Ethiopia,  The Bean

Tentside Surgery

One morning, Demesse’s five-year old grandson, Lule, appeared at the tent porch with a cut finger. Nothing serious, it just needed to be cleaned, liberal amounts of antiseptic cream applied and a plaster. Then, the co-operative accountant’s son, Henock, arrived with a nasty sore on his foot caused by an ill-fitting sandal. Again, the same treatment (and a new pair of sandals). It didn’t take long before word soon got around and I was asked to visit Jerbose’s bedside who was suffering from a high temperature and severe back pain. The guardsman, Demesse, told me he had similar symptoms. A trip to the hospital in the nearby town of Agaro the following day for tests revealed that they were both suffering from chronic kidney infections. Jerbose later told me he had been suffering from the infection for over three years because he couldn’t afford the treatment; a simple course of antibiotics.

Jebose enjoys a coffee from his traditional Oromo 'thermos flask'

Oli, the co-operative’s charismatic driver complained of muscular back pain which I think was more a product of old age and years of carrying 60kg plus sacks of red cherry than anything else. Back to the pharmacy for some pain relievers. Later, Buzio showed me a series of nine large red, raised lumps running down the length of her back that were causing her a lot of discomfort. It turned out that she had fallen victim to a particularly unpleasant (Totcha) worm – a commonly found parasite in rural areas – which lays its eggs in the host’s body whilst they are sleeping. I asked her if she had been able to clean her mattress and she replied that she couldn’t because it is made of straw. With only a first aid certificate to my medical credentials, I went off to speak to the chemist again.

Buzio pours a morning round of fine Choche coffee

He told me that the only effective – and traditional – method is to remove the critters by hand with the aid of a smoking piece of wood to draw the maggot to the skin surface. By then end of the week, there were still four of them left to go.

It seems that most cases can treated with a basic knowledge of first aid and access to the appropriate medical supplies and medication. The barrier to receiving this however is simply due to the fact that the majority cannot afford the cost of treatment. In a country with no national health system or medical care facilities with the resources to meet the demand, ailments needing urgent medical attention go left untreated for years, thereby deepening the cycle of poverty. It’s a vicious, needless, spiral that faces the vast majority of the population; a simple lack of access to basic medical health care.

But the picture is not all depressing as efforts are being made to alleviate the situation at the co-operative level. A much-needed clinic has recently been built through the proceeds of the fair-trade premium and the part of the ‘dividend’ the co-operative receives back from the Oromia Coffee Farmer’s Co-operative Union. (This also helps the farmers to gain financial security after a second payment is distributed to the members when times are economically tough later in the year). Nearby, the Bulbulo Primary School are constructing a kindergarten, to be opened next year, through the support of the fair trade mechanism. I was cheered to hear that Choche also enjoys active links with the Lakeland town of Keswick in the UK, which had recently donated some computers and IT equipment.

(Coincidentally , it transpires that the birthplace of coffee (Choche) is now twinned with the birthplace of pencils (Keswick). It’s fitting when you consider their respective impact on the world had the power to shape it. Excuse the pun but in many ways, they do go hand-in-hand. When you think about it, the industrial revolution was driven by more than just coal in the mills of northern England).

Director of  Bulbulo Primary School, Aguma Taa, took me on a quick tour. We visited a couple of classrooms, the reading room with spartan shelves and a science lab without a microscope, chemicals, or a bunsen burner. What he revealed was a desperate shortage of resources.

Despite this, Aguma was upbeat about the standard of education his school’s 1300 pupils (grade 1-8) receive, in comparison to other primaries in the area. His concern shifted to one down the road in the village of Bodalo, that hadn’t benefited from co-operative support like Choche and Bulbulo had.  Of the school, he said this: ‘Around 600 students learn at that school. They have no electric lights and the classrooms are full of dust. I visited them recently and I have seen they have a big problem. All around the school, they have a great production of coffee but they do not sell their coffee to the union like in Bulbulo and Choche. If only they can sell their coffee for a good price, they can regenerate the school and improve the lives of the children in so many directions.’

The English class I participated in was aptly entitled: 'What is a Tourist?'

There was a knock at the door and a flustered-looking teacher entered. She was looking for the first aid kit to treat a child who had fallen over in the playground. ‘Oh, and we need bandages,’ he added.


  • Pat & Ken Brown (saw you last at Celia& Harry's 50th.)

    Hi, Tony,
    Sorry not to have seen your message sooner. would like to make cash gift by most cost-effective means. Will await your suggestion. Regards, Ken & Pat

  • John Pascoe

    If there’s a coffee museum somewhere in Ethiopia, I’ll wager it’s more interesting than the pencil museum in Keswick – I used to go there with my parents whenever we holidayed in the Lake District and it was raining (which is quite often in the Lake District), and the pain still lives with me…

    • beanonabike

      Mmm, yes, I can see that’s going to stay with you for life – going by the weather in the Lakes – you must have spent half of your holiday there. So, when was the first pencil invented?

  • Pat & Ken Brown (saw you last at Celia& Harry's 50th.)

    Hi, Tony, Ken & I are finding your blog v. interesting, especially now we’re more home- bound than before ( Harry puts us to shame cycling-wise, tho we manage occasional outings). Would like to donate to one or other school. How to do this? or whatever org. there you suggest. Regards, Pat.

    • beanonabike

      That’s great news! Having visited the two schools, I know that any contribution – large or small – will make a real difference. Would the donation be in money or materials? I can contact one of the school directors if you like to see what would be the best method (either directly or through the Keswick connection) and will get back to you. Hope you are both well and glad to hear you’re finding the blog interesting. Currently in Addis Ababa sorting my visas out and waiting for replacement bike parts (bottom bracket went after 5000km) to arrive from the UK. Hope to be back on the road again soon, this time bound for the historic sights in Northern Ethiopia. Will be in touch soon, Tony

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