Reflections on Ethiopia (2012)

In April 2012 we took a trip to Ethiopia.  Amy, Jackie, Omri, Me and my then boyfriend (now husband) Dan.  It was part business trip, part leisure trip – the goal was to experience Ethiopia and better understand where our sesame seeds were coming from.  Below is an e-mail I wrote to friends and family when I returned from my trip.

I wanted to share this because the reflection really puts things in perspective for me.  I would love to hear your thoughts – please feel free to comment or e-mail me directly shelby @ soomfoods.com

Cheers, Shelby

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April 18, 2012:

I must say, it was quite refreshing to disconnect for 10 days.  While you may have seen Facebook updates from DanStamm and Amy, I chose to only use my i-phone for music during our long drives.  So I’m happy to say I’m back and excited to connect with you all again.

It was hard for me to come back from Ethiopia.  Yes, my jet lag has been more difficult than normal.  But the trip was unlike any trip I have ever taken, and the re-adjustment to America is difficult.  And this was only after 7 days in the country!  What would it be like to spend 3 months there?  A year?

Ethiopia is truly a special country.  I don’t have much basis for comparison in Africa, but I can say that compared to the other countries I have traveled, Ethiopia has a unique spirit.

The people are beautiful.  Inside and out.  They are welcoming, accommodating, interested, interesting and proud.  We were met by smiles everywhere we traveled.  Well, a smile after the confused look that expressed “why are you here?”  It almost felt like we were foreign celebrities…

And those smiles were on the faces of rich and poor alike.  Whether we were at the St. George’s Football (Soccer) Match cheering with the fans, exploring Addis Ababa University, handing out toys to the children at Wayzaro Suzie’s orphanage (picture featured) or allocating jolly ranchers, pens and 6cent notes (1 bir) to children “salesmen” on the side of the road – you got the sense that people were genuinely happy to see us.  Well, maybe not the 75 year old women who watched us breeze by in our van as they carried 90 pounds of wood on their backs… That will put a hard workout into perspective!

I’d say that was my major take-away from the trip.  Perspective.  I was constantly put in-check.  What makes people happy?  What do people need?  What is clean? edible? delicious?  beautiful?

We saw people living in the most extreme conditions I have ever witnessed.  And money (and efficiency!) is literally not a part of their vocabulary.  As we ventured from Addis Ababa (Capital City) to Bahir Dar (on lake Tana) we drove through some of the most gorgeous terrain past rural compounds where families lived in mud huts covered with straw.  Their daily routines started before sunrise – walking 5+ miles to the market,  tending flocks and herds, gathering sticks to build or to burn…

Even in the “urban” cities along our drive, huts were piled on top of one another, the markets were scattered messes of goods, cattle, goats, sheep and donkeys flooded the streets, children ran around barefoot with tattered clothes and a coffee shop boasted a dilapidated set up, at best.

But regardless of all of this, we saw few sad eyes.  Children giggled as they chased each other with sticks through the dirt, grown men laughed as they sat around on their stoops, school girls chuckled as they walked their daily trek to the school house and women lovingly tended to their babies.
(Okay, these are the people we saw.  I cannot speak for the millions of stories I did not witness)

Family, food, shelter, socialization, leisure, work, school – all of these were realized.  In the POOREST country in the world where 1/4 people lives under $1/day Ethiopians are able to enjoy these gifts of life.  So how are we (or how am I) utilizing our gifts?  Do we even understand them as gifts?

We ate delicious meals for $3.50.  We drank the most unbelievable juices for $2.  We stayed in fabulous guest houses for $30/night, and enjoyed $1 beers.  Don’t even get me started on the coffee…  How privileged are we that we could afford the ticket to Ethiopia in the first place?!

Ethiopia now has a very special place in my heart and it is this inspiration that will drive me, Amy and Jackie forward as we lay the foundations for Soom Foods.  Our business assumptions drastically changed on this trip but for the better.  We now have a better understanding of the Sesame industry, the people involved, the processes, the culture and the massive opportunity.

We are excited and optimistic that we will introduce quality tehina to the United states consumer market, but it is a long road ahead.

So thank you for your support in this venture, and thank you for your support for our trip.  The toys, candies, medicine, diapers etc… were appreciated in a way I hope you have also experienced.  The smile on the face of a child who just received a pen to use in school is an image that will motivate me to get me up in the morning as I slam off my iPhone alarm.

Here’s to recognizing our blessings…

All my love,
Shelby