Long-term volunteers return from Ethiopia

Long-term volunteers Karen and Jeremy have just returned from a year of volunteering at our project in Ethiopia. Read Karen’s fascinating account of the time they spent there.

In October 2011 we were zipping up suitcases, overfull with baby clothes, potentially useful medical equipment and essential supplies of toothpaste, contact lens solution and shampoo. After much preparation, we were finally heading to Heathrow to board an Ethiopian Airline plane and were on our way to a year in Gimbie, Ethiopia.  Anticipation was tinged with trepidation as stories of draconian customs officials had us wondering whether the ultrasound scanner, so generously donated by friends, would make it through customs without a hefty tax bill. Would they let us take our computers through? What about the portable printer or the assortment of salami and cheese? In the event, all was well, possibly helped by an influx of Chinese engineers who helpfully created chaos at customs.

As we left the plane, however, we embarked into a different chaos – that of Addis.  Over the next few days we rushed from Government office to Government office, organising work permits, residency passes, the equivalent of an Ethiopian CRB check, and a remaining treasured possession; a driving licence.  Clutching our work permit book, duly stamped in 8 or 9 places, and more importantly, Jeremy’s medical registration, we headed off on the long and dusty road to Gimbie, and to the hospital that was to become our home for the next year.  Generously the hospital authorities allowed us a vacant house, the only one with a first floor, up a perilous staircase and with two bedrooms.  We also inherited a hen house, soon to be occupied by Masie and Daisy, intermittent suppliers of fresh eggs, and a monkey proof caged garden, which we planted with peas, potatoes, carrots and lettuce. Yes, we had definitely arrived.

Jeremy was soon busy in the hospital, working with Wasihun, the local obstetrician and Heidi, who was coming to the end of her volunteering time before returning to Denmark. In addition to offering ante-natal care to the immediate locals we were all hard at work helping women coming in as emergencies from far and wide; both from the Maternity Worldwide supported villages and from as far away as Asosa, a hospital 4 hours drive away, which sadly has no obstetrician at all. There was much to do and the first few weeks were full of surprises as we learned about the new and different situations we would encounter.  A real difficulty was looking after the small babies, often born in poor condition. Initially, I adopted the role of neonatal ‘expert’ as she had previous experience in this area of work. Having discovered that staff were not always knowledgeable about caring for neonates, we developed protocols and taught our local colleagues about the simple care that could help keep these small citizens warm, dry and fed.

Midwives from both the local college and one further afield, attend the hospital for their clinical placements. Having realised that there were Maternity Worldwide volunteers available to teach much needed skills, the ward rounds soon became accompanied by student midwives eager to gain new knowledge and skills. Classroom teaching was now extended to the clinical environment, with clinical cases from the ward round being used as a forum for discussions about obstetric complications and their management.

Additional learning opportunities arose from the provision of treatment for cervical cancer, which is a major health problem in sub-Saharan Africa, leading to early death and hardship for the family.  By training the local doctor to surgically remove the tumour, Jeremy was able to provide a hope of cure and certainly prolonged symptom and disease free survival for many women.

My work was largely community-based and so we were delighted when our much-needed ‘truck’, an ageing land cruiser, had arrived in Djibouti. So off we set again, and after completing many forms, we drove away from the opened shipping container.  After an exciting drive through the deserts of Afur and the eastern rift valley, we negotiated the unmade roads and were back home to Gimbie!  I became an intrepid negotiator of the back routes of West Wollega, visiting the Maternity Worldwide sponsored health centres and offering both training for local nurses, midwives and health officers, and antenatal screening clinics for local pregnant women.  As she bumped her way along the road, word soon spread and the clinics overflowed – the little faranji who drives very fast, as we were to learn she was called, was coming!

Women would travel for hours by foot to see her and were delighted, if not amazed to be able to see their baby on the ultrasound scan. In a world where women don’t have mirrors to see themselves, an image of their unborn baby must have been quite peculiar indeed. Having screened women for high risks, the car was always full on the way home with women who required hospital care. As many women remarked; it was an excellent team approach, with the wife finding the problems in the villages and bringing them back for the husband to treat in the hospital.

When volunteering in any African country, you are always perplexed by the ‘sustainability’ dilemma. Can whatever good you believe you are doing, continue after you have left? We spent many days and evenings discussing this very issue and were ever conscious of the need to train local people to continue the work. For much of the work we did, we believe that we have been able to leave some skills, attitudes and knowledge behind. At times, however, we had to accept that it is still valuable to improve the outcomes and alter the pathways for the individuals that we met and cared for.  For these people, there are sustainable differences, and that in itself makes our visit worthwhile. Lasting change though, is always more difficult to see, but perhaps more small babies will go home with their mothers as a result of simple interventions and perhaps both women and those who care for them in the community will see that labour is safely carried out in the most appropriate community and hospital setting.

All too soon, it was time to leave and now we are home having left behind many good friends, but with many fond memories and tales of adventure. We feel a real sense of privilege having worked in Ethiopia as volunteers for Maternity Worldwide. Without all the contributions to the charity, none of this would be possible.

To find out more about volunteering at one of our projects please call 01273 234033 or email [email protected].

Our heartfelt thanks to Karen and Jeremy for the huge difference they have made whilst volunteering for Maternity Worldwide.