Wendm Niku first met Robel Shiferaw at an English- language exam in the British Council in Addis Ababa. Both men had applied for an Irish Aid scholarship and were sitting the test to show whether they had enough English to study a master's degree in Ireland.
Niku, who grew up one of a family of eight children in Addis Ababa, was working on a HIV prevention and control project with an Ethiopian NGO when he applied for the Irish Aid fellowship. Shiferaw, who is also from the Ethiopian capital, worked for the Ethiopian government’s ministry of finance and economic development when he applied for the programme.
Just over 100km south of Addis Ababa, Mesay Tekalign was working for a small NGO in the town of Dera when he applied to study in Dublin. Like Niku, he also worked with an Irish Aid-partnered NGO that focused on HIV education and prevention. Unlike Niku, Mesay had never travelled outside Ethiopia before.
“It’s a huge deal for me being able to travel,” says Tekalign as he takes a seat at the kitchen table in a student apartment in Kimmage, Dublin. “I was very excited to come here.”
Niku and Shiferaw also pull up chairs and launch in to an animated discussion about their work in Ethiopia and their decision to come to Ireland to pursue an MA in development studies.
After an intense, year-long process of interviews and exams, the three men were accepted into the Irish Aid fellowship programme and offered financial support to spend a year studying in Ireland. Aside from a brief conversation between Niku and Shiferaw at their English exam, the students met properly at a reception in the Irish Embassy before setting off for Ireland in September 2015.
“Before arriving here I thought Dublin would be a big city, like Addis Ababa,” says Niku with a smile. “But Addis is huge. I was expecting to see skyscrapers.”
“We just asked: where’s the rest of the city?” jokes Tekalign.
On arrival, the students immediately started attending the Kimmage Development Studies Centre. They were homesick at the beginning and were overwhelmed by the level of study and the number of assignments required for the course. But the three live together on campus and can rely on their friendship for support.
“We have [another] friend who is at UCD,” says Tekalign. “He is the only Ethiopian there so he complains a lot and is lonely and homesick. It’s easy for us. We had that feeling of homesickness at the beginning, but being together has made things a lot easier. It gives you mental strength when you have someone from your country who is going through the same process. You easily understand each other, you share feelings and can vent your worries.”
Niku says, “Friendship is a big deal because when you feel bad or are lonely you can share your feelings with each other. I am often faced with culture shock here. To cope with this kind of shock, the contribution of genuine friends is immeasurable.”
Shiferaw agrees. “We hold each other up in times of need and can share lots of new experiences,” he says, adding that Niku looks after them by cooking.
The three men burst out laughing and, speaking all at once, enthusiastically describe the meals they have created in the common room’s kitchenette.
Shiferaw misses the taste of injera, an Ethiopian flatbread made with the teff grain. His two housemates agree that Irish-made injera does not taste the same.
“We have tried an Irish breakfast,” Niku says. “It was different . . . but it was good.”
The three young Ethiopians can completely relax in each other’s company after a long day’s study by chatting in their first language, Amharic. Although English is widely taught and spoken in Ethiopia, it can become exhausting speaking and thinking in a foreign language every day.
“When other people are around, we speak English to each other, but when they are not here we speak Amharic,” says Niku. “It’s so much easier; you don’t have to concentrate.”
The men say it was easy to settle in to life in Ireland with the support of their fellow students and teachers at the centre. They particularly like the teaching methods used in the master’s programme.
“The students and teachers here are on the same level and we interact a lot in class,” says Tekalign. “It’s much more enjoyable and you learn a lot. You share experiences and learn from other people.”
Shiferaw has noticed a number of cultural similarities between Irish people and Ethiopians. Niku agrees that Irish and Ethiopians share certain habits.
“For example, if you want to give something to a person here, they say no the first time. They say no three times and then finally, ‘Okay’. It’s the same in Ethiopia; you have to say no first.”
Tekalign says the sense of humour is similar. “Sarcasm is a big deal in Ethiopia. Maybe we don’t have it to the same level as here but I think we share that.”
The three men look forward to travelling outside Dublin and getting to know places such as Galway and Cork before returning to Ethiopia next July to research and write their theses. They hope to bring home the skills they have learned from their studies and implement them in their work in Ethiopia's development sector.
“Development is about everything. It’s about social issues, political issues, cultural issues,” says Niku. “Studying development means the study of everything, and in Ethiopia we need more development practitioners.”
They have developed friendships with people from Ireland and around the world through their studies. However, above all they value the friendship they share as three young Ethiopian men far from home.
“I take it for granted but it would have been very hard for me if it wasn’t for my friends as this is the first time I’ve travelled outside Ethiopia,” says Tekalign. “Dublin has always been safe, but I feel safer with my friends around me.”
- FROM BEST MATES TO BROMANCES: All week on irishtimes.com/life-and-style we take a closer look at friendship
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