There was no getting around it: the UNM Physical Therapy Division’s Study Abroad Program had become a victim of its own success. Our annual service-learning trip to Guatemala was so popular that there were more students interested than slots available (and, the language barrier intimidated some students).
I started looking for an English-speaking country that could use our help and soon came up with the perfect fit: Ethiopia. So off I went on a three-week exploratory trip in March and April of 2017.
My perception of Ethiopia had been shaped by the country's terrible famine in the 1980s, but in truth I really didn’t know what to expect. As my plane approached Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital and largest city, I was struck by how green and mountainous the landscape was.
Sitting at 8,300 feet above sea level, Addis is a contrast in urban development and abject poverty. You can drive by sleek, modern high rises, take a couple of turns and suddenly find yourself lurching down a pot-holed road lined with ramshackle corrugated aluminum huts.
People were friendly and gregarious. They greeted me not with skepticism – as I have encountered in so many other countries – but with curiosity and acceptance.
Ethiopians are proud of their country, and are quick to share that it is the only African nation never colonized by Europeans. More than a bit of trivia, it helps explain the uniqueness of the culture and languages – more than 80 of them (fortunately for me, most educated Ethiopians speak English well).
The cuisine is also unique. I was there during Easter, when many Ethiopians avoid eating meat, and various versions of their national dish, injera, were served for both lunch and dinner. Injera consists of a spongy fermented pancake made of teff, the local grain, covered by wot, a stew of seasoned potatoes, chickpeas, lentils and beans. One of the local seasonings, shira, is like no other taste I have ever encountered.
Ethiopia is not entirely free of European influence, however. The Italians occupied Ethiopia during World War II, and a few still reside in Addis. I must admit that after days of dining on injera, I sought out some of the many local Italian restaurants.
Ethiopians practice several different religions. Orthodox Christianity is the most common, followed by Islam. I was struck by the peaceful coexistence between the religious groups. When I asked locals about this, I got puzzled looks. “Everyone here is religious, therefore we all get along,” one responded, as the others nodded in agreement.
Ethiopia is a country of contrasts, from the relatively modern medical center and teaching hospital where I taught, to rural villages made up of clusters of small mud- and grass-thatched huts.
Teaching classes in the transitional doctoral PT program at Addis Ababa University, I was impressed by my students, all of whom were completing their final year of their transitional DPTs. They were eager to learn and took great care in preparing the differential diagnosis and evidence-based case studies they were assigned.
Soon, many of these 17 students will become instructors in the university’s newly developed PT program. Ethiopians learn English from an early age, and all of their university classes are taught in English.
In addition to teaching, I wanted to create a learning experience for UNM PT students that includes clinical work, humanitarian service and shared classwork with their Ethiopian counterparts.
I encountered various stakeholders in Addis, starting with the PT program director at Addis University. Then I visited with clinical supervisors at several local hospitals, including Black Lion Hospital, the 900-bed teaching hospital in Addis, and Yekatit 12 Hospital, the local burn center.
I also met with the folks at the Mother and Child Rehabilitation Center, which offers pediatric PT services, and worked at Missionaries of Charity, a Catholic orphanage founded by Mother Teresa that includes some “PT” performed by well-meaning volunteers with informal PT training.
On trips to the countryside, I visited a small town to the southeast called Bishoftu, which is surrounded by a series of crater lakes. I also toured the Oromia region in the northwest, which is famous for its biodiversity, including an impressive showing of birds and the gelada monkey, an endemic species that has the distinction of being the only grass-eating primate in the world.
I plan to return to Ethiopia with four students this spring. They will divide their time between the clinic and classroom and practice PT in various settings. They’ll also participate in journal clubs and develop case studies with Ethiopian PT students.
UNM’s PT program has made a strong commitment to service learning in the U.S. and abroad. If we’re successful, we will be able to offer both the Guatemalan and the Ethiopian options to our students for many years to come.
Burke Gurney, PT, PhD, is director of the Division of Physical Therapy in the UNM School of Medicine.