The Beauty of Bete Maryam Monastery in Bahir Dar

“Faith is a grand cathedral, with divinely pictured windows -standing without, you can see no glory, nor can imagine any, but standing within every ray of light reveals a harmony of unspeakable splendors”.  – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Lake Tana is bejeweled by over thirty-seven islands scattered about its 3,000 square kilometers (1,860 square miles) of water. Around twenty of these islands are home to Ethiopia’s sacred monasteries some dating back to the 13th century. Inside the monasteries is a wealth of culture, history and art found among the beautifully painted murals on the walls and ceilings, all depicting religious scenes from Biblical times. Stepping inside one of these mystical places is like stepping back in time.

Lake Tana Bahir Dar, Ethiopia

Gliding across Lake Tana in search of hippos and monasteries

“You cannot find peace by avoiding life”. Virginia Woolf

A few hours after my morning encounter with the papyrus boat fisherman and the hippos off the shore of my hotel, it was time to explore the beauty and mysticism of Lake Tana for myself. I convinced a few friends of mine from our reporting trip to join me on a boat tour of Lake Tana in search of hippos and ancient monasteries. 37 islands dot the waters of Lake Tana which are home to over a dozen monasteries dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries. I had heard that the monasteries were magnificent and contained treasure troves of beautiful artwork inside their mysterious doors. The idea of walking inside one of these ancient monasteries piqued my curiosity and imagination.

Given Lake Tana’s enormous size (over 3,500 square kilometers ), there was no way we could possibly see everything in one afternoon. We opted for a three-hour tour with the goal of visiting 3-4 monasteries and driving out to the source of the Blue Nile in search of hippos. Our boat left directly from our hotel off into the calm, milky brown waters of Lake Tana.

Avant Hotel Lake Tana Ethiopia

Nature surrounds us at Avanti Hotel where we see hippos and tons of birdlife.

Lake Tana Ethiopia

Lake Tana: Battle of the Hippos and Papyrus Boats

In the Amhara region of northwestern Ethiopia lies Lake Tana, the largest lake in Ethiopia and the source of the Blue Nile. Flowing over 1,500 kilometers, snaking through Sudan, the Blue Nile joins the White Nile and is one of the world’s longest riverways. Lake Tana is a mystical place where time and history run deep. Nothing on that lake is more sacred than its flotilla of papyrus boats gliding across its waters like the wind.

Lake Tana Ethiopia

I had read about the papyrus boat fisherman in Selamta the in-flight magazine of Ethiopian Airlines. The article “Papyrus and Lake Tana” captivated my imagination of this mystical land and inspired me to get out of bed at the crack of dawn despite my jet lag and fatigue.

I rose at dawn to the muezzin call to prayer reflecting off the shores of Lake Tana. Although it was almost pitch black, I jumped out of bed in excitement knowing that the early morning hours of daylight was when the fisherman set off on their papyrus boats just like they have been doing for centuries. If I moved quickly, I’d be able to catch the thousands of traditional fishermen heading out across the mystical glossy still water of Lake Tana.

As much as I craved my morning cup of coffee, there was no time to waste because there in the distance I saw him. Like one of hundreds, the fisherman was heading out across the murky blue-brown waters of Lake Tana to start his day.

Lake Tana Ethiopia

An Escape to Bahir Dar

Our first trip outside of Addis Ababa was to Bahir Dar in Northern Ethiopia. I rose early to catch our short one hour flight and could hardly contain my excitement at finally being able to see the Ethiopian countryside. I had many pictures in my head of what I imagined it would be like and I was in no way disappointed.

I had been in the thick of the chaos and crazed life of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital for four full days when it was time to head out and see the more rural parts of the country, where over 85% of Ethiopia’s population of 90 million live.

Bahir Dar

Landing in Bahir Dar over spectacular Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake, is a site to see. Unfortunately I was a little too late with my camera but still got some of the beautiful, green countryside.

Northern Ethiopia has a wow factor that cannot be denied. Known as the Historical Circuit, this region has bragging rights to over two millennia of ancient history ranging from the world-famous tombs of Aksum, to the captivating castles of Gonder and the jaw-dropping Danakil Depression whose lava lake and plains is a must-see for adventure travelers.

Marie Stopes Addis Ababa

Maternal Health: The Forgotten Millennium Development Goal

This past June, I visited Ethiopia as a fellow with the International Reporting Project with the primary goal of examining the impact of Ethiopia’s success at achieving Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 4  – reducing child under age five deaths by two-thirds – well before the 2015 MDG deadline.  Granted it is a stunning achievement that has put the spotlight on Ethiopia, it can also be argued that Ethiopia as well as many other countries around the world are failing to reach critical milestones for other MDGs such as maternal health.  MDG 5 – to reduce maternal deaths by 75% and achieve universal access to reproductive health – is trailing way behind the other goals coming in near the bottom.

According to a recent article published in The Lancet*, only 16 countries out of the 189 United Nations member states who committed to the goals are expected to meet MDG 5 by 2015. The consequences of this are devastating to women and their families.

The tragic facts about maternal deaths 

  • Every day, 800 women die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth.
  • When a mother dies, the risk of death for her children under the age of five increases by 50%.
  • The number one killer of 15-19 year old girls worldwide is pregnancy and childbirth. Every year, 70,000 young women die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth – over 70% of these deaths are preventable.

Access to universal reproductive health, the other piece of MDG 5, is also lagging behind. There are millions of women, mostly poor and rural, who have no access to family planning and are unable to space or plan their children. Furthermore, this year alone it is estimated that nearly 22 million unsafe abortions will take place around the world resulting in millions of preventable maternal deaths and longterm disabilities.

SOS Children Ethiopia

Ethiopia, the second most populous country in Africa, is one of the five most dangerous places to be a mother in the world. One in 27 women die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth (25,000 annually) in Ethiopia.

With a population of 90 million, it is estimated that anywhere from 80-90 percent of mothers give birth at home with no trained assistant. In rural areas, where over 85% of the population live, it is even worse. Only an estimated 5% of mothers give birth in a health center with a trained delivery assistant. The chart below illustrates where Ethiopia falls compared with her neighbors:

Marie Stopes International Ethiopia

How Ethiopia fares compared with her neighbors. Source: Marie Stopes International

This means that Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate is estimated at 420 per 100,000 live births (2013 WHO/UNFPA) which lumps Ethiopia along with India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria, as the top five highest maternal mortality rates in the world. As the population continues to boom in Ethiopia, it is critical that improvements are made to women’s access to family planning, safe abortions and labor and delivery care which would significantly reduce the number of women dying and having serious injuries during childbirth.

Marie Stopes International

The alarmingly high ratios of health care professionals per patients is another factor in high maternal mortality rates in Ethiopia. It is estimated that only 34% of women have received prenatal care and 57% of women have received no pre or postnatal care during pregnancy. Source: Marie Stopes Ethiopia.

Seeing a huge, unmet need for family planning and reproductive services, Marie Stopes International begin working in Ethiopia in 1990. Marie Stopes International works to provide sexual and reproductive healthcare to millions of underserved women around the world and has been delivering family planning, safe abortion, and maternal health services to the world’s poorest and most vulnerable women for over 35 years.

“Women are dying because of lack of services and information. Having better access to family planning helps improve the lives of women and their families”.

– Marie Stopes Ethiopia Director Abeba Shibeau

Marie Stopes works in seven administrative states in Ethiopia, and runs a three-tier level of service throughout the country through Marie Stopes clinics, Blue Star franchises (600 Blue Star clinics in Ethiopia) and a call center that works nationwide. Before Marie Stopes entered Ethiopia, only 13% of the private sector clinics provided services in family planning yet the demand for contraceptives to space and limit children was and remains high. Only 29% of married women in Ethiopia are actively using contraceptives (Marie Stopes, Ethiopia) and an enormous unmet need exists for family planning.

Marie Stopes has filled this need by providing a call center and clinics that offer education, information and low-cost contraceptive options, pre and post natal care, HIV/AIDS prevention, diagnosis and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and safe abortion when permitted, to woman and their families.

Addis Ababa

Expectant mothers checking in at a Marie Stopes Clinic in Addis Ababa.

 “Ethiopia is a much better place to be a mother today than when my mother gave birth”.

– Nurse Shewaye, the Central Area Manager for all Marie Stopes Clinics in Addis Ababa.

Marie Stopes Addis Ababa

An expectant mother relaxes a bit at a Marie Stopes clinic with her husband and son.

Another area that is helping save lives of women in Ethiopia and around the world is the provision of safe abortions.

Worldwide, one woman dies every 11 minutes from an unsafe abortion. Yet providing access to reproductive healthcare is one of the simplest and cheapest ways to save women’s lives. The World Health Organization (WHO), estimates that 5.5 million African women have an unsafe abortion every year. As many as 36,000 of these women die from the procedure, while millions more experience short- or long- term illness and disability. (Source: Guttmacher Institute)

Marie Stopes International

Infographic on the impact of unsafe abortions. Source: Marie Stopes International

In 2005, Ethiopia expanded its abortion law making abortion legal for cases of rape, incest, fetal impairment, and if the pregnancy or delivery endangers a woman’s life. A woman may also legally terminate a pregnancy if she is a minor or physically or mentally unable to raise a child. Despite the changes in the law, almost 6 in 10 abortions in Ethiopia are unsafe causing 13% of all maternal deaths. 

Marie Stopes

A woman entering a place to have an unsafe abortion in Ethiopia. Source: Marie Stopes.

Progress has been made yet continued expansion of affordable and accessible family planning and reproductive services is critically needed especially for rural women who represent 82% of all women of reproductive age in Ethiopia.

There are many reasons for pursuing an unsafe abortion however most of the time it is due to the false belief that it is the cheapest method while in fact many of these underground illegal abortions cost more than a safe one.

Furthermore, religion, fear and cultural issues are other reasons why women especially young and rural ones, will pursue an unsafe abortion and risk their lives.


The Make Women Matter Campaign

As the deadline for the Millennium Development Goals draws to a close, Marie Stopes International has launched a new campaign called Make Women Matter. The goal of the campaign is to ensure that maternal mortality remains at the top of the world agenda for future development goals. It also calls for achieving women’s rights and empowerment, universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and ending unsafe abortion.

World leaders will be meeting in New York this September during UN Week to discuss the future of MDGs. To ensure that maternal health gets the critical attention it deserves, please spread the word by sharing this post. You can also personally make a difference by signing Marie Stopes petition at by clicking here.


Newborn Ethiopia

Newborn baby in Hawassa, one of 10-20% of Ethiopia’s 3 million children born in a health facility.

I was in Ethiopia in June as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project. To see all my stories from the trip, click here


Material in this post was provided by Marie Stopes in Ethiopia and the UK. To learn more about Marie Stopes International, please visit their webpage here.  #makewomenmatter

USAID, Achieving the MDGs: The Contribution of fulfilling the unmet need for family planning, Washington DC: Futures Group International, 2006.

*The Lancet: Global, regional, and national levels and causes of maternal mortality during 1990—2013: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013

Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Health, Technical and Procedural Guidelines for Safe Abortion Services (2006)

Guttmacher Institute Ethiopia brief

The Millennium Development Goals Report 2014 – UN





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St. George Cathedral Addis Ababa Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s Enchanting St. George Cathedral

Tucked away in the heart of the Piazza, the old Italian district of Addis Ababa, lies the enchanting St. George Cathedral, one of Addis’ most beloved treasures. The St. George Cathedral was commissioned by Emperor Menelik II to commemorate his extraordinary defeat of the Italians who fought to take over Ethiopia in 1896. The victory marked a huge success for Ethiopia. The nation was able to retain their sovereignty and today remains one of the few countries in Africa that has never been colonized.

The church was designed by Greek, Armenian and Indian artists and completed in 1911 named in the honor of St. George, the patron saint of Ethiopia, whose relic was actually carried in the 1896 battle against the Italians in Adwa.

Today, St. George cathedral and its museum are important places for Orthodox Christians and tourists alike to visit. While the outside of the cathedral is rather striking in its neoclassical, octagon-shaped structure, the inside is a true delight of brilliant stained-glass windows, colorful religious paintings and carpets. The museum next door holds some of the ancient relics of the church where the Empress Zewditu and Emperor Haile Selaisse were crowned.

St. George Cathedral Addis Ababa Ethiopia

The glorious St. George cathedral’s neoclassical design is shaped in an octagon that covers the grounds.

St. George Cathedral Addis Ababa Ethiopia

SOS Children Ethiopia

SOS Children: Providing Ethiopia’s orphans the home they need

“A Loving Home for Every Child” – Motto written on a sign at the entrance of a SOS Children’s Village in Ethiopia.

SOS Children Ethiopia

A SOS Mother with one of her daughters.

One of the most heartwarming afternoons during my two-week trip to Ethiopia as a fellow for the International Reporting Project was spent visiting a SOS Children’s Village. SOS Children is an independent, non-governmental international development organization that provides loving homes for abandoned and orphaned children in 133 countries for almost 82,100 children. It was founded in 1949 by Austrian Hermann Gmeiner with the first SOS Children’s Village built in Imst, Austria as a home for children orphaned by World War II.

Today, SOS Children works to provide abandoned, destitute and orphaned children with a  loving, family based home. Every child in a SOS Village belongs to a family and is provided with a SOS Mother and “siblings” who are the other SOS Children living under the same roof. This allows the children to grow up in a family being loved and feeling secure. Within each village, there are up to fifteen families living together in a community and each family has up to ten children per house. It is a wonderful model and has had a huge impact on the children’s lives and futures.

SOS Children started working in Ethiopia in 1974 with the opening of the first village in Mekelle and over the years it has added six other villages caring for 1,645 children in SOS families. SOS Children’s education and training program unit has also benefited over 3,400 children and youth as well as children coming from the neighboring communities who are in need of services.

SOS Children Ethiopia

A child watches me curiously within one of SOS Ethiopia’s villages.

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Addis Ababa

Uncovering Addis

Addis Ababa, which translates into “new flower”, was named by the wife of Emperor Menelik II in 1886 when she saw it looking down from Mount Entoto, the Emperor’s military base. Today, Africa’s highest capital at 7,546 feet (2,300 metres) is a chaotic, bustling city of around 3 million people.

Known as the political capital of Africa, housing the African Union, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) and numerous other African and international organizations, Addis is in the midst of change. Everywhere you turn, there are buildings going up and new roads being built thanks to the Chinese and other foreign investors. A pell mell of slums, notoriously rundown, dirty and overcrowded weave in and out the city even up against some of the newest luxury hotels, buildings and homes.

Addis Ababa

View of Addis Ababa

Addis Ababa

Addis flower

Ethiopian mothers

Saving Ethiopia’s Mothers and Children: The Fight Continues

“If she wasn’t bleeding, she would have suffered like I did and delivered at home,” said Fasika’s* mother Menesch at a Lie and Wait center for expectant mothers in rural Ethiopia.

Menesch was inside the room with her expecting daughter Fasika while nursing her three-month-old daughter on a chair. It was Menesch’s eighth child who, like all the rest, she delivered at home with no trained labor assistant.

Ethiopian mother

Menesch cradling her with-child in her lap at the Lie and Wait house in rural Ethiopia.

Fasika was a mere 15 years old with baby fat still surrounding her cheeks and a shy smile that often looked down at her largely pregnant belly. Meeting Fasika and her mother on the last day of my trip was the defining moment of my two weeks of reporting on maternal and newborn health in Ethiopia.

Africa Ethiopia Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls
Faces of Ethiopia

The Faces of Ethiopia: A Photoblog

Ethiopia, a magical land of over 90 million people, is one of the most diverse nations in the world with over 83 distinct languages and 200 dialects. What stunned me the most about Ethiopians is how such a diverse group of people live in peace and harmony. Over half the population is Orthodox Christian and the next largest religious group is Muslims making up around 45% of the population. Despite their different religious beliefs, Muslims and Christians live side by side and oftentimes there can be a mixture of religions within families due to marriage. The main eight ethnic groups also live together peacefully which says a lot about this poverty-stricken nation in the heart of Africa.

While I was in Ethiopia these past two weeks, Oxford University released The Global Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI), ranking Ethiopia as the second poorest country in the world just ahead of Niger. The report claims that although Ethiopia has made some progress, Ethiopia is still home to more than 76 million poor people, the fifth largest number in the world after India, China, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The report also claims that the highest percentage of poor live within the rural areas which is no surprise given the fact that over 85% of Ethiopians earn a living off the land.

Despite the often heartbreaking, overwhelming poverty of the Ethiopian people, the one thing they all seemed to have in common is resilience and resolve with their place in this world. I had never seen so many genuine, welcoming smiles upon their faces despite the hardships they face. I was always greeted with curiosity, warmth and kindness by the Ethiopians I met. Here are some of my favorite faces of Ethiopia.

Faces of Ethiopia

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Women vendors along the streets of Addis Ababa.

First Impressions of Ethiopia

I arrived early Sunday morning into Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, after a long haul flight from home. My day began Saturday at 3 am and after two fights totaling 16 hours I found myself in Africa’s highest capital Addis Ababa which translates into “new flower”.

Street shots of Addis Ababa

Street shots of Addis Ababa

The earliest people living in the Shewa region surrounding Addis Ababa date back to the 9th century and are believed to be the Gurage people. Over the centuries the Somalis and Abyssinian kingdoms laid claim to the land, followed by the arrival of the Oromo in the 1500s. The actual city of Addis Ababa was not founded until 1886 when Emperor Menelik II decided to move his military base from Mount Entoto to the vast fertile plains below of Addis Ababa.

Today, Addis Ababa is Ethiopia’s largest city with an estimated population of over 3 million people and is a magical place where tradition and modernity are intertwined in unexpected ways. Walking down the busy streets of Addis Ababa you can see high rises and western hotels reaching towards the sky juxtaposed with dirt sidewalks, donkeys leaving the market and undeveloped slums. It is a place filled with contradiction. Looking outside the window of my newly built luxurious western hotel lies one of many slums slightly hidden behind corrugated tin fences and walls. Men in well-tailored suits sit outside in a chairs along dirt sidewalks getting a shoe shine. High rise buildings are going up alongside a pell-mell of depressing slums. Everywhere you look is something that makes you scratch your head and wonder.

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I’m Heading to Ethiopia as an International Reporting Fellow

I have very exciting news! I am honored to announce that I will be one of nine new media journalists heading with The International Reporting Project to Ethiopia in June to report on newborn health. The announcement was made yesterday and I can hardly wait to start researching and learning all I can about Ethiopia.

Africa Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Ethiopia Global Health Global Issues SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls