I’m not sure where I last left off, but I know it was a while ago. I have been in Ethiopia for over three weeks now and will soon travel to Uganda, where I will stay for the next almost two months. I spent two weeks in Addis Ababa, where I lived in Piazza (the neighborhood established for the Italians during their brief occupation and what is now the city center). Addis was an incredibly easy city to live in and I would rate it high on the happiness index for the people there. In Addis, I talked with a lot of organizations and institutions providing services for people with disabilities, particularly for the blind (there is an incredibly high rate of blindness in Ethiopia due to the prevalence of trachoma). Over the course of the conversations I couldn’t help but compare services for people with disabilities in Sierra Leone to those of Ethiopia. Here’s an example of the disparity: In Freetown, Sierra Leone, adults who become blind are referred to a local organization, The Educational Center for the Blind, for rehabilitation, which includes learning to read braille, psycho-social counseling, and skills training. To serve about 140 students, however, the Center only has two Perkins braillers and a few working computers with a demo version of JAWS (a screen reading program for the visually impaired); every forty minutes, the students have to restart the computers to continue using the program. Additionally, the government recently passed an affirmative action program to ensure the admission of qualified students with disabilities to institutions of higher education, but has no measures in place to ensure the successful completion of their studies (such as braille books or books on tape, ramps to make buildings handicap accessible, or sign language interpretation).
Coming to Ethiopia then, I was pleasantly surprised to find a large inclusive education office in the Ministry of Education, resource centers and computer labs (with fully functioning JAWS programs) for students with disabilities at Addis Ababa University (the largest and most respected university in the country), and research centers devoted to studying the experiences and needs of people with disabilities in the country. Despite the accomplishments of Ethiopian government and civil society relative to Sierra Leone, I must keep reminding myself that being relatively better does not mean being sufficient. Talking with people with disabilities, I hear a lot of stories of discrimination and social exclusion, frustration with the dearth of employment opportunities, and complaints about the poor maintenance of the resources that are available. One thing that does encourage and inspire me, however, is the sense of pride that radiates from many of the young people with disabilities that I meet or see about the city. I spend a lot of time in the Sidest Kilo neighborhood, which is the home of Addis Ababa University, the National Association of the Blind, and a majority of the “self-help” groups for the blind and deaf. The neighborhood is full of young deaf students signing together in cafes or outside classrooms and blind people walking together arm in arm with their white canes stretched in front of them. The presence of the young blind people walking together reminds me always of the derogatory saying we have in English of “the blind leading the blind.” Here, however, I think the motto of the disability rights movement as it relates to blindness should be, “When the blind lead the blind…things get accomplished!” Not only are there so many thriving organizations made up of people with disabilities working on their own behalf, but the obvious unity of the people with disabilities and their strong presence in a society that has traditionally excluded them sends a very strong message to the larger community.
Despite all that I have learned about disability issues in Ethiopia, I’ve spent most of my time (it feels like) being a lazy tourist. Last week, I took a 13-hour bus ride up to Bahir Dar, a beautiful city situated on Lake Tana and a popular destination on the tourist circuit through the Amhara region. Bahir Dar is known for the ancient monasteries situated on islands throughout the Lake. While I never made it to the monasteries, I did thoroughly enjoy being on the water! Lake Tana has great walking paths around it, public parks full of tropical flowers, and a huge market full of fresh fruits and vegetables. The highlight of the trip, however, was a day trip I took to Tis Abay, a village home to the source of the Blue Nile. After about an hour’s walk up a steep hill (which, due to a coincidence of timing, I walked with a nice man herding his donkeys up the path and over to a new patch of grass), you are left with a stunning view of three towering waterfalls. The best part is that there are no fences, so after walking down to the falls, I waded through mud directly to the source. Tis Abay was beautiful! But it was also my first experience in an undoubtedly touristy environment and the children in the area were the real indicators of that. The title of this post, for example, was a popular greeting I received from them. Other popular refrains were, “Give me pen/candy/bread.” and “Where are you from?...America! Wow, I have a coin collection; can you add coins from America to it?” It was actually kind of humorous and I got a kick out of their creativity.
From Bahir Dar, I traveled to Lalibela, which should really be added as one of the wonders of the world. The city is a holy pilgrimage city for many Orthodox Ethiopians and has 11 rock hewn churches (seriously, google it—it’s amazing!). Much like the Blue Nile Falls, there are no fences and people are allowed to just wander through the maze of tunnels that connect the churches deep in the ground and climb all over these incredible ancient stone churches. It is otherworldly how the churches start to feel like a giant playground for adults, but are simultaneously so strikingly beautiful that one can’t help but be moved by their significance. More than the actual churches, it is so interesting to witness how the local people interact with the churches and the giant tourist industry thriving around them. I’ve talked with a lot of young people who see tour guiding as their only viable career option, but their communities are only marginally gaining from the profits of tourism and are experiencing the brunt of the industry’s downside. For instance, the compounds surrounding the churches contain what must be hundreds of homes, but the families are being relocated to areas far from the city center to allow tourists a wider range of movement around the churches.