The International Development Studies Alumni Association of Utrecht University

Stories from the field

Experiences and perspectives on development

In her latest blog, Hannah discusses cultural perspectives, moving beyond surface interactions, and sharing in Ethiopia.

Hannah Haaij: Finding balance

I have been working for two years in Ethiopia now, and six months in my current position and company. Being the only foreigner except for the manager, working solely with (young) Ethiopian professionals, my start did not go unnoticed. Now I can say the whiteness has worn off. I am just Hannah, one of the team, no longer primarily the foreigner. This makes for very relaxed working conditions, although I still observe the extra care my colleagues take for my well-being: I never get the glass with a crack, I find my car washed, I get immediate help when I fuss with the broken copy machine.

Mixing business with pleasure

In the Netherlands it is common to talk about personal issues at work; colleagues easily become personally connected and also build up friendships. Even though I started my job six months ago, I have not yet gotten to know my colleagues better. But I might never will. After living for three years in Ethiopia I have come to learn that Ethiopians share a lot, and yet not that much.

What I mean with sharing a lot is their immense hospitality. When visiting people, a cooked meal is placed in front of you within no time while fresh roasted coffee is being brewed. When it’s running late you are supposed to spend the night - no question about that. If you come across someone who is eating - this can be a shop keeper having his lunch - you are immediately invited to join the meal, whether it is a single banana or a whole plate of spaghetti. And this is not just out of courtesy - it is well meant.

Ethiopian hospitality has given me a great sense of inclusiveness. Yet I’ve started to wonder, what do I really know about all of those people who have invited me? We chitchat about the weather, their children and how oil and flour have become expensive. But I don’t know who they are, what makes them happy, what worries them. What do they want to achieve in life? Again in my current job I feel that my introduction to colleagues didn’t get much beyond knowing their names. Occasionally I did find the chance to talk on a more personal level, and what I learn is often quite surprising to me. The following are just two random examples:

The production manager’s wife is six months pregnant with their first child. That just slipped his tongue - we were talking about yoga when he said they are doing pregnancy-yoga. He asked me not to tell anyone as none of the other colleagues know about it and he wanted to keep his private life and work separated.

Another colleague, the technician, lives with his two children in his parents’ house. He hasn’t seen his wife, who lives in Dubai, for six years. As she resigned before the end of her contract, her former boss never returned her passport. The Ethiopian embassy will not give her a new passport unless she provides an ‘envelope of happiness’ to the administrators. (Apparently happiness is valued at 10,000 US dollars). Since she doesn’t have that envelope, she is simply stuck there.

Friends, friendship and foreigness

I’ve been wondering why many of the Ethiopians that I’ve met do not share personal details. To keep private life and work separated, yes that’s understandable for colleagues. But I also feel that friends keep their guard up. When I subtly asked our 70 year-old landlord about the time of the Red Terror in the 1970s, when general Mengistu’s forces were brutally slaying the White Terror opposition in Addis Ababa, he quickly said “such dark times are to forget, not to remember.” As most of the stories that I do hear are far from sunshine&happiness I’m bound to think that people - friends included - prefer chitchat as it is so much more bearable than the reality covered by it. It is an escape of the worries and harshness that strikes every family in this poverty stricken country. Who am I to stir up emotions about situations so difficult I most likely cannot even presume, just to quell my curiosity?

Although I first thought that me being a foreigner is the reason for this ‘not sharing,’ I have also learned that even good friends here don’t share everything amongst each other. When I asked a friend of mine about his best friend’s family, he didn’t know much about it, and only replied “I think he only has his mother and a brother.” For me it was so surprising that he did not know that; I practically know everything about the childhood of my best friends. (One of my observations on the Netherlands: we discuss everything and talking about emotions is like therapy - but that's another blog).

Finding balance

So here I try to find a balance between my Dutch openness - bluntly asking people what I’d like to know - and keeping people comfortable with whatever they want to share. Sometimes I think I better stick with ‘ain’t it sunny today?’ But I hope to eventually win the hearts of some friends here to get to a deeper level of personal conversation!

The current batch of IDS students is in the field testing their ideas and theories against everyday development practice. In the following stories, Vera Geling describes how her Ghana experience gives her a renewed faith in Fair Trade, and Ruud Bosch shares with us the culture shock he experienced in Kenya when abstract ideas suddenly became profoundly human.

Vera Geling: What is Fair Trade worth?

For three months of research, I have swapped my comfortable life in Utrecht for a more basic way of life in rural Ghana where Iam doing a research internship for Soldaridad. With a background in anthropology, I am interested in people and their stories. For this research I am focusing on the people working with small-scale, artisanal palm oil mills. Even though these old-fashioned mills only have a low capacity for oil production, they do produce the majority of the oil for the West-African market. The mills are old, as are the techniques, and Solidaridad has asked me to find out how the people working at the mill, mostly women, can encourage their mill owner to invest in improved equipment to make their work more profitable and less exhausting. As I grew up in several West-African countries, this is a little home coming for me. So no culture shock involved, only recognition - of food and smells for the most part - and happy childhood memories.

Mr. Mac and the Development Fund

During my first few weeks in Kade, a very helpful mill engineer working for Solidaridad, Mr. Mac, took the time to drive me around and show me all sorts of palm oil mills in the area. The Eastern Region is the hotspot for palm oil in Ghana, and it is the region where the first artisanal mill was set up more than 40 years ago with a process still used today. Palm oil is used in many products; in West-Africa it is widely used as cooking oil (to make delicious orko stew, or palm nut soup - let me know if you are interested in the recipe), but it is even more popular on the international market where the oil is used for soaps, creams, and soup among others. While I try to understand the people who process palm oil fruits into oil, Mr. Mac introduces me to the technical aspects of the milling process. I have seen all sorts of mills - from small-scale to industrial scale, and from organized to totally non-organized.

From the moment I meet Mr. Mac, he tells me he wants to show me one particular mill, named Serendipalm. With a large soap producer in the United States as their main sponsor and buyer of their oil, and with a growing demand from other companies in Europe, Serendipalm is a very organized and well-managed mill (in contrast to all other artisanal mills I have seen so far) where they process Fair Trade and organic palm fruits sourced from their farmers into oil. This mill is not set up to make large profits for the mother company; it is more of a development project for the people in the region.

Nowadays, you can buy a Fair Trade or organic version of almost all products in the supermarket - from chocolate to bananas and from honey to soap. Even though I have known the concept of Fair Trade, and have always supported it where possible, I had never realized what it actually means in practice. What buying that more expensive bar of chocolate can mean for people elsewhere in the world.

When I arrive at the Serendipalm mill, I see many women sitting happily around a large pile of palm fruits still in their bunches. The women are picking the fruits out of the bunch and throwing them into a large bucket, ready to be used in the next step in the milling process. It is just past noon, and the workers have just started working again after their break and the free lunch they receive from the mill. Some of the women look up from their work and greet me with “Obroni, ètesèn?” or “Hey you white one, how are you?” I kindly answer that I am doing fine. They often see white people visiting their mill, as they set such a good example and everybody seems interested.

The mill is managed by local people, and the assistant manager, Daniel, is happy to show me around. Everywhere I look I see very American (sorry) safety warnings: what to do in case of fire, where to go in case of an emergency or which bell to ring when there is something wrong. The whole compound is made out of concrete and looks impeccable, as if they knew I was coming and wanted it to look decent. But this is the normal state of the mill I guess, as nobody announced my visit beforehand.

My interpreter, Mercy, is also very impressed. Her grandfather also owns a mill but one that is more traditional, so to speak. She has always told me that she did not want to work at a mill; it is too dirty, there is not enough money to earn, no future, but as she looks at me, she says that she would even consider working here. “The people look so happy, and they look well cared for,” she explains with a look of surprise on her face.


As we walk along, Daniel describes the benefits for the people working here, for he farmers providing the fruits, and the villages in the area. The workers at the mill receive social security and pensions, the farmers receive high prices for the Fair Trade fruits, and the company provides school supplies for the schools and also dug bore holes for water). As I listen, I get a renewed faith in Fair Trade. There where I see with my own eyes what Fair Trade products can mean to a local community, I understand that Fair Trade is so much more than only a label on my chocolate bar, banana or soap. It is an easy way to support a local community and enhance their way of life, just by buying the products you would buy anyway.


When we leave the site again to visit the next mill, Mr. Mac looks at me and sees my impressed face and says smiling; “It might be more useful to send your money to this organic soap than into a large development fund, right?!”


Oh, and in case you are interested in the milling process and the Serendipalm mill, take a look at the video below created by Dr. Bronners - the American mother company of Serendipalm.  

Ruud Bosch: The humanizing effect

We’ve all walked around for two months with nothing but the internships on our minds. And during this time I accidently, unknowingly, painted a pretty precise picture of my smallholder farmers. Characteristics, actions, outcome determinants. That was all I needed to test interesting theories, on the basis of which I’d write my thesis. Time would have to tell if I could gather enough data to make this master’s piece into a masterpiece. Little did I know back then, that I was dehumanising my topic. I almost forgot that I was dealing with actual people.

Then I took a plane to Kenya, and everything was completely different. It was like walking into a glass window so clean, that it looks like an open door. You never expect a thing, until it hits you full in the face. All these people, with each their opinion of the world, of their surroundings, and even of me. These people do not exist solely within my mind or in the confines of my representation of Kenya, which I so carefully constructed on the basis of a literature study. Each of their lives is just as big and all-encompassing as my own. Within the big scheme of things in Kenya, I’m a rather non-significant factor.

What comes to mind is my first day with glasses. When I looked at trees and grass fields at a distance, for the first time I saw leaves and straws instead of just green blurs. I saw objects so familiar, yet so different, that it was like seeing them for the first time. The same thing happened here in Kenya. It took a day or two to adjust to this new reality, I’ll admit. But now that I have, it’s nothing short of amazing.

The case of the Boda Boda livelihood
Following a quick visit to see the sun set in a nearby tropical rainforest, I had to return home on the back of a Boda Boda [paid motorbike mode of transportation, typical for Eastern Africa]. Since the sun had set, it was pitch black and the awful dirt road ahead of us was about ten kilometres long. Though I was a bit scared to start this endeavour, after ten minutes I realized that the driver was much tenser than I was. I tried talking to him in Swahili, but he barely responded. That is out of character. Every non-drunk Kenyan lights up if a mzungu white-guy speaks to him in his Lingua Franca. And judging by his steady driving, he didn’t seem drunk, so I pushed the subject.

After some active probing [thanks for that, AM&T] I found out that the guy was seriously afraid to damage his motorcycle. That we ourselves could be damaged was of no concern. This made me realize just how important this bike was to this man. Sure, the motorbike was important capital within Sen’s livelihoods framework. But more than that, the bike was his everything. He lived by the bike. He lived for the bike. And, he lived because of the bike. The sheer importance of the motorcycle struck me. This doesn’t make the theoretical framework any less true or useful. It’s just a lesson for me personally that I’ve been too occupied with the theoretical conceptualization of things. The scientific simplification of reality and harsh reality itself are two sides of the same coin. And it’s difficult to get the full picture without one or the other.

A bird, a cage, or a bird in a cage?
This line of thought reminded me of a toy I used to love when I was young. It consists of a cardboard circle with a bird on one side, and a cage on the other. By winding up a cord that’s attached to both sides of the circle you can make it spin. If it spins fast enough you will see both images at the same time, ending up with a bird in a cage. It used to be a guaranteed mindblower for the younger me. All this time I was focused on the cage, the structural forces and models that confine human action. So long even, that I almost forgot about the bird. These birds are swarming around me now, busy with their own motives, drivers, and choices. And I’m right in the middle of it, up to my neck in a completely different world.

A humanising experience
In short, that’s what’s happening here at the moment. I’m rapidly humanising the view I had of Kenya and development issues in a broader sense. I’m dipping everything I have learned at IDS in a sauce of Kenyan daily life. Also, as you’ve probably noticed by the annoying overload of analogies and nostalgias in this piece, there’s plenty of opportunity to reflect on my positionality. Hopefully this will give some depth to my research efforts. More importantly, it could give some depth to my personality. At the very least, I know that this internship experience will stick with me for a long time to come.

How can I be so sure?

I once actually hit a glass door head-on, at full speed, in Greece. Now, years later, whenever I walk through an open door that doesn’t feel right, I uncontrollably extend my leg out first. These are the sort of experiences that make a lasting impression.

Recent graduates know all about the trials and tribulations of LAS, or Life After Study. In our next installment of Stories From the Field, IDS alum Hannah Haaij writes about her job-seeking experiences in the world of development. Scroll down further to read her first post about living and working in Ethiopia.

Hannah's found a job!
A new job?!

Reading my previous blogs I see some of my predictions did come true: I ended upwith two job offers, and I did not hear anything from the NGO that told me ‘theywill offer me some work’.

Decisions decisions

The Dutch company that I was speaking to about a position inEthiopia finally offered me a contract, yet one that was not very attractive. Ata network event organized by this company in Addis Ababa, I literally toldeveryone that I am looking for work and that has helped... Two days later I receiveda phone call from the Dutch CEO of a local company who got my number throughothers. We exchanged some emails about what we both were looking for and meteach other one week later. The job content and the contract were both veryattractive, which made me really doubt which job to choose. What a luxury positionI was in! Finding a job is most likely easier in a country with 7 % economicgrowth than in one in economic crisis... After weighing carefully the pros and consof both positions, I decided for the new option. I could start working 3 dayslater!

New skills

Now I’ve been working for 4 weeks for Jittu Horticulture PLC,a company that has 5 farms on which it grows vegetables and roses for local andexport markets. I am allocated to a farm some 50 km southeast of the capital,where I am looking at the organization, of which I am supposed to improve. My objective:more efficient farming and higher productivity, whilst using the same means.Quite a practical assignment, as well as totally new to me! I am not anagronomist, nor a business management expert; sometimes I am surprised how Igot in there. However, not being a professional on the topic also makes me to lookobjectively to processes, which, as I learned in my first month, has someadvantages. In addition to this task, I will be looking into a total‘make-over’ of one of the Jittu vegetable stores near to Addis Ababa:marketing, another new field I am going to enter!

The search has ended

All in all I know that I have been lucky. What frustrated memost in looking for a job is that you sometimes just don't get any response to yourcover letter - not even an email! So, I am very happy to end the search, and tostart this new job. It makes me believe that all the blood, sweat and tearsduring my first job in the field were not for nothing. They have finally givenme the package to start in this new position. This company is not afraid togive me all sorts of tasks, and I hope to perform up to their standard, so thatthey keep me after the end of my three month contract!

Stay tuned

It seems another adventure has just begun, so I will keep writingabout working and living in Ethiopia.

Hannah's Ethiopia: the search

The start of the job search

During a dinner with friends I decided not to tell them that I had yet again sent a cover letter, as it becomes so tiresome to keep everyone updated about the frightening, self-esteem shaking and lonesome journey of the job-hunt. Two days later I promised to keep a blog on it on the IDSAA website. The audience makes the difference, as I assume that many other alumni also face challenges during their search for employment. In addition, I think that it is good to expose vulnerability rather than the unrealistic life of extreme climaxes we live only on Facebook.

So three weeks of ‘searching’, what have I done?

Already in August I spoke in Nijmegen with a Dutch company that contemplates hiring someone in Ethiopia. A week after the interview I was back in Addis Ababa, and they invited me to speak to another of their staff who was coming for work to Addis. So I did, and again I had an interesting conversation, in which I grew more confident that I fitted the position. Two days later I got the request to speak to a third staff member the following week: so I did, and whilst meeting this woman, I really had the feeling that I matched this company and its people. As I came to understand the company had organized a trade mission, I asked if I could participate. I could for one day, which was a great networking opportunity. Especially as the evening program was an intimate network cocktail at the residence of the agriculture attaché of the Dutch Embassy, in presence of the new ambassador. I spoke to nearly everyone there, handing out my business card (slightly embarrassed that it says “gratis door Vistaprint” on the backside) and at the end of the night the woman from the company said “watch out that you don’t end up with two jobs.”

Ooooh....Such promising words, however I do better not to get my hopes up as I have to remember she is not the decisive person!

Another example of hope on a string is that the director of an international NGO that I have worked with in my previous job told me that "he might have some things for me to do next month." Over a cup of coffee he explained that he wants me to participate in a committee that reviews grant proposals. That sounds great, but again, nothing confirmed and in Ethiopia next month always means after three months or not at all. Lastly, I have sent two cover letters to vacancies I found on the internet, without any response so far.

In addition to the sense of insecurity over it all, I feel that time is slipping away, as other things happen such as a friend visiting, and a national holiday that makes the entire country switch off for 2 days. I sometimes feel stressed if I have not done any ‘job searching activity’ - at such moments I try to realize that this is not something you can do full-time, and it requires a hell-uv-a-lot (remember the intonation of Henk Huisman) of patience.

Hannah's Ethiopia

It was in October 2011 that I graduated after my research in Ethiopia on maternal and reproductive health service delivery. Although I had not been in the country before and did not have a special interest in going there (I merely went there for the research topic) I find myself living there now for 1,5 years. After graduating I went back to Addis Ababa to search for a job in the development sector. Although it took some months I finally started working for an international farm & fruit processor as project assistant on a project with outgrowers. Hardly did I know what an outgrower was, and I must admit that the change from women's health to (predominantly) men and farming was quite a turn.

My job at africaJUICE was transforming an ex-state owned farm into a modern tropical fruit plantation which has constructed an EU-standard facility to process the fruit, mostly yellow passion fruit and mango, into juices and concentrates for export to the EU market. My work was for the Outgrower Incubator Project, first as project assistant, then eventually later as project coordinator.The project was initiated by the company but was funded by international donors. The aim of the project was twofold: 1) To improve the livelihoods of the local community by introducing passion fruit which gives a more constant supply (compared to traditional crops), generates a more stable income, has with africaJUICE a guaranteed market and a fair price, and 2) To secure the supply of passion fruit to the company.

As a project assistant I was the link between the project manager and the extension workers, who on a daily basis visit the outgrowers and give them technical assistance. I mainly analyzed the data of the extension workers: I followed up the production levels of the farmers,identified problems, and facilitated meetings between the project and the farmers’ cooperative. In addition, I was responsible for all documentation of the project. Every quarter there was a meeting with the board of donors that I prepared. Moreover, the donors all have their specific reporting requirements which I adhered to: one day I found myself poring over the same report in 3 different formats. Another of my tasks was to keep up with relevant information in the development sector and to establish and maintain a network. This –happily- brought me to Addis Ababa every now and then for a conference or meeting. What I really liked from this job was the variety of things I could contribute. One day I was presenting the progress to the board members, another I was planting passion fruit with neighbouring farmers. Honesty also requires me to tell that some days I did absolutely nothing: no electricity, no transport, farmers not showing up for a meeting, or any other unexpected obstacle... Although that was totally frustrating at times, I realize (even better now in hindsight) what good a school this has been for me. I better understand the implications of implementing a project designed at a fancy desk somewhere far from the field.

After 15 months of working for africaJUICE in the middle of nowhere, I decided to stop for – among other reasons- I wanted to have a job in the capital. That’s where I am now, searching for a new job, so I’ll keep you posted!