We arrived in Addis Ababa and met Milli (Million) Johannes, who would be our amazing tour guide for the entire trip. He took us on a driving tour through the city, pointing out some key landmarks, like the Prime Minister’s palace and the building which was the former residence of the king. Sensing the group needed a boost of caffeine, Milli then took us to a local coffee house where we had a coffee ceremony. Coffee ceremonies are an integral part of life in Ethiopia. The host pours the coffee for all participants by moving the pot over a tray with small, handle-less cups and pouring from a height of 1 foot until each cup is full. The grounds are brewed three times: the third is called bereka, meaning ‘to be blessed’. The ceremony sometimes includes the burning of frankincense and the coffee is accompanied by a small snack such as popcorn. Coffee is a huge part of Ethiopia’s economy, and due to the Italian influence, macchiatos are especially popular. According to national folklore, the origin of coffee is rooted in Ethiopia’s history. The legend is about a goat herder from Kaffa, where the plants still grow wild in the forest hills. After discovering his goats to be excitedly dancing on their hind legs, he noticed a few mangled branches of the coffee plant which was hung with bright red berries. He tried the berries and decided that he must tell the monks. The monks tossed the sinful drug into the flames, an action soon to be followed by the smell we are familiar with now. They crushed the beans, raked them out of the fire, and distilled the substance in boiling water. Within minutes the monastery filled with the heavenly aroma of roasting beans, and the other monks gathered to investigate. After sitting awake all night, they found a renewed energy to their holy devotions. And the rest is history!
With some renewed energy in our group, we then flew to Gondar where we would spend the next 5 days. Our first stop in Gondar was the strikingly beautiful Fasilides castle.
Ethiopian Emperor Fasilides is one of most significant rulers of Abyssinia. He ruled over Abyssinia from 1632 to 1667 and founded the city of Gondar in 1636, which became the capital. During this time, he constructed a palace that would eventually grow into a large complex, as successors added their own buildings to the compound. Today, the palace is a mix of well-preserved architecture with European influences and rambling ruins. The castle itself still has its lower halls, reservoirs and steam-baths, and even enclosures for leopards and lions that used to prowl the grounds. The structure is made entirely of stone and is a representation of Ethiopia’s rich history. Right there in the main hall of the castle was a Star of David engraved in the stone.
We checked in at Hotel Goha, situated on a hill with magnificent views over Gondar, and made our way to the hotel restaurant for a traditional Ethiopian dinner of tibs, injera and shiro. Injera is a sour and spongy round bread, made of teff flour. Sauces and dishes are commonly poured on top of the injera. Driving around Gondar you can see fields of beautiful, wispy, green teff growing in abundance. Shiro is a delicious chickpea powder-based dish, sometimes including lentils and beans, slow-cooked with Ethiopia’s spicy berbere sauce.
Today we started with a hearty breakfast at the hotel, before setting out on a 1 hour bus ride to the village of Dembia where we visited the Darna School. On the drive we saw many rural villages and were offered a glimpse into everyday life in the Ethiopian highlands. Many of the houses were made from aluminum panels. Others were made from wooden slats with cow dung used for insulation. In some villages we saw the traditional round huts made entirely from sticks and mud, with thatched roofs. The streets were filled with people herding goats and cows, donkeys carrying heavy bundles, and families sitting around a morning campfire making breakfast. The villagers wore vibrant, colorful clothing and many were barefoot. As we drove through, they all smiled from ear to ear and waved at us. The children would be especially excited and would jump up and down yelling ‘yuyuyuyu!’ In the more rural regions children would come running over the rolling hills from miles away to greet us as we drove by, and sometimes they would call us ‘ferengi’ (meaning foreigners). On the drive, we got the chance to get to know one another, sharing what motivated each of us to embark on this adventure. Participants work in a wide range of fields, such as medicine, law, and marketing. We also practiced some key phrases in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia. The one word we used everyday was ‘Amaseganalo’ (thank you!).
As we arrived at the school we met a group of young adult volunteers from the NALA group in Israel. NALA has been partnering with JDC and working on facilitating water health education for children in the schools. As we arrived at the school, the kids were singing 'welome' to us and we soon joined them in their classrooms where NALA volunteers reviewed water safety practices with them. Each classroom is small but holds 50-70 children in each class. There are altogether about 2200 children in this school. JDC has built 30 schools in the country, which have brought in thousands of children who would otherwise have had to walk hours to get to a distant school each day or who may not have gone to school at all, if not for JDC.
We then helped the kids to make their own water carriers using plastic bottles and attaching straps so they would be easy to carry. We helped the kids paint their bottles to make them more personal and they proudly waved them in the air at us when they were done. JDC has been developing portable water sources in the North Gondar region for the past several years. To date, they have built 200 water sources across this region. JDC’s strategy is to make sure that every school has a nearby water source (well) and a latrine. There is a team that works on deciding where to put the well, building it and then maintaining it. Together with NALA, they engage community members, teaching them about operating the wells, avoiding all contaminated water, and spreading these good practices within the surrounding communities.
For lunch we sat in a peaceful field of teff in the shade of a giant tree. After lunch we split into two groups heading to different primary schools built by JDC. We painted some educational murals on the wall of the school, such as maps of the world, flags from various countries, the alphabet in English and parts of the body. As we painted, members of the community encouraged us wth kind words. It was a good feeling to know that these murals would be a lasting educational tool that we could leave behind. We then returned to the hotel to reflect on our experiences over dinner.
After waking up to watch the sunrise over Gondar and hearing the distant call to church resound over the city, we had a big breakfast and set off for the old Jewish village of Ambober. As we arrived at the village it seemed like the entire community was waiting to greet us as we stepped out of our Jeeps. The children each grabbed one of our hands and led us up the hill to a building site for a new High School that JDC is funding. We were excited to get our hands dirty and put in some groundwork on the foundation of the school. We mixed cement and laid the first layer of bricks on the school. As we worked, children came running over the hills to watch us and some offered to help. It’s amazing to think that in just a couple years this school will draw thousands of young people who would have had to walk 15km to the nearest school, if not for this new school right there in their village. And it’s inspiring to think that this very school will play a huge part in growing these young leaders who will go on to do great things in their communities and pursue their dreams.
After working on the school, we sat down to have a traditional coffee ceremony with the locals from Ambober. They welcomed us warmly and graciously and we simply enjoyed each others company as we shared this special moment. They thanked us for helping with the school and we made our way down the hill to the Ambober synagogue, which was the site of JDC’s main operations to assist the Bet Israel community before they made aliyah. Dr. Rick Hodes accompanied us, and as we sat in the synagogue, he talked to us about Jewish Ethiopian history.
One of the most common theories for the origin of Ethiopian Jews was the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon of Israel. This tradition states that a son, Menelik, was born to Solomon and Sheba, through whom all Ethiopian Jews descended. Over the centuries, they suffered much persecution at the hands of Christians and Muslims. Yet, they remained the oldest Diaspora community practicing Torah observance, pre-dating modern Rabbinic Judaism. Their greatest desire amongst the generations was to return to Jerusalem.
Over 8,000 Ethiopian Jews came to Israel between 1977 and 1984. Operation Moses, which occurred between November 18, 1984 and January 5, 1985 brought 7,000 Jews to Israel, and today, over 36,000 Ethiopian Jews live in Israel.
A doctor named Theodore Myers carried a trunk full of medical supplies to Sudan after he learned that 400,000 Ethiopian refugees had fled there because of drought, famine and years of civil war. The following year, he returned to Sudan as a volunteer consultant to the JDC. He made more than 10 trips to Ethiopia, establishing village-based medical programs throughout Gondar province and then establishing the first clinic in Addis Ababa, that still provides medical care for 23,000 Ethiopians who have migrated from remote villages in the countryside. In 1990 he hired Dr. Rick Hodes to work at the clinic.
Rick Hodes said that during Operation Solomon in 1991, his job was to find kids who had severe medical problems to join the airlift so he could essentially save their lives, getting them the treatment they needed in Israel. The Ethiopian government was paid $35 million to cooperate with this operation, but it still had to be done in secret, since the operation was out of Sudan. 3,000 Jews from the region of Quara missed the flight, as they were traveling from a great distance and didn’t make it in time. Rick made sure that they were taken care of when they arrived in Sudan. He set up a transit camp in Teda where they all stayed and he examined and treated them. These people had never seen a white person before and were fascinated by Rick. They became fast friends as the people realized they could trust Rick and he taught them Israeli dancing. Rick then made sure they were all on the next plane to Israel.
After we came out of the synagogue, children were waiting to lead us back down the hill. When we got to the bottom of the hill to get in our Jeeps, one of the little boys began to dance and soon we were having a dance party with the kids. I left with goosebumps as I realized how much we’d been able to connect without words. There is so much warmth, friendship, and kindness that you feel with every smile and exchange, every handshake and high five.
Our next site visit was JDC’s Gondar Science Center, which was established in 2013 to serve students across the region, providing teachers, facilities, and equipment for subjects like computer science, mechanics, optics, and electrical engineering. We had the chance to talk to students about the science projects they had worked on. There were some really impressive projects, like a solar-powered oven and a water overflow sensor alarm. The students were so smart and very proud to show us how their projects worked. JDC aims to develop a mobile Science Center that could travel around the country to help students further their skills with after school programs and fully-equipped labs.
Our last stop of the day was to Gondar University Hospital, where we met with pediatric staff and alumni of the Nursing Scholarship program. JDC works with the hospital to screen students from rural schools for preventable and curable diseases. JDC also helps to facilitate important medical and educational exchanges between Gondar and various hospitals in Israel. Some of the students shared their goals with us to study further.
We ended our busy day with a relaxing dinner with Rick Hodes, who talked to us about the work he does and shared that he finds most of his patients on the streets of Addis Ababa. Some find him by word of mouth and many travel great distances to his clinic to seek his care. He has saved and transformed the lives of so many children. He raises funds through JDC for their surgeries overseas in the United States, Canada, Israel, and India. Sometimes donors become particularly invested in a child’s well-being and will continue to support them with funding for their educational pursuits. After dinner we had a nightcap in the lobby and unwound from an exciting day.
On day five, we set off on a 2.5 hour drive to the spectacular Simien Mountains National Park. Our drive was gorgeous and made more special by the many smiles and waves we received along the way. As we set off on our hike, we saw large families of Gelada (bleeding-heart) baboons all around us. We quietly observed them and they didn’t take much notice of us. Babies were feeding or running and tumbling down the hills. Everywhere we looked we saw giant acacia trees, magnificent vistas and rolling hills of endless shades of green that, from above, looked like carpets of emeralds. Our guides told us that erosion over millions of years had created the deep valleys and sharp precipices that drop 1,500 m. The park is home to globally-threatened species like the Ethiopian wolf and a wild mountain goat found only in Ethiopia. We had all really bonded at this point it was wonderful to share stories as we hiked and just enjoy spending time together. There was a funny moment where a large baboon decided to take a path we were walking on and when the girls in front saw him coming towards them they turned to run in opposite directions, tripped over each other and fell in a heap laughing. All of our hearts were racing, but the baboon had quickly decided to take a different route at that point.
When we finished our hike, I led a meditation and asked everyone to take some deep breaths and focus on gratitude for all that we’d experienced on the trip so far, to think of all the people we’ve met and the impact that JDC is having on these communities. We visualized the school we worked on being completed, and the students thriving there and going on to pursue their greatest dreams. We reflected on all the ways we’d been able to connect with the locals and the positive experiences we’d had so far.
We then headed back to our hotel to get ready for a special dinner at The Four Sisters Restaurant. We were greeted by a man blowing a horn and friendly faces along the path to the restaurant. It was beautiful inside with painted murals all over the walls and ceiling. We enjoyed an incredible buffet dinner with all the traditional Ethiopian cuisine and were then treated to some Ethiopian music and dancing. The dancing was really expressive with a lot of shoulder shakes and impressive neck movements. The dancers then started to pull all of us up to dance with them. We made a train that went around the restaurant and soon every single person was up dancing!
I became emotional as I looked around me and felt so completely at home. I realized that one of the things I’ve been most homesick for, living away from South Africa, is the truly joyous spirit of Africa, the beautiful music and people, the way they express themselves. And to be experiencing all this with such a wonderful, genuine group of people who have become new friends, was really heartwarming. I had longed to experience all this again and had found it right there in that moment in Ethiopia. The people in Africa are unlike any people I’ve ever met. Some have so little and still have the most generous spirits I’ve ever experienced. In that moment, I realized that this spirit of Africa is in my being and that I carry it with me everywhere I go. I will never forget where I was born and grew up in South Africa, and now I will never forget this incredible country of Ethiopia. I want to stay connected and help support the life-changing projects JDC is making possible.
On Day Six, we woke early to watch the sunrise in Gondar for the last time and enjoy breakfast on the patio. Our server, who’d worked there for 20 years, chatted to us and taught us a few more words in Amharic. We practiced the few words we knew and he sweetly corrected us so we pronounced the phrases just right. We shared with each other how sad we were to be leaving and how connected we felt to Gondar in just four days. We then left on a flight to Addis Ababa and just after arriving, we met up with Dr. Rick Hodes at his clinic, where a queue of people were waiting to see him.
As we all shuffled into his clinic, he talked to us about some recent cases and showed us x-rays of the deformed spines of patients he’d been treating. One of his patients was there and he had undergone surgery on his spine after months in traction. We saw a before photo of him standing next to Rick and could see how condensed his chest had become and after the surgery how much longer his torso was, standing alongside Rick for comparison. We met some of the volunteers who work with Rick and help with various tasks. One of the young men would often accompany the small children overseas for their surgeries. We asked him if the children were nervous beforehand and he said they were mostly excited and really brave. The kids can be as young as 3 or 4 years old.
On the way home we stopped at a Felasha (Jewish) village to buy some souvenirs.
We then checked into the Washington Hotel and gathered together for a shabbat reflection, sang some prayers, and lit the candles. We went around and shared some of our family traditions for shabbat and we talked about tikkun olam, the idea that we are all responsible for one another. We made a point to be aware of acts of chesed (loving kindness) that we had experienced during the week and that we had also had a hand in. And we were led in an exercise that got us to really think about the faces we see in everyday life, and how each one has a story to share. We then made our way over to Rick’s house for a festive shabbat dinner. His house was full of children, some being his own adopted kids, as well as some current and former patients of his. He passed around a box of funky, colorful hats and we all put one on. We spent time getting to know the kids. One of the teenagers and I bonded over books. He said his favorite is Tom Sawyer, as he really liked the good deeds Tom performed throughout the book. We then gathered in a circle holding hands, and sang ‘If I had a Hammer’ by The Weavers, as is tradition on shabbat in Rick’s home. Rick then asked us all to send good thoughts to his patients undergoing surgery in the next few days and to pray for peace in Israel during this tumultuous time. We also had a moment of silence for those who had lost their lives in the recent attacks. Then Rick blessed each of his children and proceeded to bless the bread, breaking off pieces to toss around the room to all of us, which is another fun tradition of his. We had a wholesome dinner and enjoyed the night with the kids, before returning to our hotel.
After a big breakfast, we took a walk through the Bole district to a coffee house for some macchiatos. We had some girl talk (sorry guys!) along the way and just enjoyed each others company. We then returned to the hotel to have lunch with Rick’s son, Dejene, and a couple of his closest friends and business partners. Dejene is in his twenties and has been working on a tourism business with one of his friends. They are all very entrepreneurial and work so hard to achieve success in what they do. They are collaborating to start various new enterprises in the realms of health, finance, and tourism. Some of the participants then went back to Rick’s to play soccer and card games with the kids there.
In the evening we gathered for a Havdalah ceremony and an exercise in thinking about how we connect with others and reflecting on the South African concept of Ubuntu that was developed by Desmond Tutu. The idea that ‘I am, because you are’ is the central theme and that we ask each other to be present, to show up, and to show compassion wherever we can. We looked through some cards that showed key projects that JDC is involved in around the world and chose one that especially connected with each of us. There was a Jewish camp for at-risk youth in Israel, JDC relief workers sitting with orphaned children in Haiti after the terrible earthquake, and men, who were survivors of the Holocaust holding their babies.
We then went to dinner at a large restaurant with a stage where singers and dancers entertained us for the night. We had some honey wine and local Dashen beer and enjoyed the show. At one point, we realized there was a wedding ceremony happening right next to us in this huge room with people from all over the world. The couple was surrounded closely by family and friends and were dressed in beautiful traditional clothing.
Then it was time to experience the nightlife! Milli took a group of us to Petrol Bar, where I’m pretty certain, as soon as our group walked in the music changed. Soon they were playing popular 90’s songs, some current pop songs, and just a few Ethiopian songs here and there. We definitely stood out and were no doubt the loudest group in there. We had so much fun dancing for hours and it was the perfect way to end our day.
We spent day eight at Kuriftu Spa in Debre Zeyit where we had lunch overlooking a beautiful lake. Afterwards some of us had massages and spent time relaxing, writing in our journals, and playing cards. The grounds were beautiful and serene. We then returned to the hotel to meet Sam Amiel, JDC’s Senior Program Director responsible for projects in Ethiopia. He gave us a more in-depth understanding of some current programs, as well as informing us of some projects that are in the pipeline. One important program was focused on sending pediatricians out into the community to screen children at schools for scoliosis while checking for cough and fever symptoms, as well as heart problems. They are also doing research into why there are such a large number of children with severely curved spines in Ethiopia more than anywhere else in the world. JDC is also looking at how to train more doctors to carry on Dr. Hodes practices and treatment, following his methodologies. JDC really empowers communities to be self-sustainable and to thrive. When they develop a successful project or program, they often hand it over to the local government and move onto the next project so they are always on top of the current challenges in the region. We heard about an exciting new JDC project to do with beekeeping.
JDC plans to build a beekeeping facility and provide the first lot of bees, as well as training to local residents in the area, so that they can operate the facility and make honey, which is highly profitable. The Center will train village farmers to farm honeybees utilizing modern techniques. It will also train woodworkers and metalsmiths to build beekeeping equipment. Trainees will then take these valuable skills with them back to their villages, where they can help their community develop an efficient beekeeping industry that is able to compete in the domestic and global marketplace. We were really inspired by this project, among others, so we decided as a group to work on fundraising for these efforts when we return home. There was a lot of enthusiasm and every single person was on board with making a difference in the country we have grown to care so much about in such a short time.
On the last day of our trip, we visited WISE (Women in Self-Employment) where we met with some incredible women who run the program. They are a local NGO and partner of JDC and are dedicated to fostering sustainable livelihoods among low-income women. WISE was founded in 1998 and has been working with women to provide business and home economic education, as well as micro-loan and community banking programs. Beneficiaries learn to become self-reliant and greatly improve the quality of their lives. Their focus lies in the empowerment of women economically, socially, and politically. Many of the women become weavers, creating beautiful garments to be sold, but the projects can range from jewellery making to coffee production and distribution. Some of the women leave difficult home lives and find solace in WISE. Some have husbands who are not supportive, and others who are very encouraging. In most cases, the women are driven to be self empowered and will do all they can to make that happen. WISE fosters strategic partnerships with like-minded organizations in order to share learning and promote their own good practices. Through this, they have been able to expand their outreach to other parts of the country. Since its founding, WISE has reached over 28,000 women and girls in Addis Ababa.
After talking to these inspiring women, we browsed their store and supported them by buying some of the beautiful pashminas, jewellery, and pottery they had created. We then visited some of these WISE women in the community, at the market and in the alley next to their homes where they were selling crafts that they had made.
We are excited to share our stories with our own communities and to see what develops from there. One thing this trip taught me is anything is possible and every little bit counts. Every life you can make a difference in is worth it all.