An Internship with an NGO in Ethiopia
By Sara Cornish
Leftovers from Christmas dinner were still in the fridge at my home in Philadelphia when I arrived in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia to begin my 3-month internship. The Ethiopian Airlines jet had departed from Dulles Airport full of nationals anxious to return to their rich heritage, their colorful city and beautiful land. I was headed across the Atlantic to work for the Gaia Association, an Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) with a variety of projects in Ethiopia including one that promotes the use of alcohol fuels as household cooking energy for low-income urban households and refugee camps.
Opportunities like this one don’t surface very often, and the circumstances that afforded me this incredible internship came from a variety of people and places. My “official” Study Abroad program is in Kyoto, Japan. From April through August, I will study Japanese at Ritsumeikan University. However, since the program does not begin until April, the first three months of 2008 were freed up for, as it happened, the experience of a lifetime. Several other factors came into play: my Vassar roommate’s mother works for the State Department and is currently posted in Addis Ababa. Not shy, I contacted her to ask about the feasibility of spending New Year’s in Addis Ababa, and even possibly extending my visit into a full three-month long stay with her family. Not only was I given an enthusiastic welcoming nod, but I was also provided the contact information for the Gaia Association, an NGO with whom she had been working with on a renewable fuel project.
From that point on, it was up to me to follow through. I contacted the executive director of Gaia and sent off my resume, transcript and a letter of both academic interest and enthusiasm for Gaia’s inspiring environmental and human rights initiatives. After securing the internship, the next challenge was to prepare my family and my body for three months in "Developing World Africa." Arms sore and woozy from five different vaccines, I marched through REI outfitting myself with insect repellents, rehydrating salts, and high SPF sunblock. After my plane tickets were purchased and my parents reassured and reassured and reassured regarding my safety, I could finally take a deep breath, close my eyes, and try to imagine the sights and smells of Ethiopia.
Working in Addis Ababa
Now it’s been about a month of work here in Addis Ababa, and I have finally become familiar with the fascinating and at times frustrating interplay between the Ethiopian government, international NGOs and aid organizations, and local cooperatives. I'm working on many different projects, writing reports for submission to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), researching feasible income generating activities (IGA) to implement in the refugee camps, and managing a promotional campaign for an ethanol fuel alternative to current biomass and kerosene burning household stoves. Working for an NGO in its local setting is proving invaluable to understanding the importance of geography, politics, and financial support, all significant obstacles faced by sustainable development initiatives.
Addis Ababa is an Urban Studies major’s dream: the spaghetti-like streets run in every direction following no apparent plan or grid. Buildings are painted in colorful geometric patterns, and neighborhood roads are lined alternatively by gated white mansions and decrepit shanties. Businessmen stop to pray on the way to work, bowing on the sidewalk toward their favorite church as priests deliver their sermons on megaphones. There are no busking musicians, but the rocky streets are full of children selling puppies and khat, a legal narcotic that grows well in the dry soil. Dogs run wild throughout the city, evidently more street-smart than most of the pedestrians. While I sip macchiato in an Italian café (thankfully, there is not one Starbucks in all of Ethiopia), I watch herds of cattle stumble by between blue taxis.
During my first week of work, I visited two women’s cooperatives in Addis. Both take vulnerable women off the streets, especially those who lug around heavy bundles of wood to sell for use as charcoal household fuel, and train them to weave and sell their handmade products in local markets. One of my primary roles at Gaia has been to assess the feasibility of implementing IGA programs in Somali refugee camps. This opportunity to empower women is a direct result of the ethanol stoves that the Gaia Association distributes: using ethanol as a household fuel eliminates the need to gather firewood, so women have five to eight hours freed up each day for alternative activities. A week later, I was sent to investigate in person. Gaia flew three of us to the border with Somalia to visit two UNHCR refugee camps for five days, enabling us to meet with local government ministries, research IGA possibilities and discuss our stove project.
Our small plane landed in Jijiga, a town surrounded by dry and dusty desert. Since no vegetables were to be seen, we subsisted on tibs (fried beef) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. My days of pretending to be a vegetarian were definitely over. Federal police patrolled the streets next to camels and baboons. Beggars pleaded with wide eyes while others shouted nicknames, “China!” and “French!” (Back in Addis, I waved back at a young guy and received, “I love you, my American soldier!” That was a new one.) The refugee camps were an hour’s drive from Jijiga, each camp housing more than ten thousand Somali refugees, their population growing daily. The more permanent of the refugee houses, called tukuls, are shaped like upside-down bowls. They are made of bent sticks tethered together with string or plastic bags with an exterior patchwork of layered blankets and old t-shirts. I peeked inside a tukul to see a floor mat, dirty stove, two canisters of food, and a broken shoe. The absence of possessions was no surprise, but startling nonetheless.
Working with a Women's Association
The most memorable part of the trip occurred on the last day of our visit, when I met with ten members of the women’s association at one of the camps, a group of “elected” Somali refugees in order to gather first-hand feedback on how to best utilize their talents for an IGA. Hearing them gossip was like eavesdropping on my mom’s book club, always chattering about their kids and never the novels. Although our translator, a refugee who spoke broken English, chewed khat throughout the meeting, I think I got the gist of most of the women’s replies. Together we concluded that the most appropriate program to establish is recycled plastic basket weaving. The entire camp was littered in thousands of plastic bags; they’re attached to bushes, trees, houses, fences, and roofs. Our plan is that the women will collect bags and weave the plastic into colorful baskets to sell locally.
This internship is teaching me the merits of nonprofit work and is allowing me to witness the inevitable political barriers facing the developing world. Living in this African city is also exposing me to an entirely new and diverse international community. My Gaia colleagues are all Ethiopian University graduates. I go salsa dancing with Germans and Jamaicans. My ultimate frisbee teammates are history teachers, USAID executives and Columbian high school students. I live with American diplomats.
Although I am only halfway through my internship, this experience has already broadened my awareness far more than any book or classroom could have done. My Vassar connections enabled me to find this internship, and my education has empowered me to comfortably and substantially contribute. Though the challenges of living with a different family in a stark new environment are many, discovering firsthand that my network truly spans the world excites me about life after graduation and confirms that there’s quite a world out there (or out here, I should say!) for us to explore and engage.
Sara Cornish is a senior at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She majors in Urban Studies with a Japanese correlate.