Travel Journal: My Humanitarian Journey to Africa
by Maskarm Kebede

I do not remember how and when it started but it had always been my dream to travel and work in Africa. As a child, I grew up seeing my mom traveling and working on different projects in villages throughout Ethiopia. I must admit that I thought the traveling was always a vacation so I often cried out to take me with her. Sometimes it worked and I had the opportunity to visit several places, which in turn created in me a great passion to work in the field of international development. Apart from traveling, staying in hotels, visiting tourist attractions and meeting different people; I also learned one important lesson: we can all make a difference! Whether we are big or small, rich or poor, we all have something to share and know how to put a smile on someone else’s face.

Years had passed since my childhood adventures and I still was not sure where or how to begin my own volunteer experience. Nonetheless, I felt haunted by inner yearnings, which I found difficult to express to anyone else. I felt restless and unsatisfied, even though I appeared to be doing well for someone who had just moved to North America. One thing I did know for sure was that I needed to find a way to make my dream come true. I began networking and talking to people who were already involved in the international development arena. I searched for non-governmental organizations and UN programs and realized that almost all programs required additional language fluency as a pre-requisite for jobs.

It was Dec. 2001 when I applied to the French Immersion Bursary Program located in Quebec, Canada. I also decided to move to Montreal in advance to begin part-time French language classes until I heard back from the university about my Bursary program application. Moving was not the easiest decision for me. Except for my family members and few friends, most people around me thought it was a crazy idea and a total waste of time. They preferred that I stay put, get a job and settle down. I wished I could explain to them what I felt inside and why this decision was so important to me. Ultimately, I moved to Montreal in January 2002. One morning in March as I was taking my usual metro ride, I picked-up a newspaper and spotted an employment ad that was to lead me to a whole new personal adventure. It read: “OXFAM-Quebec Youth Internship in West Africa. Six Months, Free French Tuition.” That was exactly what I needed.

I was filled with so much excitement I could barely remember the ensuing details. Everything happened so fast that I didn’t even have time to contemplate my options. I applied to join the program without a second thought and was called in for an interview soon thereafter. The offer letter from OXFAM and my approval for my Bursary from Universite du Quebec a Trios-Rivieres arrived at the same time. This special day marked the beginning of my adventure. It is amazing how our priorities can change so quickly. A few days ago my primary concern was getting into the Bursary Program, and now, presented with both opportunities, I needed to make a decision. I knew the internship would give me the opportunity to volunteer and learn French. To me this was not another apprenticeship that I could add on my resume, instead it was more of fulfilling my dream and moving on with my life. I headed down to Cotonou, Benin.

My assignment was with a local NGO called COGEDA (Coordination des ONG de Gestion des Dechets Solides Menagers et de l'Assainissements a Cotonou). The five-month program in Benin was a phenomenal experience. It is one that I will be cherishing for the remainder of my life. I had the opportunity to interact in a culture that is vastly different than mine and in the process met some of the most wonderful people. In short, I learned a tremendous amount from my travel. There were of course a few ups and downs, but then when one harbors high expectations there is always the risk of great disappointments that may follow. Regardless, to me it was not a waste of time. Let me share with you some of the poignant moments with excerpts from my travel journal.

17 May 02
Dear Diary,
Wow ... I'm in Africa again. Met by OXFAM Quebec and COGEDA staffers at the airport. Since they have not yet found a house for us, we are staying at maison du passage. Everything seems dirty and dark, the weather is very hot and humid. I was given a small room with out a shower. Dropped our luggage and headed out for dinner with them. Very tired and jetlagged, so food was not what I had in mind. I longed for a hot shower and a comfortable bed. I tried to sit close to someone who spoke a little bit of English, as I did not have any energy left to try and understand what they were saying in French. When we came back from dinner I found out there was no water to take a shower with and before I even unpacked my bags the lights went out (welcome to Africa!) Thank God I was not taking a shower, or else I would have woken everybody up.

09th Aug. 02
This was a week filled with adventure. It turned out that the material I prepared on basic accesses is not going to be enough, as they need more training on the actual database. Ha… I can see more work coming. I met a volunteer who overheard me talking in Amharic on the phone and asked me if I am from Ethiopia. She did her internship in Bahr Dar in 1999; it was fun talking to her. It’s amazing how the West Africans could recognize Ethiopians at first sight. Most of them start their conversation by talking about Haile Selassie and if you stick around for more, you will hear them saying how Ethiopians are very proud and unfriendly people. My roommates are confused about the whole Ethiopian issue, for them I'm just another African so they keep asking me questions like why are Ethiopians different? Do we not perceive ourselves as Africans or Black? Hey… I’m wondering if I’m missing something here.

14th Oct. 02
I can’t believe my 5 months internship is nearly over. I submitted my final report and my final evaluation with COGEDA and OXFAM Quebec went very well. The feeling was amazing. After my evaluation it felt like it was the beginning of my life. I experienced a sense of freedom and the burden I had been carrying for so many years seemed to have been lifted. I got a beautiful African dress as a gift from the people I worked with and it felt like “yes it is indeed over.” I have one more day to say adios and pack up my things before I begin my travel adventure to other countries in West Africa ahead of my trip home.

1st Dec. 02
It is so nice to be back and see family and friends. I had my debriefing in Bromont with OXFAM Quebec. Mostly we talked about the reintegration process and job search. I felt I needed only the job search, as I should be okay on the reintegration part. Well I was mistaken again. I needed a lot more of reintegration session than I thought. I wanted to tell my friends all about the villages I visited, people I met and the new culture I had discovered during my trip. To my surprise, most of them were worried how dark I had become or lost weight. Is it not obvious that if you spend six months in the sun your skin color changes? I am glad that I’m back in one piece, I don’t think I could have handled everybody pointing out, “Didn’t we tell you not to go?”

Despite the apprehensions of people around me, I took a chance and made my dream come true. My trip to West Africa was a lifetime experience that no one can take away from me. I encourage others to do the same. We all have something to share and know how to put a smile on someone else’s face. It is only a matter of choice.

Visit my site at and see my adventure for yourself.

About Maskaram Kebede
Maskarm Kebede currently resides in Montreal, Canada