The number one question people have asked about my travels is, “What was the best place you visited?” I have been to many great places, it is hard to say what was the “best”. However, my visit to Ethiopia was the best experience.
Thanks to the following comment left on my Flight4Sight Facebook Page from a Madison, Wisconsin acquaintance who works with the State Department, I was offered a unique opportunity to visit Addis Ababa, Ethiopia:
My visit to Ethiopia’s capital involved a range of challenges. I experienced missing luggage, stomach pains, hearing issues, language barriers, and so forth. Regardless, what I learned and experienced in my first visit to Africa was incredible.
Before my Flight4Sight campaign started, I was strongly encouraged by a friend (thank you Carlos) to contact my doctor and load up on shots. The nurse asked me where I was going. It was not very clear at that point (a la Facebook was deciding). She did not want to give me a Yellow Fever shot if I was not going to places where I needed it. I did not argue. Sure enough, about three weeks later, I was in the Dubai International Airport about a half hour before boarding, debating whether I should use my nonrefundable ticket to travel to Ethiopia where I might need the Yellow Fever shot.
Dan and I were feverishly (no pun intended) messaging back and forth trying to figure out if I should come to Ethiopia. We could not determine if I would be able to leave Ethiopia had I not received the Yellow Fever shot. We were perplexed, because the CDC website indicated that I needed to have the vaccine in my system for ten days before I entered other countries after being in Ethiopia. My next destination was Spain. After exhausted online searches by multiple people, we decided I could go to Ethiopia without the shot. A key reason was that I was not going to be anywhere near where Yellow Fever was a problem.
Upon arrival, I was met by Dan at the airport. He was a very welcome sight after multiple arrivals at airports with little idea where I was going. It was a break from traveling alone. Dan has been a friend of the family for 15 years, so I was in good hands.
An important part of my mission was to learn about vision issues around the world. Ethiopia faces one of the world highest rates of blindness and low vision, affecting approximately 4% of the population. On my first day, I visited the Ethiopian National Association of the Deafblind. I met with a group of people, including its director, Roman Mesfin. I discussed my mission. They were eager to tell me about what they are accomplishing. They were excited to learn the US Embassy directed me to them. We talked about their focus which is to identify deaf/blind people, bring awareness to the Ethiopian community, and to help children with deaf/blind issues develop life skills. I met with some of the children. I listened to the story of one blind girl, who was unable to walk when she came to the center a few years ago. Today, she is walking on her own. The organization takes in children from various locations around the area. It’s facilities are rundown, however the people in charge are passionate and dedicated. They talked about their need for additional resources to expand their work. This was a prevailing theme during my stay in Addis Ababa.
On the second day, I visited Retrak. They are an organization that inspires street children to have a better life. This was a change from my vision related focus, yet still very interesting. Children leave their rural homes in search of work in the city. However, they are often faced with fewer opportunities than promised and are left to brave the streets begging and stealing to survive. Retrak takes children off the streets and teaches them skills to succeed in the real world. Along with Broads Abroad Addis Ababa (a group of expatriate women), I received a tour of the facilities and met some of the children. One child had been on the streets for 9 years before he came to the program. Once again, I was impressed with the administrator’s passion.
On the third day, I went to the Addis Hiwot Center of the Blind. I met a gentlemen named Ato Mekonnen. He has been completely blind since he was a child and spoke excellent english. We talked about all sorts of issues. It is a tremendous challenge for those who can see all of their life and suddenly lose this sense. Individuals can fall into a tailspin of psychological challenges and become family dependant. Some families may not be able to support them and people with sudden vision problems often end up on the street. This is especially difficult for those living in rural areas.
The idea of a family neglecting you because of blindness is difficult for me to understand. It is different from the support I received dealing with my challenges.
From the moment I was diagnosed my family has been supportive. Indeed, my
father has gone so far as to be an active board member of the Foundation Fighting Blindness, which is the nation’s largest organization supporting retinal disease research,
The visit with the Hiwot Center also involved individuals from the US Embassy, including my friend Dan. We discussed the history of the Hiwot Center and the USAid’s involvement. We talked about the challenges for Braille textbooks. Ethiopia has multiple languages and a limited power supply to run the Braille machines. Another interesting yet frustrating thing we talked about was that blind people have been denied access to music classes at a local school for over 40 years. He talked about the challenges to even protest this because they would be reprimanded. Organizations with more than 10% aid from the US are not allowed to protest.
On my fourth and final day in Ethiopia I visited the Sebeta School of the Blind. Between accents and language barriers, communication was tough. Moreover, I had been dealing with a busted hearing aid. I relied heavily on my iPhone recording app and for transcribers to be able to write out what was said. Nonetheless, my visit to this school was the experience that touched me the most.
I met a gentleman named Bultosa Hirko. Mr Hirko is the dean of the college for the Sebeto School of the Blind. We talked about the grade school (grades 1-8). It has over 300 students. Most of them are totally blind. They arrive from all over the country and some live on campus. While the school is publicly funded, it has a wide range of needs which exceeds what the government can provide.
The schools needs ranged from canes, tape recorders, braille stylus tools, new computers and updated software. They deal with computer viruses and out of date software. They use a program called Jaws, which reads what is on the computer screen. They are currently running a very old version.
Because of the lack of efficient equipment, students have no access to learning math beyond a sixth grade level. This denies them access to certain professions. They are limited to vocations such as nursing, teaching, and the law.
I had the opportunity to talk to some of the students. We discussed internet access. Access to the online world is a challenge for the students to both connect online and be able to get the information they need translated. I asked them, “what would happen if you have access to the internet and everything on there?” They responded saying that the internet could give them access to share their stories. They could access things for their own learning and communicate to get information.
One of the most surprising things to me was the lack of canes. The few that did have what they called a cane, had sticks that were usually too short. Mr. Hirko expressed the need for more canes, especially for the older children so they could explore life outside of campus.
My time in Ethiopia was not full of meetings. I went to an authentic Ethiopian restaurant where I witnessed a wedding celebration, saw some great dancing, and drank Ambo! It is a sparkling water that comes directly from the ground. I drank it all week. Another highlight was a coffee ceremony. Ethiopia is the birthplace of coffee. It was not a bad place to have my first ever cup of coffee.
On a trip to a historical Ethiopian church, I was having a difficult time seeing the paintings. It was very dark for me. To help see the paintings, I looked at them through the camera of my iPhone. I saw them better and clearer. I wonder if this is a sign of things to come? Will I be wearing terminator glasses that will give me a clear digital image of what is in front of me?
My time in Ethiopia was eye-opening. A massive thank you goes to the Swift family. Everything I did and everywhere I went was set up by them. Throughout my stay I had very interesting conversations with Dan and Tracy about their responsibilities with the US Embassy and around the world. They are incredibly passionate about the world and helping others.
I had a very early flight out. I almost didn’t make it. For whatever reason my alarm on my phone didn’t wake me. The cab driver woke me up (thankfully). Once I made it to the airport, my trip to Spain was smooth sailing. I made an Instagram video of the sunrise on the plane during the first leg of the trip from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to Cairo, Egypt. I made it through Spain’s customs with no questions about a Yellow Fever shot.
From there, I spent the weekend in Madrid visiting old friends and going to a Blind Museum, where they forgot I was in the museum and shut the lights out… Yup. That happened……details to follow.
For more pictures of my time in Ethiopia go the my Ethiopia Facebook Album.
Transcriptions of conversations: