The University of New Mexico Physical Therapy Students to Visit Ethiopia

“UNM’s Physical Therapy program has made a strong commitment to service learning in the U.S. and abroad. If we’re successful, we will be able to offer both the Guatemalan and the Ethiopian options to our students for many years to come,” Burke Gurney, PT, PhD, is director of the Division of Physical Therapy in the UNM School of Medicine.

By Burke Gurney, PT, PhD (KRWG) |

There was no getting around it: the University of New Mexico (UNM) Physical Therapy Division’s Study Abroad Program had become a victim of its own success. Our annual service-learning trip to Guatemala was so popular that there were more students interested than slots available (and, the language barrier intimidated some students).

I started looking for an English-speaking country that could use our help and soon came up with the perfect fit: Ethiopia. So off I went on a three-week exploratory trip in March and April of 2017.

My perception of Ethiopia had been shaped by the country’s terrible famine in the 1980s, but in truth I really didn’t know what to expect. As my plane approached Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and largest city, I was struck by how green and mountainous the landscape was.

Sitting at 8,300 feet above sea level, Addis is a contrast in urban development and abject poverty. You can drive by sleek, modern high rises, take a couple of turns and suddenly find yourself lurching down a pot-holed road lined with ramshackle corrugated aluminum huts.

People were friendly and gregarious. They greeted me not with skepticism – as I have encountered in so many other countries – but with curiosity and acceptance.

Ethiopians are proud of their country, and are quick to share that it is the only African nation never colonized by Europeans. More than a bit of trivia, it helps explain the uniqueness of the culture and languages – more than 80 of them (fortunately for me, most educated Ethiopians speak English well).

The cuisine is also unique. I was there during Easter, when many Ethiopians avoid eating meat, and various versions of their national dish, injera, were served for both lunch and dinner. Injera consists of a spongy fermented pancake made of teff, the local grain, covered by wot, a stew of seasoned potatoes, chickpeas, lentils and beans. One of the local seasonings, shiro, is like no other taste I have ever encountered.

Ethiopia is not entirely free of European influence, however. The Italians occupied Ethiopia during World War II, and a few still reside in Addis. I must admit that after days of dining on injera, I sought out some of the many local Italian restaurants.

Ethiopians practice several different religions. Orthodox Christianity is the most common, followed by Islam. I was struck by the peaceful coexistence between the religious groups. When I asked locals about this, I got puzzled looks. “Everyone here is religious, therefore we all get along,” one responded, as the others nodded in agreement.

Continue reading this story at KRWG

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