Time traveling in Ethiopia

As I type this, my laptop reads that the time and date are

8:14pm, Thursday, September 17, 2015

However, if I were to ask Fikiru the time, he and the rest of Ethiopia would tell me

2:14pm, Thursday, September 6th, 2008

So, what’s going on here?

The Ethiopian Calendar

Ethiopia marches to the beat of its own drum/clock, one of the many benefits of being the only African country to defend itself from European colonization in the 19th century. Whereas the Gregorian calendar, followed by most Western countries, is made up of 12 months with 28, 30, or 31 days and an extra day added in February on Leap Year, the Ethiopian calendar is far more simplistic, consisting of 12 months with 30 days each and a 13th month with 5 days, or 6 days on Leap Year. The 12 months of the Ethiopian calendar roughly align (within 12ish days) with the 12 months of the Gregorian calendar, and their names are translated from Amharic into English as the same names of the Gregorian calendar. For example, Ethiopian New Year is celebrated on Meskerem (September) 1st, which is September 11th (or 12th the year after Leap Year) in the Gregorian calendar.

The Ethiopian calendar is 7 or 8 years behind the Gregorian calendar, after or before September 11th (or 12th), respectively. Both calendars are based on the Incarnation of Jesus, and the 7-8 year difference is due to the different calculations of the date of Incarnation by two different monks back in the 5th and 6th centuries. Thus, while the majority of the world was freaking out about the Y2K bug on December 31st, 1999, Ethiopians were casually eating injera and drinking coffee, knowing that the rest of the world would have that figured out before they celebrated the Millenium on September 11th, 2007 (Gregorian calendar).

Telling time in Ethiopia

In Ethiopia, the clock utilizes the 12-hour system and is 6 hours behind what Westerners are accustomed too – what I know to be 6 o’clock in the morning is 12 o’clock to an Ethiopian. Here, a 9-to-5 job is really a 3-to-11 job. While this concept initially seemed strange to me, it actually makes a lot of sense. Ethiopia, being close to the equator, has a pretty consistent sunrise and sunset year-round at [what I know to be] 6am and 6pm, give or take an hour. This, combined with the fact that 3 out of 4 Ethiopians are subsidence farmers, means that most people are starting their day at [what I know to be] 6am. Thus, the Ethiopian clock begins when Ethiopia wakes up, not at some random time in the middle of the night.

Commence confusion

The concept of learning a new calendar and timekeeping system is straight forward – here is a new set of rules, follow these rules, and after a brief learning curve it should make sense, right? While this has largely been my experience at home, putting this newfound knowledge into practice has led to a surprising amount of miscommunication.

While Meskerem is officially translated to English as ‘September’, because the two months roughly align, I’ve met people who have translated it to January, since Meskerem and January are the first months of the Ethiopian and Gregorian calendars, respectively. For a while, I thought Enkutatash, Ethiopian New Year, was celebrated on [what I know to be] January 12th, rather than September 12th.

Written dates have also thrown me for a loop. Last weekend we celebrated Ethiopian New Year, Meskerem 1st, 2008, which is abbreviated as 1/1/08, because Meskerem is the first month of the calendar. However, this also means that my birthday this year, July 19th, 2015 (7/19/15, Gregorian calendar) falls on July 12th, 2008 of the Ethiopian calendar, which is abbreviated as 12/11/08, because July is the 11th month of the Ethiopian calendar, not the 7th, and Ethiopia follows the day/month/year format, just like the rest of the world outside the US. Luckily for me, I don’t often deal with written documents and I stick to using days of the week when planning things with Ethiopians, so I typically avoid this nightmare.

The Ethiopian clock, which is 6 hours behind my watch, is pretty easy to get used to. When children ask me what time it is I stall by asking if they want the habesha (Ethiopian) time or the farenji (foreigner) time, which gives me a moment to look directly opposite of where the small hand is pointing on the face of my watch and recall my Afaan Oromo numbers. Context also helps – if someone says they have to go to the market at 2 o’clock tomorrow morning, you can assume they are referring to Ethiopian time and mean 8am. Sometimes context doesn’t help – for example, I’ve arrived at SVO, our NGO partner, at 9am and asked to meet with someone who told me I should come back at 11 o’clock. This seemed reasonable to me, so I showed up again at 11am only to find that they meant 11 o’clock habesha time, meaning 5pm, after they got off of work. Nearly everyone I speak with on a daily basis refers to the Ethiopian clock and may not even realize that I’m operating 6 hours ahead of them. Confusion kicks in when I’m speaking to someone who’s too smart for his or her own good – they know how farenji time works and they’re translating Ethiopian time to farenji time for my own benefit. When a professor asked me to meet him ‘tomorrow at 3 o’clock’, this could have easily meant a morning meeting at 9am, but in fact he meant after lunch at 3pm. This mostly happens with people at SVO or Ambo University, so I’ve started clarifying if they mean habesha or farenji time before I make a bad assumption.

After almost 5 months, I’m pretty fluent in the Ethiopian timekeeping system and I no longer default to a blank face while I try to figure out 10 + 6 – 12 in my head (hint: it’s way easier to think of it as 10 – 6). Telling time is just another fun quirk of living here (though ask me again after I miss a bus or forget to extend my visa on the correct date) – when I get it right it’s a small success that I can hold on to as a reminder that I’m successfully integrating into this crazy country, and when I get it wrong it’s a small reminder for when I get too comfortable, that “Holy shit. I live in Ethiopia”.

The Algae-Duckweed Innovation Project

So far I have mostly written about my personal experiences in Ethiopia without going into much detail about my work here, primarily because I haven’t formally introduced the project yet. I’d like to take this time to present the motivation behind the Algae-Duckweed Innovation (ADI) Project and outline the hypotheses we are testing.

Motivation

Ethiopia has made significant progress in child nutrition – from 2000 to 2008 the prevalence of stunting in rural areas decreased from 57% to 44% and the prevalence of underweight children reduced from 42% to 29%. Yet, infant morality and child mortality are still among the highest in the world. Given that nearly half of infant and under-5 mortality can be attributed to malnutrition, accelerating improvements in child nutrition is essential to reduce infant and child mortality. Maternal and child nutrition studies have emphasized that “nutrition sensitive” interventions – those that target the underlying determinants of nutrition, such as improved income generation, availability of nutritious foods, and women’s empowerment – are essential if we wish to enhance the coverage and effectiveness of traditional nutrition interventions; e.g., fortification, education, and supplementation.

Towards this end, our long-term goal is to develop and rigorously test innovative and appropriate agricultural technologies to empower and raise the economic and agricultural capacity of the poorest and most vulnerable women in Ethiopia and to see if this increased capacity translates into improved food, nutrition, and health security of women and their infants and young children.

Why duckweed?

Duckweed is a tiny aquatic plant found in nutrient-rich, calm waters (e.g., marshes and wetlands) around the world. It is widely regarded as an invasive weed as its rapid growth is hard to contain, enabling it to clog boat propellers when left untreated. Its presence is indicative of wastewater and fertilizer runoff, which supply duckweed with plenty of nitrogen and phosphorus, commonly the limiting nutrients for growth. In some parts of India and Southeast Asia, duckweed is used to treat latrine wastewater – nitrogen and phosphorus from feces and urine are converted into duckweed biomass which is used for a variety of purposes. Duckweed biomass has a very high nutrient value and protein content, which make it suitable as a livestock feed supplement. Indeed, duckweed is commonly used in Asia as tilapia feed, whereby tilapia can sustain nearly 100% of their diet on duckweed. Duckweed can also support up to 25% and 75% of the diets of chickens and cows, respectively. Livestock raised on a diet that includes duckweed have shown to have higher nutrient value compared to livestock raised on traditional feeds alone: chicken meat and cow milk are enriched in omega-3 fatty acids when the animals are fed duckweed-inclusive diets.

With this in mind, we propose that duckweed grown on livestock manure provides a simple, cost-effective, nutritious, and sustainable livestock feed supplement that will increase the nutritive value of the livestock and reduce the cost of traditional feed for microbusiness farmers in Ethiopia.

The Intervention

1,200 women (who have a young infant, are pregnant, or are likely to become pregnant during this 3-year study) across the western Oromia region of Ethiopia will be enrolled in our program. These 1,200 women will be assigned into a start-up microbusiness (20 women) centered around either poultry, dairy, or tilapia production. Half of the microbusinesses will follow traditional methods of livestock farming while the other half will incorporate duckweed production into their business model as a feed supplement for their livestock. Throughout the program, all women will receive weekly training on entrepreneurship, livestock production, household finances, maternal/child nutrition, water/sanitation/hygiene, and empowerment. Data will be collected via questionnaires from each microbusiness, enrolled woman, and her household regarding health/nutrition (e.g., frequency of sickness, infant weight/height, food security, diet), finances (e.g., income/debt, business revenue, livestock production), and empowerment (e.g., self-esteem, self-efficacy, decision making power). Microbusinesses implementing duckweed production will be compared against those using traditional livestock methods to evaluate the effects (if any) of this approach.

Within this multi-faceted study, we seek to test the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis #1: Empowering women improves nutrition

The consumption of animal source foods, such as milk, eggs, and meat, is critical for meeting the elevated protein and micronutrient needs of pregnancy, lactation, and early child growth. Poverty and women’s low socioeconomic status in the household and community are primary underlying determinants of poor nutrition. While poverty limits the resources needed to support optimal nutrition, cultural norms that dictate preferential allocation of these foods to men further limit access of animal source foods to women and children. When women’s participation in household economic and health decision-making increases, improvements in child diet and child nutritional status and health outcomes follow, as does uptake of essential health services such as family planning, antenatal care and facility-based deliveries.

Empowerment is a process by which people gain mastery over their affairs; that is, they gain the cognitive ability, the belief in their ability, and the social ‘right’ to make decisions guiding their life and the life of their children. Increasing women’s control over production of animal source foods or their control over resources related to animal source foods (such as feed inputs) may enhance their own access and the likelihood that animal source foods would be consumed by women or allocated to the young child. This leads to our first hypothesis:

Hypothesis #1: Management of livestock, especially production of animal source foods such as eggs, poultry meat, milk, and fish, by vulnerable women who are pregnant or breastfeeding or rearing young children (along with appropriate nutrition education) will increase their consumption of these products.

Hypothesis #2: Duckweed as an animal feed supplement improves nutrition

Duckweed has a very high nutrient value and lipid and protein content, and recent studies show that poultry meat and cow milk contains higher levels of these desirable fatty acids when chickens are fed algal and duckweed supplements. Similarly duckweed also contains relatively high concentrations of beta-carotene, the precursor of retinol. Eggs and milk of animals fed algae-based feed have higher carotenoid concentrations and thus duckweed-feeds may be a unique food based strategy to improve vitamin A content of the food supply and vitamin A status of vulnerable populations. Vitamin A deficiency is a substantial public health burden for pregnant and lactating women and young children and increases the risk of blindness and mortality from infectious diseases. This leads to our second hypothesis:

Hypothesis #2: Algae and duckweed production for animal feed provides an innovative strategy to produce animal-source foods with greater nutritional value in a more cost effective way.

Hypothesis #3: Duckweed as an animal feed supplement improves micro-business performance

Like any business, start-up agriculture micro-businesses follow the basic accounting principle: Profit (or loss) equals income minus expenses. A reduction in expenses translates to increased profit. Duckweed production can provide a constant source of high quality and sustainable protein for animal feed that is noncompetitive with existing sources, does not rely on fossil fuels, and is less expensive than the purchase of traditional feed. Duckweed production uses minimal resources and relies primarily on water, nutrients, and sunlight. Thus, duckweed production as animal feed has the potential to significantly reduce the overall operating expenses for start-up farming micro-businesses in Ethiopia. Thus, our third hypothesis is:

Hypothesis #3: Production of algae/duckweed as a feed supplement for start-up farming micro-businesses (i) can be successfully implemented in Ethiopia and will increase business profit by 20% after 1 year compared to those using traditional feed, and (ii) this improved income will correlate with improved food and nutrition security and empowerment of vulnerable women and their families when combined with integrated health & nutrition education and socio-emotional empowerment training.

And there you have it – the ADI Project. While on paper it seems like a fairly straightforward study, in reality executing a project of this magnitude requires logistical prowess, experts in a broad range of fields (i.e., agriculture, nutrition, education, economics), and a huge team of dedicated people on the ground. Similarly, while the ADI project may seem like the silver bullet to Ethiopia’s malnutrition problem, each step along the series of events that must occur for duckweed to result in improved nutrition can easily be derailed for any number of social, cultural, or entirely random reasons. And at the end of the day, that’s exactly what we’re trying to figure out.

Note: As I am not an expert in women’s empowerment, maternal and child nutrition, or business economics, a significant portion of this post was taken from the original proposal submission.

Duckweed hunting in Hawassa

Last weekend (weekend of July 24th) most of the Emory students (Emily, Ani, Biruh, Charlotte) and I took a weekend trip to Hawassa, a lake town 4 hours from Addis Ababa by car and the capital city of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples region. Biruh’s family has connections everywhere, so we received a free rental car from his uncle’s company and stayed (for a very discounted price) at a resort on Lake Langano where his uncle’s friend is a member. Our accommodation was a 2-bedroom, 2-bathroom, split-level hut, complete with a kitchen, dining area, and living room; we were living in ‘hut-xury’. We ate breakfast in the resort restaurant, and for lunch and dinner we ate the massive meal that Biruh’s mom packed us. I had been wondering what an Ethiopian packed meal looks like, since it seems difficult to put a giant injera in a kid’s lunchbox or a picnic basket. The solution is injera lasagna – a Tupperware container layered with pieces of injera and wot (stew) that is served like lasagna and quickly turns into fir fir (a popular dish of chopped up injera mixed with meat and sauce) on the plate, again, just like lasagna. On Saturday we spent the day relaxing by the lake, listening to music, reading books, and drinking gin and tonics. In the evenings we watched the news to keep up with Obama’s trip to east Africa.

Yup, it's a hut.
Yup, it’s a hut.
The stairs lead to a bedroom and bathroom.
The stairs lead to a bedroom and bathroom.
Behind the wooden wall are stairs that lead down to an additional bathroom and bedroom.
Behind the wooden wall are stairs that lead down to an additional bathroom and bedroom.

On Sunday we drove 45 minutes to Hawassa with one goal in mind: find duckweed. While there are many aspects to the research project we are working on, the entire project hinges on successfully cultivating duckweed, a tiny aquatic plant, and it is my job to ensure that we succeed. Despite being native to Ethiopia and a fast growing invasive ‘weed’, duckweed has remained elusive thus far. Ani identified duckweed growing in the baptismal ponds of Lalibela, the famous rock-hewn churches in northern Ethiopia, but being a holy site, he wasn’t able to collect any. We had a tip that duckweed is present in Hawassa – the authors of a research paper I read collected duckweed in marshes around Lake Hawassa – so we couldn’t return to Addis empty handed.

We started our hunt at a resort on Lake Hawassa, mainly so we could check out the lakefront and get internet access to do a little bit of work. Biruh, our fearless leader (and only Amharic speaker), presented a waiter at the lakefront bar with a picture of the duckweed Ani found in Lalibela and asked if he knew where we could find it in Hawassa. The waiter did not know, but he introduced Biruh to a tour boat operator whom might know. The operator said yes, he knew where we could find duckweed, and he could take us there for 350 ETB (17.5 USD) plus 150 ETB (7.50 USD) if he jumped in the water to collect it for us. We passed on the offer figuring we could find someone else who would tell us where to go without paying. Biruh asked the concierge, who asked a few other resort employees, until one said that not only did he know where we could find duckweed, he would also gladly take us there himself for free.

30 minutes later we found ourselves in the car with the hospitality manager of the resort (hospitality, indeed!) driving to a popular restaurant and boardwalk area along Lake Hawassa. Traffic was a mess, the area was packed, and we couldn’t have looked more out of place: a resort manager in a suit, an Ethiopian student, and 3 foreigners with backpacks and empty water bottles to collect what is widely regarded as an invasive weed. In Ethiopia, if you have a task you are trying to accomplish it’s extremely common that people walking by will stop and try to help you accomplish it, regardless of your opinion on the situation. Although nobody offered to help the strange man in a suit climb down a hill to check out a patch of green algae on the edge of the lake (it wasn’t duckweed), plenty of people stopped to watch us. We weren’t having much luck along the edge of the lake, likely because duckweed prefers still waters, but we only had to walk a few more minutes before we struck gold – to the right of the boardwalk on the other side of a wall we spotted a large wastewater pond, the surface entirely obscured by a thick layer of duckweed.

Science in action!
Science in action!

After pleading with our guide not to climb down the embankment in his suit to collect a sample (he did anyways), we confirmed that we found what we came for, and I collected two water bottles full of duckweed and pond water. Better yet, we stumbled upon two species of aquatic plants, which we later identified as duckweed (Lemna spp.) and azolla (Azolla spp.). My sole responsibility for the next 24 hours was to keep the duckweed alive before I could put them in a more suitable container. Being a responsible father, I took the duckweed-filled water bottles with me into restaurants to save them from overheating in the car and made sure to take their lids off so they could breathe and get some sun. The following day when we returned to Addis, I gave the duckweed a new home in a tupperware container where they could thrive (read: struggle to stay alive) until we got back to Ambo and I could come up with a plan to start cultivating them.

Our tupperware duckweed aquarium in Addis.
Our tupperware duckweed aquarium in Addis.
The pale green one is duckweed, and the dark green fern-like one is Azolla.
The pale green one is duckweed, and the dark green fern-like one is Azolla.

A week in Kenya

Since I arrived in Ethiopia I have been plagued with visa issues. In January, Ethiopia updated its policy for issuing business visas, the only type of visa that lasts more than 3 months, thus I was granted a 1-month NGO visa ($60) when I first applied. The NGO visa is arguably the least appealing of all the visas, as one can pay $70 for a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival at the airport and $60 for a 1-year business visa (after lots of paperwork). I extended my NGO visa twice – $60 for an additional month and again at $40 for an additional 2 weeks – but eventually I could not extend my visa any more. With few options left, I took a [mandatory] vacation to Kenya in hopes of obtaining a new visa upon my return.

I bought my plane ticket to Nairobi a week in advance, and in between bouts of fever I was lucky to find a Couchsurfing host only days before my departure. For those unfamiliar, Couchsurfing is a social network of people around the world who generously offer up their couches (beds, floors, etc.) to travelers, free of charge. Each member has a profile, where they describe themself and their couch and include pictures of both. Additionally, previous guests post reviews of the host so people seeking a couch can be assured of their host’s credibility. I’ve Couchsurfed before in Germany and Iceland, and I have found the Couchsurfing network to be filled with hospitable, generous people who want to share their home and their culture with others. My most genuine cultural exchanges have been while Couchsurfing (donning a crew uniform and rowing down the river Leine in Hanover, going to a music street festival in Dresden, eating fermented shark meet with our hosts’ grandparents on Christmas Eve in Akureyri), which are my favorite part of traveling. My time with Nic and Rose, my hosts in Nakuru, was no different, and their guidance and advice proved invaluable in making my time in Kenya enjoyable.

After arriving in Nairobi, I followed Nic’s instructions to his house in Nakuru – a 30-minute taxi ride to a bus station downtown followed by a 2-hour matatu (minibus) ride from Nairobi to Nakuru, where Nic and Rose picked me up from Rose’s office and drove me to their home. Although I was initially nervous about navigating public transportation on my own, having little concept of how it operates and zero grasp of the language (Swahili), everyone helped me seamlessly transition to the next leg of my journey and many spoke English fluently. This has largely been my experience in East Africa – everyone is willing to help a confused foreigner and somehow I always end up at my destination – and I’m convinced I can get anywhere I need to go as long as I’m willing to expend the mental energy to reach out for help and the emotional energy to be comfortable with the unknown.

Nic and Rose live on the top story of a condominium building with a balcony that overlooks Lake Nakuru National Park. In the mornings I would drink coffee and eat breakfast with Nic on the balcony as we watched herds of zebra, buffalo, and gazelle roam the large field between their home and Lake Nakuru. I spent the majority of my 4 days in Nakuru sitting on Nic and Rose’s balcony reading, relaxing, and enjoying the view – mostly just thankful I wasn’t sick any longer. One day I took a matatu downtown, explored Nakuru, and visited the market in search of passion fruit (Nic introduced me to them and now I’m a little obsessed). In the evenings Rose cooked delicious, traditional Kenyan meals, I did the dishes, and a few times Nic and I enjoyed beers on the balcony. Nic helped me plan the rest of my trip and advised me that Maasai Mara National Reserve was worth my time and money if I wanted to see some giraffes (among other animals). Nic set me up with a friend who organizes safaris, and on the last morning I said goodbye to Rose, and Nic dropped me off at the meeting place to join the rest of the group. My time with Nic and Rose was exactly what I needed and I have them to thank for the countless number of giraffes and other animals I saw during my last 3 days in Kenya.

Lake Nakuru National Park
View of Lake Nakuru National Park from Nic and Rose’s balcony.

My safari experienced proved worthwhile, just as Nic said it would. I joined 7 others (from the US, Ireland, Spain, Korea, Japan, and Slovenia) in a safari van and began the 4-hour drive to Maasai Mara. Before we even reached the reserve we found wild giraffes grazing amongst the trees on the side of the road; it was an incredible sight to behold. Once we reached our camp (we slept 2-3 in large canvas tents on concrete platforms with bathrooms attached), we unloaded our stuff and took an evening drive through the park as the sun was setting. On our first day we saw herds of zebra, gazelle, antelope, buffalo, wildebeest, giraffe, and a lone lion and elephant. The whole experience was surreal, and a guidebook I read correctly described it as an “Animals of the Serengeti” poster in a 5th grade classroom, where a bunch of unseemly animal friends are hanging out together next to a watering hole. In reality it was very similar, where zebra, gazelle, and buffalo grazed together with giraffes not far off up the hill and a lone lion resting not some 100 m in the distance. There are no fences that enclose Maasai Mara – the animals are free to roam where they please and eat whom they hunger for on lands protected by the national government. We spent a whole day in the park on our second day, where we saw herds of elephants, a pride of lions, two tired cheetahs, hippos and alligators in the river, warthogs, and many more of the characters from the day before. Although our last day was supposed to include a sunrise game drive, we got a late start and ended up taking a short, uneventful ride before driving 6 hours back to Nairobi.

My brethren welcoming me to Maasai Mara.
My brethren welcoming me to Maasai Mara.

I spent my last night in Kenya in a quiet hostel on the outskirts of Nairobi, and the next morning I caught my flight back to Addis. Operation Get A New Visa proved successful, as I was granted a 3-month tourist visa upon arrival. In the arrival hall of the airport I was greeted with the smell of coffee roasting over charcoal stoves and spices that have come to define Ethiopian cuisine – smells which were notably absent in Kenya. Unlike my first time arriving in Addis, when Yonas drove Rudy and me back to Rudy’s house, I successfully navigated 3 minibus taxis back to our neighborhood (and even haggled over the price in Amharic), stopped to buy some bread and fruit at a nearby suuk on the walk home, and smiled to myself at the progress I have made over the past 2 months. Each day I feel more comfortable in this crazy country I currently call home.

Adventures in the Ethiopian healthcare system

The beginning of the rainy season is upon us, and that means mud, power outages, and water shortages. Right now every day starts out sunny and brisk (~55 F) with temperatures rising to a glorious ~75 F by midday, followed by a sudden drop in temperature to ~55 F as the rain moves in around 3pm. Much to our displeasure, it behooves us to get up early and do the majority of our work before lunchtime (12:30pm – 2pm) so we can make it back to the house warm and dry.

Internet is harder to come by in Ambo these days as network failures and power outages become more commonplace. We were told that water shortages will also occur regularly as the mud caused by the rain infiltrates and clogs the water lines, resulting in a shutdown as workers address the clogged pipes. Two weeks ago we experienced our first water shortage, an all-around humbling experience and a great reminder that water quantity, not just quality, is of paramount importance for sanitation, hygiene, and overall health. We supplemented bottled water from neighborhood suuks (kiosks/bodegas) with harvested rainwater from out gutters (to flush the toilets) and jerry cans of tap water from our neighbors (to clean our dishes and prepare food), but in the end it wasn’t enough to prevent Emily from contracting [what she knows from personal experience to be] giardia, Ani from getting a stomach bug, and me from coming down with a mystery illness. With 3 out of 6 people sick in a house without running water, our bathroom quickly turned into a public health nightmare with hand sanitizer as our only defense between the toilet seat and our food.

During my second episode of the recurring fever with a temperature of 103 F, I decided to go back to Addis with Emily and Lisa so I could recover in a place with running water. As I booked my flight to Kenya for the following week (due to my expiring visa) and with no time to see if the recurring fever would stop on its own, Lisa, who grew up in Addis, offered to take me to the local hospital to get checked out. The Korean Hospital is certainly one of the nicer hospitals in Addis, though everything is relative as their bathrooms were worse than our bathroom in Ambo. To have a consultation with a doctor, I paid 200 ETB (10 USD) and was admitted to the emergency room. The doctor (whom Lisa said was likely a med student or recent graduate), determined I needed a blood test, urinalysis, chest x-ray, and EKG. 2100 ETB (~100 USD, which we paid my pooling our money together because I never carry that much on my person at one time) and 5 hours later, it was concluded that I was fine. All my tests checked out and by that time my fever subsided and I felt much better, so we called it a day and went home to rest after a long day of travel and hospital visits.

48 hours later (Saturday) my fever returned, right on time. With my flight to Kenya on Monday and little faith in the public hospitals in Addis, I decided it was time to visit a private clinic. I found a newly opened, 24-hour clinic affiliated with the Norwegian Hospital that accepted walk-in patients, so 5 of us packed into Biruh’s car (another Emory student whose family lives in Addis) and went on our second medical adventure. The Viking Clinic is located in an upscale neighborhood in a spacious house that was converted into a medical facility. This time I paid 2700 ETB (135 USD) for a consultation with a Norwegian doctor, whom I trusted fully, and rested in a private room under a down comforter as the same tests performed previously were rerun. Although we were convinced I had malaria (recurring fevers 48 hours apart are a telltale sign), all of my blood work, urinalysis, and EKG results were normal and only slightly hinted at a bacterial infection. 7350 ETB (~370 USD) and 4 hours later, I was diagnosed with an upper respiratory tract infection [or the flu] and prescribed some antibiotics and fever reducer, which we picked up at a pharmacy on the way home for 300 ETB (15 USD).

With less than 48 hours to go before my flight, I started taking my antibiotics and drank plenty of water. Besides a miserable vacation in Kenya, I was mostly concerned that I would not be allowed to enter the country as my fever was scheduled to return on the day of my flight and African airports continue to strictly monitor travelers’ temperatures as the ebola outbreak continues in West Africa (yes, that’s still happening). Spoiler alert: my fever has not returned since I started taking antibiotics and I successfully made it into Kenya. In the end, it seems I had an infection after all and the antibiotics did the trick. Thanks, Norwegian doctor!

Looking back, I find myself thankful for the healthcare (and insurance) I am afforded in the US and reminded that plentiful, clean water is not something to take for granted. While the quality of healthcare in the US is comparable to the Norwegian clinic I visited, a doctor’s visit and prescription antibiotics would have cost significantly more in the US without health insurance. Even as Ethiopia’s economy struggles to keep up with the rest of the world, the benefit of government-subsidized medicine is not lost upon them. Just as important, access to plentiful, clean water is essential for proper sanitation, hygiene, and good health. The importance of water quality is obvious to most, though the importance of water quantity is often overlooked, especially in America where waste is the name of the game. I am reminded of the drought in California and cannot help but think that many people are in for a rude awakening if water usage habits are not addressed in the near future.

Home, sweet home in Ambo

I’ve been in Addis for the past 2.5 weeks working alongside the Emory team, whom arrived two weeks ago. There are 5 grad students getting their Masters in Public Health or Development Practice and they will be working on our project for the summer as part of a practicum required for their degree programs. While the Emory students are drowning in work as they prepare to begin conducting the baseline questionnaire with the 1,200 women in our study, my workload has been relatively insignificant. I’ve purchased most of the supplies I need to conduct my experiments, but without a plot of land to construct my duckweed ponds, work is at a standstill. At a certain point, planning an experiment induces more anxiety than assurance as you have plenty of time to think up all the ways in which it might fail. To distract myself from this, I’ve been devouring books like candy (listed at the bottom), making up for all the pleasure reading that I had to put aside this last year.

It took a while, but on Thursday, June 4th I finally moved into my compound in Ambo. The compound is conveniently located in the center of the city, one block back from the main road. Ambo mostly consists of a 2-3 mile stretch of businesses – think the Vegas strip – and goes 5 or so blocks back on either side of the main road where homes, schools, and open-air markets are located. My compound has 2 structures: a house and a building with 4 rooms side-by-side that are all accessible from the outside. The house has 3 bedrooms, 1 indoor bathroom and an outdoor latrine, a kitchen, and a living room/dining room. Rudy generously purchased us an electric/gas stove (gas for when the power is out), a microwave, a toaster oven, and a water filter. We also employ a guard, Fikaru, who watches the gate and will help with our laundry. By local standards, we are spoiled. Maybe even a little bit by American standards, as I’ve never had someone do my laundry for me. I will say that I hand-washed my underwear this past weekend and it was exhausting, so I am extremely grateful for Fikaru’s help. The compound will house the Emory students and myself, Rudy and Katie whenever they come into town and need a place to stay, as well as any Because of Kennedy mission groups that come to Ambo to visit the families that they sponsor.

Our house is easily identified on the street by the giant tree with pink flowers that hangs over our gate.
Our house is easily identified on the street by the giant tree with pink flowers that hangs over our gate.
The side house with 4 rooms.
The side house with 4 rooms.
View of the front of my compound from the gate.
View of the front of my compound from the gate.
My backyard.
My backyard.

Thursday afternoon Rudy and I met with the President of Ambo University to sign a Memorandum of Understanding – a document which describes both of our responsibilities to each other as we collaborate on the project: Ambo University will provide us with lab space and a plot of land to start our pilot study, while Rudy will be a lecturer and accept Masters students who will work on aspects of our project for their theses. Rudy received his 2nd Fullbright Fellowship – a US State Department fellowshiop program that provides funding for graduate students are professors to conduct research abroad with a sponsor institution, in Rudy’s case, Ambo University. The signing was very formal and the university PR people were present to take pictures and write up a story for the school newspaper. A few days later I met with the Dean of the College of Agriculture and the Chair of the Animal Sciences department to discuss our need for a plot of land and lab space. Our project has many different research components and it seems every department in the School of Agriculture will be able to contribute in some way, especially in areas where we lack expertise (namely poultry, dairy, and tilapia farming). Another goal of ours is to establish a long-term relationship between Ambo University and Georgia Tech which will hopefully allow research collaborations and student exchanges in the future. Ambo University is known for their agriculture program and they also have a rapidly growing school of engineering, thus a partnership with Georgia Tech will no doubt prove fruitful for both schools. In fact, Georgia Tech could take a page from Ambo University’s book as their School of Engineering has a better female:male ratio than Georgia Tech…

From left to right: Rudy, my advisor; the President of Ambo University; Misganaw, President of Stand for Vulnerable Organization (SVO)
From left to right: Rudy, my advisor; the President of Ambo University; Misganaw, President of Stand for Vulnerable Organization (SVO)

So far I really like Ambo. One of the Emory students, Emily, was here for a few days with me and we went and bought stuff at the market and explored the town a little bit. Emily did Peace Corps in Senegal for 3.5 years and she’s really outgoing, which helps me push myself to get out of the house. Everyone stares at me as I walk around Ambo because they’re not used to seeing foreigners, especially white people, and especially 6’5” males with long hair (I was recently told by a priest that I look like Jesus). It’s a bit unnerving – the blank stares that I receive from groups of men sitting outside at coffee shops that seem to say “don’t come in here, you are not welcome” but are really just saying “wow, that guy is really tall, why would he want to come to Ambo?” – but if I greet them in Afaan Oromo they always smile and laugh at me and it breaks the tension. It took a while to realize that people laugh at my attempts at Afaan Oromo because they’re amazed I know anything at all, not because I messed up and made a fool of myself. Walking around can be overwhelming with all the starring, people asking me for money, and the whispers (or shouts) of “farenji!” (foreigner in Afaan Oromo).  Sometimes it makes me want to stay inside and only go out when I need to, so I really have to push myself to get out of the house. I figure the more people see me the less they’ll stare, so it seems I need to walk up and down the streets a couple times each day. Every day gets easier and I continue to feel more comfortable in my own skin.

Books: “My Precious World”, Sonia Sotomayor’s memoir which I can’t recommend enough; “T-Rex and the Crater of Doom”, the fascinating story of the discovery of the crater that killed the dinosaurs, written by the geologist who published the first paper with evidence of an impact crater; Silver Linings Playbook, because I really enjoyed the movie; and the 1st Game of Thrones book, I’m hooked and halfway through the second one now.

Happenings in Addis and Ambo

Over the last two weeks I’ve bounced back and forth between Addis and Ambo many times. The 2 hour drive between the cities can be relaxing, thanks to the lovely scenery, and I have to constantly remind myself to enjoy the view instead of looking at the road ahead and freaking out as Yonas passes slower taxis and busses on the narrow, winding road. Once out of Addis, the chaos of the big city transitions to quiet, scenic farmland with rolling hills and the occasional mountain. The vast majority of Ethiopia’s economy is dependent on subsidence farming, including the export of coffee and, surprisingly, fresh-cut flowers. We pass by many greenhouses on the way to Ambo, all filled with roses.

The road to Ambo.
The road to Ambo.

On Thursday, May 14th, Rudy and I attended the Seminar on Technology Innovation at Ambo University. The seminar was a joint venture between Ambo University and Stand for Vulnerable Organization (SVO), the NGO that we are collaborating with for our research project. Lecturers at the university gave talks about innovation in the developing world, specifically Ethiopia, including adobe housing technology, rainwater harvesting, bio-sand water purification, and solar energy. Rudy gave the keynote address about his personal and academic connections with Ethiopia, including the algae-duckweed innovation (ADI) project that I am a part of. We arrived a few minutes late and walked into a crowd of hundreds of students clapping and welcoming us. Overwhelmed, we did what we were told and took seats at the head table facing the audience. The seminar proved to be interesting as the power was out for most of the time, thus speakers gave talks from their laptops without any visual aid for the audience. Later on, all the seminar guests, including myself, were asked to judge science fair projects done by the secondary prep school. The high school students designed solutions to problems currently facing Ethiopia (and really, most of the world): access to clean water; a reliable, renewable power supply; clean, safe transportation options; home security; and sustainable housing design. The students presented their ideas on posters and many built working prototypes of their designs, constructed out of trash and recyclable materials and complete with electrical circuits and motors. It was inspiring to see the hard work and ingenuity these students put into their designs, especially given the very limited resources which they had to work with.

Reppin' GT at Ambo University.
Reppin’ GT at Ambo University.

That Saturday I had the opportunity to help Katie distribute belated Christmas presents (which got stuck in customs for many months) and household supplies to the guardians and children in the SVO/Because of Kennedy program. Rudy and Katie’s NGO, Because of Kennedy (BoK), partners with SVO on many programs which aim to empower vulnerable women and children to obtain the skills and knowledge necessary to escape the cycle of poverty. While the children in the program, all of which are orphaned and living with either a single parent, their grandparents, or distant relatives, are supplied with school uniforms, books, and access to a medical clinic, the guardians are required to attend classes on entrepreneurship, managing finances and savings, family planning, nutrition, etc. The families in the program have sponsors in the US which write letters, send Christmas presents, and sometimes visit the family on organized BoK-sponsored trips. The SVO/BoK program differs from many large sponsorship programs in that it focuses on empowerment and developing the self-esteem and self-efficacy of the guardians with the goal of the guardians’ businesses becoming sustainable and the family ‘graduating’ from the program after 5-7 years. On Saturday I helped Katie distribute Christmas presents to the children from their sponsors, along with soap and hair oil to each guardian for their household. While the SVO/BoK program is much more than just distributing presents, it was priceless to see the excitement of the children as they received letters, pictures, and gifts from their sponsor family. Even more exciting was when they received pictures of themselves with their sponsor family from past BoK trips to Ethiopia and when they were told that their sponsor was coming to Ethiopia next week to visit them. Over the years I’ve grown pessimistic about large sponsorship programs – many seem more like organized ways for people in the developed world to ease their guilt by throwing money or presents at the problem, than sustainable solutions to poverty in the developing world – but this experience refreshed my outlook and opened my eyes to the good that certain programs are capable of accomplishing. While the fruits of an education and successful family business will prove invaluable in the long term, reminding children that they are worthy of love, success, and happiness is just as important.

Group picture before we distributed presents and supplies.
Group picture before we distributed presents and supplies.
Receiving presents while cheering on the Braves!
Receiving presents while cheering on the Braves!

After distributing gifts, Katie and I returned to Addis. On the drive home, Yonas invited me out the next day to explore Addis without an agenda focused on finding an item in the markets. Sunday is Yonas’ day off, so it meant a lot that he wanted to spend it with me and show me his city. We bought some beers at a corner store and drove up Entoto Mountain, home of the palace of the first King of Ethiopia. We toured the museum, which contained artifacts from the first couple of generations of Kings and Queens, drank buna (coffee) on the side of the mountain overlooking Addis, and shared our beers sitting amongst the silent eucalyptus trees in the forest. It was a great retreat from the hustle and bustle of the city. After descending the mountain, Yonas took me to a traditional Ethiopian coffee house and restaurant where we enjoyed a huge plate of injera, tibs, and many other types of meat that I forget the names of. It was great to get out of the house and see a different side of Addis, with no itinerary except relaxing and hanging out with a friend.

Palace of the first King of Ethiopia, now a church.
Palace of the first King of Ethiopia, now a church.
View of Addis from Entoto Mountain.