Coffee, Soap, Salesforce: Girlforce in Ethiopia

By Trish Perkins, Salesforce MVP and Girlforce Devotee

I wake up in a room with three other women—three double bunk beds, just like the youth hostel in San Francisco where I stay for Dreamforce.

It’s just about dawn, and the sky outside the bunk-room is a striped, glowing pink, revealing a hodgepodge of buildings, mostly new construction, and a wide, puddle strewn empty field.

I tend to wake up early at home, and that has continued here in Ethiopia. I stumble into the bathroom and am smacked by the smell of badly vented plumbing. Why are we almost the only country I know where the smell of sewage is not a daily part of our lives? I light a scented candle that our soap-making goddess, Melissa, brought with her and almost instantly the smell fades.

View from the Terrace

View from the Terrace

I’m in the office/reception hall/dorms for the Selamta Family Project, the organization that has welcomed us as volunteers and, in my case, a professional consultant with a unique business model. I work for hospitality—pick me up at the airport, feed me, put me up, and I’ll show up and provide technology services.

This particular trip was organized by Joni Martin of Girlforce, a personal friend of mine and the best networking genius I’ve ever met. If she doesn’t know you, wait five minutes.

Anyhow, teeth brushed with water from my water bottle and dressed for the day, I make my way downstairs. The kitchen, like so many in developing countries I have visited, is located in a space separated from the rest of the house. It’s small—when three of us are in there trying to get a meal together, we have to kick one of us out just to get to the fridge, the crowded counter space (filled with peanut butter, coffee, jam jars, breads of various varieties,  a basket of the latest fruit, the toaster, the kettle to boil water…on and on stuff), and the stove.  Water, provided by an org called Splash, from an enormous reverse-osmosis apparatus, flows from three taps outside. Blessed blessed clean water! So rare in the world. So precious.

In the fridge is a large bowl filled with eggs from real chickens, with a little straw stuck to the outer shell—the way eggs come if you’re on a farm.

I make some coffee—the first priority of my regular life, but also here in Ethiopia a major priority since the coffee is SO GOOD. This is the birthplace of coffee! And then I start the omelets of the day. As the others make their way down from the bunkrooms, I have coffee, buttered toast and omelets for them.

The rest of the days are spent – in Melissa and her Canadian sidekick Christine’s case, finding soap-making supplies necessitating several shopping trips all over town, including to the scary (possibly dangerous) Central Mercado, and then running soap-making workshops for the women involved in the Selamta Family Project. Women run the Forever Families created by SFP, serving as traditional Mothers and Aunties. Or they run their actual families, at risk but supported by SFP so they can keep it together with their children.

In the case of Cori and I, days are spent plowing through a formidable list of Salesforce requirements, training assignments and new customizations. I have set up a KanBan board and we flip those post-its through their paces down to the Done box like blackjack dealers at the casino.

Oh, but the time is short short short. There’s two weekends during our two-week trip, a national holiday—all of which are time off for the staff.

We spend much of that time shopping for supplies or just plain shopping.  We spend one weekend out of town, visiting the home town of Dureti, Assistant Director on the local staff. There we get a taste of luxury—fancy hotel, pool, spa, breakfast buffet full of exotic local and run-of-the-mill western food. Typical fancy hotel in the developing world, in my experience.

But the Selamta office in Addis Ababa is pretty comfortable by the standards I’m used to. Addis weather hovers around 70 degrees for most of the year, as the altitude is 7900 feet. Not so high that you really can’t catch your breath, but high enough to make Africa weather supportable. Running water. Hot water—well, warm enough for a bucket bath—right out of the tap. A lovely terrace right outside our room.

What makes this experience truly heart-warming and deeply satisfying are the people.

The American Executive Director, Marisa, has come over with her 11-year-old daughter Lily. What a great young person Lily is—smart, responsible, funny, and self-possessed. Marisa is a natural leader. We all relied on her thoroughly professional leadership throughout the trip as much as we enjoyed her friendship.

The Ethiopian staff is really helpful, friendly and enthusiastic about what we have to offer as soap-making teachers and Salesforce consultants. In the evenings, we are invited to dinner with a different Forever Family every night. We eat the food they eat themselves, glorious Ethiopian food with that spongy bread, Injera, underneath, and all sorts of dribs and drabs of other food—spicy but not too spicy—on top. The Mothers and Aunties make us coffee—that is, they ROAST the beans over a brazier, then brew the coffee and then serve us in little cups with popcorn.

Evenings in the bunk room are hilarious girls-sleeping-over times. We text our boyfriends and husbands on frustratingly slow and intermittent internet. We share the mountain of snacks the Girlforce team has brought. We attack the stray mosquitoes that have gotten past all our defenses with towels, shirts, pillows, anything. We laugh. A lot. It’s a Girlforce thing.