David Dalton and Rahel Azene Workineh Dalton

‘We didn’t click right away’

Sat, Nov 30, 2013, 01:00

DAVID DALTON studied commerce and development studies, eventually going to Ethiopia to work for aid agency Goal. He is chief executive of international children’s charity Plan Ireland. He lives in Dublin with his Ethiopian wife Rahel and their children.

“I went to Ethiopia as a volunteer with Goal in 1995. I was 28, had been there eight months and had a good friend, Dr Girma, an Ethiopian doctor who used to joke that I’d have to meet a nice Ethiopian girl. He was a wise old man. He knew Rahel’s family well: her father worked in the Ministry of Health and her mum was a midwife. He introduced Rahel – a nurse in a Goal clinic – and me in May 1996.

We didn’t click right away; quite the opposite. Rahel had no great ambition to go out with a foreigner. She was playing hard ball and I wasn’t making any great progress. Then one day I rang her house to invite her to a Goal dinner, and her father answered the phone. In Ethiopian culture, if someone invites you, you have to accept; he insisted that as it was a formal invitation, she had to go. And after that, we’ve never stopped being together.

I didn’t meet Rahel’s parents until the day before we got married – that’s the culture. But before that, I had to send a delegation, Dr Girma and two other esteemed gentlemen, to formally ask for permission to marry her: they had a big dinner and lots of drinks. As long as they vouched for me, her parents didn’t have to meet me. We got married in 2000.

We had a traditional Ethiopian wedding – it usually involves four days, but we cut it down to two – very different and exotic. About 20 people came out from Ireland. I don’t like any of this dressing up business and I had to wear a big cloak, like a cape: all my friends were cracking up.

I’d had a great job after leaving college but at 24, jacked it in and went travelling for 15 months. I met a nun in my travels who said, you’ve got to go to Ethiopia, it’s the most beautiful, green, fertile country. So an opportunity to work for Goal came up and I went to Ethiopia for two-and-a-half years in 1995. I suppose long-term my plan had been to come back to Ireland – although life in Ethiopia can be very pleasant and relaxed. There’s no stress and Addis Ababa is a lovely, sociable, safe city. However, eight million people in Ethiopia need food assistance every year.

Rahel gets on really well in Ireland, she’s adapted well: in Ethiopia, she’d have a lot of people, her extended family, helping her. In Ethiopia, you look after your extended family, everyone rallies around – and Rahel extends that to my family here. And she’s always smiling, very positive.”


Plan Ireland, part of Plan
International, has launched a Philippines Emergency Appeal, see plan.ie, tel 1800 829 829. It is also holding a benefit gig to raise funds, featuring Tommy Tiernan and Ardal O’Hanlon, on December 19th in Vicar Street. Tickets €28,
ticketmaster.ie

RAHEL (AZENE WORKINEH) DALTON is a midwife working in the National Maternity Hospital, Holles Street. She was born and grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and met her husband David when they both worked there for aid agency Goal. She lives with David and their children in Sandyford, Dublin

“Growing up in Addis Ababa, I never thought my husband would be a white Irish man. I was about 22 and a nurse when David and I met. My parents were quite strict: I only started dating when I started working. Dating isn’t casual and because David was a foreigner, I thought he might date me, then we’d break up.

Then he invited me to dinner. I chatted with him and realised he was a nice person, decided I’d give him a chance. It was a big risk, but it worked out. It wasn’t love right away, that developed over time. After we’d been dating for about a year, he had a sore back and had to go back to Ireland for treatment – we didn’t know whether it was a serious illness or what. And that’s when I realised I missed him.

In Ethiopia, you live with your parents until you get married and it’s only when you are very serious and know you are going to marry someone that you introduce them. I didn’t tell my parents David and I were going out until after we got engaged.

I came to Ireland first in 1997 on holiday. I didn’t know where it was: David had to show me on the map. It was very welcoming from day one. I arrived ahead of David and had to wait in the airport for two hours; this old Irishwoman came and sat beside me and got chatting. I think Irish people are very friendly, it makes it easier.

When I went back from that holiday, I applied for the midwifery course in Trinity and here I am. For the first two years I found Ireland very very cold, but then you get used to it. And I was shocked when I came here to see David’s parents actually working in the house, doing the cooking and the cleaning. When I grew up, we were privileged to have full-time help; I never saw my parents working in the house. I thought if you went to Europe or America, that everything is so easy, but it’s the opposite. But I adapted, just got on with it. Is David good at sharing housework? No!

Addis Ababa is very modern. But if you travel just two or three hours out of the capital, rural Ethiopia is like a different country. The majority are still very poor, have nothing. Growing up, I wasn’t aware of that. For political reasons, it’s not in the media: Ethiopia still needs the world to be aware that there is poverty there.

Our kids have privileges here – like going to the park, free – that you don’t have at home. We sponsor two children through Plan and get the kids involved writing to them. They learn that way. The best thing about David is that he’s very easygoing and great with the children; he’s very laid back, doesn’t get stressed out. The worst thing? He works too hard – and he’s not very romantic.”

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