29.07.2016 18 °C
It is quite surreal now sitting at home with my Ethiopian coffee thinking back over my last 4 weeks in Ethiopia. It's hard to believe that just one month ago, Jenny made that dash to Canberra for my visa. I am so grateful that it all worked out and I had the opportunity to experience one of the most amazing chapters of my life. Before I left, I questioned my motive for doing this trip and worried it was simply a 'bucket list' experience that needed to be 'ticked off'. I'm pleased to report that this is not the case. Not once did I think I had made the wrong decision or feel like scuttling back home. Sure, there were times I found it stressful (I really hate cold showers and doing a Caesarean in the dark!), but the good far outweighed the bad.
I was warned about the reverse culture shock on returning home but I wasn't quite prepared for the emotion I felt when I simply popped down to May Street Larder for my skinny flat white with 2 sugars. Sitting waiting for my coffee and watching the excesses of our Western culture was overwhelming (not to mention the $4.80 I had to pay for my coffee!). 48 hours earlier, I had been in one of the poorest countries in the world where life is a struggle and the basic things we take for granted are not available. We have all seen it in places like Bali but, having been totally immersed in Ethiopia for a month, I found it so much more difficult to bear. I'm sure this raw feeling with dissipate as I settle back into my old life.
I've said this before, but I still feel somewhat embarrassed by all the attention received from my family and friends. I have given a mere 4 weeks out of my comfortable life; while others like Andrew Browning, Marjolein and Katie spend months, years, or their entire lifetime helping those less fortunate in many places around the world. However, I also now realize that even my tiny contribution is part of the big picture. Without short term volunteers, the system is not sustainable. I am proud to have contributed to this important issue of global women's health.
I was lucky! Barhirdar is a safe place to work. There are no conflicts, endemic diseases or natural disasters. The hospital is well established with trained and effective staff. It is supplied with all the basic but necessary equipment and there is access to help if required. The women, although very poor, mostly have the knowledge and ability to reach the hospital and thereby prevent the worst outcomes. I have now heard many stories of areas in remote Ethiopia or countries such as Sierra Leone where this is not the case; where women still die regularly during childbirth and often lose their babies. I'm so glad that my first encounter with volunteer work was in Barhirdar. I feel it is a stepping stone for future work.
I want to pay tribute to Marjolein. I tried to talk to her about her major and inspiring contribution to maternal health in Africa. She fobbed me off. 'It is my job, it is what I am trained to do', she responded. She seems tough and practical but I see through her! She loves the women she helps, she is proud of the local staff she trains, she works for almost no money and that she earns is given away 'because they need it more'. As a single , white woman, she has worked in the most desolate and harsh areas of Africa with minimal support. In 8 weeks she is moving to Sierra Leone to work for a year in the post-Ebola chaos. She will see things that we cannot even start to imagine. It is very humbling to know someone like this.
There have been a few questions come up that need answering:
1. Ethiopia is considered a Christian (mostly Ethiopian Orthodox) country however there are many Muslims (I am told overall 30-40%). In the Bahirdar area, around 80% of the women are Christian. There appears to be no tension between the religions and no distinction was ever made in the hospital. Occasionally I noticed a name like 'Fatima Mohamed', but otherwise I would have no idea and it didn't matter. Everyone was treated the same and there were no issues with me being male
2. I saw no FGM (female genital mutilation, female circumcision). It is a regional cultural issue and almost nonexistent in the Barhirdar area. Marjolein worked in the remote Afar region of northern Ethiopia and FGM there is almost 100%
3. Marjolein is officially a Tropical Medicine Specialist. However this name is a little misleading. There is a specific international training program in The Netherlands designed to produce career aid doctors - I guess you could call them 'professional volunteers'. The training involves obstetrics, surgery and paediatrics with a view to preparing these specialists to work in remote areas and deal with anything. Prior to doing this course, Marjolein had actually done 4 years of surgical training which has been a great help to her. So, although not actually an obstetrician, she was more capable than myself and most of my Australian colleagues at managing obstetric disasters.
4. Now that I am safely back in Australia, I can report that my lack of social media for a week was due to a 'blackout' from the Ethiopian government. They own all media outlets and the one telephone/internet company; thereby having the ability to block anything they wish. The official unofficial story was that there was a leak of a university exam paper so the government blocked all social media (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsAp, etc) so that this information wasn't dispersed. The unofficial unofficial story was that there was an outbreak of political violence in a nearby town which the government didn't want spread around. Who knows the truth! The university students were NOT happy about this censorship (and got around it anyway, like me, with a VPN!!) triggering demonstrations and probably making it worse for the government in the end!
5. Yes! I will return - either to Barhirdar or somewhere else. I'm not finished.........
These are links to the organization I worked with:
If anybody wants to read more about some of these inspiring people:
So that's the end of my blog. See you next time!