Monday, January 23, 2012

under african skies.

Salaam everyone,

As the photo would indicate, I’m writing to y’all from sunny Ethiopia.

For those who didn’t know, I’m here as part of a Fulbright project that one of my geography professors, Johnathan Bascom, is organizing this year. He’s working at Bahir Dar University (sorry, not visible on the map above), teaching and putting together a textbook on the geography of Ethiopia – the first one written since 1972. I’ve flown over here for 2 weeks to be a small part of that project – Jason VanHorn (another one of my geography profs) and I are here to lead a workshop for Ethiopian geography faculty from across the country, launching the digital atlas for this textbook and equipping these geographers with skills in cartography, GIS, and in using data from their own country (something most Ethiopian geography profs have not been able to do much.) Since they know their country better than we do, we’re hoping to empower them with the skills they need to go forth and make maps. More on the joys and travails of this endeavor a bit later…

But first, a quick overview of what we’ve been up to. Since the moment we left Calvin on Friday, January 20, our time here has been a non-stop adventure.

It began with our 24 hours of travel, which mother nature took the liberty of kicking off for us with a bang, sending a massive snowstorm sweeping through the Midwest. I’ll spare you the gory details, but some of the results include: a mad dash through the length of the Detroit airport, a re-routed flight schedule (no stroepwafels in Amsterdam….Hallo, Frankfurt!), and the failure of our luggage to arrive on time (guess it couldn’t run as fast as we did in Detroit). But our bodies arrived to Addis Ababa on time (Saturday evening here), which is most important, and lucky for me, my luggage came the next morning (Jason is still waiting for his.)

Sunday morning, we took it easy to catch up on sleep (plus the altitude adjustment – we’re at 7,500 ft), and headed off to lunch at a restaurant to share a meal with some other Grand Rapidians (Calvin folks, in fact) currently residing in Ethiopia. I was eager to chow down on some injera, but they told me the best thing on the menu was the fajitas, and reminded me that I’d have traditional Ethiopian food for the remainder of the two weeks… so why not? Yep, my first meal in Ethiopia was Mexican food. A bit disorienting, but the guac was spicy so I can’t complain. In the afternoon, a geographer from the university was gracious enough to take us on a drive up Mount Entoto, where the emperor used to have his palace. It is the highest mountain around Addis, which afforded us some beautiful views in addition to a helpful orientation to the geography of the city and a chance to bask in that lovely late afternoon light. When we came down the mountain, we enjoyed some pineapple fanta (it’s no fanta limón but it’s better than any refresco americano!) and then came home and tried to fall asleep to the jams of the neighboring nightclub.

Today we woke up to communal breakfast at the guest house in Addis (which is the headquarters of the SIM mission organization) and had breakfast with a variety of missionaries, including a board member of a health organization in Southern Ethiopia, who is also the retired Vice President of Administration and Finance at Fuller Seminary! Well I’m rather fond of Fuller and even more fond of VPs of Admin & Finance, so naturally we got along well. (Oh, and he knew my personal favorite VP of Admin & Finance, my pops. Small world!) Then we got our fancy clothes on and headed to the US Embassy for a day of meetings with various officials there (they are the co-sponsor of our workshop.) It was at once overwhelming, exciting, challenging, intimidating, informative, and empowering. As the mere TA (teaching assistant), I didn’t talk much in our meetings – but keeping up with the complex consulting and large-scale vision casting was work enough to keep me busy.

A few things struck me most about these meetings (particularly our meeting with Ed, the Regional Environment Officer for most of East Africa.)
  • Ok, a small silly thing first, and this is mostly dedicated to my housemateys. Wearing professional clothes (dress jacket, heels that make clicking noises on the floor, etc) can do a lot to make you feel powerful. Oh, and hipster fake glasses ARE ridiculous, BUT they come in handy when you want to look more like a grad student and less like an undergrad in meetings with high-up USAID officials and such.
  • More importantly, today I was very much struck by both our opportunities and limitations working here in Ethiopia. I’m realizing how this work we’re doing here is intimately tied in with international development. In fact… it IS international development in a way. We’re working on capacity-building with Ethiopians so that they become able to do mapping work that will primarily be used for development projects that address food security, water access, climate change, public health, and economic stability. Our work here, I’m realizing, is not merely a chit chat between high-up folks in the ivory tower, bur rather, more of a practical exchange between (academic) people who desire to see positive change in both the academic landscape as well as the socio-economic landscape of this place. I like that a lot, and the more I experience this mutual exchange of knowledge (for certainly, we are learning much, too!), the more excited and grateful I am to be here. At the same time, I am coming to a better understanding of our limits (it's always good to be humbled). The cultural, economic, infrastructural, etc. boundaries are massive. All development and change is slow – with or without the Fulbright name attached.
  • I could go on about that development stuff, but maybe another time :)
All told, it was a very productive time at the US embassy. And I got my first Ethiopian meal there – delicious, by the way.

We rounded out our afternoon with a visit to the ethnographic museum, where (for all you history buffs out there) we saw former emperor Hallie Selassie’s old residence.

Now I’m writing to y’all in the sunshine and we’re headed out for what I hear is the best Italian food in town (lingering remnants of the Italian occupation here during WWII). (update - we just got back from dinner. Yep, it was delicious.)

I’ll try to write again soon with more reflections on Ethiopian culture (and food), power relationships, simple living, and other things I’ve been thinking about a bit in our time here, as well as on our latest travels. Tomorrow we’re out of Addis on the 1st flight to Bahir Dar to start prepping the lab for our workshop. Next, I’ll be writing from the shores of beautiful Lake Tana.

grace and peace,


  1. :) yes, this made my day! So glad to hear what your up to! loving the development stuff! and of course, i love you!
    (ps. im sure you know my perspective on what you were as you rocked those clicky heels, haha)

  2. This was great, Emma! Thank you for the detailed description of your travels and work; this really helped me get an idea of what you're up to. I love and miss you! -Sarah

  3. This sounds like an awesome opportunity!
    I could go for some injera right about now... although being left-handed I need real focus when eating it to custom.