiting the executioner’s guillotine 
who are shackled there with dread and can only escape into their heads 
to find peace in the form of a dream 

Self Evident by Ani Difranco