Dunedin woman Shona Somerville travelled 14,000km to satisfy
a long-held wish to do voluntary work overseas. She tells of
her volunteer holiday in Ethiopia.
An exotic destination, a chance for service to others,
pushing yourself outside your comfort zone, meeting new
people. Ethiopia, here I come.
A long-time idea has been to do voluntary work overseas. When
my daughter alerted me to a Habitat for Humanity three-week
build in Ethiopia, I was surprised by my passionate,
definitive and instant response. I was going to do this and I
was going to do this on my own. Call it mid-life crisis if
you will! Supportive husband said: ''Go for it''.
During October, I was one of three women in a group of 12,
part of ''Team Kiwi 124'', setting off to build mud homes -
adapted Ethiopian-style. Habitat for Humanity is a non-profit
Christian organisation that builds affordable housing around
the world, including New Zealand. Its conviction is that
every man, woman and child should have a decent, safe and
affordable place to live.
We were aged 17 to 70 and included a semi-retired physio, an
architect, several builders, an aluminium window businessman,
a CYF-sponsored youth, a manager in a sexual offenders
facility in Australia, an occupational therapist (me) and a
couple in their late 50s having a year out to reprioritise
their lives. Several had been before.
Fitness varied and people worked to their own capacity. We
were accompanied by Kassahun Berkele, a civil engineer and
project manager with Habitat, who translated and explained
the culture to us, as well as by the driver of our small bus
and his assistant. English was reasonably well understood.
It was a moving experience to be welcomed on site at the
beginning of our nine days working on the ''build'' in Debre
Berhan, three hours' drive north of Addis Ababa.
Coincidentally, it was World Habitat Day and our fellow
''habisher'' (native) workers and future Habitat homeowners
Both men and women put in about 500 hours of ''sweat equity''
to offset a non-interest mortgage they get from Habitat. By
working on the build, people gain skills, and some go on to
be employed by Habitat as ''specialists''.
Those selected to eventually own one of these homes were
drawn from all over Debre Berhan. Working together builds new
relationships and relationships eventually build communities.
''Many homes, one community'' is the motto. We certainly felt
that our little labour contribution did make a difference and
was valued, especially as our team (and there were many from
all over the world) had travelled the furthest to get there.
New Zealanders have a reputation here for being hard workers.
Our build was in a semi-rural subdivision on the outskirts of
Debre Berhan, once wasteland: a mixture of Habitat and
private homes. Only the primary roads were sealed in this
town, so the road down to the build was rocky and the bus
Most people walk. Donkeys and horse-drawn carts were common.
Cars were few.
We were on site and working at 8.45am and worked until
4.30pm. We each put in one meal allowance (about $7) a day
for the local women to cook us a main meal. This was enough
to feed the other workers too.
It was hard manual labour building what, in total, was about
four two-roomed houses - digging foundations, helping to
frame up, lashing split timber to the corrugated-iron roofed
framework, chikkaing (plastering a mud and straw brew) inside
and out and compacting soil inside to build up the floor
The guys concreted the floor of several latrines. People
squat on these, and with only a small hole, we soon
discovered your aim has to be good. A stick usually aids the
disposal of overshoots.
Because there is no toilet paper or hand-washing facilities,
it's good to always have toilet paper and hand sanitiser
Tools were simple and processes labour-intensive. Initially,
until we were work-hardened, our muscles were screaming by
the end of the day - muscles for Africa, literally! I loved
being the chikka-chucking chick at the end of the line,
hurling the chikka pad to the waiting plasterer, who was
sometimes as high as 4m up a ladder.
There was a certain pleasure in aiming exactly right so that
the plasterer just had to lean out to guide the airborne
chikka and slap it forcefully on to the wall. With a good
supply chain, we easily developed a nice rhythm. One
plasterer used to joke ''come on, come on'' and I took up the
challenge. It was some pace we reached, and a relief when the
working day finally ended. A special moment was when he
thanked me (the only word I understood!).
Plastic conduit is threaded into the chikka walls for
connecting electricity at some future stage. Dried chikka
walls, inside and out, receive a finer coat of chikka. The
last outside layer is a fine-cement plaster. In time, owners
will lime wash these in colours of their choice.
As we worked, we picked up a few Amharic words: amasagnalahu
- thank you; babqat - enough; salem - hello. Our fumbling
language attempts were often met with indulgent but kindly
smiles and patient repetitions. We were often a source of
amusement no matter what we did.
Every three days, we had a welcome afternoon off but tended
to have something to do. We were privileged to be invited
into the homes of two families awaiting a Habitat house. One
was an ex-leprosy sufferer and his family who, as a
''vulnerable group'', had been selected for a free house with
a concrete floor. The other was a family from a
''conventional group'' (low income) who make the usual labour
and mortgage contribution. Both lived in one-room rented
properties, with multiple families sharing basic cooking and
toileting facilities, if any.
On our final day, there were speeches, gift-giving, singing
and energetic African dancing, which we attempted to join in.
We had something special for them - after choir practice
every night for the last week, we sang Pokarekare ana.
The guys' haka caused much merriment to those not used to
public displays of bare male chests. Kassahun had taught us a
song in Amharic: ''Let's praise, let's praise our Lord who
gives many favours.''
It certainly sums up the whole experience of this trip for
Some special hugs all around and our job is done.
Special memories from the ''build'' were: the quiet
peacefulness, except for the delightful noise of local
chatter, occasional singing and the sounds of work - nothing
mechanical; sheep, goats, cows, donkeys and oxen herded past
on their way to grazing, with children often playing among
them; the camaraderie and relationships with locals, despite
the language barriers; having the opportunity to experience
something of the Ethiopian culture; and, of course, the
children, who would all rush to say hello and shake our hands
wherever we went.
I feel hugely privileged to have had the opportunity to work
with those who would inhabit the houses we helped to build,
and thankful to Steve Calley and Paul Graham, our leader and
co-leader, who wanted so much to share their love of Ethiopia
and its people. Days offOn our one Sunday off, we rode a slow
bus along rocky roads to a monastery built into a cliff.
This outing included 30 minutes feeling our way in bare feet
in the dark with a group of Ethiopians through an ascending
winding tunnel. The traditional religious singing as we
gathered in the chamber at the end was a powerful conclusion
to a challenging experience.
We spent three days in Lalibela, in the Highlands. The town
is famous for its 13 12th-century monolithic churches carved
out below ground level. Ethiopia was the first nation in the
world to adopt Christianity as its national religion, in
AD330. Each church and its environs represents an aspect of
the New Jerusalem and thus a spiritual journey. Incidentally,
the Queen of Sheba, of the Old Testament, came from Ethiopia
and apparently people are still searching for her gold.
Ethiopia is high in altitude, mountainous, green and
beautiful. While in Lalibela, we climbed a rocky but well
travelled path to spend the night at a stone lodge on a
table-top mountain at 3300m. Our three-hour endurance effort
can be completed by an unburdened and acclimatised local in
45 minutes. It was only foot, donkey and horse traffic up
here. We arrived in time to put on all our warm clothes, as
the temperature drops markedly once the sun sets. There was
Part of dinner was a goat tethered at the back door, which I
was pleased I had not noted. Highland hospitality included
food, singing, dancing and feet washing and massage. We had
about six days overall in Addis Ababa over three visits. We
went to Hanna's orphanage, where she cares for about 200
children, including some with HIV.
We also visited the fistula hospital. With limited access to
medical help and with birthing difficulties, some woman are
left permanently incontinent and become social outcasts. This
was a clean, green and peaceful oasis, where we heard stories
of women who, after a restorative operation, could return to
their villages to start new lives and share with others the
education in nutrition, birthing and child care they received
Population: 84 million people. 90% live in rural
Life expectancy: 53 years in the cities, 48 in rural
Religion: Majority Christian, one-third Muslim.
Capital: Addis Ababa, population 3 million.
Time: The Ethiopian calendar is seven to eight years
behind the West's Gregorian calendar. While I was in
Ethiopia, it was the second of 13 months in 2005. The day is
divided into two 12-hour time cycles beginning at our 6am.
This means you have to be careful about what time you are
Currency: Ethiopian birr. 1 birr = 7c.
National language: Amharic. Average wage: $NZ2 a
Main issues: sanitation, housing, poverty and
Main export: coffee.