Long-time CUPE global justice activists Shirley Lord and George Harris have taken up duties in Ethiopia, where they are on a six-month posting with Volunteer Services Overseas.
Shirley was a municipal hospital unit president with Local 500 (Winnipeg city workers) and worked at the Manitoba regional office of CUPE. George was a shop steward and treasurer of Local 2348 at Nine Circles Community Health Centre in Winnipeg and served on international solidarity committees at both the division and national levels.
Earlier this month, VSO staff helped them settle into a basic house and provided them with 1,500 birr (about $165) for sheets, pots, dishes, etc. The cost may seem low to Canadians but for most Ethiopians these items are unaffordable.
Here is a report on their first experiences in the African country.
“Many of us western volunteers have come with our own laptops. Volunteers who come from the south, Uganda, Kenya, etc., do not have that kind of resource. The VSO office has an Internet server for volunteers but no computers. When we are around we let the south-to-south volunteers use our laptops so they can email home. Hopefully we can find a way to get a few computers that these folks can use.
“We need to learn some Amharic or we will be on the outside constantly. Ethiopians live and work in their language and also they keep their own clock and calendar. They have managed to hang on to their culture with its strengths and challenges especially for ferengi (foreigners). Google Amharic fideles to find out more. It is similar to Japanese characters.
“We have a house very close to the centre of activity in Addis Abba, the capital. Water seems to be at a premium, but we do have hot water and are learning to use it carefully. Our house is in a compound with other volunteers and the landlord and his family. It is very basic, but works for us.
“Local restaurants are fun. People are friendly and laugh when we order, saying they are not sure what we will get. We can go out for a drink and meal for around $5 or $6 for both of us, including a tip.
“The major street seems to be Bole with its high-rise offices. Streets are in much better condition than Uganda (where Shirley and George did an earlier stint as volunteers). They even have sidewalks. Yet on major streets it is not uncommon to see burros with sacks of grain on their backs or people on horses.
“Our work is with the Christian Relief and Development Association (CRDA), the largest advocacy network in the country. It is similar to the YM-YWCA in that faith-based groups set it up in 1973 in response to the famine. It now has 283 members with 40 more to be approved at the next general assembly. Most of them are secular.
“But CDRA is also organized in a similar way to a union. It provides training and capacity-building support to its members as well as lobbying strength and the opportunity to network and share grassroots experiences.
“The opportunities offered me as an activist in CUPE both in education and experience provided me with the skills that I am now using in my VSO placement in Ethiopia,” Shirley says.
George, who is a financial advisor with CRDA, says the financial system is reliable and well organized. He provided similar services at their previous posting in Uganda and in Tanzania and Zambia between 1968 and 1988 with CUSO and the Canadian International Development Agency.
They are scheduled to return to Canada in August.
VSO is a non-governmental organization that is merging with Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), a CUPE local. VSO has more than 130 volunteers working in Ethiopia, mostly focused in the education sector.