Sunday, January 29, 2012

Notes From Cien, Our Man in Kololo.

From Cien...An Update.

Since the Western new year, many of you may have wondered where the blogging has gone.  And that is for good reason.  I have gone from making weekly posts to providing merely a couple in the last month.  I offer my apologies to all the curious and possibly frustrated parties.  There  is an explanation behind my digital absence, a good one, and  it is about time I shared.

The day before the ferenji  New Year, Daniel and I packed up for a 9 day trip to Addis.  We were to renew/extend our expiring visa’s, enjoy new years celebrations, and attend a mutual friends wedding.    We were due back in Kololo on the 9th of January to finish up the build in early February.  Unfortunately, we were unable to stick to our schedule.

New Years and the wedding celebrations went as expected.  All of our weekend nights slept away in a mud hut, surely stored up an adequate amount of partying energy.  It was the visa’s that got us where we are now.  Presently,  I am taking a rest from lumberjack chores on my father’s Serbian farm, while Daniel is catching up with friend and family in the US.  Sure, the convenience of not having to answer nature’s midnight call with a crank flashlight and a dulling machete is appreciated, but we both wish we were in Kololo.

On December 29th, all structural work was complete, a majority of the roof was in place, window openings were leveled, squared and ready for frame installation.  Hay and heavy soils were blended in preparation for the creation of cob.  Construction was going soundly, and community relations were at a peak.  Daniel and I were both were discreetly offered wives.  We respectfully declined.  We left for Addis on the 30th, while build assistant manager, Ijigu, remained in Kololo.

 Ijigu,  is a trusted friend, 7 year Tesfa employee, and was my assistant manager for a similar build in Ekodaga in 2010.  Just as with Kololo, Ijigu assisted me in construction planning, ordering materials, delegating labor, and dolling out payroll.  Because of his previous experience, and the communities respect for his leadership, we decided to continue the build in my absence.  Ijigu was to supervise the process of mixing and applying the first coat of cob to the exterior of the schools 3 buildings; he is well versed in this messy exercise, and was ready.  I am very confident in Ijigu’s ability to manage a worksite.   

In country visa processing has never been a streamlined activity.   Tesfa and Ethiopia Reads in country director tells many a ghastly tale of his trips to the Ethiopian immigration office.  Every year it’s something different, and the officials responsible for processing paperwork become more and more inept. Officials arbitrarily hand out visa extension amounts, with no standard protocol, just based on your interaction, and their mood that day.  Daniel for instance was in luck, after the office lost his visa, the ball was in his court, after some back and forth chatter, he was given that days maximum visa extension.  Meanwhile the very professional gentleman behind him was provided a single day extension.  Very little reasoning was offered.  

 I on the other hand was not looking for an extension, rather, I was hoping to renew my two year business visa.  To do so, I had to fulfill a scavenger hunt of requests; proof of employment, in country banking information, a organizational information, project proposals (for those I implemented),  and many other “certified” documents, all this including a full and might I add a very thorough health exam.  In a blur of nearly round the clock activity we fulfilled all of the immigration offices requests… Only to be thwarted. Other documents were requested, while others needed different stamps of approval.  It was ridiculous. As time ran out, we worked with a lawyer to acquire a 10 day extension.  We got it.  The office visits and scavenger hunt continued.  After 9 more days of certifying original graduate diplomas, rounding up an array of stamps, visiting with countless officials, and spending a few thousand birr on cabs, we were still without a work permit, temporary residence, and of course time to figure any way out of this mess.   I am now working with Serbian consulates and Tesfa/Ethiopia Reads management to acquire a visa from outside of the country.  Oddly, the process is much tidier from a far.

While this melee was taking place in early January, I caught some sort of stomach virus, and my computer’s battery  refused to take charge.  I was sicker than I have ever been, and was without a means to watch type emails, blog, or simply watch a movie to pass the time.  Things were not really going my way.  Meanwhile, Daniel’s visa extension was gradually expiring.  We all were consumed with taking care of my paperwork, consequently Daniel’s was never finished.  Things were obviously not going his way either.  Well, except that he now is now able to attend this year’s New Orleans  Mardi Gras festivities. 

So we both, mid-build, were forced out of the country, the same country that are were trying to assist.  Uncomfortably ironic isn’t it? 

Since I left, Ijigu and I have been in steady communication.  While in country we spoke every evening to discuss the day’s progress.  Work was going as planned.  We were going to use almost all of the dirt that excavated for the school’s foundations to construct the structure’s walls.  Organic recycling at its best. I now have been in Serbia for 7 days, allowing Tesfa management to relay phone conversations with Ijigu to me via email on a regular basis.  There has been minimal complications, and right now, the first coat of cob is complete on all interior and exterior walls.  The first 2 structures second coat of cob is nearing completion.  Ijigu expects the cob portion of the built to be finished by the end of the month.  At that point, work will stop, and Ijigu will return to Addis, enjoy some family time, and wait for my return.

 When we return on the 11th or 12th of February we will finish the final phase of the build.  Laying the floors for the buildings, erecting the bathroom,  painting, the installation of glass in the window frames, and finishing the water management system, including our bridges.  We expect that the work be complete by the second week of March.  

I am very excited to return.

One note: These sort of experiences are representative of the drawn out processes involved in many developing world bureaucracies.  A delicate balance of patience and assertiveness is critical in our work.  However,  Ethiopia’s political environment is more stringent than ever, and regardless of tact, many of these such road blocks are becoming common place.  I can assure you all, our wealth of project implementation experience, and effective management communication will ensure project success.  


  1. Oh Cien, thanks for this! I'm grateful to be caught up on the sordid details, but am even more grateful for the shirtless photo, um I mean, for your continued dedication to this and future builds. This sounds like such a train wreck all around for you, other than the stroke of good fortune that is Ijigu. Tesfa is lucky to have you. I hope you're on the mend and look forward to hearing from you again soon when you're back in Ethiopia!

  2. I know this is going to sound silly coming from me (42 yo white lady, drinking tea and making tiny useless things out of felt) to you (a person who can dig a hole and then make a building out of the dirt) but: Cien, please be careful.

  3. Oh my. This sounds so much like my experiences in Ethiopia with visas. ( I got one in 10 days--the other family in our building took 33--for no clear reason). Which is a long and self-absorbed way of saying, I get it.

    I hope things get better for Cien, and it sounds like things are going great for the build!

  4. wow. also grateful for the shirtless your dedication to the project. Keep up the good work. Julie, feel free to post more shirtless photos of Cien..I mean photos of the build...

  5. holy cow. that picture is stunning. hint of butt. and to save myself embarrassment, so happy confidence remains that the project will continue!

  6. All these comments sure got me smiling to myself. Julie, it seems you picked the right photo to highlight my bureaucratic woes ;-). And no one should fret; the school build has continue as planned, and I am usually as safe as the situation allows.

  7. Great update...vivid detail that makes me want to be in kololo and bang my head against the wall all at the same time. I truly cannot imagine handling such setbacks with such humor and grace...I hope beer is involved. ;)

    Theresa (google hates me so I am disguised as anon...shhhhhh, don't tell the googlets)