And now for something completely different. Although teaching English in Japan provides its own set of unique experiences, one of the best things about travelling and working abroad is meeting people who are up to even more interesting things than you are.
Like my friend Kati, who recently left her corporate job to work for an NGO in Ethiopia. To take a break from writing about weird things in Tokyo, (and hopefully kickstart a series of interviews) I asked Kati a few questions about the project she's working on.
Ethiopia is the second most populous country in Africa. It's incredibly diverse - landscapes transform completely over each region and the population consists of numerous tribes with even more different languages. As well as being a transit hub for migrants from surrounding countries trying to reach Europe, it has also suffered drought, famine and a long-running border war with neighbouring Eritrea.
If you want to know how to swear in Amharic, what to eat in capital Addis Ababa but also get an on-the-ground perspective of the refugee crisis you've been watching on the news, read on.
Interview with Kati Romics
Who are you and how did you end up in Ethiopia?
I am an overeducated management burnout who got tired of corporate mediocrity and inertia and found my side-jobs and volunteer experiences in development more rewarding so thought I should probably pursue that full time.
I am also a ruthless traveller and a passionate photographer of distant cultures, so everything led up to applying for a humanitarian mission with one of the punkest NGOs.
What can you tell me about your work there?
My organisation provides healthcare impartially to those in desperate need. My job is to buy, store and deliver all the goods we need to make this happen.
I am in charge of supply, which means forecasting, planning, ordering, purchasing, transporting and storing medical and non-medical items for our projects. So everything from anti-snake venom that has to be stored always between 2 and 8 degrees to expat food including hard to find items like Nutella.
I mostly work in our coordination office in the capital Addis Ababa and travel to our projects all over the country from a few days up to a few weeks to consult, implement new strategies and find solutions.
What was your first impression of the country and the people?
The first impression was very positive. Ethiopia was never a colony, which makes them extremely proud people and have less prejudice against foreigners.
A few months in, I also see some challenges in this - they don't necessarily like to be told what to do and are careful in taking advice or learning things, which sometimes makes working situations difficult.
Tell me about the local dialect and teach me something amusing to say in it!
My favourite Amharic word is "eshi" which originally means "OK", but is used for everything - yes, ok, good, whatever, leave me alone, fuck off, goodbye.
You told me you got savaged by rats on your first night there. What happened?
Very rookie mistake. In the projects, you mostly sleep in tents or small huts. On my first night in one of our projects, I had some left-over cookies in one of my bags I had forgotten about.
At night rats attacked my tent - they were jumping up and down the bed, the boxes, trying to get close to my bag. I was terrified squatting on my bed wrapped in my mosquito net trying to escape!
I managed to run out and seek refuge in the neighbouring tent of an epidemiologist. The rats ate through both my bags. I later heard they eat soap and toothpaste, as well as steal the plumpy nut from the storages.
Speaking of food… What’s good, what’s weird, and what won’t most people have heard of?
Everything is great. The main food is injera. It’s made out of tef and they eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It's like a big chapati or burrito and has a strange sour taste. It’s a bit like beer - your first bite is horrifying and then you can't get enough of it.
There are a huge variety of great veggies, spices, all sorts of oils of grains we have never heard of. People eat a lot of raw meat. This is also the home of coffee which they drink with crazy amounts of sugar.
Everyone shares food from the same plate and eats with their hands. It’s common to feed one another - even coworkers at the office. The first time someone tried to put food in my mouth randomly was a bit of a shock. I love how eating together is so important they even have a special greeting to invite people to come share food with you: "Inibila" or እንብላ.
How do the natives let their hair down?
Clubbing is a big thing all over the country. Even the shyest of coworkers go crazy on the dance-floor - of course only to Ethiopian music - and the local dance is to move your shoulders up and down, or shake your neck and chest.
The Ethio-jazz is world famous and many fantastic underground jazz bars offer live music. Eating local food and drinking local beers and local liquors like tej, honeywine and other strong alcoholic delicacies help the stress relief.
Can you give me a quick introduction to the issues you’re helping with?
With 350,000 South Sudanese refugees currently in Ethiopia, we help with basic healthcare such as malaria, nutrition, maternity and mental health. We also have a presence in Eritrean refugee camps, where apart from basic health, very high mental health support is needed for the many unaccompanied minors and older mostly male refugees who often spend several years waiting at the camps. In the Somali region, drought and epidemic emergency teams cure and supply the local population, and in other areas, we treat tropical diseases like kala-azar.
How does working for an NGO in Africa compare to working in a corporate environment?
In many ways, it’s similar because you follow guidelines and processes. But in a high-security context with early curfews, container offices with limited internet and cell reception, and with accommodation in tents with latrines. Hiring and people management a challenge everywhere, but in some regions here you have to take special care with hiring people from enemy tribes!
I love that in emergencies everyone works extremely hard so there is no time for office gossip. What you do is important rather than who you flatter. You also see the immediate effect of your day’s work every evening, which is extremely fulfilling. As opposed to waiting months for a supervisory board’s approval.
Tell me more about the situation with the Eritrean refugees.
They escape a brutal dictatorship: obligatory military service, torture and zero freedom. They also escape because of false hope coming from human traffickers who promise them fast access to the EU or USA. Instead, they wait in the camps for years and years. Some leave the camps and try their luck via Sudan, Lybia and across the Mediterranean. Many die while travelling.
These are just people like you and me, they used to have jobs, education, families (of which many have been tortured or killed) and they are fleeing, not because they want to take advantage of free stuff in EU, but because they simply have no other choice.
What they most want is to go back home, or stay in Ethiopia, get work and reunite with their families, but that is rarely an option. Sure, there are an opportunistic few, but that is a very small percentage. Over 10% in the camp I worked at were unaccompanied minors: small boys aged 10 to 16 who started escaping with a dad or an uncle but lost their guardian on the way.
It’s easy to be detached from all these things sitting at home. How does this affect me and why should I be bothered?
Many of these issues are global issues and if not dealt with them at the source, they will spread into our living rooms. Epidemics like Ebola, cholera, and HIV don't know borders and are just a plane ride away. If you don't support organisations dealing with this at the source, you simply can be dead.
If you have a tiny feeling in you of compassion, or have an understanding of human rights and are enjoying benefits just because you were born in "the west", you can maybe try to understand that you are not better because you are smarter but simply lucky that you don't live in a climate where there is malaria, kala-azar, Ebola or poisonous snakes.
What's the best possible outcome of your work there?
A good outcome is if we can leave because we taught the locals how to treat and get resources on their own without help.
We hope to be able to draw international attention to human rights issues here and advocate for better governments, better healthcare and lower drug prices.
What’s next for you?
As I don’t feel that my work here is done I have accepted another mission in South Sudan.
You can see more of Kati's photos on her website.
All images Copyright Kati Romics 2017.