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We, Ethiopians, Are Worth It: Hasset Zelealem’s Experience

With the help of Jegna and People to People, I worked as a research and analysis associate at the Addis Continental Institute for Public Health (ACIPH) in Ethiopia. This blog offers a glimpse of my experience to show why we, Ethiopians, are worth it.

“Really? Why? I mean, that’s cool, but why?” This was the typical response I received from most people when I told them I was moving to Ethiopia. They found it difficult to believe that a young woman in her early twenties, who was born and raised in America and had yet to establish herself post-college, would want to move to Ethiopia. It was a foreign concept, even to my parents. The thing is, it had always been my dream to live there.

I wanted to serve by using my skills, education, and time to contribute to the advancement of Ethiopia in any way I could. The opportunity to  connect with my culture, history, and people in ways I couldn’t here in the States was enticing, as well. With  no college debt, marriage, children or  sense of urgency  to climb the corporate ladder or live the “American Dream”, I knew this was the perfect time to go. So, after almost ten months of working, saving money, networking, and strengthening my faith, I bought a plane ticket to Addis Ababa. The rest is history. 

When I landed in Addis on July 16, 2019, I didn’t feel nervous, anxious, or out of place. I simply felt like I was finally home. To be completely honest, I didn’t really know what I was going to do, where I was going to work, or what would happen.But I did know that if God brought me this far, he would see me through the rest. And after taking that first breath of Ethiopian air, I knew that was exactly where I was supposed to be. 

I can’t say that I was completely overwhelmed by the  culture shock because I grew up in a Habesha household and an Ethiopian church. I have been to Addis Ababa several times and speak Amharic fluently so I was accustomed to most of the social and cultural tendencies and norms  of Ethiopia. In that regard, it was easy for me to fit in. What was initially difficult was everyday life in the city. Riding the taxis, being catcalled by men and boys on the street every time I stepped out of my house, the heavy and unpredictable traffic, the extreme poverty, the evident wealth gap between the rich and poor, lack of efficiency, and overall system of the country took some getting used to.

These and other experiences truly tested my patience, as well as my affections for the country I claimed to love and serve. I had to teach myself to separate my frustrations with the systems in place from the people and nation as a whole. This is key for any diaspora who is planning to move to Ethiopia and would like to maintain their peace. A diaspora’s unmet expectations and frustrations can stem from our experiences and advantages in the western world. I quickly realized that most of my irritations were rooted in my American perspective, and it was unfair to blame Ethiopians for that. However, there were  moments of utter disrespect, disregard, and disorganization that I dealt with case by case, having intentional conversations with the people involved to hopefully challenge their mindsets. 

Presenting at the National Annual Review Meeting

When I was in Ethiopia, I volunteered as a research and analysis associate at the Addis Continental Institute for Public Health (ACIPH). It’s crazy how faith works because I ended up getting the exact job, with the exact organization I wanted. At ACIPH, I worked with an incredible team of public health experts, epidemiologists, and doctors on the Ethiopian Demographic Health Survey (EDHS) Evidence Synthesis Project, contracted to us by the Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Health (FMoH). I supported the team by conducting national and regional trend analyses of full immunization coverage, contraceptive prevalence, and measles vaccination coverage in Ethiopia from 2000-2019. I also calculated 2025 projections of these indicators and created a comprehensive report of the team’s analyses and recommendations. Our work was then presented to the FMoH and discussed on a national level. To say I learned a great deal, both personally and professionally, would be an understatement. It was by far the most enjoyable and meaningful work experience I’ve had to date. I contributed to the transformation of Ethiopia’s health sector in a tangible way — how cool is that?

Every sacrifice I made, both great and small, to live amongst my people, connect with them, learn from them, serve them, and work with them, was worth it. It was the most fulfilling time in my life, and it’s only the beginning. This  time in Ethiopia served as a launching pad for the work that I will do there in the future. The support from organizations like People to People and their flagship program known as Jegna, was so encouraging. It was great to know they were always there for me.

So, what would be my advice to any young diaspora who wants to live and work in Ethiopia? Have a vision, save your money, have faith, learn to practice patience, and take intentional steps to execute your plan. Everything may or may not work out the way you envisioned it, and that’s okay. You probably won’t have it all figured out before you get on that plane to Addis, and that’s normal. Well-intentioned people may doubt the validity of your dream, but don’t let their insecurities, fears, and opinions stop you. Your dream is valid, necessary, and will bear more fruit than you, or your naysayers will ever know.

We, the diaspora, possess within us solutions, business ideas, initiatives, policies, and more that can bring true transformation. Ethiopia needs us, and we need Ethiopia. Let’s not hold ourselves back from that exchange out of fear or indifference, but instead, do whatever it takes to invest our time, talents, resources, and our lives into our home country.

Take the risk. We, Ethiopians, are worth it.

Author avatar
Hasset Zelealem

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