The more I learned, the more I liked the place
By Rick Harrison
Family and friends reacted the same when I told them where I would be going last July: “Ethiopia? Are you serious?”
My assignment was to photograph and videotape participants in Ohio State’s One Health Summer Institute, a pilot project to address some serious public health issues in a particularly turbulent part of our world.
After some thought, the doubters said, “That’s really cool.”
They were correct, both literally and figuratively.
July is in the rainy season, and the temperatures surprised me. Like many Americans, I thought of Africa as hot — either humid or arid, but hot. Where I spent my time — in the capital city of Addis Ababa and in Gondar, both in the mountains — every day was nearly the same. Highs reached the 70s, with a few showers, and lows were in the 50s. It was like those two or three perfect days you get during spring and autumn in Ohio.
That first surprise, feeling the cool air as I stepped into this foreign land, set the tone for the trip. I became a ferenji.
Wondwossen Gebreyes, a proud Ethiopian who is the director of global health programs for Ohio State’s College of Veterinary Medicine, explained the word. He said it was a positive term, indicating a Caucasian who is “a nice, generous foreigner whose pocket carries an endless amount of treasures.”
And it did seem positive, as many things do coming from such a kind, easygoing man as Gebreyes. “Maximum flexibility, minimum expectations,” he would say when our well-laid plans changed, or we would get stuck in a sea of choking exhaust on a so-called highway. “Maximum flexibility” became our mantra.
Gebreyes tutored me — along with Michael Bisesi, senior associate dean for the College of Public Health; Eric Sauvageau, associate professor of neurological surgery; and Andrew Shaw, clinical instructor of neurological surgery — in the “Ethiopian Way” on our trip. The more I learned, the more I liked the place.
For example, it doesn’t make sense to the average Ethiopian that the day should begin at midnight, when everyone is asleep. It should begin when you wake, they reason. Every car I got into, without fail, had a clock that was six hours behind mine because, really, the day begins when you wake up. They know it, and we don’t.
The calendar also reflects the Ethiopian Way. Ethiopians recognize 12 months of 30 days — none of this “30 days hath September” nonsense. They tack on a 13th month that lasts five days, or six in leap years. Then they promote the country as having 13 months of sunshine every year.
Ethiopians operate under Western ideas of time for business purposes, but I sense they know they’re right and we are misguided. Their attitude is not condescending or judgmental; it’s more like, “Oh, silly ferenji, he’ll figure it out.”
What will always define Ethiopia for me are the many smiling faces of warm and truly welcoming people. Maybe it’s because they enjoy a physical closeness — particularly masculine closeness — that is foreign to many Americans. Men hold hands, put their arms around each other and lean on one another, as do the women. It’s comforting. They have each other’s backs.
Still, Ethiopians face considerable challenges.
Rabies is a huge problem. The disease is devastating when untreated. As part of the One Health Summer Institute, students scoured the farms and towns in and around Addis Ababa and Gondar to determine what the people know about rabies and develop steps to minimize the threat and eventually eliminate the affliction.
Cities are growing so fast, they’re outpacing what little infrastructure already exists. And the environmental hazards are daunting. How do you assure a regulated food supply, clean water and adequate public sanitation in a city with a population of four million, quadruple the size of Columbus, with much less governmental oversight? What about worker safety and effective zoning and building codes?
Bisesi has some ideas based on his fact-finding mission. They include simple regulatory changes that can help Ethiopians make giant leaps toward a safer, cleaner country in which these kind, friendly and beautiful people can thrive.
Regarding the medical and educational infrastructure, the government seems to take an “if we build it, they will come” approach. A large hospital being built in Gondar is impressive, but will there be enough staff to run it effectively?
Addis Ababa University’s student population is as large as Ohio State’s, without the facilities with which our university is blessed. Many students are focused on improving the lives of their countrymen. They’re living Ohio State’s motto, “Education for citizenship,” and they are hungry for that education.
The work Ohio State is doing in Ethiopia made me both proud and humble as I gleaned some of the wisdom of the Ethiopian Way.
So, how was Ethiopia? It was cool.
Rick Harrison of University Communications went to Ethiopia to help document the One Health Summer Initiative and came away with a new appreciation of the country and its people. More on the trip and can be found in the November/December issue of the Ohio State Alumni Magazine.
One world, healthy
Through Ohio State’s new One Health Summer Institute (part of the national, overarching One Health Initiative), two dozen Ohio State faculty, staff and students traveled to Ethiopia June 17-Aug. 10 to provide education and training to academic and regulatory institutes there.
Developed last year over a series of meetings in which all seven of Ohio State’s health sciences deans visited the Horn of Africa to develop plans, the “One Health” partnership is designed to create sustainable and mutually beneficial collaborations primarily in the areas of teaching, research and outreach. In addition to its contribution to Ohio State’s emphasis on global health and outreach, the initiative represents the first time the university’s health sciences colleges have teamed for an international project of this scope.
Three issues topped the agenda this summer — priorities identified by Ethiopian officials as the most critical to address: improved screening and treatment opportunities to tackle cervical cancer, which kills an estimated 6,000 women annually; a needs assessment and feasibility test of rabies prevention and control methods; and improvements in food security and safety, from farm to table.
This initiative is a collaboration among the university’s seven health sciences colleges; the College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences; the Office of International Affairs; and academic and government partners in Ethiopia.