My VSO adventures

Tag Archives: Travel

Well it’s time for me to leave Ethiopia soon and make my way back to the UK. I’m going to take some time to pick up my life in the UK and get things organised as well as catching up with friends and family on my return. Overall I have enjoyed the last 10 ½ months. There have been a lot of challenges along the way with patience and resilience needed but I have also had so many amazing experiences, been welcomed by the people here and made friends with some lovely people.

Here are some of the things I will miss about Ethiopia in no particular order:
1. Looking up into the sky and seeing so many stars in the sky. With almost no light pollution the number of stars and planets that can be seen is staggering and awe inspiring.
2. Almost every child that we come across on the daily walk to work wants to say hello and also to shake our hands. Apparently it’s good luck to shake a ferengi’s hand. I think that bizarrely I will miss the attention and friendliness when I leave.
3. I’ve had over 10 months of daily sunshine here and even though it’s the rainy season now we still get some sun during the morning. It’s been lovely to have the sun daily and soak up it’s warmth.
4. The work/life balance here is definitely more in favour of life! The two hour lunch breaks where you are expected to leave the hospital and go home to eat your lunch were hard to get used to at first but now very much enjoyed.
5. Every time you see someone rather than just abruptly asking for what you need first you need to exchange greetings with each other. This involves handshaking and sometimes kissing each other’s cheeks. There are many ways to say hello and how are you. Every one of these, as well as the proper responses, are normally used before you continue on with the conversation.
6. Having never really been a coffee drinker before coming to Ethiopia I have become a convert! The coffee here served as part of the coffee ceremony is a bitter brew made palatable by a few teaspoons of sugar. Some local coffee will definitely be in my luggage coming back.
7. Ethiopian food is lovely with a great range of spices used. One of my favourite dishes is tegamino, a thick chickpea flour and spice paste, served with injera, a thick pancake made from tef (the local stable grain).
8. Being able to buy cheap, in season vegetables has been lovely. This has meant lots of meals from scratch without any of the processed cheats normally used. I’m sure I’ll be using some of those cheats when I get home but I hope to do more cooking with fresh ingredients.
9. Over the year I have made many great friends in people at work, people living in Axum (Ethiopian and ex-pats from the States) as well as my fellow volunteers. I will miss seeing these people every week and hope to keep in contact after I return to the UK.
10. One thing I have learnt to respect over the last months is the power of the purple stamp! In Ethiopia everyone has a purple stamp – the hospital, local businesses, VSO. If you want anything to happen first a form or letter has to be produced but unless you have the purple stamp the letter is worth nothing ☺

Here are some of the things (in no particular order) that I’m looking forward to when back in the UK:
1. Being able to speak the same language as patients and nurses so that I can be sure that what I am saying has been understood. This enables me to be sure that patients and parents understand what is happening and why I am doing things. It means that the nurses follow instructions that I give and understand why they are important as well as to come and tell me if the patients are deteriorating.
2. Surprisingly one of the things I’ve missed most is a variety of fresh fruit. I’m looking forward to apples, pears, grapes, melon, pineapple and strawberries.
3. A decent bottle of red wine – no further explanation needed.
4. A wide variety of lovely cheeses (especially soft cheese like brie and camembert). Outside of Addis and cheese brought back to the UK it’s not possible to find cheese in Ethiopia.
5. Seeing family and friends again after the time away and catching up on everyone’s news as well as just spending time with people.
6. Having daily access to hot and powerful showers. Although I’ve been lucky and have had hot water where I am living the water pressure is never great which can make it difficult at times.
7. The insects in Ethiopia seem to love me. Not having to worry about getting bitten all the time and having to keep applying insect repellent will be much appreciated.
8. Working in Ethiopia has made me appreciate the NHS even more. Healthcare, which is free at the point of care, where you can give the patients the treatment they need without needing to worry if they can afford it is unimaginable to people in Ethiopia. People use holy water or traditional remedies as they don’t trust the medical system here leading to delays in presentation and poorer outcomes for patients.
9. Less bureaucracy or at least bureaucracy that I understand and know!
10. I’m looking forward to seeing the changing seasons and all the differences they bring. One thing that made me feel homesick last year was all the pictures of autumn as the leaves changed colour.

And finally thank you to everyone who has helped and supported me over the last year. It has been wonderful to read all of the messages that people have left on the blog.


Over the last week I spent time seeing all of the places in Ethiopia I wanted to visit before heading back to the UK. From Axum I travelled down to Bahir Dar (plane from Gondar and then minibus which limped into Bahir Dar with a broken fuel line causing frequent stoppages in the last section of the journey!) In Bahir Dar, on the edge of Lake Tana (the largest in Ethiopia), I got chance to relax and also see the Blue Nile Falls. They were more chocolate when I saw them and not has spectacular as in the past due to water being diverted for hydroelectricity but it was well worth the short walk. Of note I had the only officially trained female guide in Bahir Dar with me – really good to see women being given opportunities and training in this way.
Following this I headed back up to Gondar for an afternoon of sightseeing at Debre Birhan Selassie church, with wall paintings of the life of Jesus, and the Royal Enclosure which includes a number of castles built by Emperors during the 15th and 16th centuries. The church opposite the hotel didn’t make for a quiet neighbour but luckily I had my trusty earplugs.
The next day I headed up to the Simien Mountains, the roof of Africa and one of the most spectacular places I’ve been. We managed a short walk in amongst the clouds following the drive up. Almost immediately we came across a troop of Gelada baboon, which are only found in the Simiens. They live in massive family groups speaking to each other with about ten different calls creating a range of sounds. You can get so close to them – less than a meter away in some cases. The ground is covered in herbs as well as the grasses eaten by the Geladas. Walking along the scent of thyme is released into the air all around you.
It was lovely to stay at the Simien Lodge in the park (the highest lodge & bar in Africa at 3200m) with hot showers, hot water bottles, open fires and good red wine ☺ I spent a very enjoyable evening with two doctors in Ethiopia on holiday from the UK sharing a bottle of wine.
The following day we set off in the morning aiming to drive further into the park to a waterfall while there were no clouds obstructing the views. This was where the four-wheel drive became necessary! At the first section of deep mud in the road sadly the car got stuck. Luckily there was lots of help on hand from some of the local boys. After much trying the decision was made that the guide, scout and I would get out a walk hoping for the driver to get the car free and catch us up later.
After about an hour of walking with spectacular views of the mountains we saw the welcome sight of the car coming up the road. We drove on through some more deep mud before coming upon a long deep section of mud which wasn’t safe for the car to try. So it was time to get out and walk again. We did make it to the waterfall after a couple of hours. An amazing cascade down 500m of rock made even more impressive following all the recent rain.
After walking up, down and then up again we were met by the driver who had managed to get through, after several trucks and farmers had cleared a path. We managed the drive back down to Gondar without getting stuck again where it was an early night for me tired after my long walk at altitude. The next day it was time to head back to Axum where it is now time for the final push to complete the neonatal unit before I leave Ethiopia.

It seems like it’s been a while since I last updated people on what’s been happening here in Ethiopia. It’s probably because nothing big or exciting has happened but I’ve certainly been busy.

With my flights home now booked it feels like there is a lot still to get done here. Work is progressing on the neonatal unit at the hospital. The building work is ongoing – changing a bathroom into a nurse’s station, putting in viewing windows between the nurse’s station and the two rooms the babies will be in, and also building another bathroom block. There seems to have been very slow progress and what I was told would take 2-3 weeks to complete now seems to have been about 5-6 weeks. It’s the same everywhere I guess – building work always takes longer than the contractor originally says! At least it has given me chance to get the guidelines for the neonatal unit all checked and completed so they will be ready for the opening.

While waiting for the building to be completed the four nursing staff who will run the neonatal unit have been selected by the hospital CEO and Matron. We are sending them to Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle for two weeks of training on the neonatal unit there. With two just completing their training the other two are going this weekend. Romil, my fellow volunteer here (a paediatric nurse), has plans for further training on their return to Axum and after the neonatal unit is open.

I also had another trip to Addis a couple of weeks ago for a health forum with all of the VSO health volunteers in Ethiopia. It was great to put faces to names and also find out that we all have faced similar frustrations no matter where we are in the country. Reassuring to know that it’s not just you having a problem! There were lots of positive suggests arising from the discussions which was good to see.

The opportunity of a trip to Addis was also used to buy some equipment for the neonatal unit. After the fantastic stores manager at Axum Hospital, who also took the trip to Addis, had collected quotes from three companies we met the following morning to decide on the cheapest. Following this we headed to the office of the winner where we sat waiting for a while for the manager to appear to allow us to view the equipment requested. After some discussions it was decided that we were better coming back in the afternoon. Since the trip to and from where I was staying involved two line (minibus) taxis across Addis it made for a long day sitting in traffic. In the afternoon though we were able to view some of the equipment and place an order, which will hopefully be delivered next week. (The break did also give me a chance for a cupcake at a western style cupcake café – a regular Addis treat when I’m there 😉 )

This weekend I’m doing what I think will be my final neonatal training course for hospital staff. Another 23 will be trained in newborn care and resuscitation meaning that 83 of around 100 hospital clinical staff in the hospital will now have been trained. Hopefully the neonatal unit building work will be completed soon and we can do final finishing touches and give it a through clean before opening it within the next month.

I’m also keen to fit in some final travelling before I head back to the UK. Still on the list to see are Gondar (one of the ancient capitals of Ethiopia), Bahir Dar (on the edge of Lake Tana), and the Simien mountains. Fingers crossed I can fit everything in in 5 weeks 🙂

Last week the volunteers in Axum went on our travels. With the leaver’s workshop (can’t believe it’s time to start thinking about this already!) in Addis it was a good excuse to explore a bit more of Ethiopia. Claire and I headed down to Hawassa, a town in the SNNPR region 5 hours bus ride south of Addis Ababa. It is so different from the Ethiopia I know here in Axum. Hawassa is on the edge of a lake and is full of lush greenery, birds, hippos, fishermen and not nearly as much dust as Axum.
We treated ourselves to a bit of luxury and stayed at the lakeside Lewi resort. The monkeys around the grounds provided lots of entertainment although you did have to guard your food. Claire was ‘mugged’ after breakfast by one monkey for her banana as we walked back to the room!
Relaxing by the pool provided much needed rest and relaxation.
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The local fish market was a beautiful scene. The fishermen and boys were checking the nets after coming in earlier in the morning and storks were everywhere looking for fish scraps. The boys throw these to them for the tourists but with their scary appearances I didn’t want them getting too close! We also had a wonderful meal and catch up with some other VSO volunteers who are working in Hawassa.
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After a few days we headed back up to Addis for the workshop and meetings. Following this I decided to stay in Addis for a couple of extra nights and had the treat of staying at the Hilton hotel (thank you soooo much Mum and Dad). More relaxing by the pool happened as well as lots of lovely food. The margaritas were also amazing – the first cocktail since my arrival in Ethiopia.
I have very much enjoyed the luxury and break of the last week and I appreciated it all the more for it being so different from my everyday life here. It has shown me how far the gap between visiting a country and living in a country can sometimes be. Being aware of what is going on outside the hotel and tourist attractions is important and I hope I will continue to be more aware of what is happening in the local communities of places I travel to in the future.
I’m now back in Axum and it’s the final push to get the neonatal unit finished and equipped with the training needed done before I leave for the UK in a couple of months.

I had a second visit from my family just before Easter. It was wonderful to see them all and spend time together. I took the opportunity to take a couple of days off and visit another beautiful area of the country with them. We went to see some of the Tigray rock churches, which are in the eastern part of the region. These were unknown by the outside world for a number of years and were built before those in Lalibela on the top of mountains throughout the area. I enjoyed visiting these churches far more than those in Lalibela – they are a treasure unexplored by many who come to Ethiopia.

We stayed at the wonderful Geralta Lodge which has fabulous views across the area.


The first church, Debre Tsion, we went to involved a bit of a climb up. It was well worth it though for the views and also the spectacular church. There were still original wall paintings visible as well as water-damaged pillars on the inside of the church.

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The crosses and symbols used show the history of Christianity with Celtic and Maltese crosses present as well as the more traditional cross and local symbols. The main treasure of the church is a fan made in the 15th century. It was brought out by 2 monks and opened up very carefully!


The second church, Abraha Atsbeha, was closer to the road so no real climbing this time. We were lucky enough to arrive at the end of the mass. We crept in to see and hear the congregation and choir of priests for the final chanting. Following the end of mass we explored the church while the people enjoyed a meal together outside the church celebrating the monthly festival of the Saviour of the World.

On the way back to Axum we stopped at Debre Damo, a well known monastery here which is on top of a hill. Thank goodness women aren’t permitted to go up but my brother and father made the trip up and down with a rope tied around their waist!

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The rest of the week was spent in Axum with my family exploring the sights and visiting schools while I was working. They did stop by the hospital though and bring a delivery of toys from the kind children of St Joseph’s Primary School, Wetherby. These have been much appreciated by the children and given them something to do while on the ward so thank you very much for your toy donations.

Continuing my adventures a couple of weeks ago I went to Addis Ababa, the capital city. The reason for going was a volunteer committee meeting with other volunteers and VSO staff. This also gave me a chance to meet some of the new volunteers who have arrived in the country recently. One of these is an anaesthetist who has come up to Axum to work at the hospital and share our massive house with us. It’s great to have more company and she is a lovely addition to the Axum family. After finishing that meeting I then met up with the only other VSO paediatrician left in the country, Helen, who is based in Adigrat. Together with VSO staff the following day we went to a NGO gathering where VSO Ethiopia was awarded a best practice award for the neonatal unit project that it is rolling out across the country. The results in some of the neonatal units already set up are impressive with up to a 50% reduction in neonatal mortality. Helen and I were on the VSO stand and about 5 minutes before the deputy prime minister reached us on his tour of the stands of the award winners we were asked what we planned to say to him about the project when he came to our stand! Some quick thinking and we managed to come up with a 2 minute speech about the neonatal unit project highlighting it’s importance, although under 5 mortality has decreased significantly here neonatal mortality has not done the same, and success. Following this we all headed into the lecture theatre and listened to lots of speeches and saw the prize giving before heading off to lunch.

After completing the business part of the trip we got to do some sightseeing. Over the next couple of days as well, as spending time catching up with other volunteers in Addis, we managed to go to the National museum and see Lucy, the skeleton of a human ancestor  who lived 3.2 million years ago found in Ethiopia. It was a great exhibition including fossils showing the timeline of the development from early human to homo sapiens. The museum also included artefacts from Axum and Yeha which following the tours I’d done with my parents were fascinating to see and be able to put in context. We also went to the Ethnological museum which is in the old royal palace on the campus of Addis University. This gives information about the different tribes and customs in different parts of Ethiopia.

On the Sunday we flew down to Arba Minch in the south of the country. We were joined by the other VSO volunteers at Axum and Adigrat hospital, Romil and Ashley. There were also representatives from our respective hospitals, the Regional Health Bureau and VSO. The purpose of the visit was to see a neonatal unit set up at the hospital there by former VSO volunteers. It was good to see what it is possible to accomplish. There was locally made equipment, that we hope to replicate, and good infection control practices with a dedicated nursing team. Discussing what we had seen with the CEO and one of the Masters in paediatrics from Axum afterwards it was good to know that we all want the same improvements for Axum in the developing of a neonatal unit. It still seems like there is a long way to go but hopefully slowly with everyone working towards the same goal we may get there.

Arba Minch, which means 40 springs, is a surrounded by beautiful green countryside as well as two lakes, the 2nd and 3rd largest in Ethiopia, which are separated by a small mountain range called the Bridge of God. Despite it raining for almost 24 hours the weather cleared the following day which enabled us to do some sightseeing. Helen, Ashley, Romil and I headed off with a guide, driver, boat captain and scout (with gun). After abandoning the driver when the track became too muddy we walked down to the shore of the smaller of the two lakes to set off on a boat trip. As we crossed the lake we were lucky to see two hippos on the shore.


After watching for a while and getting very close they both headed off, one into the forest on the edge of the lake and the other into the water. Then it was onto a crocodile ‘market’ which is an area of lake shore where crocodiles congregate to sun themselves. We were warned about keeping quiet to avoid their attention.


Apparently a number of fishermen are killed each year by them – at least we were in metal boat unlike the fishermen who use boats which are logs tied together to place their nets in the middle of the lake.


After crossing to the other side we got off and walked up to a savannah area. Just as I was despairing of seeing them a family of zebra was sighted walking towards us.


Following this very successful trip we headed back for a rest in the afternoon before going out to Paradise Lodge, a very nice hotel, to enjoy a drink in the evening looking out over a fantastic view as the sunset.


The following day we flew back up to Addis and after a brief stopover I’m now back in Axum and back at work on the ward as well as developing the plans for the neonatal unit. I’ve not planned any further trips currently but will definitely be exploring this beautiful country more over the next few months.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had some time to explore more of Ethiopia. In January my parents came out for a much anticipated visit. When they made their way to Axum we took a couple of days to explore all of the sights around the town. Axum was the centre of the Askumite empire which stretched all the way to Yemen and was a major civilisation at the time and force in world trade. The empire rose to prominence between the 1st and 7th centuries AD. Legend has it that the dynasty of Kings who ruled was established after the Queen of Sheba (who came from Axum!) visited King Solomon and they had a son who became King Menelik. There is much which is still unknown about the period and many ancient sites around the town still to be excavated. The most obvious site is the stelae field which consists of 250 numbered stelae. There are 2 large, decorated standing stelae which stand at 23m and 26m high. Another stelae, which would have been 33m high, lies where it fell as it was erected.


Further up the hill there is the Mai Shum (Queen of Sheba bath) and following this a stone which has inscriptions on it in Greek, Sabean and Giz (which is still the language of the Ethiopian church) from King Ezana’s reign. He was the first christian king of the Askumite empire in the 4th century AD . This Ethiopian equivalent of the Rosetta stone is in a small hut which was built over it after it was found. The inscription warns any who move it will meet an untimely death!


At the top of the hill are the tombs of Kaleb and Gebre Meskel, Askumite kings. Further outside of town is Dongar palace which is also known as the Queen of Sheba palace. It dates from the 7th century AD and was likely built as a nobleman’s palace. Further out from this is the stelae quarry, where there are still the remains of stelae which haven’t been completely freed from the rock. There is also a carving of the Gobedra lioness which was carved in pre-Christian times with a cross beside it which was added later.


In the middle of town is King Basen’s tomb. He would have ruled the Askumite empire at the time of Jesus’ birth and is supposed to be the wise man who brought frankincense as a gift.

The following day we went to Yeha temple, 50km outside Akum. The temple was build 2,500 years ago during the pre-Askumite Sabean period and is still being excavated by a German team. We then headed back to Akum to experience Timkat which is called the Ethiopian Epiphany. The festival really is a celebration of the baptism of Jesus. On Saturday afternoon there is a procession of all of the treasures from the church, including the Ark of the Covent, up to Mai Shum. This is accompanied by singing and dancing. On the Sunday morning the water in Mai Shum is blessed and people jump into the Holy Water to be blessed.


After leaving Askum I went with my parents to Lalibela. It is here that you find the famous rock hewn churches of Ethiopia. King Lalibela wanted to create the second Jerusalem in the 12th century and built 13 churches high up in the mountains, carving down into the rock. We saw the churches in the Northwestern and Southeastern cluster as well as the cross shaped Bet Giyorgis. Dad and I also took a walk up the mountain to see the smaller church of Asheton Maryam which was built by King Lalibela’s nephew and house some spectacular ‘treasures’, as the crosses and books belonging to churches are called.


We also managed a trip to a lovely restaurant called Ben Abeba, jointly owned by a Scot and an Ethiopian. There was a spectacular view of the sunset as well as some very nice gin cocktails!