Well, I've been here almost two months and things are starting to get more or less comfortable. The first few weeks were pretty grim as I dealt with feelings of isolation and trying to adjust to a completely different world. Just figuring out how to get from point A to point B was a major challenge. I feel like I have gotten to know the physical and political environment from just going about a more or less normal daily routine but it will be good to go home for Christmas in a few weeks.
Things are going well on the project for the Ministry of Finance. Details on the history of the project are available here: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/m-rcbg/ethiopia/ Our primary development focus is to correct some significant design issues with the original implementation.
As a minor example of what a different world this is I present the following anecdote:
This morning I went to a nearby Kaldi's coffeeshop for breakfast. (Kaldi's is the local Starbucks equivalent. Though we should probably say that Starbucks is the US equivalent of Kaldi's since Ethiopia is a major coffee producing region, but, I digress.). Kaldi's sits next to what was once a traffic circle called Sar Bet (or Puskin Square (there was a cute bust of the Russion poet Puskin in the middle of the circle...apparently Pushkin has relatives from Ethiopia)). The "circle" is being turned into essentially a freeway underpass where the north/south road will go under the intersecting east/west roads with double bridges that will form a huge circle above the highway. (We are wondering where the bust of Pushkin will end up.) The whole construction site probably covers twenty acres or more.
Now, in the west, road construction projects spend a fair amount of effort to separate continuing road traffic from the actual construction. Detours and barriers keep the traffic in its place and pedestrians are either moved off somewhere else or are prohibited from entering the area. The memo missed these guys. The construction area is jumble of drainage trenches, concrete forms, concrete trucks, dump trucks, front loaders, work men, supervisors, minivans and buses picking up and dropping off passengers, taxis waiting for fares, cars and SUVs parked at the shopping center next to the intersection, cars and trucks trying to get across the intersection, and people walking across the street or just hanging around. In the middle of the construction mess is a shipping container that has been turned into a fruit and vegetable stand. There is no obvious separation between any of the construction activities and anything else that may be nearby.
While we watched the construction crews load a piece of curb forming equipment on to a flat bed trailer by building a gravel ramp up the back of the trailer with a front loader cars and minivans wound their way between the workers and the equipment. There are no defined "lanes" or obvious places to walk or drive. Cars and trucks trying to get through the intersection go wherever their drivers think they can get through. At one point the front loader moved a few feet and a line of cars appeared heading north down the narrow space where the front loader had been. Most of the road surfaces are dirt and gravel with a few big boulders tossed in to keep things interesting. (When it rains the whole thing turns in to a muddy mess.) So think total chaos.
Things got really weird when a herd of goats wandered through the middle of this mess. (More on the goats later. They deserve an entire email.) The two boys herding the goats just cracked their whips to keep them moving and they wound their way between the cars and trucks like they belonged there. As far as I could tell, they all made it across the intersection on their way to somebody's dinner.
I've decided I'm just a "ferenge" (the Amharic word for "foreigner" and something you hear on the street as you walk by folks) in a strange land so the best thing I can do is to enjoy the show.
Errata: in my last email I was geographically confused: Ethiopia is actually southeast of Sudan and north and west of Somolia.