Striking from a Distance

Fair Warning:  I want to warn my readers that this is a very different kind of post for me.  We’ve dedicated this blog over the past year to writing about our observations, challenges and needs while living in Ethiopia, particularly at a children’s home in Wolaita Soddo.  That will continue, but today I’m missing Chicago and my former teacher friends and colleagues as they head for the picket lines for the 2nd day as the Chicago Teacher’s Union faces off against Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and the Chicago Board of Ed.  This blog post will be political and not really about Ethiopia.  Feel free to cease reading here if you’d prefer.


Before moving to Ethiopia, I spent five years as a CTU member (Chicago Teacher’s Union) and high school social studies teacher at UPLIFT Community High School, a CPS (Chicago Public Schools) high school in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.  Those were fabulous years that I have very fond memories of.  During those five years, I learned that Chicago was a pivotal place in the nation when it came to the debate and struggle around public education.  Just to demonstrate the influence of Chicago on the national education scene, President Obama calls Chicago home.  During his years as a Chicago resident, he played basketball often with Arne Duncan, then the CEO of Chicago Public Schools.  When Obama went to the White House, he took Mr. Duncan with him as the new Secretary of Education.  To further cement the Washington to Chicago connection, Obama’s former White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel, is now Mayor of Chicago, not long ago replacing long-time Mayor Richard Daley.

Legally, this strike in Chicago is over teacher compensation.  Rahm wants to lengthen the school day for students in CPS without a fair increase in compensation for teachers and he wants to attach compensation of teachers to student scores on standardized tests.  Unofficially, though, this strike is about much more than teacher compensation, but because of state law in IL, the CTU can’t strike over the real issues; they can only strike over compensation.  The real issues are about class sizes, resources, and a well-rounded support staff in schools (social workers, educational psychologists, nurses, special education teachers, librarians, after-school activity directors, etc.).  It’s about standing up for neighborhood and community schools, which have become under-resourced dumping grounds for all the students with certain challenges that the magnet schools and charter / contract schools don’t want.  It’s about standing up for the teacher profession, because most CTU teachers in CPS are good, qualified teachers who are doing their best everyday to help provide an education to students in an incredibly challenging environment.  It’s about saying, “we are professionals, we are teachers, we are educators, we have skills and knowledge and abilities; stop dumping all the system’s problems on us and give us the tools and resources we need to do our job before you condemn us.”

Though I’m a long ways away from Chicago now, and can’t claim to be intimately involved with this specific strike and struggle, upon reflecting on my current situation, I felt I had something to add to the conversation to show my support to my former colleagues and friends.

About two months ago, I took at job at a private international school here in Addis Ababa.  My family and I wanted to remain a longer time in Ethiopia, but needed a job that paid money in order to do so.  This job provides that for us.  This school is a private, English language international school that serves the international community of Addis Ababa. Most of the students have parents that work at embassies, the Africa Union, the UN, or some big international development organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and USAID.  As a fully private school, the yearly tuition is no joke; it is steep, on pare with lots of private schools in the Chicago area.  As a strong proponent of public education, I find myself in the awkward position of now working for a private school only accessible to families with considerable resources.

One of the things I’ve learned from this experience so far, however, is just what a private education looks like.  My previous experience in CPS and now my new position, has provided me with a unique opportunity to compare the two.  I now have an insider’s perspective on the kind of education that Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s kids are likely getting while attending the private University of Chicago Lab School.  It’s interesting that politicians who send their kids to elite private schools are often the ones saying things like, “we can’t fix public education by just throwing money at the problem,” or citing some research study that claims that class size doesn’t actually matter when it comes to quality of education.  Strangely, someone failed to pass that kind of research on to the people running private schools like mine.  Let me tell you a little about my school, where my school puts value, and what kind of education kids get when there are resources.

My new school has a large, open campus, with green space, playgrounds, sports fields, a track, flowers, trees and gardens.  It has excellent facilities, including science labs, music and art rooms, computer labs, a well-stocked library, a nice gym, cafeteria, etc.  My school has new uniforms for all the sports teams, it pays its coaches, it sends its teams on out-of-town trips for tournaments and competitions, and it has a well-qualified athletic director whose sole job is to oversee the athletic program and ensure its quality.  My school has a bunch of great after school activities offered four days / week and some on weekends. My school has new-edition textbooks, literature books and supplies for all students.  My school has a 1-to-1-laptop program where all students from grades 6 – 12 are issued a laptop for the duration of their academic year.  My school has great wireless Internet throughout the campus, and has access to online e-learning and student e-portfolio programs that are integrated into every class.  My school has an extensive, professional IT staff that services, maintains and provides support for all technology on campus.  Every classroom in my new school is equipped with an LCD projector and many classrooms have smart boards and document readers.  The student cafeteria serves fabulous meals that are healthy and have variety at very reasonable prices.

My new school values its teachers and recognizes that a quality education requires teachers that are taken care of and provided with appropriate resources.  There is a full-time staffed copy center that can turn around my photocopy requests within 30 min.  There is a non-stop supply of coffee for teachers and staff in various locations around campus.  There are computers and printers (with ink) at every staff workspace.  There is a “teacher store” on campus where teachers can go get pretty much any classroom supply he / she could ever need without paying for it out of his / her own pocket.  Teachers are provided with adequate preparatory time, collaboration time and professional development time, built into the school day.  Teachers are compensated with a good salary and great benefits (medical, dental, retirement, etc.).  Teachers are given appropriate benefit days, including sick leave, personal days, and professional development leave days, and teachers are not made to feel guilty for using these days when they need to.  Teachers are given $1500 / year as a professional development allowance so they can attend professional development conferences and trainings.  Teachers are given a personal technology allowance, so they can stay updated with the necessary technology tools to be an affective teacher.  Teachers are provided with opportunities to further their education and encouraged to participate in these opportunities (in CPS I knew principals and district staff that voiced frustration over teachers getting higher degrees because it meant they would cost more on the school’s budget… I was also part of hiring committees that were told we couldn’t hire teachers with more than one degree or with more than a couple of years experience because the school couldn’t afford it).  The administrative staff and school board also often host appreciation events with food and drink just to show teachers that their hard work is not unnoticed.

And as for that issue about class sizes and staff-to-student ratios: all of my classes are between 15 – 20 students maximum.  I never have a classroom without adequate desks and space.  I always have enough textbooks and literature books for all my students.  There is a whole staff of teaching assistants, most of which have teacher qualifications of their own.  Every elementary school classroom, despite only have a maximum of 20 kids, has a primary teacher, plus a qualified teaching assistant in the room, not to mention the extra “specials” teachers for art, foreign language, music and PE.  Despite being a relatively small school by CPS standards (about 800 students from PK – 12th grade), there’s a whole ELL department with several qualified ELL teachers who provide pull-out and push-in support.  There is a special education department that includes school social workers, educational psychologists and special education teachers that provide both push-in and pull-out support, though only a small percentage of our student body has special ed. needs (compared to 30% of the student body at my previous CPS high school).  Beyond this, there are custodians, lab techs., grounds keepers, facility maintenance staff, extra coaches and coaching assistants, office staff, security staff, after-school activity staff, etc.  For a student body of 800 kids, there are 80 full-time faculty, plus 40 TAs, 6 full-time IT specialists, and an administrative team of 20 (and, by the way, the school director and principals are all actual educators who have spent years as teachers in classrooms; they’re not former lawyers, business-people, nor military generals).

This is the kind of education that kids from well-resourced families are getting.  This is the kind of education that Rahm Emanuel’s kids are getting.  Now, while it may be true, that taxpayers can’t afford to pay for the full extent of this kind of education in our public system, it is also true that resources do matter.  If resources didn’t matter, why would those who can afford it, send their kids to private schools with absurd amounts of resources?  If we really believed in equal education for all of America’s kids, don’t you think the kids coming from the least privileged backgrounds are exactly the kids who need the resources?  Don’t you think the schools with student populations that are 95 – 100% free and reduced lunch are exactly the places that should have extra resources?  Don’t you think that schools with student populations with 30% special education needs are exactly the places that need full-time social workers, qualified special education departments, and educational psychologists?  Don’t you think the schools where students bring a lot of pain and baggage from their pasts, their homes and their neighborhoods are exactly the schools that should have smaller class sizes?  Don’t you think the schools in gang invested, high-crime and violent neighborhoods are exactly the places that need more resources for after-school activities?  Don’t you think the schools in predominately immigrant communities are exactly the schools that needs greater ELL support?  Don’t you think the schools with transient student populations and with kids well-behind grade level are exactly the schools that need adequate and current educational materials?

And don’t you think the teachers that work in these schools deserve to be taken care of?

Support the CTU and support public education.


Personal Update

Dear family, friends and other interested readers,

This blog post is more a personal update.  As you know, we have been living and working for the past year in Wolaita Soddo in southern Ethiopia at a children’s home (orphanage).  This past year has been a great experience for us.  We have learned a lot and, in return, we think we were able to help in some ways as well.  Up until about a week ago, we had every intention of continue to live and work here for at least another year.

However, about two weeks ago, a teaching position opened up suddenly and unexpectedly at the International Community School in Addis Ababa (ICS).  Within a matter of just 5 days we learned of the position, traveled up to Addis to interview and Nathan was offered the job.  We did not immediately accept the position.  The timing was very sudden and difficult for us.  We really were not ready to leave our life and work in Soddo.  The thought of leaving in general, but especially so soon, was very sad for us.  But after some very careful consideration, we decided to accept the position.

Our role here at the Children’s Home has been a volunteer position.  Our housing has been provided and we’ve received a small monthly living stipend.  We’ve known all along that we could not financially sustain this position for long into the future.  We anticipated that we could manage for up to two years, then we’d either have to find something in Ethiopia with a paycheck, or we’d be returning back to the U.S.  To find a paying job in Ethiopia is not an easy task.  We’ve watched for years for job positions in Ethiopia; they are very hard to find and often very temporary.  We’ve even watched for several years for job openings at ICS; in social studies, there haven’t been any for several years.  So we’ve decided that if we want to continue living and working in Ethiopia, it would be foolish to turn down this recent job opportunity.

Beyond allowing us to sustain ourselves in Ethiopia, the ICS job also will allow us to live in Addis.  We have enjoyed our life in Soddo, but our years in Chicago made us into big-city people.  We have always liked Addis and look forward to living there.  This move will also provide a good school for Titay as she goes into first grade.  She will be able to attend ICS tuition-free.  While she has enjoyed going to KG here in Soddo in Amharic, she is excited about going to an “American-style” school for first grade.  She will also benefit from a more stimulating school environment.

This decision feels very bittersweet.  We are excited about the opportunity, but it comes with the very hard decision to leave our work with the Children’s Home, which we have very much enjoyed.  We do not really feel ready to leave the home.  We still have some only partially finished goals for our work here.  We have grown to love the staff and kids of the home, and we’ve grown to greatly enjoy the beauty of the Wolaita region.  We have had a sad week here as we’ve shared the news of our move to our friends, colleagues and the kids.

But Soddo is really not that far away from Addis (327 km, to be exact).  We’ve gotten use to overnight bus rides up to Addis for a weekend; now we’ll just do that trip in reverse.  We want to and plan to remain very connected to the Children’s Home.  Before accepting the job in Addis, we sat down with the school academic calendar and planed out all the dates we could spend in Soddo.  At least through the end of 2012, we plan to come down often for long weekends, fall break, etc.  In fact, after speaking with the board in the U.S. and the management here in Ethiopia, we’ve agreed to remain in the roles of home managers, though our roles will obviously change.  We will clearly be less involved in the daily life of the home, but we will continue to partner with the Ethiopian management to support them in their roles, we will continue to oversee a few projects that remain in progress (the garden project, setting up a database, the well project), we’ll continue in the liaison role between the U.S. board and the Ethiopian staff, and we’ll still be involved in the budgetary process.  In some ways, we see this job in Addis as a way to remain involved at the Children’s Home for even longer, because it provides us with a means to remain in Ethiopia for longer (for now the job at ICS is just a one-year contract, but we anticipate that it will be extended in the future).

Probably many of you are wondering what this all means for our well project.  Since January, we have spent considerable time developing the plan to drill a deep borehole well on the Children’s Home compound to ensure a good quality and consistent water source for the home.  At this point, the U.S. board has raised about 2/3rd of the needed funds.  We have formed a partnership for the drilling/casing stage with Water is Life, a water/drilling NGO that operates in southern Ethiopia with the plan to start drilling in October (see  We have already paid for the 3-phase power installation and expect to have that installation underway in the coming couple of weeks.  And we’ve already completed or developed all the other components of the project: hydro-geological survey, pump research, quotes from pump and water system installers, etc.  This project is going to move forward.  It is a very important one for the Children’s Home.  We will remain managers of this project, both from Addis (many of the materials have to come from Addis anyway) and through trips down to Soddo (we’re working to schedule the drilling during Nathan’s fall break, for example).  If all the funds come in and all goes roughly accordingly to schedule, we expect to have the well fully up and running by the end of 2012.  We will certainly continue to keep you updated on this project through facebook and the blog.

Many of you have supported us financially over the past year, either with funds for the Children’s Home project in general, or with funds for some of our personal living and work expenses.  We want to again express our great appreciation for all of the support.  Being the recipient of others’ great generosity has been one of the strange and unexpected, but also very beautiful aspects of this experience this past year.  Many friends, relatives and total strangers have given very generously, despite the very real needs of their own.  We know that for many of you, you have given partly because of your connection to us.  We hope that going forward, though we’ll actually have a paycheck of our own and won’t be living and working full-time at the Children’s Home, you will continue to keep this project in mind and consider continuing to support it.  We have chosen to remain involved with this project partly because we believe it’s a good project, involved in work of real value, led by good and honest people. If you want more information about how you can continue to support the Children’s Home, we’d be glad to provide that for you.

So what’s next?  We will remain living and working full-time here at the Children’s Home until the end of July.  During that time, we’ll be making some quick trips up to Addis to try to secure some housing.  Nathan will start his new job on July 31st.  Richelle and Titay will still be traveling back to the U.S. for part of Aug. through mid-Sept.  Nathan, unfortunately, will now not be able to join them.  Richelle and Titay, however, are looking forward to seeing and visiting with some of you.  Titay will begin first grade at ICS in Sept.  Richelle will probably continue doing some social work consultancy with some Addis agencies.  And, of course, we’ll continue our involvement with the Children’s Home and continue to provide updates at and we’ll continue to blog.

As always, we welcome your comments, feedback and questions.  We also welcome visits.  We’ve greatly enjoyed visits from a number of friends and family this past year; don’t stop visiting.  We enjoy seeing you and Ethiopia is a great country to spend some time in.

Unfortunately, It’s the Irregular Days that Create Blog Posts

It’s been a while since we’ve sat down to write and contribute anything to the blog.  It’s not really been that we’re busy, though we keep ourselves sufficiently occupied.  Really the reason is that most days are pretty much the same around here and nothing much prompts us to sit down and write.

Here’s a quick little summary of a regular day around here:

  • up around 6:30 or 7
  • coffee, breakfast and get Titay ready for school
  • walk Titay up the hill for school for an 8:30 start
  • deal with email
  • some compound clean-up
  • check in with management staff here at the home
  • various meetings, planning sessions, computer work until about noon
  • lunch
  • “Baba School” with Titay for an hour or so after lunch
  • work on various projects around compound
  • spend some time with the kids when they come back from school
  • begin preparing dinner
  • dinner and clean-up
  • Titay off to bed
  • some time to relax before we’re in bed, often by 9pm

Mix in some studying of Amharic, our Amharic classes and a little variety on the weekend, and that’s our life.

Unfortunately, today was not a regular day.

In the last blog post, we wrote about a couple of cases that we were dealing with here at the home.   One involved a girl who we have been unable to accept because she is HIV positive. Not long after we wrote about that story, the little girl’s grandmother passed away.  Richelle has been periodically visiting with that family to check that the girl is receiving ARVs.

The second story we wrote about involved a large family in the countryside living with their mother at their grandfather’s home because they had run away from an abusive husband / father.  Shortly after we wrote about that story, we accepted two of the children from that family to the orphanage at the request of the mother, grandfather and local government.  The grandfather, a small sustenance farmer, was unable to feed all the people under his roof.  Two other children from the family are living with a relative here in town, leaving five children living at the grandfather’s house.

We don’t know the details.  We’re not sure if she returned to him, or if he came and found her at her father’s house.  Either way, this morning we learned the news that the mother of these children was murdered by her husband last night.  Ethiopian culture involves a very indirect way of communicating tragic news like the death of a loved one.  The news was not broken to the children here this morning.  Instead, they were washed and dressed by the Nanny Nurse, and then taken with a staff member, together with the older siblings who live here in town, to the grandfather’s house to be together with the family in mourning.  They will return here this evening.

Unfortunately, it’s the irregular days that create blog posts.

A Land of Beauty… but with Some Difficult Poverty

This week, one of my former students, one who is Ethiopian-American, asked me on facebook how our time here in Ethiopia was going.  We love Ethiopia and believe it is a beautiful country and we have learned that Ethiopians, especially those in the diaspora, love to hear how we love their country.  So, as I usually do, I started my reply to him by telling him how we were enjoying our time here because it’s a land of beauty, etc.… But I couldn’t finish the message I intended to write because that morning we’d been confronted with some not-so-beautiful things, caused in large part by some of the difficult poverty of Ethiopia.

One of the hardest processes that we have been faced with here so far has been that of considering new children to accept into the home.  The home here is an orphanage; it is designed to provide a home and family, to the best degree possible, to those who don’t otherwise have either.  We believe that institutionalized care of children should be a last resort.  An institution simply can’t provide all that a family can when raising children.  Unfortunately, many children here in Ethiopia don’t have the option to live with and grow up in a family and even many who do, have families who are primarily concerned with finding enough food for the day.  The home here regularly gets letters requesting that the organization help.  The letters usually come from local government officials at the kebele level (maybe similar to the city ward level in Chicago). We’re quickly learning that these requests are not simple and they always involve some painful decisions and considerations.  This week, we were involved in investigating two such cases.

One case involved a young girl around seven or eight years old.  She was brought to the home this week by a neighbor.  She currently lives with a teenage sister and her grandparents.  Her mother passed away, her father is unknown, and both of her grandparents are very ill.  The neighbor brought her to us at the request of the grandfather who is very concerned for her care.  Because the home is not equipped to care for children who are HIV positive, blood work is the first step taken with any new case.  This little girl came back positive, which tragically means we can’t accept her.

On Friday morning, Richelle travelled with our Head Nurse to this girl’s home to meet with the grandfather and inform him of the blood work results.  The grandfather was not aware that the little girl was positive, but did not seem surprised when told.  As Richelle and the Head Nurse spoke with him, they learned that the little girl’s mother died of HIV/AIDS, the grandmother is HIV positive and is currently dying of cancer, which is probably a secondary disease of AIDS, and the grandfather is positive, has only recently accepted that he must be taking ARVs, has the beginnings of paralysis in his legs, and probably doesn’t have many years left.  The older sister has never been tested.

So what’s going to happen to this little girl?  Her grandfather is currently able to financially support her with his government employee pension, she is currently going to school, and ARVs are freely distributed, but who’s able to care for her and ensure that she takes the ARVs, what’s it going to be like for her to watch both her grandparents die of the disease that she too has, and who’s going to care for her when her grandparents are gone?  There are children’s homes in Ethiopia set up to care for children who are HIV positive (like the Missionaries of Charity where Titay spent her first three years), but none right here in Wolaita.  And is that the only option for this little girl… to send her off to Addis, or maybe Awasa, to grow up in an orphanage?

While Richelle was travelling with our Head Nurse to visit this home, I travelled with our Director to visit another family about whom we’d received a letter requesting help.  This is a case where the children are not actually orphaned at all.  There are eight children living with their mother in the small house of their maternal grandfather where, in addition to their mother and grandfather, there are also six others living.  That’s sixteen total mouths to feed for a small, sustenance farmer who himself is getting quite elderly.  The mother and eight children are living at the grandfather’s house because the children’s father has a mental disability and has grown violently abusive.  When we visited, the mother had bad bruises on her face.

But here’s the problem.  The home here is an orphanage and our priority is to care for orphans when no other family is available to care for them.  These children aren’t orphans.  Back in Illinois, this family would be a clear DCFS intervention case, but there is no such thing here.  Here they have the kebele officials who are intervening by reaching out to us to take some of the children to make it easier for the grandfather to feed the rest.  We don’t have space for all eight of these children; probably based on gender and age, we can only consider two.  In order to help this family survive, we’re being asked to accept two of the eight children, thus separating them from siblings and mother.  But there doesn’t seem to be any other form of assistance available for this family and two fewer kids to feed may just make it possible for the grandfather to sustain the others.

So in response to my former student on facebook, I had to stop mid-sentence and reconsider what to write.  Yes it’s beautiful here, there is some remarkable history, breath-taking landscapes, friendly people, and unique culture, but there is also some very ugly stuff, much of it partly the result of poverty… food insecurity, lack of clean water, insufficient healthcare and illness prevention, poor education, inadequate institutions, no social safety-net programs, etc.  So instead of what I intended to write, I said: “We’re enjoying our time here, but there’s some tough stuff here; it’s a land of beauty, but one that suffers from some difficult poverty.”

P.S.  There are also ugly bedbugs, fleas, lice and mites here, all of which exist in an ugly parasitical way on the human body.  In some combination of two or more (though we’re not yet exactly sure which), we’re also contending with some of these “uglies” this week.

Why Can’t the U.S. Have Better Labor Laws?

Last week I was doing some fun reading… 57 pages of the Ethiopian Labour Proclamation of 2003 (I’m a nerd, true, but actually when I say “fun” reading, I am being sarcastic).  I was struck with how generous the laws are towards workers.  Here are a few examples of laws that apply to all permanent employees regardless of field, industry, etc.:

  • New employees should be considered permanent employees after a maximum of a 45-day probationary period.
  • All permanent employees should receive 14 paid vacation days after their first year of employment and should accumulate one more paid vacation day for every year of employment.
  • Family Leave:  An employee should receive 3 paid leave days when he / she gets married or for a death in the family (including extended family).
  • Sick Leave:  An employee is permitted up to 6 months sick leave (with medical documentation) within a calendar year; the first month at full pay; the next two months at half pay; the final three months without pay.
  • Maternity Leave:  Female employees are permitted 30 days paid leave prior to expected date of birth and 60 days of paid leave after birth.

The Science of Rainy Season and the Problem of Drought in Ethiopia

Rain rolling in from the southwest on the Guinea monsoon winds

The months of June to August in Ethiopia are rainy season, known locally as krempt.  It is during these three months that most of the country receives at least 90% of its total annual rainfall.  Rain is the distinguishing element of Ethiopia’s seasons.  Ethiopia’s two extreme seasons are rainy season between June and August and dry season between December and February.  Since I’ve spent the last 13 years in the American mid-west where annual precipitation is fairly evenly distributed across the seasons and temperature characterizes the extremes from summer to winter, I’ve been very curious about this rainy and dry season phenomenon in Ethiopia.  This issue of rain and the lack thereof is not just what characterizes Ethiopia’s seasons.  The lack of rain, or drought, and the shortages of food that go with drought, have become almost synonymous with Ethiopia in the minds of many people around the world.  This year has been no different with significant media attention on the drought and food crisis of the Horn of Africa, including parts of southeastern and southern Ethiopia.  So in an effort to better understand the science of Ethiopia’s rains and the problem of drought, I recently opened up an Ethiopian grade 10 geography book and turned to the chapter on weather and climate.

In the U.S., because the country is located north of the tropics, the prominent trade winds blow from west to east.  Thus when you turn on the weather channel in Chicago you’ll notice that most weather patterns move across the country in a roughly eastward direction.  Seasonal weather patterns in the mid-west of the U.S. are based mostly on latitude and the amount of direct sunlight received.  In Chicago, it is hot in the summer because the northern hemisphere is tilted sunward and Chicago receives more direct sunlight, while it is cold in the winter because the Earth has tilted in such a way that Chicago receives only indirect sunlight and far fewer hours of it.

Here in Ethiopia, because the country is located close to the Equator, there is only a small change between seasons when it comes to the amount or directness of sunlight.  Seasonal temperatures change relatively little and the change that does occur has more to do with cloud cover than directness of sunlight.  In fact, the coolest temperatures are during the time of year – June to August – when Ethiopia receives the most direct sunlight.  Because Ethiopia is located in the region between the tropics, the dominant trade winds move in a generally westward direction.  They are called easterlies, because they come out of the east. These easterlies play an important role in the seasonal patterns of Ethiopia.  There are also seasonal-only winds, called monsoon winds, the most prominent of which are the Guinea monsoon winds that blow over the central part of the African continent during June through August.  The Guinea monsoon winds actually blow against the dominant tropical trade winds, but blow strong enough that they account for most of the precipitation of Ethiopia during rainy season.

Ethiopia has four seasons.  The two extremes, like in North American, are summer – June through August – and winter – December through February.  Rather than temperature extremes, though, in Ethiopia the extremes are marked by amounts of rain.  The months of June through August are Ethiopia’s rainy season. The months of December through February are the dry season.  During dry season, it is extremely rare for most regions of Ethiopia to receive any precipitation at all.

During the months of June through August, because the direct sunlight hits near the Tropic of Cancer (north of Ethiopia), a large low-pressure air region develops and stays over North Africa (warmer air equals lower pressure air), while high-pressure air regions develop across and off the coasts of South Africa.  They develop both to the east of the continent in the Indian Ocean, and to the west of the continent in the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result of the high-pressure air region off the west coast of southern Africa and the low-pressure air region on land across the north of the continent, monsoon winds blow from the Gulf of Guinea, blowing in a northeastward direction, across the central part of the continent and the Sahel (atmospheric movement from high-pressure air to low-pressure air causes wind).  These Guinea monsoon winds, as defined by their name, are seasonal only and blow opposite to the dominant trade winds of the tropical region.  However, because of the large low-pressure air region over the northern part of the continent, these monsoon winds are strong enough to carry moisture from the Atlantic across the continent all the way east to Ethiopia and dump that moisture as rain across the Ethiopian highlands.  Meanwhile, the dominant trade winds – the easterlies – carry moisture from the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden onto the African continent and shower Ethiopia as well.  Despite its closer proximity to the Indian Ocean, it is actually the strong monsoon winds from the Gulf of Guinea in the Atlantic that provide most of the rain to Ethiopia during rainy season.  Because of the cloud cover that these moisture-filled winds bring to Ethiopia, temperatures during rainy season are cooler than other times of the year.

During the months of December through February, because the southern hemisphere tilts sunward, direct sunlight hits considerably south of Ethiopia around the Tropic of Capricorn.  As a result of this direct sunlight and higher temperatures, low-pressure air regions develop over South Africa and in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans off the costs of the continent’s southern region.  The high-pressure air regions develop across North Africa and the Middle East.  As a result of these air pressure regions together with the dominant easterlies, a dry wind blows over Ethiopia from South Asia, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula.  These winds bring no precipitation at all, thus December through February is Ethiopia’s dry season.  The clear skies of this season account for the warmer days and cool nights received from December to February.

Between these two extreme seasons, some regions of Ethiopia can receive small amounts of rain.  The southern and southeastern regions sometimes receive small amounts of rain during September to November.  While the central and northern parts of Ethiopia usually receive small amounts of rain during March through May, which they call the “small rains.”  These autumn and spring rains are mostly as a result of easterlies bringing moisture off the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden over the Horn of Africa.

Because Ethiopia’s seasons and rain amounts are so guided by air pressure regions and wind directions, there is great concern over the effects that climate change could bring to the country.  Because Ethiopia relies on basically one season for almost all of its annual rainfall, it is very prone to drought, crop failure, and food crisis.  If the rainy season doesn’t bring enough rain, or if the rains are too strong so that the soil can’t absorb the water and it simply runs off the hills, Ethiopia ends up in trouble because it can’t produce enough food to sustain the country through an entire calendar year.  Historically, Ethiopia has relied on small second crops during the “small rains” of March through May to get the population through the year, but if the “small rains” don’t come or don’t amount to enough to produce crop (as has been the case during a number of the recent years), the country’s food supply runs out before it can be replenished from the new crops that come at the end of the rainy season.  The cyclical rain problem is especially challenging for pastoralist regions.  If the smaller rains of the fall and/or spring don’t come at all, many animals can be lost when the land becomes too dry from December through May.  For communities who rely on those animals for their food and livelihood, the situation can become very touch and go.

In Ethiopia, one sometimes hears people refer to a “green drought.”  It’s a strange phenomenon, but people are often the hungriest during the greenest time of year, the rainy season, between June and August.  Just while everything is starting to grow anew, the country runs short of food from the previous harvest season.  So while people watch the new crops grow and await the harvest at the end of the rainy season, they often watch in fear as their personal food stores diminish, as the international agencies talk about regional food shortages, and as the government debates whether or not the national food reserves are sufficient (or whether the government sold off too much of the reserves as export to raise revenue).  As Ethiopians harvest in September, they hope that the crop will be plentiful enough to sustain the ever-growing Ethiopian population through another entire year.

This year there has been much international attention on the drought and food crisis of the Horn of Africa, including Somalia, parts of eastern Kenya and parts of the southeastern and southern regions of Ethiopia.  The regions hit hardest in Ethiopia have been the Somali federal state of the southeast and parts of the Oromo federal state in the south and southeast.  These regions include large numbers of pastoralist communities who have lost whole herds of animals because of drought and have therefore lost both their food and cash sources.  These are also regions that typically receive less rain even during good rain years, so they are regions more susceptible to drought and changing weather / climate patterns.  Since the heavy rains of Ethiopia’s rainy season come from the monsoon winds blowing in from the Gulf of Guinea in the west, the western highlands of Ethiopia tend to get the most rain.  By the time these rain-heavy monsoon winds get over the mountains to the lowland regions of Ethiopia’s east, their moisture is mostly spent.  The eastern and southeastern regions of the country, therefore, must rely on the less rain-heavy easterlies that come from the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.  In recent years, rain from these easterlies has been very unreliable.

These seasonal rain patterns in Ethiopia are an ancient phenomenon, as is the problem of drought.  The specter of climate change, however, stands to exacerbate the already persistent problem of drought in Ethiopia.  Furthermore, climate change stands to hurt some climates and countries much worse than others.  Countries like Ethiopia, which are economically underdeveloped and which rely from season to season on fragile weather and climate patterns, stand to suffer the most because of damage done to the planet and its reaction to that damage.  Regardless of what one thinks of the current government in Ethiopia, it’s been good to see the prime minister at the forefront as an outspoken representative for the African continent regarding this issue of climate change.

I would be wrong to not also point out that drought in Ethiopia is very region-by-region.  Many Ethiopians resent the image the world has of the country as a dry, famine stricken land.  While I don’t wish to diminish the horrible problem of drought in certain regions of the country (and it’s not always the same regions), most visitors to Ethiopia, especially during the summer and fall, would not see a famine stricken landscape.  Instead, in most parts of Ethiopia, including here in the Wolaita region, they would see gardens that can grow just about anything you want, green mountains rolling in all directions, streams rushing with water, and fruit trees everywhere; it’s a very lush, green and beautiful landscape.  This is one of the many ironies of Ethiopia.  It’s been called the “Water Tower of East Africa,” yet millions don’t have access to clean drinking water.  It’s been called the “Region’s Hydroelectric Generator,” yet the electric power flickers on and off constantly.  It’s a land of ancient Semitic languages and scripts, as old as Arabic and Hebrew, yet vast numbers of people are illiterate.  It was an ancient economic powerhouse, a key trading empire in the ancient Indian Ocean trading circuit, yet it’s now one of the poorest countries on the globe.  And it’s a land of “green drought,” where it can appear so lush and green, while people are suffering from shortages of food.

The Beautiful Landscape Out Our Backdoor



Though we love Chicago and very much came to consider it our home, probably the single greatest thing that we missed while living in Chicago was any kind of landscape beauty.  True Chicago has some beautiful parks, some great architecture and the fabulous lakefront, but Chicago is built on boring marshland and prairie.  It’s pretty sorry when “Cricket Hill” off of Wilson Ave. is considered “elevation” (my old cross-country team used to hate that little piece of Chicago “elevation”).  So on those days when I’ve missed things about Chicago, one thing that sustains me here in Wolaita-Soddo is the beautiful landscape just out our backdoor.

The CCC Children’s Home where we live and work is situated on the side of a steep hill that descends southwestly coming out of the Soddo town.  Because the home is built out of the side hill, the front of the home (facing the road) is one story, while the rear of the home is two stories.  When we step out our door at the back of the building, we’re standing on a second floor balcony facing out over a fairly steep embankment.  Looking slightly to the left, which is south, this embankment descends to a rainy-season stream and then up a hill on the other side, on the top of which is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church, with its typical round design and its 6am loud-speaker prayers.  Looking slightly to the right, which is southwest, the embankment descends several hundred meters to a large valley, which spreads out to the southwest and the west until it hits a rise of mountains in the distance.  According to an old missionary book that I found left in our room, these mountains to the west across the valley are called the Kwoibo Mountains (these Kwoibo Mountains are actually a southwestern extension of an escarpment rising from the Rift Valley a little further north of Soddo).  Though we can’t see it, just on the other side of these mountains is the Omo River gorge.  At clear moments (which are a little rare right now during krempt, or rainy season) more mountains can be seen even further to the west beyond the Omo River and to the southwest, towards to the Gofa and Gamo regions.

Soddo town itself sits at about 2,100 meters atop part of the escarpment that rises on the west side of the Great Rift Valley.  Just behind the town (to the north… on the opposite side of town as the CCC home) rises a beautiful mountain called Mt. Otona.  Though we haven’t attempted it yet, the Bradt guide book says that there are some good views of Lake Abaya from atop Mt. Otona.  Lake Abaya is the largest of the Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes (by surface area) and lies about 30km south-southeast of Soddo.

The Great Rift Valley runs through Ethiopia in a southwesterly direction from the Eritrean border in the northeast to the Kenyan border in the southwest.  The Great Rift Valley has been created by the drifting apart of two tectonic plates, the African Plate on the west side of the Rift Valley and the Somali Plate on the east side.  In the U.S., most discussion of tectonic activity has to do with California and the Pacific Ring of Fire.  The reason for high earthquake activity in California and earthquake / volcanic activity along the Pacific Rim has do to with the pressure of tectonic plates moving and pushing against each other.  The Rift Valley is quite different in that its existence has to do with tectonic plates pulling apart from each other.

At its northeast end, the Rift Valley appears like a large funnel or triangle and when looking at satellite views of the landscape, one can see how the African Plate, the Somali Plate and the Arabian Plate all once joined at this point.  This northeast end of the Rift Valley is considered one of the most inhospitable places on earth.  It maintains average temperatures that are considered the highest on the planet and at one place in the Danakil Depression, the landscape dips to 116 meters below sea level.  This part of the Rift Valley is also spotted with a number of active volcanoes.

As it runs through southern Ethiopia, however, the Rift Valley is much narrower across (only about 30km from western to eastern escarpments at Lake Abaya) and even within the valley, the elevation is still about 1000 meters above sea level (except for at Lake Shala, about 75km northeast of Soddo, which is made from a sunken volcanic caldera; Lake Shala is the deepest of the Ethiopian Rift Valley lakes with an impressive depth of 266 meters).

So while Chicago has skyscrapers, busy streets, Lake Michigan, sidewalk restaurant seating, Saturday morning brunch, diverse neighborhoods, burritos, summer music festivals, mojitos, and lots of other things that I miss, Wolaita-Soddo has the Rift Valley and the rugged highlands that rise on either side from it.  True, “Cricket Hill” offered a pretty good view of the Loop, but it’s got nothing on the beautiful landscape out our backdoor.

P.S.  I’ve always suspected that Cricket Hill is really just a large landfill that was seeded over at some point in the past.  Does anyone know anything about this?