MEDA Blog - Stories from the Field

Emma was born in Toronto, Ontario, however grew up in the suburb of Oakville. In 2013 she completed her degree from the University of Western Ontario, graduating with a major in business and a minor in psychology. Her senior year was spent studying abroad at Maastricht University in The Netherlands, where she gained valuable experience dealing with cross-cultural diversity. A passion for microfinance was sparked in May 2012, when she was granted the opportunity to spend a month living and working in Managua, Nicaragua. Following her MEDA internship, Emma hopes to continue her education with graduate studies, and ultimately become an entrepreneur. In the meantime, she is thrilled to work with MEDA and develop her knowledge and skill-set. Outside of her professional life, Emma is an avid horseback rider, runner, and enjoys reading and writing.

The Christmas that wasn’t?

Normally around this time of year, I am battling snowy driveways, piling on the layers of clothing, and cursing the wind chill. I am also sipping on hot chocolate, pulling out the downhill skis, and decorating a Christmas tree. Despite the odd winter-related inconvenience, I really do love this time of year. But what happens when “this” time of year no longer exists?

Being in the middle of Africa in December, it doesn’t really feel like Christmas. While I complain about the “frigid” morning temperatures (of 5 degrees – I’ve become weak), it’s usually close to 30 degrees here in the afternoon. Even though I don’t have to worry about frost bite, I can honestly admit I miss the snow.

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When you are the only forenji…

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This is the path I walk up and down every morning and every evening. Despite the personal trials I have dealt with as of late, I still find humour and amusement in this daily walk. I’ve become familiar along this path, and as a result have formed the most unique relationships. And to put it bluntly, it’s because I’m the only “forenji” (aka white person).When you are the only forenji… your name is no longer Emma, it’s “forenj!!!”When you are the only forenji… it is easy to become friends with the local injera maker, who just happens to be a very sweet, old lady who invites you for a coffee every evening.When you are the only forenji… the woman selling vegetables and herbs, who also happens to be old and sweet, insists you take some herbs for free, even though you have no idea what to use them for.When you are the only forenji… the beggars who you give to begin to depend on your donation, which isn’t good.When you are the only forenji… the woman who sells corn, once again old and sweet, kisses your hand when she sees you after the work day has ended (and it’s really adorable!).When you are the only forenji… you are kind of like a local celebrity! I better not get used to it.

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The Great Ethiopian Run 2013

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I participated in the Great Ethiopian Run last Sunday – and what a blast it was! Originally a few of my colleagues and I were supposed to run it together, but life got in the way and I ended up running it with a friend of mine from the local gym!While there were a minority of runners who were racing, this event is much more of a “fun run” than a race. The course was 10km in total, and there were tons of great distractions throughout. We were drenched with water multiple times, which I really appreciated considering the heat! At the halfway mark there were huge speakers playing popular Ethiopian music, and massive trucks were handing out water balloons. As you can probably guess, a massive water balloon fight broke out!IMG_1228 My friend, Fantahun, and I post-race!The course was flat in some places, but very hilly in others. The sheer quantity of people (40,000 in total!!), combined with the narrow roads (often plagued with pot holes) and (fantastic) distractions actually prevented running in certain stretches of the course, at least for us middle-of-the-pack runners. I really didn’t mind the odd walk break though – racing at this elevation and heat was a bit of a shock!The race wasn’t timed, but I’m guessing we finished in an hour or so. It was tons of fun and I’m so thankful my friend from the gym ran it with me!

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Hiking through the Blue Nile Falls!

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My time in Bahar Dar came to an end on Saturday evening. I was back in Addis by 9 pm, and while already missing the lush vegetation, I was more than happy to be back in my own bed.I took advantage of an empty Saturday morning and arranged to join a tour group to the Blue Nile Falls, a beautiful waterfall connected to the Nile river. The Blue Nile Falls is known as “Tis Abay” in Amharic, which means “smoking water”.I was picked up in the early morning, and we began our adventure with a 45 minute drive over the bumpy roads of the outskirts of Bahar Dar. From there we began our trek throughout the surrounding mountains, which I LOVED! Hiking is definitely one of my favourite outdoor activities.It took us about an hour to reach our destination. And then we were able to get a bit closer!After passing the falls we hiked some ways longer in order to reach a traditional (read: rocky!!) boat to take us to the other side of the shore. After a short walk back to the car, we were on our way back to the city center.A quick costume change later and I was on my way to an afternoon conference, and shortly thereafter I was boarding my flight home. Overall, I’d say I enjoyed one awesome weekend!

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The power of microfinance

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My feet are muddy, my legs are tired, and the bags under my eyes are growing increasingly visible, but these physical flaws are proof of the incredible (albeit exhausting) four days I have spent in Bahar Dar thus far. As I sit here typing these words in my tiny hotel room, I feel fulfilled.Throughout this week I have spent an incredible amount of time “on the field”, which basically means visiting our clients in their homes, at their workplaces, or even their place of meeting.Boardrooms are completely unnecessary when you can circulate under the heavenly shade provided by an overarching tree. And shade really is heavenly when the mid-day African sun is otherwise beating down upon you.On Tuesday I visited 6 different clients, all of whom have benefited in one way or another from the microfinancial services provided by my organization. Needs are diverse and varied, and may include facilitation of a cooperative or a village saving and loan association (VSLA), or access to an existing bank or local partner microfinance institution (MFI) for access to working capital.While the benefits our clients receive from these services are also diverse, they can be summed up into two words: improved livelihood.Take Egowetet, for example. She is a member of a women-only rice cooperative, and her membership has provided her with the ability to wear shoes and send her two children to school (which is imperative to end the cycle of poverty).Or Belay, who, relatively speaking, is financially well-off. Belay has already acquired the resources required to run a successful rice business. He has recently been linked with poor women farmers, and now provides them with the tools they need to produce quality product, which Belay then stores for them until the ideal time for product purchase. It is a win-win situation for all.This morning I was on the road by 6 am in order to make a 7 am meeting with another VSLA. This 11 member group has learned the importance of savings through training provided by their group facilitator (who formed the group after receiving training from my organization). While they were previously renting the equipment required to produce local rice seed, their accumulated savings allowed them to become proud owners of this prized asset.Before we moved on to our next meeting, some local children and I started playing with my camera. These kids are too poor to attend school, and even though they aren’t usually much older than 7 or 8, they are responsible for herding livestock for up to twelve hours per day. Despite the fact it was only early morning, we enjoyed a quick work break together. Their facial expressions transformed from curiosity, to joy, to complete chaotic enthusiasm as we took our photos together, and it was hilarious to watch. It’s moments like these that truly make the loneliness and difficulty involved with packing up and leaving your home behind worthwhile.The rest of the day was spent visiting another VSLA and Farmers Field School (FFS). This VSLA, known as Addis Alem (meaning “new world”), have managed to save over 10,000 birr (divide by 18 for a Canadian currency conversion) in two years.The FFS is a group formed to share knowledge of best practices and to support one another in times of difficulty. This 24 person group was formed in July, but is already experiencing great success.The power of microfinance has the ability to change lives for the better using a variety of methods, and the impacts are incredible to witness. The ultimate goal is clear: eliminate poverty – and while quite a feat, it is possible.

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Ox, Donkeys, and Umbrellas in Church… or, how I spend my weekends

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I’ve had many people ask me what life looks like over on this side of the pond, so I figured a few of you would be curious to read it! While my weekdays are pretty busy, my weekends are typically just as filled… mind you, with a little more fun stuff. That being said, other than my visit to the National Museum, I haven’t really mentioned what I’ve been up to during my weekends! I try and get out to experience something Addis has to offer every Saturday...

 

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Field Trip

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Shortly after I got to work yesterday morning, I was offered the opportunity to spend a half day visiting some clients. For those of you not familiar with the concept behind microfinance, basically, our clients are poor workers, primarily women, who work in the textile or weaving industry. In order to grow their business and ultimately improve their livelihoods, they need access to fair and secure financial capital, as well as financial literacy training in most cases. In third-world countries, this is not so easy to come by – and this is where an organization like mine comes in.A colleague of mine took me to visit a cooperative of 50 weavers in the nearby village of Shiro Meda. These weavers make beautiful textile products, and on display at the time was a collection of hand woven scarves and shawls.We interviewed four male weavers to discuss their progress with a new project. Due to a market linkage initiative within my organization, they have recently been linked with a new designer who has access to the U.S. market. Her business is granting them an income increase of up to 75% – 75%!!!!!!!! Imagine how your life would change if your income jumped that drastically from one day to the next. Unfortunately for these weavers however, it means their average pay is so low that one additional contract can make such a difference.On the flipside, the loss of one contract can also have an equal impact, but in a devastating way. Thankfully, these weavers are living up to the designers’ expectations. They are able to buy quality input supplies in bulk (input prices can fluctuate dramatically by the hour, so it is imperative to buy affordable inputs when available) thanks to secure access to capital, and are meeting the designers’ standards thanks to training.Even though their dependence on this one contract is high, this is progress being made and a step in the right direction. It is now up to us to continue to source new market linkages and provide additional financial services. In a few years, the savings allocated from this additional income will alleviate these four weavers, and hopefully the entire cooperative, from poverty. It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?! While there are billions of people still living in poverty, progress is still progress, even if it’s 50 weavers at a time.Yesterday was pretty amazing. I usually spend my days writing about how my organization strives to eliminate poverty, but yesterday I got to witness it first-hand. And let me tell you, it certainly reinforced my conviction for what I do.Oh, and I couldn’t not support the weavers so I had to purchase a half-dozen scarves ;) .

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I expected the worst but found the best

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First things first: Elderly Ethiopian ladies are truly the cutest human beings. They ALWAYS say hello to me and they ALWAYS laugh hysterically when I respond in Amharic. As I walked home from work tonight, I noticed a group of four ladies sitting around a shop and smiling at me as I passed by. I waved, said hello, and asked them how they were, and they chuckled in delight at my broken attempts at their language. I walked up to them to introduce myself and ask their names, and we had a brief conversation about my purpose in Addis. Turns out one of the women was selling injera (a local food), which I had been trying to find for weeks at the supermarket. What a coincidence! I picked up a week’s worth of injera for 6 birr (30 cents!) and said goodbye, and the ladies told me they loved me! Like I said, the cutest.Speaking of injera, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Ethiopian food. Prior to my departure, a friend and I decided to try an Ethiopian restaurant back home, but to be honest, we were so turned off by the menu that we walked away. Many people warned me I wouldn’t like the food, when in fact, the traditional food is one of the best aspects of life here! I expected the worst but found the best - just another example of why preconceived notions are typically never useful.99% of the Ethiopian food I’ve tried thus far has been delicious. The only thing that turned me off was goat tongue (thankfully Sege, my landlady, understood my aversion!). Utensils are rarely used, as Ethiopians eat exclusively with their right hand. If eating a communal dish, a special pot is used to clean your hands before and after the meal.Last Thursday I enjoyed a special dinner at a traditional Ethiopian restaurant with three other people visiting my organization. One was a volunteer, one was from our headquarters in Canada, and one was from an external organization – and we all had yet to experience a traditional dinner and dance ceremony.The base of all meals is normally injera, a flat, gluten-free bread made with teff, a local grain:We ordered a serving of doro wat and shero wat; doro means chicken, shero means chick pea and wat simply means dish. In Amharic, wat is always added after the name of the food if you are serving it as a meal. Each dish was a bit spicy, and the texture is similar to that of a stew.In addition to the food, we were completely entertained:A few weeks ago, Sege, my “Ethiopian mother” honored my arrival with the killing of a baby lamb. Although I must admit I was a bit sad about the poor lamb’s fate, it was imperative to respect the local culture and demonstrate thankfulness and appreciation for her generosity.When an entire animal is killed, the meat is often cooked over a traditional Ethiopian stove:I must say, the lamb was fantastic, and combined with injera and some rice this was a traditional feast I’ll never forget.

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Celebrating our one month anniversary

It’s been a rocky four weeks with lots of ups and downs, but don’t they say the transition period is the hardest?! While you’ve thrown me for a few curveballs, I’ve already become so thankful and appreciative of your entrance into my life. Yup, it’s been a good four weeks, Ethiopia.Exactly one month ago today I disembarked flight ET503 at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. Equally exhausted and excited, I had no idea what lay in store; I was entering this new chapter as blind as could be. I think this was for the best though, because I had no preconceived ideas and was able to create an impression of Addis entirely my own.While life can be summed up as harder here, I’ve mentioned before how blessed I feel to be in this place. To be working for a cause I believe in, to learn the in’s and out’s of an entirely different culture, to challenge myself to adapt to such a foreign environment… it’s all so incredible and so enriching.I can’t believe a month has already flown by. While it moved quickly, a lot happened. I left everything familiar behind and arrived in Addis, started a new job, rented my first house (pictures to come soon!), joined a new church, and met a ton of new people. That’s a lot of change!!! It’s a good thing I thrive off it.Ironically enough, I was struck by a mild case of homesickness on this 30 day mark. I took a nap to brush if off, and woke up with a renewed sense of assurance that I’m meant to be here. Right now, this is home… my intuition could not have been more clear. Although my time in Ethiopia is limited, I know this is my stepping stone to greater things to come. I know this place will let my potential flourish and ultimately, will be make me a better person.Ethiopia tests my patience on a daily basis. I still get annoyed with having to disinfect all my fruits and veggies before eating them; too often I find myself staring at my watch and thinking about how salad prep takes 1/8th of the time in Canada. And then reality strikes and I am ashamed for such thoughts. How can I complain about the abundance of food in my fridge when there are dozens of homeless surrounding my home who probably haven’t eaten for days?Ethiopia has been a wake-up call. We don’t know how blessed we are until we see how unfortunate living conditions can be for others. While my patience is tested, my patience is growing. When I am at my most uncomfortable, my comfort level expands. When I look down while crossing paths with a stranger, as my Torontonian upbringing taught me to do, that stranger says hello and encourages me to be more welcoming.These are the changes I’ve undergone and the experiences I’ve encountered within my first month in Ethiopia. I can’t wait to see what’s to come.

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The Ethiopian Coffee Ceremony

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As you may or may not know, Ethiopia is known for fantastic coffee. I’m not sure how I’ll ever be able to return to Tim Hortons in Canada, because this stuff is liquid gold. There’s nothing “instant” about it – coffee beans are roasted over fire, ground up (traditionally by hand), and then brewed – it doesn’t get any fresher than that!I mentioned we had Eid al-Adha off work a few weeks ago. Well, my gracious colleague Soliana invited me to spend the day at her home with her family. Not only was the lunch amazingly delicious, but I was honored with a coffee ceremony as well! Soliana explained that the non-working women in Ethiopia - the older generation in particular - often enjoy a ceremony three times per day. Most women now work, however, so coffee ceremonies normally occur for holidays or when welcoming a guest to your home. The coffee should be surrounded by grass and served while incense is burning with sides of fruit, nuts, or even popcorn (which is very popular here!). Also interesting is the fact that one pot is brewed for three “rounds” of coffee, no matter the number of guests. Each round is weaker than the former because hot water is added to the mixture each time (therefore, the more people being served, the weaker each round of coffee).This process isn’t for the impatient – it takes about 30 minutes before the coffee is even ready! How many of you at home would be willing to give up your instant for this?! (none, I’m guessing…). But when it’s done – the TASTE! Indescribable. Well, perhaps it’s best described as pure happiness…I know a few people – including my mum & I – who definitely can’t wait 30 minutes for their morning coffee to be ready. But experiencing this part of the Ethiopian culture is just another reason why moving here has already been such an enriching experience.I already know I’ll be bringing a truckload of beans and a traditional Ethiopian coffee pot back to Canada – who’s up for a ceremony at my house?! :)

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Life in Ethiopia

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I have slowly fallen in love with living in Ethiopia, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t the most challenging change I’ve ever inflicted upon myself. Ethiopia is a fantastic example of societal harmony. Despite an equal divide between the Muslim and Christian population, each religion offers complete respect to one another. The working calendar respects each set of holidays, which means the employees of Ethiopia essentially receive double the time off work! Last Tuesday was the Muslim holiday of Eid-al-Adha, so my gracious colleague invited me to her home for a traditional Ethiopian coffee ceremony.Another aspect of life in Ethiopia: the culture. Ethiopians are proud to be who they are. Whether through generous offerings of food, supporting the local soccer team, or just general friendliness, Ethiopians want to welcome any “forenji” (foreigner) to their country, because they hope you’ll love it just as much as they do (and yes, I do!). For example, I didn’t make it home from an after-work commitment tonight until well past 8 pm, but immediately upon my arrival my landlady offered me a delicious Ethiopian dinner, plus a glass of wine!Other incredible perks of living here include the weather!! Ethiopia has a reputation for offering “13 months of sunshine”, and I can see why! Every day is sunny and hot, but the nights and mornings dip down to about 10 degrees! I love grabbing my fruits and veggies from the local huts on the way home from work – picking up a kilo of avocado for 80 cents is pretty great ;) . Oh, and then there’s this guy:So yes, there are many positives to life in Ethiopia, but this doesn’t make it perfect.  Moving here has undoubtedly been the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. I’m not yet “immune” to the extreme levels of poverty I witness on a daily basis. I must get asked for money at least 15 times per day, and when I do open my wallet to offer a few birr (1 Canadian dollar = 18 Ethiopian birr), I am like honey to bees and am surrounded by others, who are only hoping for a few birr themselves. The health issues are widespread, serious, and gory to witness, and the most disadvantaged are always women, since they normally end up carrying the burden of unwanted children.While my “issues” do not compare to those facing such poverty, I cannot say it’s easy to adapt to life without a source of continuous power. It is not unusual to be without electricity for a few hours per day, or to lose an internet connection. The internet is my lifeline when it comes to keeping in contact with those back home.Speaking of home, part of my evening is often spent Skyping or emailing with someone in Canada. When I moved to The Netherlands, I was able to meet new people constantly, since we were all in the same business school together and all spoke the same language. Here, English is a rarity and connecting with people outside of work is much more difficult. Thankfully I have my fellow Canadian here with me (and we enjoyed a great weekend downtown)! For the first time in my life, it’s not unusual for me to experience sleep issues, whether due to my own mind in constant motion, or the outside roosters/dogs/wild animal making noise. I’m always able to make a phone call home and be back to bed within the hour, though :) .

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Giving Thanks

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I had a different topic in mind for today, but I’m opting to postpone it in favour of a themed post to honor today’s Canadian holiday – Thanksgiving! In my house, celebrating Thanksgiving would involve church, lots of time spent with family, friends, and loved ones, and an excessive amount of food - most likely a turkey, green beans, sweet potato, baked potato, and a tasty pumpkin pie or two. My grandma always made an incredible sweet potato casserole. I am missing her AND her sweet potato casserole today.While I am not ‘celebrating’ in the traditional sense, I am still incredibly thankful for where I am today, both figuratively and literally. I have moved into my new home, and have basically been adopted by my landlady as her “white daughter”. Really, I saw the house on Wednesday, moved in on Thursday, and when I returned from work on Friday she had mountains of gifts for me: new bedding, cutlery, pots, pans… anything I could ever need, and everything I would have had to buy with my own money. The housing director said that in all his years of work, he has never known a landlady like her. While this move has been a bit overwhelming at times, finding a home is what I needed to start feeling a lot more settled here. I will post pictures soon!I’m so thankful for my new life in Africa. It is changing me, in ways that I like. During a conversation with someone from home the other day, I mentioned I try and keep to myself while walking to work. Now I can’t make the 10 minute trek without stopping to talk to a stranger, or at least receiving a “hello!” from a passerby. The locals and I exchange smiles, waves, and “good mornings!” multiple times. This is quite different from North America, where we try to avoid eye contact with anyone we don’t recognize.Case in point: today I asked to take a photo of a group of boys supporting their local team for today’s soccer match (soccer is life here). Not only were they thrilled to do so, they were ecstatic that this “forenji” (foreigner) could speak limited Amharic. We ended up having a brief conversation is support of the soccer match; my Amharic is broken (to say the least), but they were more than happy to put up with it. In the end, they requested a picture together.While I may be missing some sweet potato casserole, there’s no other place I’d rather be spending today… HAPPY THANKSGIVING! Whether you’re in Canada or not!

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The next chapter…

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9 days ago, I began what I think is bound to be the greatest and most difficult adventure of my life.Guess where I currently am? In my new office, in my new place of living … in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, AFRICA!My arrival date was delayed time and time again because of the crazy amounts of paperwork I needed, but I finally made it last Sunday (the 29th). I have already experienced more than I can even begin to describe. The only reason it’s taken me a week to post from Africa is because here, the internet is quite a luxury!Speaking of luxuries, let’s add hot water, electricity, and a working cell phone network to that list. The adjustment has been… difficult. After a 16 hour direct flight, I was too tired to comprehend anything last Sunday. The newness of my new surroundings left me ecstatic on Monday, and the reality of my new surroundings left me overwhelmed/anxious/insert uncertain emotion here on Tuesday. Thankfully, I have a select few people I can turn to in any time of need, even if I’m now 7,140 miles away from them.I’m still living out of a hotel, but I hope to move into my new apartment sometime this week. Who would have thought my first apartment, paid for by my first post-grad “real job” paycheck, would be in Addis Ababa?! Ummmm… would anyone?Once I get moved in, I’m pretty sure I’ll start feeling a lot more settled here. The level of poverty is still shocking, but in a sense it’s becoming more normal to witness on a daily basis. The beauty of this city cannot be denied though. The surrounding landscape is consumed by green countryside and mountaintops, providing for fantastic sunrise and sunsets.I’m so fortunate to already have a friend here. Her name is Shaunet, and we were lucky enough to be driven around the city on Saturday afternoon. What’s astonishing is the contrast between rich and poor here. There are five-star hotels and million dollar homes practically across from tin huts the less fortunate call their home. Beggars are not found every few blocks, as is the case in Toronto; rather, they line the “streets”, which in fact are dirt paths with pot holes the size of… well, let’s just say you can’t drive over them.I feel so BLESSED to be here. I am already accustomed to the community-oriented nature of the Ethiopian people. This type of kindness is not common in the ever-consuming society I come from. I am learning every Amharic (the local language) phrase I need to know, and perhaps best of all, I am working in microfinance, putting my skills to use to help disadvantaged women!

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