Working as a Teaching Assistant in the Ethiopian Project undoubtedly has become one of the key professional experiences during my PhD training. Throughout the project I had the opportunity to work in a multicultural environment, to explore professional areas to which I haven’t been previously exposed and to engage students from Ethiopia into the fascinating trip of science. However, I want to address this article from a perspective different than professional and show how working in the Ethiopian Project ended up being a deeply rewarding experience also from a personal perspective. The main reason why I’m able to choose this approach is thanks to Emmanuel, my co-TA in Ethiopia. He did an amazing work describing every detail of the Ethiopian Project 2015. You can read more about Emmanuel’s experience and the Ethiopian Project 2015 here.
Ethiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, after Nigeria, with an estimated population of 99,465,819 inhabitants. The interesting part about this is that Gondar, the city where the workshop was held, is the third largest city in the country with only a bit more than 200 thousand inhabitants. More than 80% of the Ethiopian population is rural and you can feel that even in “big cities” like Gondar. Ethiopians are genuinely kind, with a welcoming attitude that makes it really easy to feel like at home and extremely grateful. I have probably never been in a “big city” where it was that easy to find smiling faces. This made me feel safe and encouraged me to spend time on the streets embracing their hospitality. Thus, while walking the streets of Gondar, I was invited to share meals and coffee ceremonies by several unknown families. I probably looked so lost walking by myself that they couldn’t resist having some good time with the non-local guy. I normally struggled with the language but kids would understand some english so we always ended up having an amazing time. The good vibes were overwhelming and these experiences were the best induction to Ethiopian Life.
Gondar is almost 400 years old and has a pretty rich cultural heritage. Since its foundation, Gondar has always played important roles not only for Ethiopia but also for the entire African continent. In the city you can see the remains of several castles and temples for which Gondar is known as the “Camelot of Africa”. We had the opportunity of visiting the most representative sites in the city. For instance, we visited the Royal Enclosure which include, among others, the castle built by the emperor Fasilides when Gondar was founded around the year 1636. The royal enclosure is an UNESCO World Heritage Site and a unique example of what is called the Gondar architectural style that unifies arabic and european baroque architecture. It is an amazing place to observe and learn not only about some of the oldest Ethiopian history but also about some recent events as it still is possible to observe consequences of the Italian occupation and British bombing during the second world war (yes, occupation and bombing from the war ended up going even that far south!). We also visited the principal religious site in Gondar called the Fasilides’ Bath. Located just a couple of blocks from the Royal Enclosure, this is home of the most important annual religious celebration, the Timkat or Epiphany. Timkat means “baptism” and celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river. Thousands of people come from distant regions to celebrate and sort of renewing their baptismal vows by immersing in the Fasilides’ Bath. Although they keep the pool empty most of the time for sanitary reasons it is easy to imagine this huge celebration full of color and music. Every year during January Gondar became in the religious epicenter of northern Ethiopia. If you want to know more about the epiphany celebration in Gondar click here.
Fasilides’ castle at the Royal Enclosure, Gondar, Ethiopia
Fasilides’ Bath, Gondar, Ethiopia
It is impossible to talk about Africa without mentioning their natural heritage. After we finished our duties with the Ethiopian Project I took one week off for traveling to what is considered as one of the best trekking destination in the world, the Simien Mountains National Park. I spent 4 days walking among breath-taking views, wall to wall sunshine and amazing wildlife. This unique landscape is defined by plateaus located 3600 meters above sea level with edges ending abruptly with 1000 to 2000 meters precipitous. It is pretty obvious why the Simien Mountains are also called the roof of Africa. Along with the landscape, the main attraction in the mountains is the unique wildlife you can not find anywhere else in the world. This singular ecosystem derived from the cool climate, steep cliffs and extremely high altitudes, have created the conditions for the evolution of endemic wildlife like the walia Ibex (Capra walie), the ethiopian wolf (Canis simensis) and the geladas (Theropithecus gelada). Although the two formers species are critically endangered and are hard to spot, the gelada are abundant and extremely peaceful. Every day in the mountains we were surrounded by hundreds of wild geladas. This close interaction allowed me to really connect with this amazing species and at some point kind understand their highly complex social interactions. The gelada is known to have an extremely diverse vocalization repertoire reaching levels of complexity that are thought to near that of humans. Walking among geladas for almost a week is definitely one of the greatest wildlife experiences that I ever had and one of the key memories from my trip to Ethiopia.
Geladas at Simien Mountains National Park, Ethiopia
The trip to Ethiopia was a constant exposition to great emotions from the first to the very last day. I’m originally from South America and I always thought about Africa as a continent coming from the same family, like two brothers struggling with the same problems but also enjoying the same happiness. While I was getting ready for my trip to Ethiopia my expectations were extremely high. I expected to find in Africa similar lifestyles, emotions and smells than those I found backpacking South America several years ago. To my surprise, even though I found many similarities, for the most part of the trip Ethiopia was a box full of novelty and happiness that ended up creating unforgettable memories. Thanks Ethiopia!
I would like to thank the HPI program for allowed me to participate in such a great experience!