Volunteering in Abobo: a story of relationships built brick-by-brick

Marcella came back home two months ago, after a one-month volunteering experience in Abobo, Ethiopia. Abobo, one of the biggest towns in the Gambela region, is the location of a project started by the Salesian association “Gli amici del Sidamo”: initially focused on the health centre, in recent years they worked to develop the school and the oratory as well. Indeed, she spent her time working with the children and the young teachers of the school and the oratory.

  1. When did you decide to leave to Ethiopia?

I think I’ve ever known I’d have gone there, since I was a child. It took me some years before having the borders of this blurred project well-defined, but finally it took me there. However, it’s only few years since I knew about this specific association, via a friend of mine. I started taking part to occasional initiatives organised by the association, while continuing my daily life as a student, a Scout (I’ve been a scoutmaster for some years) and an educator in my oratory.

Then, why this choice? Within the association there’s a sense of community spirit, it’s a place to feel part, where to share experiences and values: here’s why I chose it. Yes, it was a choice: I had to give up on some other activities – still valuable to me – in order to follow the formative path prior to the leaving, which gave me the chance to get to know the other first-time volunteers, hear the members’ stories, and, even more, sense on their skin the experiences they had lived.

In the end, I fully realized it was my turn. I wanted to devote more time to the association, and I was aware of this: I felt ready to leave and I had to focus on my formation, after which we would be assigned to the most appropriate place.

  1. Did you have any doubt before your decision?

Zero doubts. It was more a call than a rational decision: I have been called there for years, the chance to go there finally arrived.

  1. You said “call”: what did you feel called to?

It’s difficult to define it, I can say that when you realize how much you have been receiving in your life, you can’t keep it for yourself. I heard a call to share it, as if it was the ultimate meaning of my life.

  1. Do you think you succeeded in giving it back?

I think there is no proper moment when you completely “give something back”, it’s an open-ended story: I can’t know when I succeeded, but I can think of a moment when a first brick was posed. The first time Ojulu, the 16-year-old teacher I flanked at school, and I could teach a successful class together, by playing a game with the children in order to teach colours and geometrical forms… in that moment maybe I realized that an exchange was happening: on both sides we were giving something to the other, there was a reason why I was exactly there, exactly that day.

  1. Tell me a typical weekday in Abobo.

In the morning, we supported the three young teachers – Ranyo, Ojulu and Awina – at school: the children, aged from 6 to 12 more or less, are taught English, Maths and sometimes anuyak, too (the main language spoken in the Gambela region). You can imagine the pupils’ educational level, many of them aren’t able to write or to read.

In the afternoon, instead, most of the time is spent playing at the oratory, except for a small amount of time devoted to catechism, when they use to learn the main prayers in anuyak.

  1. What was your relationship with the guys like?

During the week, we spent most of our free time with Ranyo, Awina, Ojulu and Jwokber, another young guy who often helped us at school. At the week-ends, we visited the market and the villages near Abobo. We even took part in the Youth Festival in Gambela, the biggest town of the region, where we attended a seminar: although their native language was anuyak, everyone spoke to us in English, in order to share their thoughts and experiences with us. It was wonderful, a pure blessing. It was as if we had ever known, as if we were spending time with lifetime friends. We got to know a lot of people, and everyone was really kind with us. I remember one of them in particular, Zacharia, who received us in the most generous way: he kept smiling and saying “”, which means “no problem” in amaric.

  1. So, a fair relationship with them. And what about the other people you met during your month there? Children? Families? Other volunteers? How were you seen by the “hosts”?

Yes, there were many other people, with very different approaches to our presence, which was perceived, most of the time at least, as something “strange”. Outside the compound, young women have hardly ever greeted us, they stared at us revealing their curiosity, but they spoke to us much less than young men. With the children it was something else: we had been told that anuyak people are not so exuberant, and actually we found out it was true! It took us some time before being able to create a channel of mutual understanding with the children – they don’t speak English – but I think it was reached in the end. We couldn’t have a proper conversation, but we could play together, smile and laugh together, simply stay together. Something unbelievably beautiful, really.

What I remember as a less good moment is, instead, when a group of teenagers, they must have been around 13, started teasing us while we were walking: as if, with their jokes half in English-half in anuyak, they were asking us “What are you doing here? Who did invite you here?”, and I found myself asking the same question. You know from the beginning that they’ll probably think something of the sort, and you know that they are right, but when this actually happens, that’s different. It struck me in a way which is difficult to explain.

  1. What did you take home from Abobo?

I had very little time there, one month is hardly enough to have the flavour of the experience, to grasp something of the life there and the way you can be a small part of it. Honestly, I think it’s a good thing to bump into the time dimension the first time you go there. Because after a month you are back in Italy and you have to understand what this month means to you. It helps you realize that you are not almighty and you can just be there and create personal bonds. It’s a matter of building something together, brick by brick. Then, the end is not in your flying back, there’s much more you can do at home “the day after”. What I think I’ll do differently now, “the day after”, is giving relationships more care and time: I used to fill time with moments, now I want to fill moments (and relations) with time.

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