Adventures In Addis Ababa

by Leah Collins, October 27, 2010

After more than a month, I'm finding Ethiopia to be more and more complicated and vastly more difficult to understand and furthermore explain, but I will do my best to give my impressions. As for my work at Mission of Charities Home for the Dying and Destitute, there is never a dull moment, and don't think for a second that it is without drama! My days here have become quite rou­tine and I am much more confident in my relationships with patients, staff, and the sisters as well as my role as a volunteer. I spend the morning shifts in the men's ward dressing wounds or, three days a week, in the outpatient walk-in clinic. If I am not dressing wounds I bathe peo­ple, wash feet, trim nails, or give vaseline. Gaining trust from patients and staff has been very rewarding as well; they know I am here to stay for awhile and I just keep coming back!

In the afternoons, I feed Frances who is bedridden and has fluid in her brain. She doesn't speak much, but she understands a lot of English and of course Amharic. She gets so excited and worked up from her small corner bed when she sees me come in the room. Lately, slowly but surely, I have been giving her time and help to work on feeding herself, which is great but messy. I feel most at home upstairs in this room because I am friends with the girls and the workers. I am teaching some of them Spanish and English and in exchange they attempt to help me with my Amharic. I always considered myself to be good with languages, but I am struggling. This lan­guage is long and the sounds are so different. To say something short and simple translates to a long word that is hard to memorize. Slowly but surely I am working to get better to be able to communicate with patients; as of now I'm merely attempting the basics. However, people are most happy and excited with my dismal attempts.

As I walk around the compound they have many names for me. Most patients call Sister, Sister! to get my attention. Some workers shout America! A worker who oversees the men's ward calls me Lee Best, I have no idea how he knows my nickname but he says I do the best dressings - funny. The women and children yell Volley Volley! or motion as if painting their finger nails. The women and children love when I paint nails — oh man, what I have I started? They line up like it's the fair. We had a volleyball and on breaks we would play in a big circle, but I fear they lost the ball to a dog or a neighbor.

After feeding and seeing the girls I head downstairs to see some of my favorite and liveliest patients in the women's wards. The women are mostly very sick and lack the wounds that the men have. I sit with Asther who has advanced AIDS and is my age. At first she barely noticed me as I sat with her, but now she smiles and her eyes brighten when I come by; often she will squeeze my hand tight or cry. She breaks my heart everyday because I know she is in so much pain and will never leave this bed. The good thing is that she eats well, which is why I think she is able to hang on. The women love company or just to sit and talk. Many love to have full blown gos­sip sessions, going on and on about things like life, fam­ily, illness. They hold my hand and tell me their troubles, I listen and respond although I never have a clue what they are saying.

We have conversations back and forth just talking, understanding absolutely nothing of what eachother says. It's pretty funny. One patient, Fadhia, became very sick, in a coma, but after two months and malaria treatment she is much better. She is young and silly, and is always trying to convince me to take her baby home with me to America. No, no I tell her, you can't just give me your baby! The babies and children here will steal your heart.

Medically I think I have seen more than I will ever see if I work in health care in the US. I saw a senior sur­gical resident of a large US hospital in complete shock at what she saw here. She said everyone here needs a surgi­cal consultation; sadly most of them will never have sur­gery. The majority of what we see here is TB, HIV/AIDS, paralysis, goiters, leprosy, elephantitis, burns, epilepsy, and large wounds that are so infected they just will not heal. On top of all of this is malnutri­tion which makes everything worse. People are weak and so thin they get horrible bedsores that are also very diffi­cult to get rid of. These sweet toothless old men moan when they see me coming because they know I will force them to rotate and clean their painful wounds. In the end though, they love and thank me because I am sweeter to them than the workers and feed them bananas. This morning I helped hold down a little boy while a nurse gave him stitches inside of his mouth. I was talking to him and trying to calm and distract him. Then they asked me to sing to him and I was put on the spot and my mind went blank. Sing Lee Best they said, and my mind was blank and the only song I could think of was Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles and Redemption Song, so thats what that boy got. Haha, next time I will try to be more prepared.

Writing about things and painting a realistic picture seems so heavy and sad, which it really is. But the atmosphere around the compound is anything but som­ber. People in Ethiopia are generally very proud and humble people. We lose 8-12 patients a week, and seeing them haul the dead across the yard changes you, but there is so much life here, too. Reading some of Mother Teresa's speeches and works has done a lot to help me overcome my despair about death. The poor who leave us here are given warm beds and meals and receive love and prayer. The majority have been rejected by hospitals, abandoned by family, and dumped in the street or at the gate. My fellow volunteer is a nurse and two days ago she sat and prayed with a man on his way out and he began to speak. She asked the sister what he was saying, and it was that he was not alone and he was not afraid to die. Mother Teresa's stories and philosophies are always echoing this sentiment, and we see it here over and over again.

I was fortunate enough to head out of the capital to explore for a week last week. It was most refreshing to leave the city and I tell you I have never seen so many shades of green. I travelled with two friends, a local and another from Barcelona whom I met via the MC volun­teer networks around Addis. We had a blast backpacking in the Bale National Park in the southeast part of the country. We travelled 7 hours on a dirt road on a bus from a town called Shashemene which is another 3 hours or so south of Addis. This central town is most known for its Rastafarian community as Selassie's government invited African descendents from the States and the Car­ribean to come and live in Ethiopia. My friend from here has friends there, so we were able to spend two nights of our journey with an incredible family there whose father is originally from Trinidad. It was very refreshing to hang out with healthy kids in the country who run around and climb trees. Most people outside of the capi­tal are farmers, so there are more donkeys, horses, cows, and goats on the roads than cars. But not even the most precious of places can escape the grasp of modernization and globalization. Large roads are being built to replace dirt ones, hotels and resorts too. For many families, industries, and local economies this may enhance the quality of living, but sometimes I fear for Ethiopia's flora, fauna, natural resources, etc. which are generally ignored and maybe undervalued. Big buildings and hotels in town won't always mean the best things for the people of Ethiopia, as some locals have told me. I am not really in a position to understand how things work here, but developing countries sometimes lack infrastructure and local gov­ernment power to create change that will benefit locals and protect the environment. For example there are large empty shopping malls in Addis, because no one can afford to put a store inside and if they do there is no one who will buy because they can buy things in tiny street markets. At the same time though, people here are des­perate to make their own way, to survive at whatever cost. So things like recycling or protecting and preserv­ing local habitat is not high on their lists of priorities, especially when it comes to the subject of farming and grazing.

Of course though, country people are most inviting and friendly. People I meet on bus rides always are very concerned about how I find Ethiopia and whether I am comfortable here. They are eager to erase the images of their grave famine that still plagues the minds of some foreigners. People invite you into their tiny mud hut or tin roof shack and want you to make yourself completely at home. They share everything that they have and are most eager to create coffee ceremonies or share their home cooking. Children run through the fields naked chasing cattle or goats to come and greet us as we walk past. You can hear people hoot and ha or scream across huge valleys or gorges to communicate. The Southeast of Ethiopia is more Muslim where the capital is slightly more Orthodox. Women in hijab on horseback with long layered dresses and scarves blowing in the wind in such incredible landscape is such a captivating, mysterious, and beautiful sight to see. My favorite animals of this trip were hippos, baboons, and nyala. People laughed because I got so excited to see the common wildlife. The lakes, mountains, and valleys are so refreshing to see and I know they have given me strength to come back to the capital to serve the poor.

I would like to give thanks and love to everyone for their fierce encouragement; it is most comforting to know that I am not alone half a world away.

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