To walk the streets of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, is an experience like no other. The confluence of sights, smells and sounds produces a rich sensory experience that is best compared to modern jazz. To a westerner, the seemingly disparate elements of people and animals, technology and tradition, and space and proximity, collide in chorus to create a culture that is oddly vibrant and harmonious. It is not unusual to see Coptic and Protestant Christians alike engaged in relaxed and friendly banter despite the din of traffic and the sound of Adhan (Muslim call to prayer) booming from the loud-speakers of a nearby mosque. Modern-looking buses wait patiently in the middle of crowded streets while pairs of pack-laden donkeys (who are convinced they have just as much right to the road as the buses) cross on their own with no owner in sight. Traditionally garbed men and women walk about almost as numerously as the Smartphone-wielding masses. And, as an undercurrent to the rhythm of the city, is the ubiquitous smell of diesel fumes freely interspersed with the smoky aromas of incense which wafts out of coffee houses located everywhere.
Of all that is different here to westerners though, the most foreign is the concept of space and touch. It is more common than not to see adults of the same gender hand-in-hand or with their arms around each other's shoulders walking down the street. This practice knows no bounds. It can be comical to see two young boys - no more than 3 or 4 years old - walking with their arms over each others' shoulders in the middle of an extremely busy walkway deep in conversation and oblivious to the hordes of people forced to step into traffic to get around them. Get on a city bus and you become intimately familiar with how sardines in a can must feel. However, offer your hand to a stranger in greeting and there will be very unpredictable and mixed reactions. The spectrum of responses ranges from head nods, cheek-kissing and the simultaneous "handshake-right shoulder bump" to the offering of just one's limp wrist (I mistakenly and embarrassingly gave the other person a fist-bump the first time this happened). While the former practices are familiar to many, a very common response is the latter. And, this is for good reason. Ethiopia lacked the hand-washing culture of the West for many years and, in some ways, it is still very different. The exchange of bacteria from one person to another could have potentially dire, if not deadly, consequences. But, while the quality of hygiene has improved steadily, the availability of clean, piped water for consumption, hasn't evolved at the same rate. In fact, in many communities in and around Addis Ababa - but especially in rural areas of Ethiopia - turbid, non-potable water is the only water-source. The importance of making clean water available cannot be overstated. Here, a clean glass of water does more than just quench your thirst, it can save your child's life. This is one of the problem-areas that PSI (Product Services International), a non-governmental aid organization (NGO) that operates in roughly 80 countries worldwide, is addressing. PSI/E (PSI in Ethiopia) recently received US$50 million in support towards this goal from USAID, the U.S. Government's official mechanism for country-country aid. It has been tasked with delivering sustainable healthcare to the country's most at-risk populations in critical disease areas while, at the same time, developing the infrastructure to perform this work. Towards its goal of increasing child survival, PSI/E manufactures and distributes two affordable water-purification products (WuhAgar and PUR) throughout the country so that clean, potable water is available especially for children who need it. It uses a social marketing approach to sell these products to area wholesalers and retailers and all revenues are reinvested back into sustaining and expanding the company's operations. As a result of USAID support, PSI/E will be opening 5 other regional offices in strategic areas around the country to improve its efficiency. The purpose of my fellowship is to strengthen their efforts by lending private-sector best practices and technical assistance to their efforts. I would like to invite you all to follow my work over the next four months as I travel in and around the country working on this and other very important endeavors!