Grinning on the way to work in Ethiopia

December 2006

Julian Bass outside computer roomsJulian Bass MBCS has traded in his life as a consultant and trainer in the UK to volunteer in Ethiopia for two years. It's a career move that is bringing him all sorts of new and different experiences and putting a grin on his face on his way to work, as he explains below.

‘Poverty is the worst form of violence’: Gandhi.
An estimated 1.2 billion people live below the World Bank’s poverty line of US$1 a day.

There is a critical IT skills shortage in Ethiopia; the colleges find it difficult to train and retain computer specialists. Since September 2006, I have been helping the College of Teacher Education develop its technology capabilities, repairing machines and developing campus networking. I am also teaching the college instructors to develop their basic IT skills.

I have signed up for two years as a volunteer with Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO). Its volunteers help tackle disadvantage by equipping people in developing and emerging countries with the skills they need to transform their communities and national economies.

I am using my technical, management and organizational skills to help communities here in a town of 30,000-50,000 people called Debre Birhan, 130 km north-east of Addis Ababa.

At the College we have about 1,500 students, most of whom are trainee teachers, going to teach in primary schools around Ethiopia. The Government has prioritized IT and made it a compulsory subject for all aspiring teachers. The staff here work incredibly hard with very limited resources. The senior college officers are dedicated and committed but have to deal with the incredible frustrations of working with rudimentary facilities.

Currently, in 2006, there are about 50 fairly modern PCs. They are all running windows XP and have at least 40Gb hard disks and 256Mb RAM. There are some machines with better specifications than this. One hard problem to deal with is the slow internet connection. The whole college is not currently networked (solving that problem is one of my objectives) but we have about 20 of the machines sharing a single 56kbps dial-up internet connection.

Julian Bass workplaceWe have problems with power, sometimes too little, during brownouts and power cuts. Sadly we have also been in receipt of too much power, over voltage is not unknown and can easily destroy equipment.

Attempting to share technical knowledge and skills with a wide range of stakeholders is challenging. I am mentoring a technician, two college IT instructors and two university lecturers, each group having very different technical mentoring needs. In addition, I have launched a series of classes for the other college instructors based on the ECDL/ICDL curriculum.

A large queue of enthusiastic staff formed for registration when these classes were first announced. I have not focused on slick technical solutions, rather on using training and mentoring skills to help people further develop their own capabilities.

My consulting and training experience have helped to equip me for this role of advising, mentoring and supporting, rather than directly delivering solutions, although I do help with that too. VSO puts considerable emphasis on sustainable projects, in which local people learn skills and take responsibility for management of local solutions.

This job is the most rewarding

The people here are incredibly warm, friendly and appreciative. I walk to work with a big grin on my face at the prospect of the friendly, rewarding and appreciative environment I can expect to find at work. My clients are genuinely delighted to see me and have me around. This is the most fascinating, challenging and rewarding thing I have ever done.

In my spare time I have been helping the local library and charity organizations with computer repairs and network support. A brand new green-field university is being built in the town, so I am also helping the senior officers and new IT lecturers get things started. I am planning to put together a one-year VSO placement at the university to follow on from my year at the college.

As VSO is a charity, it does not provide international standard hotel rooms or chauffer-driven limousines. However, your local employer is likely to be very pleased to have you and to try, within the resources available, to make you comfortable and give you everything you need to do your job.

I am lucky enough to have a nice three bedroom stone-built bungalow all to myself, with electricity and a phone (both on a good day), hot and cold running water and a beautiful flower garden. Unlike some other types, IT placements tend not to be in rural areas lacking infrastructure services, for obvious reasons.

Preparation for the post

VSO provided me with training both prior to departure at their residential training centre, near Birmingham, in the UK. The training includes:

  • a weekend giving you an opportunity to consider your own suitability for volunteering and helping you to correctly set your expectations;
  • a weekend of workshop sessions helping you to understand the role of volunteers in the process of international development;
  • a short course on health and hygiene matters;
  • a week practising the kind of skills you need for working in a development setting;
  • A short course practising hands-on fault-finding and discussing special issues around computer operation in a developing country setting.

After arrival in Ethiopia, I attended the so called In-Country Training (confusingly, for me, abbreviated to ICT) which provided:

  • an intensive short course of training in the local language;
  • overviews of  the culture, history, geography and politics of Ethiopia
  • support in finding my way around Addis Ababa, the capital, using local transport;
  • a cultural evening of local food, music and dancing;
  • advice from more experienced volunteers about working here;
  • advice about health issues, with quite detailed medical and hygiene advice.

VSO takes the safety of volunteers seriously with detailed emergency planning and evacuation information. They do not knowingly send volunteers into war zones or areas with civil unrest (unlike the brave individuals who work for some of the international medical charities, for example). Road traffic accidents have always been the most likely cause of the rare volunteer hospitalizations.

At the college in Ethiopia, we are in desperate needs of good quality and up-to-date technical books, learning resources and technical reference materials. If you are prepared to make a donation, no matter how small, please contact me: jbass@bcs.org.uk.

You can follow my progress on the blog at: julianbass.vso-stories.net.

VSO organizes work placements for skilled professionals from a range of sectors. If you would like to know more about VSO, visit www.vso.org.uk or call 020 8780 7500.