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  • Writer's pictureSamantha McCandless

Goederts in Ethiopia Week 12: He Said, She Said, and Sending Our Love

Updated: May 14

Jim’s Insights Ethiopia:

I sometimes feel like I am living in a bible story surrounded by hunger, famine, and pestilence. Much of the rural population in Ethiopia lives much like their ancestors did in the time of Christ and before. Their hardships are impossible for me to imagine while their only hope is in the gifts bestowed by the Father through the fruits of their labors that include farming, making baskets and weaving rugs made from the wool of their animals. Tourism is a huge economic engine for the country but this has slowed to a trickle.

Last Friday evening we got a message from the American Embassy suggesting that, if we are in a risk category (greater than 60 years old), we should consider going home because of the Corona Virus. We were already on a flight to Aksum on Friday morning with plans to return on Monday. We were in the middle of a tour of Aksum’s ancient sites Saturday when we got an update that the “suggestion” was now a “mandate” to evacuate. The Embassy asked how soon we would be ready to depart, and we told them we would be back in two days. They said that was fine if we were ready to leave by Tuesday. With time pressures, we decided to change our flight to a day earlier but there were no available flights because of the dust storms.

US news channels probably didn’t report the major locust epidemic in northern Kenya, Southern Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. Videos were horrific with swarms covering the area like a fog sending people for cover where none existed. This is right on the heels of a major famine in these same areas due to drought last year. The locusts destroy everything in their path. They strip the foliage bare. While we didn’t witness the locust, themselves we did witness the aftermath of this destruction. Winds blowing from Sudan darkened the skies of Aksum and most of northern Ethiopia with dust. It is usually possible to see the location of the sun through cloud cover by the bright spot shining through the clouds but this dust cover was thick enough that the suns location was impossible to determine. Flights can blast through clouds using GPS but dust can have disastrous effects on engines which is why they were grounded.

Since we had no idea when the dust storm would settle, we decided to hire a car to take us as far as Gondar eight hours away. Our guide assured us that it was 4-wheel drive and could get us there fast. Knowing the typical Ethiopian estimate of time, we really needed to get on the road as it was approaching 11:00am and dark is at 6:30pm. The car showed up and it was 4WD but it wasn’t a car but an extended cab pickup. We spent the first ½ hour trying to find diesel fuel. The fuel shortage was caused by the recent kidnapping of the thirty-two Amharic girls in the Oromo region. We have written about this kidnapping before, but now the protest is against the government who citizens believe are not acting to return the girls. The official report is that all of those kidnapped have been returned but the families say they haven’t seen them. In order to get the governments attention, gasoline supplies from Sudan were blocked at the border by an

Amhara protest. This border block has created a major shortage with gasoline lines stretching each way for blocks. If our truck had not been diesel, there would likely have been no chance of getting on the road. With a tank full of diesel, we headed to Gondar which is directly south of Aksum with two mountain ranges between. Thirty miles into our journey we started to see Eritrean refugee camps. There are nearly 200,000 Eritreans living in Ethiopia. The camps were harsh and the surrounding villages as poor as any I have seen.

We travelled through mountain passes with the hairpin turns for five and a half hours. The trip was back and forth and up and down the entire time. The partly asphalt road was solid and the scenery beautiful but the trip was long and harrowing. I had downloaded google maps of the area so I could follow our route on my phone. I kept seeing the arrival time getting sooner and sooner as the driver blasted through those passes as if on a freeway. Except that this ‘freeway’ had no guardrails. We beat the time estimates for trips on Google Maps if that gives you an idea of the speed of our adventure. Martha sat in jump seat to get the full sway of the curves.

Africa landscape

We upgraded from our Aksum budget hotel to a bit ‘higher quality’ spot in Gonda near Fasilades Castle. Martha had made the reservation this time, trying to save us from the usual ‘budget picks’ that I make. The night before, although there were hopefully clean sheets, nothing much else worked. Compounding the lack of sleep from the night before, stressed by the day’s travel and nervous from the uncertainty of the evacuation, we arrived as weary travelers at our fancier hotel that Martha booked along the way. The hotel was just across the street from the Fasilades Castle in Gondar, with the thousand of pilgrims honoring the lenten fast.

Emperor Fasilades ruled in the 1600s and the castle in Gondar was his home. Next to the castle is an Ethiopian Orthodox Church. We fell asleep at 9:00 before our heads hit the pillow. Four hours later we were awakened by music from the church. We have become accustomed to church sounds at our place in Bahir Dar. This location, however, took ‘call to worship’ to a new meaning. We were right below the speakers and the music and chanting started Sunday morning, right after midnight. The stopped at 7:00am, just about the time we gave up on sleep and choose to walk up a mountain to one of the oldest monasteries. We had hired a car to take us the last four hours from Gondar to Bahir Dar. It is asphalt the entire way and mostly flat and the car was a van with plenty of room for just the two of us. It was a much calmer trip and we arrived safely under a dust filled sky, but hopeful that in the final two days of our Bahir Dar time, we would be able to get packed, say goodbyes and take care of whatever business needed doing.

Ethiopians are typically quite good to foreigners and their economy relies to some extent on their expenditures. The first case of Coronavirus was discovered last week and rose quickly to five. Our quiet walks down the street with casual greetings to vendors and locals turned into taunts of “corona-ferengi”. We are used to shouts of “ferengi” which was derived from a combination of foreigner and Frenchy but the references to us being a virus was new. Most locals don’t differentiate foreigners but simply group us all into one. In fact, we would sometime be greeted with “nǐ hǎo” or “hello” in Chinese. People would move over on the sidewalk to give us more room which was a welcome change from being asked for money. Young adults would cover their mouths while others laughed at the antics of their peers. This didn’t bother me too much and I just laughed along with them and either shook my finger at them or acted as if I wanted a hug. However, it really made me wonder how the Chinese felt in the United States. Were they any less ostracized? Our president seems bent on isolating our Chinese neighbors and friends by promoting the corona virus be renamed or nicknamed the Chinese virus.

There were so many emotions surrounding our departure. Ethiopia is not prepared for the virus. Martha asked them at the National Referral Hospital where she works if they had a plan and they did not, nor were they putting one together. She asked them pointed questions such as where will you isolate those who are infected? They pointed to a ward with 14 beds. She asked them what they would do with the corpses and they had no idea. While my expertise would be of limited value, Martha could be very helpful, and we were leaving when her skills would be most needed. Ethiopians are scared. They are often better informed than we are, and they know it is going to be a national disaster. In all of our conversations, from the Bajaj drivers to the professionals, they all trust that God will deliver them from this pandemic.

Most of the population lives without water or electricity. They rely on markets to buy and sell food and goods. They have no refrigeration so they must go to the market daily. Considering our own situation, I wonder how we would make do if the grocery stores were shut down followed by electricity and plumbing? This became their reality at the end of the week when the government shut down the markets. On Monday, I told Martha that I thought the streets were still safe with a little taunting but that when people started dying from the virus it might get dangerous. It was the next day that the Embassy issued a Security Alert regarding anti-foreigner sentiment:

“Incidents of harassment and assault directly related to COVID-19 have been reported by other foreigners living within Addis Ababa and other cities throughout the country. Reports indicate that foreigners have been attacked with stones, denied transportation services (taxis, Ride, etc.), being spat on, chased on foot, and been accused of being infected with COVID-19. 


  1. Avoid walking/hiking/biking alone.

  2. Do not walk throughout the city or residential areas, especially after dark.

  3. If yelled at or spat upon, do not engage or otherwise escalate the encounter.  Do your best to immediately leave the situation/area.

  4. Maintain situational awareness.  Avoid wearing headphones or using handheld electronic devices in public area.

  5. If you think you are being followed, do not go home.   Go to the closet major establishment, hotel or police station.

  6. If you are in a vehicle, lock your doors and keep your window rolled up.”

It was surreal to arrive at the Addis Ababa airport to find it so empty except for the few international flights still running. It was even more eerie to see the empty hallways at Chicago O’Hare. Our flight to Omaha had 12 passengers on a plane that could carry ten times that number. We walked the streets of downtown Omaha to look for bread and had no difficulty maintaining our distance from the half dozen people we met along the way. We got out of Ethiopia at just the right time although we left a part of us behind. We worry for our friends who are like our family when we are away. We worry for a people whose best hope of protecting themselves is to blame foreigners who are most able to support them. We pray for our own country’s leadership and hope that a spirit of cooperation and collegiality rules as we find worldwide solutions for a wide world.

Africa Landscape

Martha’s Mursings:

We didn’t have the luxury of goodbyes. The Embassy sent us word on Saturday that James and I had two days to catch our evacuation flights. We prepared to leave Bahir Dar, wrap up business with our graduate students and with friends in the community and mission group. No matter how much time we had, there was no way to fill gaps that would be left after our departure. I felt particularly sad, leaving the hospital when health care needs were about to intensify. This was not an easy departure for any of the Ambassador’s Scholars. We, each one, invested in our graduate students across the disciplines of law, construction engineering and management, finance, education, medicine and health science, and environmental engineering. This program does matter; it builds peace and relationships from the ‘inside out’.

I had a really hard time at the hospital on the days before our evacuation. One young boy has been become a ‘buddy’ of mine, who I always included on my hospital rounds. Nigus has been chosen to become an Ethiopian Orthodox priest, which means that he will be able to read the ancient Geʽez and sing the songs that mark calls to worship and celebrations around the church calendar. There is just one complication and that is his tracheostomy. A few months ago, he was put on a ventilator for a laryngeal infection, and apparently the prolonged use of an endotracheal tube caused scarring of the trachea. I was so anticipating that the surgical team from Omaha in May would be able to reverse the tracheostomy, or at least bring a tracheostomy tube with a speaking valve. But as you may imagine, the Covid-19 has interfered with most plans and last week when I went to his usual ward bed space; Nigus was gone. I searched all the wards, 450 beds, and then called the head and neck surgeon to see if the patient was discharged. Not a chance, “He is in the ICU back on a ventilator”. When I entered the ICU, I could hear Nigus trying to get my attention, making noise by kicking his feet. It was quite a reunion; exchanging only touch, forced smiles and trying to tell Nigus that I would be leaving. Over the last two months I have been doing physical therapy on his joints and arms to increase strength and maintain mobility. Before his setback, I ‘played’ in the head and neck surgery ward, where there would be 8 other patients, all laughing at the scene. Nigus enjoyed the kicking game with a ball suspended by a string anchored to the ceiling. I try to keep the ball out of his reach both for arms and legs. The game ended up creating a lot of deep breathing, coughing and joint movement. I was so encouraged, just trying to get him strong for another surgery. However, the Ethiopian team attempted an unsuccessful re-anastomosis with a course that ended up with ventilator support. I was so sad. Nigus’ 15-year-old brother who has been at his bedside for these last 2 months, would need to know that I was leaving. I searched for him and tried to be encouraging. I have limited Amharic and his English consists of three words, so we just sat for a while, holding hands, hoping for the best.

These final two clinical days ended with resignation. I realized that the steps forward that were begun last year would be mightily tested during this pandemic. Last year I created a hard push for hand hygiene when the new national hospital opened in January 2019. I taught the pharmacists and midwives how to make hand sanitizer, according to the World Health Organization recipe, and bought wall dispensers from Addis Ababa, set up trainings for second assist with surgery, and generally kept a constant dialog with the management about the ‘no sinks, no water’ travesty that existed in the new hospital. So, one year later, I admit that I retreated to a new approach. I took candy on my last days, dropping into each health care worker’s pocket a sweet, when I saw them practicing handwashing. Perhaps this ‘sweet pull’ was the way to impact hand hygiene practices after all? The push the prior year from top to bottom appeared to be ineffective. It is difficult to step away from labor and delivery and the NICU at a time when the needs are increasing.

When thinking about the privilege we have as Americans, there were many opportunities to reflect on this safety net on our way home. We had two days of closing out in Addis Ababa, time to collect our thoughts and transition from Bahir Dar service to home flights. As we boarded a full plane, I saw the American helping each other into seats, with luggage, and encouraging those with children. We were on a carrier taking the last flight with transport through Europe. Our flight landed for refueling in Ireland, but then immediately took off for the States. The next day, borders were closed; the Embassy knew that this was coming. Laura and Matt were just hours behind us, coming from Kyrgyzstan to Washington, D.C.

In the immigration line, waiting for clearance, I turned to see the line of Americans queuing for their passport stamps. There were state department families, Peace Corps volunteers, embassy employees, English Language Fellows, and civil servants from across Africa. In line you could see the Kenyan Americans, the Ethiopian Americans, the Madagascar Americans, the Ugandan Americans, the Eritrean-Americans, Algerian-Americans, just for starters. This diversity reflects the promise of our country. We are indeed a melting pot of strength, of service and of care in our global neighborhoods. Our unique landscape of cultures and heritages strengthens American from the inside out.

I have experienced this awe of America many times, beginning with a return flying over the Statue of Liberty on the homeward trip from an International Scouting Jamboree in Ghana. Eight of us had been selected, at age 17, four African Americans and four Caucasian Americans, having been together working and representing our country for six weeks. We all experienced in 1971 the idea that our world was increasingly connected; that the Scouts from Israel and Jordan, from Senegal and Canada, from South Africa and Ireland all had the same dreams and loves. We were changed, appreciating our American freedoms while understanding the depth of our responsibilities for others. I would hope that each of us is able to take the hand of another young one, to have them experience the sameness of our global neighbors from the backdrop of the Statue of Liberty. When you fly into the States, land under the statue’s raised arm of welcome it reminds us of our blessed privilege. This ending of our Ethiopian service, for now, is bittersweet; we are aware that all of you are experiencing the same challenges, wanting to stay connected, to be healthy and to contribute to the goodness of our respective communities. We are all grateful.

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