Halfway through my social work MA, I decided to use part of my summer holiday to travel around Ethiopia, and so in July last year, I visited the Beza Association, a foundation supporting communities affected by HIV in Lalibela, a town in the north of the country. The experience was humbling and, to my surprise, affected my social work learning and development.
The first thing that struck me about the foundation was seeing how its volunteers overcame a lack of resources with imagination and creativity. All 30 of Beza’s volunteers are HIV positive themselves and they provide social support and community care to more than 1,000 members living with HIV and their families, including orphans and vulnerable children.
Many of the volunteers work as tour guides, bringing in money that is spent on medicine and home-based care within the foundation. The volunteers also make injera – a type of sourdough flatbread which is an Ethiopian national dish – to sell to local hotels.
Not only does this raise funds for the foundation’s work, but it also helps many of its members overcome feelings of worthlessness and depression by giving them a sense of purpose, and encourages vital social interaction. Valuing the skills and knowledge to empower people to take control of their own situation has influenced my own approach during my final year placement in mental health back in the UK. I was able to able to recognise a client’s aptitude for computers and support him to volunteer in an administrative office. This increased his social interaction and led to paid employment, improving his self-esteem and sense of purpose.
Seeing the huge importance the volunteers place on fighting stigma and discrimination showed me how much of a barrier there can be to living positively and productively. During my placement, this helped me to look beyond a patient’s diagnosis and recognise the wider social impacts of living with mental health difficulties.
With limited knowledge of Ethiopia’s many cultures, I thought it might be difficult to understand how people value themselves within society. One solution to this is simply listening, and letting people explain their place within society as they see it. I have since learned that this concept is termed “cultural humility” and it has enabled me to understand others’ situations on a deeper level.
Understanding how people view themselves seems to fit with social work’s underlying principles. Cultural humility also feels more realistic than the idea of cultural competence, which asks us to understand the nuances of the many cultures social workers come into contact with. I was forced into using cultural humility in Ethiopia, but the ability to suspend what I think I know about a person has been invaluable while working as a student social worker on placement in the UK.
Beza’s ability to creatively and practical enable positive changes in people’s lives is particularly relevant as social care resources face further cuts in the UK. My trip to Ethiopia left a lasting impact. As well as discovering a beautiful and fascinating country, I also encountered selfless and determined people whose work remains an inspiration to me as I begin my social work career.
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