By Mark Fryars
OK, so you know what and where SNNPR is, right? No? Oh! Well, in short, it is a region in Ethiopia, a few hours’ drive south of the capital, Addis Ababa. It’s home to some 45 ethnic groups, and its 15 million people speak 12 different languages. Half the population are Protestants, one in five are Orthodox Christian and the remainder are Muslim, Catholic or other religions. So, pretty diverse.
Almost half of Ethiopia’s coffee is grown there and, according to legend, has been ever since Kaldi discovered it several hundred years ago. Kaldi was a shepherd who noticed that, after eating the berries of a particular bush, his goats became so lively that they didn’t sleep at night. He shared the story with the abbot at the local monastery, who shared it with others and so word spread, along with the roasted beans. So I figure those Starbucks cups should be called Kaldi not Venti; otherwise, the poor guy gets no credit!
Anyway, I digress. Early in 2017, a colleague and I planned to visit a couple of schools in the SNNPR to understand at first hand the challenges they were facing when starting up a new school-based nutrition program for adolescent girls. I had proposed a low-key fact-finding visit: some discussions with local health and school staff, with parents and, if appropriate, with some of the girls. We then set off on the road trip south, which was a bit slow mostly because of the four-legged obstacles, including those at the top of the page.
In this pretty, but dry, landscape we passed plenty of arable farmland. Cows, goats, chickens, horses and camels wandered merrily along the road in places, and dozens of donkeys did the job of double-cab trucks for hauling stuff around.
Eventually, after an overnight stop near an unearthly red-coloured alkali lake, we made it to the first school. As soon as we stepped out of the car, I started to sense that the idea of a low-key visit had somehow got lost in translation.
As we approached the colourfully painted gates, we could hear a low rumbling, murmuring noise that crescendoed into a hearty song of welcome, as we entered into the courtyard to be greeted by 800 smartly dressed girls and teachers gathered under one of the largest trees I have ever seen.
After suitable introductions, the next step was of course the traditional coffee ceremony complete with hot charcoal stove and popcorn — de rigeur on these occasions — and led by the school counsellor who did the honours with panache!
The head teacher then made a speech, and some of the girls were asked to talk about their experience with the program. They quickly gave up talking and instead started singing the various jingles they had made up to motivate other girls to participate, and pretty soon had the crowd singing along. Very cool!
Once the singing started, there was no stopping the fun. The local health worker and school counsellor (decked out in traditional costumes from the region) started a dance, in which they were joined first by the girls, then by the head teacher and a local official. I politely declined an invite to join in, but even without me the whole show soon had all the girls in stitches.
Unhappily I was not going to be able to get away with just being a spectator. First, I was given the privileged task of cutting up a very large, fresh and warm traditional bread (which was somehow going to feed the multitudes), and then I was asked to make a (wholly unprepared) speech of my own, complete with simultaneous interpretation from the head teacher. You can imagine the enthusiasm of teenage girls for what some old white guy had to say about “being the best they could be,” so I kept it as short as I could.
As we were clearly underdressed for the occasion in the 30-degree Celsius heat, my colleague and I were then provided with thick, woollen, multi-coloured ceremonial jackets and asked to launch the program in this much more suitable garb.
With all that over and done with, the staff then organized all the girls to start taking their weekly vitamin and mineral supplements. They all seemed more than happy to do so, not least because they got a drink of water!
We did then get a chance to talk with several girls and teachers, as well as the health worker about the program. But, all too soon, the time came to say farewell. We then headed off to the community health post to discuss the program with local officials.
Looking back, I count myself truly blessed and privileged to have received such wonderful red-carpet treatment from this community. I only hope they remember the day as well as I do — if only for the amusing memory of that funny development tourist in that awesome jacket!