The real reason I go to Ethiopia


A few nights before I left for Ethiopia, I was sitting at the supper table with my kids. Out of the blue, one of my nine year old daughters asked, “Why are you going to Ethiopia, Mommy?”

I was surprised she asked… As long as we’ve been a family, I’ve been traveling back and forth to the place of her birth. “To help kids in Ethiopia, sweetheart.”


I could tell that my oversimplified answer wasn’t cutting it, by my daughter’s skeptical look.

“Well, you know that I work on fundraising and running programs from home, right?” She nodded. ” Well, when Tawnya and I go to Ethiopia, we check on those programs. We see how the kids and the staff are doing. We talk to them about what they need, what is working, and what we can help them improve on. This is important to take care of the money our donors give us, and for the government, because the government wants to know where the money is going. (I skipped the details of our charitable designation by the CRA.) But most importantly, we want to help our partners do the best they can for the kids. So we share ideas, and start new things. Like, the teen girls we help are starting to write to Canadian teen pen pals. How cool is that? I’m setting that up this trip. And we are teaching best nutrition to the ladies who cook for the kids in our program, to make them healthier.”


My kids like details, and this settled her question.

But kids have a funny way of awakening more questions in ourselves. Yes, the oversight and program development are the surface reasons I got to Ethiopia each year, and they are the most important. But the parallel truth is that I love going to Ethiopia. I love the gentle rumble of Amharic (and Tigrgrn, and Oromiffa, and…) that I first hear in the airport lounge. I love the way plants grow in little plots on every little corner, and cobbled streets threaten to break your ankle. I love the smell of Berbers and turmeric, and the sizzle of sheep ribs delivered to your table. And I love the kisses and shoulder bumps from my friends and the warm acceptance of me, the foreigner, in this place that doesn’t seem foreign to me at all.

From the first time I spent a couple of months in Ethiopia, I added it to the short list of places I call home. I guess that belonging is also why I toil away at the computer for hours back in Canada…. Once you belong to a place, you have a responsibility to it and its people. Ethiopia is a huge part of my children who were born there, but it is a piece of me too, connected to my family, my friends, and my passion for helping kids and families.


So that’s why I go to Ethiopia. Since I am writing this en route, my husband will have to read the second part of this to my curious daughter. I hope you will follow along on our trip over the next couple of weeks, and find a little place in your heart for Ethiopia too.

Arnica Rowan, President, Vulnerable Children Society
En route to Ethiopia, via Dubai

Ethiopian Group Birthday Party

Originally Published On:Step Up Dive In

Ethiopian Group Birthday Party

So what exactly is a Ethiopian Group Birthday Party you might ask?! Well just gimme a few short lines and I’ll explain it to you.

Love and Hope Center – Kality

Group Birthday Party
Apart from the tarp falling from time to time… all went well

Volunteering for the Vulnerable Children’s Society in Addis Ababa, the majority of my time, up until now has been spent at the Love and Hope Center in a section of town called Kality. Actually, it’s more so in Akaki 08, but being as I can’t say 08 in Amharic, (one of my many issues in the commute) I’ve resorted to calling it Kality.

At this Center, we have 70 kids, meeting them has been not only a highlight of my time in Ethiopia, but truly one of my highlights in all my travels.

December 25th, that’s an important date, no?!

So, the manner in which the Ethiopian calender operates has utterly confused me to great end… there’s no hiding that. I’ll get into the nitty gritty of it when I explain when they actually celebrate Christmas and the New Year in the next post… but for now, let’s just say that on December 25th in Canada, we were not celebrating Christmas here… Instead we were celebrating a group birthday Party.

Group Birthday Party
Rife with excitement

You see, with 70 children, it is almost impossible to have a separate birthday for each child. Add to that the fact that the documentation of some births is less than 100% accurate, resulting in many children not knowing their actual birthday, and you’re left with a bit of a conundrum.

Many of these children (or all of them) have not had the opportunity to celebrate a birthday in their young lives, as it’s a privilege left to the haves, and they have fallen into the have-nots category throughout their years.

The solution? You guessed it, the group birthday party at the Love and Hope Centre. Canadian Humanitarian and Vulnerable Children Society arrange four group birthday parties, one falling every three months. In order slightly coordinate with the gracious donors in the west, the group birthday party this quarter falls on December 25th (in the Canadian calendar).

Blah, blah, blah… What’s it like already?!

Okay, okay… enough of the paperwork and logistics. I’ll do my best to bring you there. The staff at the center set up the chairs outside with a tarp above (for shade) and face them all towards the two large desks on the concrete porch.

A sound system is set up, balloons are puffed up, modest gifts (quite modest) are wrapped, cakes and cookies are bought, and through a utterly hectic run-around we’re finally set up.

The kids arrive after school rife with excitement. They all receive birthday hats, and sit in the chairs. 17 children had birthdays within the last three months, so they are the focal points of the day. Their parents/guardians have been invited, and sit in the chairs to the side, while the 17 of them go in for some face-painting and other preparations.

Finally they come out, and sit in the 17 chairs that have been spread between the two desks on the porch. There’s a short dance presentation from the kids in the dance club. The kids, are filled to capacity with excitement and nervous anticipation and many of them start getting up to join in the dancing…

The sound system is booming, the kids and guardians are dancing and apart from the tarp falling down a couple of times, it’s a jolly, rocking-good time.

Finally it’s time to cut the cake. On one side 8 of the children hold a knife together and try to all, somehow, coordinate smiles and adequate pressure to cut the cake in unison. Much of the same is repeated on the other side, though now it’s 9! Regardless of the pending disaster that one might expect, the cake is cut perfectly (a.k.a. the cake is cut and no children are rushed to the hospital with gaping knife wounds)

Finally, the cake and cookies are handed out, along with other little snacks… more dancing, more face-painting, more running around… and basically a pure, joyful chaos breaks out. Eventually night falls and the kids have to go home, much to their dismay… so much so, that many of them try to hide in the nooks and crannies of the center (there aren’t many)… but after a painstaking half hour, they are all discovered and sent on their way.

Group Birthday Party
Handing out the presents

The 17 of them, heading home with their little gifts (whistles, and plastic paddle-balls) and the other 53 with cake and smiles all over their faces… It’s one of those experiences that can’t help but warm your heart, as you’re overtaken by the joy that they all share.

And, where you arrive and think… ‘it’s odd that none of them would know what it’s like to experience a birthday solo, where they are the sole receiver of all the attention’… you somehow leave thinking… ‘maybe it’s odd how we never experience what it’s like to share such a day with many of our friends’. After all, who doesn’t feel at least a bit awkward as the center of attention at his/her birthday party… Wouldn’t it be nice to share that attention with 16 of your friends in a group birthday party?!

Ethiopia Culture Shock

Originally Published On:

Step Up Dive In

Ethiopia Culture Shock

As a traveler, landing in different countries always presents the likelihood of some sort of culture shock. So what are the most shocking things for a Canadian arriving to volunteer in Ethiopia?

A Disclaimer

First of it must be said that I’m not really one to suffer from much culture shock. I always expect culture shock to be a lot worse than it really is. In all honesty, I always end up being a little disappointed that I can merge into a new culture almost seamlessly.

As mentioned in my arrival in Ethiopia, I certainly had overestimated the culture shock that Ethiopia would represent. But, getting to work here provides a whole different opportunity… one to be shocked in a whole different way.


The transportation in Addis Ababa has been described to me as ‘not enough’ … Honestly, that description is ‘not enough’. From where I live to the center should be about an hour commute, in four different minibuses.

The Route

Ethiopia Culture Shock
The traffic looks fine from here

Conveniently, there’s a bus stop right near where I live. Perhaps I should clarify, there’s a bunch of people that stand on the side of the road, hoping for the minibuses to stop, and then run as quickly as possible, shoulders in, elbows up to win the coveted spot that might be available. I learned quickly that this bus stop was not for me… instead it’s a 20 minute walk to where the buses start.

This minibus, then takes me to the starting of a second minibus, which takes me to a line for the third (I’ve waited up to an hour there) which finally drops me at the side of the road where I can find the fourth. The fourth as actually presented the most problems as I need to find one that goes to ‘Akaki 08’ and most of them go to ‘Akaki 09’… You would think it’s a quick lesson on numbers, right??? Wrong! For the life of me I can’t pronounce the number 8, which sounds something like the word ‘cement’ and thus I am consistently holding up my fingers, and piling into minibuses just to pile off once people actually count the amount of fingers I’ve held up… Awesome!

The Capacity

Ethiopia Culture Shock
We Canadians just need our space

I’ve been trying to think of a way to describe this to Canadians. You see, undoubtedly Canadians have an issue with space… we have too much. That may not seem like much of an issue when you’re in Canada, but when you venture outside, oh boy can it be interesting. The other day, as 20 people packed into the second bus (which had 10 seats) I was jostled into a tight fitting spot, sitting backwards facing a kind, smiling, Ethiopian man. The only way for us to fit in was apparently in the jigsaw-like manner that saw his right leg ending up between my legs and my right leg between his legs… As the bus jumped and jiggled it’s way along the twenty minute ride, it made me realize that it is, indeed, quite possible to accidentally grind a total stranger. It made me question all those times in High School when I thought a girl had purposely put her hand on my leg, and made me wonder if this was at all awkward for my Ethiopian grinding partner… His smile gave away little, really awkward or innocently normal I may never know.

The Power Outages

Okay, I may be a little accustomed to power outages, especially after Nepal where the power seems to be off 10 hours a day. The difference in Ethiopia is that it is totally unplanned, unannounced and can go on for days. My second day in Addis Ababa, a city of many million (estimates range from 3 million to 8 million) the power went out and stayed out for 30 hours. I tell ya, stumbling around my new living quarters made it real obvious that I need to be just a little more perceptive, and really take in my surroundings when I first arrive.

The People

Ethiopia Culture Shock
First monthly meeting… My open notebook consists of words I don’t know… which is basically every single Amharic word.

This is one that will get you everywhere you go. No matter what people tell you, you’ll never be prepared for the difference in the people that you meet in a new country… The people are, after all, the greatest reason to travel. The people in Ethiopia are a huge shock for me. They are a far cry from the crippling images we’ve seen on our Canadian televisions since the 1984 famine. They are beautiful, smiling and kind and very intelligent. You get attention for being white, but you never feel in danger. There may be a little pushing for a minibus here or there, but there’s always someone looking out to make sure you, the Farenji, are okay.

There’s one final culture shock that I experienced in my first week in Ethiopia, and that’s the kids. But, they are easily worth an entire post themselves.

Up for some more reading? Check out either my arrival in Ethiopia, or stop by at my other site, Step Up… Dive In, I’d love to see you there.

Arriving in Ethiopia

Originally Published on

Volunteering in Ethiopia

So, off to a new volunteer project, this one with the wonderful Vulnerable Children Society, focused on the health and betterment of at-risk children in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia.

Arriving in Africa

I have been dreaming of going to Africa ever since I was a kid. Other opportunities always popped up so I headed to Europe for a couple of months, then Europe again to live in Germany, then Thailand to live there, then Indonesia and area to travel, then South America for a year and a half, then India/Nepal for 9 months.. Combine that with a few stopovers in France ranging from 1 – 3 months and you get a total of about 4 years (48 months) spent abroad… and a grand total of…. wait for it… 3 or 4 days I spent in Africa.

Arriving in Ethiopia
Africa is that way?? Are you sure we’re heading in the right direction?!

After spending a good chunk of time away from Canada, and many a year in both third-world and non-english speaking countries, I never know just how much, if any, culture shock I will experience upon landing in a new country.I have, however, always held Africa in a different light. I had been there only once on a quick trip down from Spain with my sister and mother when I was but a new traveler; the type with a Canadian flag, brand name clothes, cash dispersed in four different pockets, and fear of anyone who attempted to talk to me.

Oh, and it was Morocco, to say that Ethiopia would be different, and basically brand new would be the greatest of understatements. So, after a quick stopover in France, and some planning with Arnica and the rest at Vulnerable Children Society, I landed in Addis.

For the first time in my life, I had a driver waiting to pick me up… unfortunately, I clearly had no idea what that meant. Here I was expecting to find my name held up high in the sky on a big whiteboard for everyone to see, as if I was essentially royalty… That, believe it or not, is not how it turned out.

I landed at the beautiful hour of 1:10am and didn’t want to go outside directly, it’s Africa after all. Isn’t this the place that those commercials have been insistently convincing me my whole life that starvation, kidnapping and theft are the norm?! Go outside in the middle of the night, without my driver? Never!

I also, however, didn’t have a phone and couldn’t find an internet connection…

Arriving in Ethiopia
Africa’s gotta be out there somewhere…

Unbeknownst to me, my driver was not allowed to come inside, which meant that I was sleeping in yet another uncomfortable (and slightly chilly) airport, waiting for someone to arrive who was, at the same time, waiting in a much more uncomfortable (and chillier) van, waiting for the ridiculous Farenji to step outside.

Oh, but don’t worry, this didn’t last. A mere 4 hours later, I finally found an internet connection and contacted some people back in Canada who promptly informed me of my ridiculousness (though they were kind enough to not word it that way). Unfortunately, the driver had gone home (can you blame him?!)

He agreed to come back in an hour or so. Thus, I sat around watching a documentary on Ethiopia and finally went out to meet him around 6am. The street was incredibly comfortable, not at all foreboding, and in no way dangerous… Of course I never once thought about how unbelievably irrational I had been waiting in a chilly airport, frightened by my own shadow and the notion of dangerous Africa.

Incredibly, Ketema (the driver) showed up with a jacket that read Canada, a hood from a different jacket and a smile on his face. Any lingering doubts or fears that I had vanished the moment that this poor soul, who I had left to suffer in the shockingly chilly night opened the door without a hint of resentment, and even apologized profusely… as if the whole thing was not only my horrible misunderstanding, but rather somehow, the blame fell squarely on his shoulders.

From that moment forward I knew that volunteering and living in Ethiopia would be easier and a lot more pleasant than I expected.

If you’re curious about who I am, or just have some time to kill, then feel free to drop by at my other site, (where this post was originally published). I’d love to see you at Step Up… Dive In

Urban Gardening in Addis Ababa

stefanVulnerable Children Society’s first long-term on-the-ground volunteer, Stefan Jasuira, left today for Ethiopia. Stefan, a landscaper, serial volunteer and globe-trotter, is spending three months in Addis Ababa developing urban gardens to enable food security among impoverished Ethiopian children.

Stefan’s task is huge – but it will have a lasting effect of the quality of life for 70+ children and their families.

First, Stefan is launching up a demonstration garden at Vulnerable Children Society’s Love & Hope Centre in Kality, on the outskirts of Addis Ababa. Children from impoverished families attend the centre each day, to receive a hot meal, after school tutoring, love, medical care, counselling, clubs and unconditional acceptance. Many of the children are orphaned, but their guardians are already involved in the centre, preparing meals for the children each day. Stefan will work in partnership with the guardians and Vulnerable Children’s partner, Canadian Humanitarian, that runs the centre, to build vegetable gardens. The gardens will not only enrich the diets of the children who attend the centre, but also teach valuable intensive gardening skills to the kids and the community.

Across town, Stefan is planning another garden on a smaller scale. Vulnerable Children’s partner Hope for Children in Ethiopia runs an effective retraining program for young girls who want to escape the sex trade and start new careers. The ten  girls live in a group home, and the plan is to work with the girls to build container and vertical gardens within the courtyard. The gardens will be managed by the teen girls, empowering them to provide some of their own food, be less income reliant, and enrich their cooking skills for working in restaurants.

We hope you will follow along with Stefan’s adventures over the next few months, and see our cooperative urban gardening projects grow.

Donate Now Through!This nourishing project is financed by Vulnerable Children Society’s General Project Fund. If you would like to contribute, please donate here.



10 women fundraise for 10 girls

This summer, 10 women from across the country are fundraising to support 10 girls to attend our Teenage Sex Trade Worker Reemployment Program in Addis Ethiopia.

The women are students, government workers, homeschooling moms, retirees, business women… aged 15 to 65! They all want to give a teen Ethiopian girl another chance at freedom and self reliance.

Each woman is raising $1300, the year-long program cost for one girl!

So far, we have raised $3870 as a team… That’s enough for three girls to attend the program. Will you help us 10 women support 10 girls?

In the next four days, please consider donating to Dacia’s campaign!