So Long, and Thanks for all the Fun (A Letter to Dr Abiy)
(If you're puzzled by the title, click here.)
Dear Dr Abiy,
It was with a mixture of sadness and eager anticipation of the future that Chris and I left your amazing homeland of Ethiopia on 17th June 2019. When we arrived at Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa on 21st November 2013 we couldn’t have anticipated just how thrilling, challenging, life-changing and fun-filled the next six years would be. The people we would meet, friends we would make, work we would complete and things we would achieve are now the subject of constant reflection and gratitude to God. Happy as we are to have settled back into our home country with family, a multitude of grandchildren1, a new church and new challenges ahead, there is much about our term in Addis Ababa that we will always miss.
But not some of the things that happened shortly before our departure. Allow me to explain.
The education system in Ethiopia is developing rapidly, so we are aware that you had to take steps to stop possible cheating in the national exams in June. But shutting down all means of communication across the entire country for everyone? Was that really necessary? We greatly appreciated being able to use land line Internet and the “4G” mobile Internet network in Addis over the last few years, but we’d forgotten what “1G” was, until you switched everything else off - the Internet, mobile Internet and even text messaging. Being thankful for small mercies, at least we could still talk on the phone.
Secondly, and I know you can’t control the weather (despite your most ardent supporters thinking you can do pretty much anything), but the regular power cuts to ration sparse electrical power was a real challenge. I do hope the rainy season has refilled those hydroelectric dam lakes in the south that were so near being empty during our last few weeks in the country. Keeping our work going in our school and clinic was quite difficult, when the power was off throughout entire working days. Here’s hoping that when the power from the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the Nile comes on line, such cuts will be a thing of the past. (I have to apologise that the literally hundreds of text messages your administration sent to me over the years (and every other mobile phone owner) asking me to invest in the dam never succeeded. Sorry.)
Thirdly, I have to hold you partially responsible for what happened to me in the shower a couple of weeks before we left. Being at the top of a three-storey building, the water pressure needed to be sufficiently high for our taps and shower to work. Until a few months ago it was really good. Then you gradually turned the pressure down, so in the mornings when a lot of people needed to wash, we couldn’t. Rising earlier and using water before anyone else was up succeeded for a while, but have you any idea how early some people get up? Well after a while it didn’t matter what time we would try – no water at all. Fortunately the creative and ingenious facilities manager at Bingham rigged up a tank and pump to bring water back to the top floor. Imagine my relief standing under a nice warm shower one morning before heading to the clinic – what’s left of my hair all shampooed up; lather all over the place. Then imagine my horror, when the water flowing out of the shower head suddenly turned into orangey-brown mud. A yelp and a jump followed, after which I had to complete my ablutions with a bucket of cold water from a barrel. By the time I was finished, I was very cold, and very awake. As you know Dr Abiy, although Addis is technically in the tropics, it’s altitude makes the mornings quite chilly, especially in a single-glazed building with no heating.
Finally, I must congratulate you on your Nobel Peace Prize. It was a privilege to be in the country as you came to power and began a series of reforms culminating in a formal cessation of hostilities with Eritrea. However all is not settled yet, is it? A very good Ethiopian friend of mine would love to see his father’s family in Eritrea – they haven’t met for 40 years. But he can’t legally obtain a passport to visit Eritrea – unless he pays a bribe. He’s a Christian and won’t pay, so as a Christian believer yourself Dr Abiy, we hope and pray that this is a situation you will be able to rectify very soon. I know your great aim is to oversee genuinely free and fair democratic parliamentary elections next May – and we wish you every success with that.
In addition to our work and living in the craziness that is Addis, we have been lucky enough to visit the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, the stelae and mysteries of Aksum, the beautiful rift valley lakes, the stunning Bale Mountains and also to visit the southern peoples. But our abiding memory will always be the people we came to know and love - people living in real poverty at a survival level, trusting in God with a depth and clarity we have rarely seen before, and long to emulate. It’s been a privilege and a truly humbling experience that we wouldn’t change for the world.
May God richly bless you as you tirelessly seek to bring peace and prosperity to what was our wonderful home for the last six years.
You, dear reader, may have a few questions. Here are a few answers:
Why are you leaving?
We committed to a five year term, but stayed a bit longer than that. We’ve both passed the age of 60, and for me at least that meant it was time to stop. Older doctors are dangerous doctors – as published in the BMJ in 2017. Here’s a graph from that paper that shows why stopping at 60 is a great idea!
You’ve left St Albans. Where have you gone?
We’ve moved to a village called Balsham a few miles southeast of Cambridge. It’s a convenient location for family, as well as being a beautiful and peaceful place to live. Our address is 8 Field End, Balsham, Cambridge, CB21 4EL. Our phone numbers are 07966 163788 (Phil), and 07977 008579 (Chris). Email addresses are firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Why did you move?
To be nearer some of our family – Hannah and Aaron and their families (including six of our grandchildren) are in Chelmsford, and my mum and sister are in Norfolk. There’s a longer more complex story behind the move that I won’t bore you with, but a number of strange coincidences over several years have convinced us that divine purpose has led us here.
What are you doing now?
Time will tell. We have taken time to readjust to UK life (not an easy task), and to get to know our nine (soon to be ten) grandchildren as well as reconnecting with family including my 90-year-old mum. We have said goodbye to Spicer Street Church in St Albans and joined a local church near Cambridge, and we are considering a variety of ways to be involved in SIM UK, the church and the local community.
Was it all worth it?
Without a shadow of a doubt. We would do it again in a heartbeat. And as Chris said in our goodbye talk at Spicer Street Church, “If I can do it, anyone can”. What about you?
Retiring early, packing up our home and moving to a developing country with all the privations and difficulties that entailed was not an easy thing to do. But we both felt that over several years God was so arranging things in our lives that He was inexorably leading us to that decision. Several things drove us on:
- The Bible makes it very clear that God cares for the poor and expects Christians to put that care into action.
- Chris and I wanted to use the final years of our professional lives to serve and help in a much needier setting, in a Christian Gospel context. As our website strapline, modified from the words of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, says: “Teach…heal… and tell them, the Kingdom of God is near you.”
- At first glance the need looked overwhelming and we wondered what on earth could the two of us achieve in just a few years? The “Starfish Story” motivated. We hope and pray that there are a few “starfish” left in our wake in Ethiopia.
So after six academic years teaching for Chris and over 5,000 medical consultations for me, not to mention all the other things we were able to be involved with, our story comes to a close. Our heartfelt thanks to all those of you who have faithfully read, commented and followed our blog – your encouragement has been invaluable and hugely appreciated.
And now we want to wish you all a very happy Christmas – a time to reflect on the instigation of God’s great rescue plan for humankind, in a stable, in abject poverty, in Bethlehem, over 2000 years ago. Grace, mercy and forgiveness for the repentant sinner burst on the world, as God came to join us in the form of a new-born baby. A baby who would grow up to die, to rise again, and to say:
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Re the title: with acknowledgement to the late, great Douglas Adams and the title of the fourth book in his “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” ‘trilogy’, “So Long and Thanks for all the Fish”.
...and Dr Abiy Ahmed is the Ethiopian Prime Minister since 2nd April 2018.
1 In case you don’t know, when we left the UK in November 2013 we had two grandchildren. We now have nine, and the tenth is due next April.