September 1, 2015 in Action, Truth, My thoughts, Retrak (charity)

Being where it counts – Ethiopia part 1

Along with several other trustees of Retrak, I recently visited Ethiopia to see our work for myself and to spend some time with our amazing staff and the children and families we work with. This blog post is part of a series of my own personal reflections from that trip.


Ian with Retrak sign
I already had a pretty good understanding of our work and the positive impact we make, but the visit to Ethiopia really brought things alive for me. As with a previous visit to Uganda, I got to see for myself the sort of things that we normally only get to see on TV during Comic Relief appeals. So many of the experiences had a big impact on me, and these are front of mind for me:
– Seeing multitudes of children huddled together sleeping rough on the streets
– Playing volleyball with children at one of our drop-in centres, forgetting that they are only just off the streets themselves and being excited for their future
– Hearing former street children talk about their hopes and dreams and read poems that they’d written
– Listening to amazing stories of transformation
– Being mobbed (in a lovely way) by loads of children who saw me as a real curiosity (because they rarely see white people)
– Sitting with our amazing staff (managers, outreach workers, social workers, teachers, cooks) and hearing their stories
– Taking selfies with our staff and the children we’re helping
– Sitting in a remote township in a small house made of mud, listening to the ladies in a self-help group share their inspiring stories


Our outreach workers go to their frontline to meet the street children; ‘Let’s eat together’ plays a huge role in Ethiopian culture, so our outreach workers go into the slums and ask to eat with the children (something that surprises the kids because they’re not used to anybody wanting to sit with them and eat leftovers). The frontline might not always be the place we want to go, but it is the place we should go; One of our outreach workers talked about how “It is tough and dangerous to walk on the streets and not nice when it is rainy season BUT we HAVE to be there because that is where the kids are”.
I have gained so much from visiting our frontline; I feel connected to our work in a way that no amount of Board impact reports could ever achieve, some things that were previously numbers on a spreadsheet have been brought alive for me, my understanding has deepened, I’ve understood some things that I’ve not fully understood before, some of my perceptions have been challenged, and I’ve seen problems and pain points that I was previously ignorant about. And it inspires me to hear of how we’re helping street children to transform their lives. And it hurts like hell to think of all the children that we’re unable to help.


selfie at drop in centre
In the world of work, I see lots of people disconnected from the frontline; I’ve seen senior managers who are remote and disconnected from the real work of the organisation and don’t truly understand what goes on. This isn’t always the case, and I also see lots of managers (especially in the NHS) who are great at visiting the frontline. It isn’t just large organisations that can get disconnected from the frontline; I’ve often heard people set up a small business and talk about how they’re working ‘on the business, rather than in the business’ which is sometimes code for avoiding the frontline/real customers.
I learned so much from going to Ethiopia to visit our frontline for myself. Where is your frontline? Where do you need to be to experience what you need to experience and learn what you need to learn?

For more information about Retrak and the work we do, please see this overview video:


If you can help us to transform the lives of vulnerable children, please click here:


You can find the other blog posts in this series here:

The power of hope – Lessons from Ethiopia part 2



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