Life is for living, our children told us. So we moved to Ethiopia

A friend needed help setting up a school in Addis Ababa. So we took up his offer

John Kelleher is principal of the middle school, for seven- to nine-year-olds, at Cambridge Academy in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Denise, his wife, is principal of its primary school. They have previously worked together in Saudi Arabia, Bellewstown and Doha, in Qatar, and separately in Dublin, Finglas, Swords, Bettystown and Drogheda. Their house is in Co Louth, but John is originally from Clare and Denise is from Dublin. They met at St Patrick's College in Dublin

We are due to conclude the school year here on June 11th, having achieved 163 days of face-to-face teaching. The Ethiopian elections to choose a new parliament, as well as regional and municipal councils, were due to take place on June 5th but were deferred again. They were originally scheduled for August 29th, 2020, but were postponed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Our Ethiopian adventure started in December 2019. We had just returned from Qatar and were considering if we were actually retired when an email arrived from our ex-director there, inviting us to work with him setting up a new school in Addis Ababa. Any reluctance we had about going to east Africa was quickly dismissed by our children, daughter Rachel, son-in-law Mike, and son Brian. Life is for living, they advised us.

Having visited in January, we returned to the Ethiopian capital in March 2020 as Covid struck. The Hilton hotel was suddenly very busy with expats from other African countries transiting through Addis on their journeys home. We did likewise, never expecting to return. I commented that it was like the final scenes of The Deerhunter.


But we returned in September 2020, and, as we had put Covid protocols in place, the Ethiopian ministry for education approved the opening of the school. The building can cater for 3,000 students, and we had 305. It is open-plan, and the climate helps, as neither heating nor cooling is required and a cool breeze is usually blowing. As well as the suggested measures, we decided that ventilation was key. A good friend, who worked in the Irish meat industry, insisted that keeping windows and doors open was critical. I ordered 250 wooden wedges as doorstops, and we used wine corks to jam the windows open. Attendance at the school rarely fell below 95 per cent, but we had to close some classes when cases emerged. Then, in early November, both of us got Covid – but thankfully recovered in due course.

We live in a compound 20km outside the city. The drive to school never fails to reveal a new and inspiring sight. Everyone has to work in Ethiopia. Most men seem to specialise, and we see pickaxe man, plunger man and drill man as they make their way to work. Ethiopians are very proud of their appearance. Beautifully dressed women emerge from laneways to join the main road. During the recent rains we saw some of them walking in their bare feet with their stylish shoes in a plastic bag.

Some workers are permanently in situ. Fruit stalls and coffee tents line the route. A man spends his day with his scale and does good business weighing things for people, as does his neighbour, an elderly lady with an antique Singer sewing machine. Puncture-repair men are on every corner, and some of them wave when they see the Cambridge Academy Yaris chugging past. It is a good customer.

Resilience is a word that comes to mind, whether it is applied to Ethiopians or to the expats who live here. A German friend commented that living in east Africa can be amazing for six days, but on the seventh you will get "a slap on the face". We've had a fair share of slaps, whether it's no electricity for three days, being trapped in the house during the rains or the aforementioned frequent punctures, to name a few. But we've had two amazing trips to nature reserves on Lakes Langano and Hawassa and experienced the rugged beauty of the country too. Another highlight was an invitation to the residence of the Irish Ambassador, Nicola Brennan, for St Patrick's Day, where we met the Irish community at a socially distanced reception.

Ethiopia didn’t lock down. It was difficult for most of the Ethiopian population to adhere to the government guidelines, which are regular and informative, but daily commerce just couldn’t cease. Ethiopians couldn’t imagine their churches or mosques closing outright. Members of the popular religions, who all seem to get on well, handled the crisis differently. Orthodox Christians prayed outside, Protestants increased their number of services, and the Muslim population introduced strict distancing.

At times we were reluctant to send photos of lunches at the Greek Club or at the Louvre Cafe with our good friend Mary T Murphy, who does great work for the charity Goal, to our locked-down friends.

In school we have made many friends. Our learners are very respectful and keen to progress. Their parents are very grateful. We are grateful too to Dr Gemechis Buba, an Ethiopian-American whose vision it was to establish an international school at this difficult time.

There were days when we wondered if it was time to return to Co Louth and walk on Port beach and have coffee and apple tart in the Glyde Inn. But then we reminded each other that Port beach is 15km from our house and the Glyde has been closed.

Planes fly over the school daily. I often think of and am very proud of Micheál Ryan, a fellow Clareman, who was on the ill-fated Airmax that went down near Addis in March 2019. He is fondly remembered by all the NGO staff we meet, and indeed the Ethiopian community, for his great, selfless work with the United Nations World Food Programme.

The vaccine is imminent – and, yes, we are returning to Addis in August, to a country that fascinates us and to its amazing people.