Linda Johnson’s journals from Ethiopia. See part 1 for more information.
Ethiopian Journal June 3, 2011
As usual, today started with a plan. And, as is customary here, plans were made to be broken.
My day started with a wonderful skype conversation with my husband, and
I was struck with how much I miss seeing him, and how much I miss our in-depth
conversations on all sorts of things—our day, our victories, our struggles, our
dreams, and matters of the heart. His smile really lit up my day and encouraged me that our relationship is solid,
and he deeply loves me. And I love him as well.
Next to breakfast, with more kimshee, rice, fried eggs, salad, and other indescribable
Korean dishes. I end up trying it all, some of it very hot and spicy, but find
myself gravitating to the fried eggs (my cholesterol won’t be helped) and toast
with nutella on it to satisfy my craving for sweets. And, of course, several cups of that fabulous
Ethiopian coffee. I am a creature of variety, and Korean food 3 times a day is beginning to get to me. Thank goodness for my stash of mini-snickers that Dick gave me!
After the morning doctors meeting, we did rounds on our patients to see how they are
doing. The man with the spleen removal is developing pneumonia or some other infection, so we are watching him
closely. The man with the occluded veins in his leg is still in severe pain and has some infectious process and fever
that we are worried about. The Korean vascular surgeon arrives on Sunday, and we hope that we can put off surgery
until then to minimize the extent of the amputation that will need to be done. The patient is now threatening to
leave the hospital because we won’t cut off his leg—he just wants a cure now.
We saw several interesting cases through the ER. One was a young nun who works at the Sister Theresa Clinic for the
Destitute here in Addis Ababa. She ended up with a diagnosis of sciatica which will be managed mostly with
ibuprofen. The other patient has an extremely rare condition called an arterio-venous malformation, where the
venous blood and arterial blood systems are directly connected. In her case, there is a large fistula (mass
of blood vessels) where the arteries and veins dump into a huge expanded vessel that is just in front of her kidney. At
some point she will need surgery, but it will be very tricky and messy, and she will probably lose one of her kidneys.
This woman is 25 years old with a baby about 6 weeks old, and her problem was detected during her pregnancy but not fully diagnosed until
today. We saw some amazing 3-D images from the CT scanner, in color, that were absolutely phenomenal.
Dr. Koning says this kind of abnormality is something that a physician may see only once or twice in a lifetime—it was a great case for the medical students that are here with us.
The highlight of the day was going with Robin and Lacey to the Mother Theresa Clinic for the Destitute. They see over
600 patients/day, and they really are those with no other hope or place to receive care. The Mission is supported
by the Catholic church and the nuns all wear the white and blue trimmed garb that Mother Theresa wore, and are completely dedicated to the ministry of caring for this population. They have a ward for men requiring chemotherapy, and we saw two young boys, maybe 2 or 3
years old, receiving treatment for Hodgkins disease, receiving ABVD, the standard chemotherapy for this disease.
I knew that my stepson Tim received the same medication last year for his disease, and it was fascinating to see the poorest of the poor receiving exactly the same treatment, albeit in a 50 bed ward with nuns administering the meds. The clinic also has an entire
floor for the mentally retarded, so we saw several of the children smiling and waving to us. They also have a dormitory
for adoptable children, and one for those who are not adoptable. We sat in on a spine clinic for about an hour, and saw probably 10 patients with various forms of spinal deformity. The degree of deformity was astounding, with spines contorted so that 60% of lung capacity was inhibited, and it looked like no one could do anything for them. We would never see this level of deformity in the U.S. and it reminds me again of the cruel cost of poverty. Most of the patients were children, and one adolescent girl. We were invited to the clinic by a young man
named Shaun, who is volunteering at the clinic for a year between his college degree and the beginning of medical school.
He is an energetic, earnest, and compassionate young man who is so fulfilled by the humanitarian work he is doing.
He records the new patients with a series of photographs, and digitizes their lab work and x-rays for entry into an electronic medical record—pretty amazing for a country as poor as Ethiopia.
Shaun is a volunteer for a Jewish NGO that provides funding to fly the children who need surgery to Ghana for spinal repairs. There is a famous, internationally known surgeon in Ghana who performs miraculous surgeries on severe spinal deformities, and this NGO flies the children and their families to Ghana and pays for the surgeries.
After leaving the clinic, we followed Shaun and 3 of his co-workers to the Blue Dream café for injeera and a beer. One of the
people from Shaun’s office works on projects and whatever needs to be done. He has worked to set up a micro-lending program in Addis Ababa that is finishing up its first year. Their repayment rate is very low compared to other countries, at about 48% and he is working with his team to determine why so many of the women they lend to have failed businesses. They are reviewing whether additional
technical assistance is needed, or whether it is the involvement of men who dominate and control the women, or whether it is some other problem they need to correct. I am learning so much here about what is being done to help boost the Ethiopian economy and the people who
I don’t think I have talked about the level of construction going on here in Addis Ababa. There are goat herds on the side of the road, open fields, lots of insane traffic, many pedestrians walking in the street, and a huge amount of construction of high-rise buildings. The pace of construction and growth is amazing, and it reminds me of a boom town. This is not stimulated by the government to boost the economy—it is
private investment. The new high-rises, juxtaposed with corregated metal shacks and stalls is a little disconcerting. I wonder how the pace can be sustained.
Shaun has invited us to his house tonight for Shabat (a jewish tradition) and dinner. I am very much looking forward
to that. The Shabat invitation was a great and interesting experience. We were late because both of our cab drivers
got lost—it was a very seedy part of town, and we saw prostitutes all along the main street. After several u-turns, and
backing up a busy street for 3 blocks, and asking for directions repeatedly, we finally found the dark, long alley where we were to go. It was the home of Dr. Rick Hodhe, a surgeon who has devoted his life to indigent care at Mother Theresa clinic. Rick was not there (he’s on vacation for
another week) but the shabat was held at his home. He is a single man (another cost of the person bitten by the bug of humanitarianism) and has adopted many of his patients whom he helps get through school either in Ethiopia or the states so they have fighting chance at a better
life than they had when they met Dr. Rick. The kids were at the Shabat, along with a priest, a professor from Unity
University who has just published a book on Ethiopia, Shaun, and our group of 7.
While I had expected a solemn setting, the shabat started with each person having to pick an outrageous hat
to wear. There were many photos and laughs to build relationship with our new friends. We sang “If I had a hammer”
which the Norwegians and young people in our group did not know, and then said
a very brief prayer for the world and the 6 kids who are going to Ghana next
week for spine surgery. Then we ate the special bread (challah, I think) and a wonderful mug of soup, then fresh
fruit. At about 10:00 p.m. we headed home, for we have a very early flight tomorrow.
Again, a very full day of experiences.
Ethiopian Journal 6-5-11
I didn’t write yesterday because we got up extremely early to fly to Lalibela for an
excursion to one of Ethiopia’s most sacred places. We left our dormitory at 5:30 a.m. for a 7:30
a.m. flight. The check-in process begins in the parking lot, with a couple of armed guards in military uniform sitting
where the sidewalk to the terminal begins—there is no curbside drop-off as in
the US. Once you have shown your passport and ticket, you proceed to the front door of the airport, where you
immediately put your luggage and belongings through the metal detector. Then you proceed to the ticket desk for your
ticket. Then you go into the main gate gathering area, where there is a nice café with waitresses dressed like flight
attendance—crisp, smart, and professional. After the much needed coffee and a pastry, and a bathroom break (note to
self: ALWAYS pack my own TP—it’s not a staple in Ethiopia) we went through another screening again to get to the gate
area, then to the gate to get our boarding passes. Seems a bit tighter than America, and yet a
little looser too. From there we took a bus to the plane and walked up the stairway to the plane.
We had a 1 hour flight to a city called Goldrun (I may have spelled it wrong) where the
castle of the last King is located. The airport looked like a castle as well, keeping with the theme of the town. Even though the flight was short, we were served a bologna roll and juice for breakfast.
It was about a 40 minute flight from Goldrun to Lalibela, and slightly
bumpy. Once there, we found our bags and tour guide and loaded onto a small 10
passenger bus, including the driver. There were 9 seats, and one tiny fold-down one with a broken back, which
of course I got to ride. The ride was about 30 minutes on a rough mountain road up to Lalibela, with goats, cattle,
people, and other vans keeping us company.
We were so busy taking photos of the thatched huts and the terraced hillsides that I think we missed the scariness of the ride. Today coming back from Lalibela to the airport, I ended up in the same seat with a clear view out the front windshield, seeing
the cliffs drop off, the narrowness of the roads without any guardrails, and the dodging and weaving our driver did at a fast speed to get us to the airport on time, since he showed up 10 minutes late to pick us up. I should have taken my Ativan dose before the
bus ride, instead of waiting for the plane.
After working in the hospital the past 10 days and seeing all the patients who have had critical injuries from auto accidents, and from failed
bus brakes, I was absolutely certain I was going to turn into a statistic. Fortunately, we arrived at the airport in one piece and on time, only to get onto the plane for a very bumpy ride back to Goldrun, and from there back to Addis.
I went on the trip with Lindsay, Lacey, and Robin, all of whom are in their 20’s.
Only once on the trip was I asked “which one is your daughter?”, and
that question was from a woman nearly my age who works for the World Bank
overseeing projects in Africa. I would not have been offended by an Ethiopian asking me that question, but for some
reason I was offended by an American woman asking. I guess I’m still feeling a little sensitive
about my age and realizing that the age I feel, and the physical image my body
presents to others, are at odds with each other. Something’s just not right about that!
Once in Lalibela, we checked into our hotel, a very clean room and bathroom, in the
midst of thatched huts, corregated metal buildings, and abject poverty. It wasn’t the Holiday Inn, but we felt safe
and glad that our rooms and hotel were so nice.
Our guide picked us up 15 minutes later, and the four of us were his only clients. On the bus ride up to the churches, we
noticed hundreds of people walking on the roads, and our guide told us they were on their way to the market at the top of the hill. Through a break in the trees, we saw literally thousands of people in the market with lots of stalls. Even though we really wanted to go there, our
tour left us no time. We drove to a location where we could see roughly half of the 11 churches before lunchtime,
and then saw the rest after lunch. The people of Lalibela, a city of about 11,000, pretty much left us alone and went
about their business: carrying sticks, herding goats and a few cows, leading heavily-laden donkeys, carrying large
sacks of stuff on their heads or backs. For the most part, the animal herders are children, skillfully keeping
the animals on the side of the road. There were a few adolescent kids that tried to sell us leather crosses,
but they were quickly shooed away by the guide.
The churches of Lalibela have one history of legend, and another of historical
research. Legend has it that King Lalibela had a dream one night and a legion of angels came to him, and he asked
them to build the 11 churches into the stone of the mountain. And it was done, by legend, in one
night. Historians tell that the churches were indeed built by King Lalibela’s people but not all in one night. The site was recently identified as a world heritage site, so there is now money coming in to restore some of the damage
that time has caused.
The churches were built of two types of stone: a red
basalt that slightly resembles our red cinder in Oregon, and the other is a
very hard black basalt that is very hard to carve or break. Some of the churches were constructed out a
single piece of rock, and others were constructed from the rock debris from the
first churches. They were all in the shape of a cross, and were all connected by a labyrinth of tunnels to protect
against invaders. Even though the temples were all underground, they were difficult to access if you didn’t know
the proper tunnels to access them. At least 6 of the churches had priests sitting in them, holding and protecting the
space. In most of the churches there were carpets for the stone floor, and rich silky drapes, and some local art
work. Because we were women, there were two areas in two churches that we were
not allowed to go. And we were not able to go into the holiest of holies places where they claimed that they have the
ark of the convenant, part of Noah’s ark, and the cross that Christ was
crucified on. The ceilings, windows, and walls were adorned with many different forms of the cross, which was very
interesting to me.
In the largest one, there was a priest, and a lesser priest, and a family and a young
girl of about 13 who was having a “healing”. We believe they were trying to cast out demons, and she was screaming as
the younger priest pushed a cross against her body in different places; then
she would calm down, and then scream and moan again as if she was in
agony. I felt like an intruder on this scene, and was very powerfully moved in many different ways.
The afternoon tour started with the most famous of the churches of Lalibela which
looks like a giant cross at ground level, but is really a 3 story church. If you google or Wikipedia Lalibela you will
most likely see this cross. We eventually got to the bottom of the church and went in, but it required going
through some narrow caverns and tunnels. At one point, we were single-file, holding hands, walking pitch dark
through a long and twisting cavern. Obviously we worried about tripping on a stone, and the walls and ceiling
were very close, but fortunately none of us was claustrophobic and we made it through with no problem. We saw several
pools of water outside a couple of the major churches which we learned was holy water. One of the pools was a special
holy water, used to help young women get pregnant. We decided we’d better not fall in that pool. As we did the afternoon tour, we
heard singing and chants from the largest temple, where Sabbath services had already started. The services last for 4
to 6 hours, so many people bring “standing sticks” to remain upright through the entire service—our guide demonstrated some of the favorite positions. We were all impressed with the beauty of the temples, and the fact that each one has its own saint and all are symbolic of
different events in Jesus’ life. And, they are almost all still used for church services on Saturday and Sunday.
On the way back to the hotel, we stopped about a block away and wandered through a few of
the shops to buy souvenirs. That’s when we were besieged by young men and male children, all very friendly, all
seemingly intelligent, and all skilled with a tale of woe needing your help. We managed to run the gauntlet
with our finances intact. Then we ran into a couple of people from Norway—there are a LOT of Norwegians in Addis
Ababa, I’m discovering. The young woman was about 23 years old and had just finished up one year of teaching school in
Jinka with the Norwegian Lutheran Ministries. She had obviously fallen in love with Jinka and its people, and was very
sad to be going home. She and her father Kenneth were doing some local sightseeing before returning to Norway next
week. While daughter loved Ethiopia, dad was not really impressed. They invited us to take a walk with them before dinner with their guide to the best spot in town to view the sunset. It was about a mile away on dirt roads, and the view was spectacular, even if the clouds hid
the sunset. I got many cool photos of kids, thatched huts, typical street scenes, and the countryside, which was very
When we returned from the sunset, we ate dinner at the hotel which was delicious—mostly
chicken filets with veggies and different sauces. We also shared a bottle of local wine, which
was a light red and had a distinctly alcohol taste. The dinner conversation was delightful, and
we couldn’t wait for breakfast as that menu looked wonderful. We returned to our rooms at about 9:00 p.m.
and slept minimally. Right next door to our room (like, 10 feet away) was a family home (thatched hut) with a fenced
yard with beautiful flowers, some chickens, a satellite dish, a couple of goats
and a dog or two. One of the three of those animals was upset and making loud noises all night. Plus, my cold is getting worse and my sinuses
are clogged and caused a serious headache.
Oh, and when all the cacophony died down, then the mosquitoes could be heard just over our heads. Tonight
should be much better.
Breakfast this morning did not disappoint, and we were all in high spirits and eager to
get back to Addis. On the scary bus ride down I met a native Ethiopian man who was on the bus with his wife and two
children—a girl of about 7 and a boy of about 11. The man is an RN in Dallas Texas working in
rehab at Parkland Memorial Hospital. He was on vacation with his family for the week, and was heading to Goldrun
next. He has been in the states for 11 years and is now an American citizen, as are his children. His wife is still Ethiopian, and they come
home to Ethiopia every three years to visit their families. I was impressed that he was able to afford
this on a nurse’s salary—it shows how strong the family ties are in Ethiopia,
and how important family is here. I love all the interesting people we are meeting here!
We arrived back in Addis today at about 1:00 p.m. after a very bumpy couple of
flights. As I sit here writing this, the thunder is rolling in the background and rain is threatening. We are entering the rainy season here, which should begin next week. There are thunderclouds every afternoon, and rain about half the days.
Tonight we have been invited to go out with the Norwegian team—Venka, Gro, Dr. K, and a
new nurse I met on Friday who worked here for 7 months last year. Should be much fun. If I’m not too tired I’ll write more when I