A traveller’s tale – working in Ethiopia

Hello from Ethiopia, or should I say Salam Nachu (the Amharic greeting!). I am a statistics fast streamer from Defra on a two year posting to the Ethiopian Ministry of Education in Addis Ababa with the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). The ODI offers fellowships to career young economists and statisticians from around the world and places them into the government ministries of developing countries. You just need to have a masters and be up for a bit of an adventure!

I arrived in Addis in early October 2015 with three suitcases containing my worldly belongings and an open mind about what life would be like here.  I’m now nearly five months in and have settled in well and have adjusted to living in the hustle and bustle of an African capital city. There are 7 other ODI fellows who have also been placed here and a very large expat community, this means it has been pretty easy to make friends and have a busy social life!

My placement is in the Education Management Information System team (EMIS for short). Our team collects statistics on all levels of education in Ethiopia. This is no small task when there are over 25million people in some form of education across the country, with data being collected from pre-school to postgraduate level.

I work with five Ethiopian men and most of the meetings and office talk is in Amharic. As such, it has been a challenge to understand how the ministry functions and know what work is going on in the team. Since arriving I have been taking Amharic lessons, it’s quite a difficult language but I have been surprised at the speed of my improvement. Whenever I attempt to make a sentence my team love it and they are very encouraging so I just need to keep trying!

One aspect of life here that took me really by surprise is the calendar they use in Ethiopia. It’s currently 2008 and the New Year starts in the equivalent to our September, so I’ve enjoyed being 23 again! This meant that when I was given data from 2007 to get ready for publishing I was at first very concerned that they had a back log of nearly 10 years’ worth of data, however it’s actually data from 2014/15 so not as bad as I originally thought.

Traditionally the team have produced a statistical abstract of over 300 pages containing all of the information they collect. I will be working on updating their publications and hopefully publishing shorter reports that are more digestible.  The majority of my work here has revolved around providing other options for graphing and undertaking extra analysis on the data that is already available. For example, compiling time series data on their education indicators. It has been really interesting to be able to apply the knowledge that I have gained from four years working as a statistician in Defra to a completely different setting. Hopefully by the end of my time here I will have made a lasting impression!

One of the great things about a posting like this is travelling around the country; both for work and leisure. I recently returned from a work trip to Jijiga, a town which is very close to the border with Somaliland, in the surrounding desert there are several refugee camps for people fleeing Somaliland. My colleagues looked after me really well and it was an interesting place to visit and very far from the usual tourist trail in Ethiopia. I was there to give excel training to government staff in the region, I think it went well despite the fact the majority of the 100 men I gave training to had never used a computer let alone seen excel! I like to think in a few years’ time, when they might have access to a computer, they’ll remember the weird ‘ferengi’ (Amharic for foreign – I hear it shouted at me several times on a daily basis) girl who came to talk to them about how to use the ‘sum’ formula. I’ve also been to some of the more touristy places to visit, there is a wealth of cultural tourism here as Ethiopia was only colonised for a few years by the Italians and they are very proud that their culture is so different from other African nations. There are some fascinating churches to visit, in Lalibela they have been carved out of rock and date from the 11th century, an awe inspiring place to visit.

So far I’ve enjoyed my time here, it’s been very challenging at times and I’m lucky that my long-term boyfriend has been able to join me out here to keep me sane. Over the coming months I hope to be able to integrate more with my team and that I’ll become more confident with my Amharic – hopefully a New Year’s resolution that I will actually stick to!

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