Samson Tesfaye Woldetensaie “It has made me a better person. It has made me more tolerant. It has made me a better citizen.”

Samson Tesfaye has more than 20 years of experience in event production, media, knowledge management, communications, and public relations. He has worked with several multilateral institutions such as the World Bank Group, United Nations (UNAIDS, UNOPS, UNDP), ICPD, OAFLAD, and many others. He is now the Co-Head of the Women Deliver 2023 Conference. Samson joined Rotary as a Rotaractor in 2002 and became the charter president of the Rotary Club of Addis Ababa Central-Mella in 2008. A past Assistant District Governor, he was appointed as the Rotary International Representative to the African Union and United Nations Economic Commission for Africa in July 2015.

This story was collected by Christine Prefontainea Senior Advisor with JSI — as part a Rotary International Strategic Initiative to generate actionable data and learning from Rotary service projects. View more stories in the Rotary collection »

So let’s start with capturing some basic information around you.

Okay. So my name is Samson. I prefer to be called “he” and I’ve been involved in Rotary since 2002.

Thank you. Can you tell me a bit more about you and give me an overview of what you do outside of Rotary and your role within Rotary?

I work as a communication consultant for the World Bank Group. I’ve been working there for the past three years. My focus is on regional communications, especially organizing forums, events, and webinars. I also do a lot of social media communications and media engagement.

In terms of Rotary, I joined in 2002 as a Rotaractor — as a chartering member of the Rotaract club of Mella, which was the first chartered Rotaract club in Ethiopia. Then in 2008, we formed a new Rotary club called the Rotary Club of Addis Ababa of Central Mella, where I was a chartering president. It was probably the first Rotary club in Ethiopia, founded by 25 former Rotaractors.

So that makes us a little bit unique. I also became President of my club again after a couple of years. I’ve held different positions in my club, in the country, and also in the district. For example, I’m currently an Assistant Governor for my district. Internationally, I am the Rotary International representative for the Africa Union and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. This is an appointment that’s given by the Rotary International President every year. My first appointment was in 2015, so it’s been five years since I held that position. I’m involved in a lot of projects for my club and country. I think that’s one of the exciting things about being part of Rotary.

We get things done. We go beyond borders, cultures, and any other differences. What matters is helping our community. I want people to know that we achieve our goals. We are committed. We are unique. We look for partnerships. We want peace. We’re a an open society.

I also worked at the World Bank for several years. There are some parallels between how both organizations operate.

Yes, sometimes it’s like a reality check. And sometimes they complement each other, but sometimes, it’s like also “What do you do?” Because I’ve been involved with Rotary for so many years, I have that philanthropic side. So, whenever I do a project at the World bank or IFC, I always think, “How can we work with Rotary on this?” So, that’s good.

I can imagine it contributes a lot to your work and makes you a great asset. Thinking about your work at Rotary, tell me about something that you’re working on that really excites you right now.

In my club, we’re currently working on a water project. We’re doing 25 water projects in the Southern part of Ethiopia. It has challenges, like any project does, but we’re looking forward to the impact that we’re going to make on those in the community. That really excites me. For example, I work extra hours, like yesterday it was Sunday, but we had a meeting with our internal partner for an hour and a half in the evening  just to work on the budget. I was away from my kids for that time, but didn’t mind that because the work that we do saves lives. That really, really excites me and maintains the momentum to give back to the community in any way possible.

Another exciting thing is my position as the representative for the Africa Union and UNECA. I’m working on a possible project with the Africa Union, and I’m really excited about it because it might make a difference in the ways that Rotary is perceived in Africa, and with youth in particular. The project is still at an early stage, but it’s really motivating me.

Thinking about the water project, how will you assess impact? For the community but also on a personal level?

I have a perfect example for that! So we did another project with the same Rotary club, but in another part of Ethiopia, that we finished two years ago. We went to visit the project, met the community, and talked to them. They were really excited and grateful for what was done for them. We saw the water well, and it was working well and used by the community. We talked to the children — they said that they are not missing school because the water is easily available and now they don’t need to wait a long time to go collect water.

We also wanted to talk to the health extension worker from that region, but we couldn’t find her. We wanted her to give us a more in-depth assessment. We were told that she’s in town, so we went to town and we met her. We told her the specific area and about the project and asked her how the people around there are doing. She said, “Oh oh! That area! I haven’t seen anybody get sick with water-borne diseases for the past three months.”

She said, “Oh oh! That area! I haven’t seen anybody get sick with water-borne diseases for the past three months.” Seriously. After hearing that, I felt that this is worth my time — all those weekends I worked.

Seriously. After hearing that, I felt that this is worth my time — all those weekends I worked. What more validation do you need? There was no one sick with water-board diseases for the past three months. Before she was saying, “We have someone getting sick every other day.” Now, they have clean water and nobody was getting sick.

Imagine the boost in productivity. The kids not missing school. No longer needing to spend money on medicines and such.  This is what we do. This is what Rotary is at the end of the day. Going on those bumpy roads, sleeping in a car, staying in uncomfortable hotel rooms in the rural parts of Ethiopia. None of that matters because this is why we do it. And we get the blessing. So that’s what Rotary is for me.

That is a very specific example!

For me, this is impact. This is what we have contributed to the community. The kids were saying that they are not missing school. They no longer have to go early in the morning to line up to get water from the same place where wash their clothes and where cattle also drink. I have seen all this happening with my own eyes. A couple of months after we finished up the project, we went there and saw that they have a tap and clean water — and we were drinking it too. When you see the community excitement, and how happy and grateful they are, that’s what impact is for me.

So shifting now to current data practices at Rotary, how do you interact with data in your work, and in what ways do you use information to advance your work or meet your goals?

So what do you mean by data? In what sense?

Well, it could be survey data, interviews, or other evidence you might use to either design a project, monitor activities, make adaptations, or assess a project’s contributions to the community.

Before we start a project, we do a needs assessment. I live in Addis Ababa, the capital city, so I really don’t know what’s going on in the rural areas. We usually work with NGOs who have local experience. We go visit the area and we talk to the community about the problems they face. Sometimes we don’t speak their dialect or they speak a different language, so we might bring an interpreter. It’s always good to talk to someone directly to hear what the problem is and see — because seeing is believing.

We try to understand the water problem, for example. We go and see where they collect water, and we see how long they go from that water point to their home. We ask about the children: Do you go to school? How far do you go to get to school? If you have to collect water, will you miss any school? And then we ask community members about health issues because of waterborne diseases. So these are really crucial points for us to understand the real problems of that area.

When you go and see the water — the spot where they are all washing and drinking — you also see the cattle and you automatically know there’s a problem. We focus on really talking to the people. If we have a female Rotarian with us, she will talk to the women. Sometimes the women from the community feel more comfortable talking to other women. We, the men, hang out with the guys and try to understand what the problem is. We collect that information and put it in the assessment tools — that’s like a report that we prepare for Rotary. Then we put it in the system for Rotary International. That needs assessment becomes part of our grant application.

The amount of time from the start of the community assessment to grant finally gets accepted depends on the type of project, where the project is situated compared to the host club, the amount of grant requested, etc.

Let’s say the project is about water. The host club [the club that is based in the country where the project is implemented] or the international club [the co-sponsor, based in another district or country] will come up with the project idea.

Project ideas can be found in different ways: Through contacts from the area, requests from the community to the NGOs that work that area, a Rotarian visiting that area for other purposes and seeing the problems, or a person seeing a problem in that area and approaching  a Rotary club or a Rotarian about the problem. This might take a month to six months or even a year. Finding a host club and an international club might take time, as will securing the financial commitment.

The host and international club identify a local NGO that can implement the project on the ground. Once this local implementing partner is identified, the host club will go and visit the area and do the assessment. The assessment involves meeting with the community and with different stakeholders, including local governments, NGOs, development partners in the area, etc. The assessment might take one to three days, depending on the project size and the distance from the host club location to the project site. Then the host club will write the assessment report in the format provided by Rotary International. This might take a week or a month, depending on the Rotarian’s availability.

Then, based on the assessment, the host and international club write the  grant proposal. Again this might take a month or three months, depending on the availability of the Rotarians. They need to put together a budget, coordinate implementing partners, develop the timeline, fundraise, and secure commitments from different Rotary clubs and other supporting organizations.

Then the project is submitted to Rotary International. Depending on the type and size of the project, the focal point from Rotary International might contact the host and international for further clarifications. This can take a month to two. Then the project approval might take another two or three months.

Are there a set of metrics that you track most closely? What data is most relevant to you as you do this work?

Number one is the population size. How many people will be using that water point? Then we try to understand the demographics: How many households are there? How many people in each household? We ask about their children and their age group — because we also want to really understand who’s going to school and who’s not. This is crucial information because water projects include a lot of training components. For students at school, for teachers, and for the community. Children also need to know a little bit about WASH [Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene]. We also involve religious leaders.

The other thing we ask is how long is the distance between the water point and their home. One of the things we heard before our project started was “probably two hours” — because once they arrived if there was somebody already getting water, they had to wait for their turn. Now that same trip takes about 30 minutes.

We’re also interested in the family’s health. So we ask, “Was there someone sick from your home? Was somebody affected by the waterborne diseases?” I remember one woman told us that her son passed away because of a waterborne disease. We’ve also heard things like “I was sick.” or “I had to take my son to the clinic”. We follow that up with “How much did you pay?” This helps us know the cost implications due to a lack of clean water.

After a water project is done, we give it to the community. But we also ask the community to contribute so they are really part of it. They contribute a small amount of money every month for maintenance. So we ask, “Have you contributed? How much did the community contribute all in all?” We ask to see the bank book where they deposited the money because we really want the community’s contribution to be documented and transparent for anyone to see. We also provide them with financial management training.

It sounds like with water, you have a lot of very tangible data that you can collect. What mechanisms or methodologies do you use to collect this data?

It’s a combination of things, actually. So for the first one I would say observation. We see the water point, for example, and see how they collect water and then we walk with them to go back home to see how long it takes. Sometimes we try to carry the water. It’s very heavy!

These are really resilient communities. I don’t think I’d last a day living there. I’m from this Ethiopia, but I live in Addis. I cannot carry those 20-liter jugs of water, but you see 12- and 13-year olds who carry those jugs as if it’s nothing. I can’t. It’s the truth.

The other important way is interviews. We’ll ask, “Who are the movers and shakers in this community?” We prefer asking women because they are the ones who are collecting the water. We focus on them. Women will give you the real information. Men probably have never carried water. We interview men as well, asking “In what way do you help?” Sometimes we ask the children things like “Do you go to school?”

We try to get information from and about different community segments. We ask who is most influential, who’s most popular, and who is the head of the administration. If we get the opportunity, or if it is a school day,  we ask to speak to the school administrator. We do interviews to gather different perspectives.

So primarily observation and interviews. We don’t use surveys because we’re only there for a day or two.

Do you have a framework or an interview guide?

Yes, we use the guidance provided by Rotary International for our assessment tools. We sometimes need to modify it to our context, and we ask our own questions. But so far Rotary’s assessment tool is good because it was created with inputs from different parts of the world.

And do you feel that you’ve got access to the information you need to make decisions to deal with the challenges that come up in these projects? Or are there some gaps in what you can learn?

There are gaps. For example, the project sites sometimes have to be changed — because of so many reasons. For example, the way we do projects is that there is an NGO that we work with that works directly with the local administration. So they say, “We want to do a water project. Where are the areas that have this problem?” The local authorities then say, “Okay, we have A, B, C, D, E, F.” We get those site names and coordinate to go and see. But sometimes — for reasons that we don’t know — they say, “Oh, no, you have to change the location. These areas have more severe problems, so they are the priority.” Those types of changes can really derail us because we have to re-do the needs assessment. Luckily, the problems are almost identical.

You would be amazed by the questions that we ask and answers we get from the twenty-five water projects, even though we are going around to different groups in different places. It’s almost the same problem! The only thing that changes is that one community is up the hill and one is down the hill. Besides that, the main challenges are the length of time it takes to collect water and general knowledge about WASH.

Our main focus for these water projects is spring development. We do the main spring, the we contain it and make sure that it has a tap. Mostly it has excess water because it continuously flows. It is really rich with water. We then develop separate water points for cattle and for washing. We also do shower points for men and women. People pay to use the shower. Before that, they went to the river to wash.

We also provide training on cleaning. They use dirty jerry cans to carry water. They never wash them. So we say, “Now you have clean water — but you have to clean this too.”

Are you responsible for producing and reporting on metrics?

Yes. We create midterm reports with budgets. On Sunday, we were working on the budget and there were some numbers that weren’t making sense. We had to meet to resolve that. We also have to narrate what happened. What was the training? How many people did you train? Did we do the training for the religious leaders? For the schools? For the natural management? We do those kinds of reporting. It’s group work. I’m not the only one who’s doing it.

And how do you collect that information? What does the reporting process look like?

Rotary provides reporting templates. It’s an online format. Only three people from my club and three people from the international club that have access to it. We take turns. We divide and conquer. Since we are the host country, we deal with the local NGO that we’re working with to ask them to do the reporting. For example, for the training, we ask: What kind of training do you do? What are the projects and which projects are finished? We do a lot of monitoring and evaluation.

We do between four and six site visits throughout the year. We visit at the start of the project, and we try to go again in the middle of the project. The middle of one project is often the start of another one. Then we visit again when the project is finished. We take notes on what we have seen and compare that with the project’s goals. Those notes are compiled into a report. There are people who will be assigned to do that from the club.

For example, if I’m assigned to do the finances, I make sure that all the finances are properly allocated according to the budget and that we have all of the proper documents.  If someone is assigned to the training part they’ll document who was trained and what the training was about. We divide up the work. It won’t be one person who will be doing it — more like four or five people. We have somebody who studies the data.

What is this experience of collecting the data, doing the reporting, like for you?

We are supported by a lot of volunteers, for example our international partners. We love them to death and we’ve been working together for the past three, four years. They are in their seventies. We’re really grateful for what they do. However, sometimes they forget that we work — we have full-time jobs — because they’re retired.

We don’t have a problem doing the writing. It’s just having the time to sit down and do it. Then something comes up from work and family. You understand. I wouldn’t say we have any critical problems.

In any project, we have disagreements. We might not agree the way things should be, or they don’t understand the way our culture works. Also with the NGOs that we work with, sometimes the reporting that they do is not the way we want them to do it. The project they do is not the way that we want. We try to create a balance.

In the last project that we did, we had an issue with the finance part. I’m not a finance person, so I wanted the reporting to be done in ways that a layman could understand. So if we bought five bags of cement, all of those purchases should be one on line — “cement” — along with the quantity and the price. But what I received assumed that I’m an accountant. So that took a lot of time. And reconciling the report with the receipts took a long time.

We learned how it works by doing projects. Based on our experiences. we created a finance manual. For example, you should provide us with details of expenses every month in an Excel format with the proper receipts and documentation. So for March expenses, we want to receive a report by the fifth of April — with all the documentation and all the receipts. We’ve been working this way for eight months. It has helped us and now we’re not worried about how it goes.

We learned from the last project, from the difficulties we encountered. We applied that learning to this new project. And we learned a lot of things from this project that we can apply for the next one.

Another example is that we changed the way we document receipts. Before, the NGO would send us the receipts and we would have to verify them and scan them. That took a long time — and as volunteers our time is limited. So for this project, we bought them a scanner and showed them how to use it and process the receipts. We learned from the last project, from the difficulties we encountered. We applied that learning to this new project. And we learned a lot of things from this project that we can apply for the next one.

From the M&E side, did we share this with anyone? These lessons learned? I don’t think so. I don’t know — but I wish we could.

Especially because you developed a process, documented that in a manual, and did some capacity building with your partner.

Yes, we build their capacity. I would say that we use simple Excel. We don’t over-complicate it. For the receipts, you scan it and create a PDF. We set up a Dropbox account and asked them to put the PDFs in the Dropbox folder so that they’re accessible and don’t clutter our emails.

Thinking about Rotary’s current systems, how do they either enhance or detract from your ability to do reporting and documentation?

I would say they enhance. But it’s not like not everything is perfect. There are some drawbacks. For example, uploading receipts takes a long time because there are so many. Of course, this has to be part of our work.

If there was a way to use our existing Dropbox folders that would be great. I understand that I’m being selfish. There are 34,000 clubs. Dropbox would be really difficult for Rotary staff. I know what I’m saying is not fair. But I would like simplified reporting systems. Especially for approving receipts.

That’s a good example. How is the information about your initiatives gathered and shared across Rotary?

We just upload our final project report into the system. If anyone has questions they can ask us. There are points at which we are asked if there are any takeaways — but I honestly don’t know what happens with that information afterwards. I don’t know if somebody sees it. I was never asked to share my experience. But I did include in our report that we bought a scanner to improve the way receipts are processed.

There are points at which we are asked if there are any takeaways — but I honestly don’t know what happens with that information afterwards. I don’t know if somebody sees it.

I don’t think that the report template includes a section where we can talk about things like that. If there was, it would have been good for us to learn from others. It would be good for us to see how others have done it. I know every country is different, but it would be great to have some sort of sharing arrangement around best practices.

When you say the system, do you mean MyRotary?

Yes. My Rotary Grant Central.

And when you say it’s accepted or closed, is that by the grants team?

Yes. We apply and we have a focal point person who looks at it. And if they have a question, for example about the way the budget was done, they ask us. We then give them more documentation or an explanation in writing. When all is approved they send us an email saying, “Congratulations! The project is on.”

Do you partner with a different international club for each of these projects? Or do you tend to partner with the same club?

In Ethiopia, we currently have 25 water projects. So the main clubs are my local Rotary club and the international club. We have different Rotary club funders, but the main MOU is between my club — Addis Ababa Central-Mella — and the Rotary Club of Northwest Austin. We also work with an international NGO, Water to Thrive, and our local NGO, an evangelical church [EECMY — the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, South Central Ethiopian Synod]. And also the local government. So we’re five partners.

External relationships are important in any big project that we do. We’ve completed 38 water projects with Water to Thrive and EECMY. We learned about these NGOs through our international host club. Water to Thrive came to their club and made a presentation about the water projects that they do in Ethiopia with EECMY.

This is how our work is divided: The Rotary clubs fund and oversee the project. Water to Thrive provides technical expertise with their project coordinator based in Ethiopia. And EECMY liaises with the community. The local government oversees the actual construction of the water points. They also coordinate the community training program.

Our partners to provide regular reports and join Rotary Clubs when they visit the project sites. They also join the monthly online meeting to discuss the progress of the projects.

Excellent. What are some challenges around the way that information is shared across Rotary? You’ve mentioned that it’s difficult for people to learn from each other. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about the way information is gathered or shared across Rotary, and externally?

It can be challenging to find an international club to partner for a project. That’s crucial for us, too. Sharing information about best practices is really important. Best practices are really crucial, but you don’t want to read a 10-page document. You just want a few bullet points: How to handle finance, how to handle communications. Easy steps. Otherwise you go in circles trying to find that kind of information.

Best practices are really crucial, but you don’t want to read a 10-page document. You just want a few bullet points: How to handle finance, how to handle communications. Easy steps.

I just thought of one idea, maybe a platform where you can ask a question. For example, “What is the best way to do finance for a project?” Then somebody can give you ideas. Like when you post on Facebook. That sort of a platform might be good. It might be difficult for somebody to manage it. Anybody from different parts of the world can reply. That person might be an accountant, a water technician, or a health professional.

Problem solving is sharing information. I’m not trying to over-simplify things but I want you to know that those kinds of things are important. Thinking about our last water projects, that might have saved us a lot of time. Of course, we all have our own challenges that are different from one another. We learned a lot in terms of finances. I would like to have a platform where I could ask these types of questions.

The World Bank has invested a lot in communities of practice. Do you ever use any of those?

Yes I do. I do mostly events. So we have a group of event planners from all over the world. We meet every month. We also do Microsoft teams meetings. We ask questions, and somebody will answer them. Those kinds of things really helped. I just thought of this now: Maybe we could have communities of practice for each of Rotary’s seven areas of focus.

It seems like the current mechanisms are text-based, with a focus on reports. Do you have any other ways to ask questions or share learning. A series of webinars, for example. Or water community calls?

Yes, but it’s local. We share our experience with different Rotary clubs in Ethiopia. For example, we did a talk about water. We also do talks on literacy.

I can give you two examples. We did a presentation on Water Day about our  different water projects. We showed pictures of what we did, what we achieved, and things like that. We also talked about a project where we supplied books to a library. There were so many complications and we wanted people to learn from our experience. The person who was in charge went through every detail and highlighted what others should do so as to avoid the mistakes that we made. So now if someone says “We want to bring books to you from the US.” I can respond, “Wait. Let me tell you what happened. This is that you have to do: A, B, C, D, E…” These presentations are mostly discussion-based.

There were so many complications and we wanted people to learn from our experience. The person who was in charge went through every detail and highlighted what others should do so as to avoid the mistakes that we made.

We also share experiences with other clubs when we join their meetings. I think it helps and people appreciate it. We are hearing from others about how it’s done — and that it should continue. What have we learned? What are the key takeaways? What are the things that we can share with others?

So like a reflective or retrospective process, or like an after-action review.

Exactly. Oh, by the way, we do that with our international partners. We talk about what went right and what went wrong. Sometimes we have a fight about it. We need to have a fight about it. It’s good at the end of the day. It helps us grow and do things in the right way. At the end of the day, this is for our community.

Those are really important fights. Not easy — but important. Can you think of a specific time where a report that you submitted or a lesson you learned was used by others?

When we imported books the first time, I was in charge of that project. I had to go out of Ethiopia for a month. I didn’t have a lot of access to the internet because it was a personal trip. When I came back, there were a lot of problems with the book shipments.

Then, somebody from my club wanted to do the same project again, bringing books to the community where her father grew up, because the library got burned down and so they wanted to give back to the community. When she started, we went through what I had previously done. One of the most important things, for example, is to get a tax exit paper. It takes time to get that — a long time to get approval. So we talked about it and we tried to go through the steps that I went through. But we still had issues.

There are always complications, but we learn from our mistakes and have avoided more problems. My current water project also had its own problems. We should share that as a group. People from other Rotary clubs have asked us a lot about our water project. They want to know how did dit it. They are impressed by the amount of money we were able to mobilize.

We are all volunteers. I have absolutely no clue about how a well is dug or how spring development is done. Our partner NGOs bring their experience and capacities…. we try to share what we learn from our partners with other Rotary clubs.

We also share our experiences with our partners. For example, if we are working with a local or an international NGO that focuses on water, they helped us craft a plan that will succeed. We are all volunteers. I have absolutely no clue about how a well is dug or how spring development is done. Our partner NGOs bring their experience and capacities. For us, we  just observe and make sure everything is done properly. However, getting expertise is important. So we try to share what we learn from our partners with other Rotary clubs.

How do people know to ask you? Do you have a communication network?

Yes, we have joint projects, joint club meetings. So on those occasions we talk about our projects and we post a lot on social media about our projects. So the other clubs around the country will see and they say, “How can you help us?”  For example, somebody from outside the country just contacted me. He lives in Switzerland. I had a meeting with him on Friday and we talked about what he wants to do.

I talk about what the production load is. People are aware about the different kinds of projects that we do, especially because our club is known for our projects. In three years, we have done around 38 projects. On our social media such as Facebook, we post often. Sometimes we get media coverage because of our robust social media presence. We also do different kinds of Rotary gatherings. We have Rotary Day where we reach out and invite the public. We talk about what we did and people ask questions.

So it sounds like you’ve built a reputation, have regular gatherings, and tap your digital and personal networks.

Yes, personal networks. We are proud of our projects. They have changed people’s lives and we want to brag about it.

As you know, one of Rotary’s four strategic initiatives is around improving monitoring, evaluation, research, and learning. So Rotary can better track and communicate about its impact. How might enhanced MERL processes help Rotary do its work better or boost its visibility?

In this part of the world, I don’t think that we try to brag about our Rotary projects enough. There are several reasons for that. Culturally, you don’t talk about what you did — especially as a volunteer.

This is Ethiopian culture?

Yes. In one of the first Rotary meetings after I joined one of the members told me, “Oh, we did a water project. An $800,000 project”. This is like probably in 2003 or 2004. I asked, “What did it do? How was it discussed?” Nobody remembers if there was media coverage. This is just one example.

When it comes to learning processes, I don’t think that’s [standard] here in Ethiopia. We do a lot of projects, but we’re not sharing our achievements. We do our monitoring and evaluation, but we’re not sharing what we learn. I don’t think those things are communicated as well as they should be.

And what do you think some of the reasons for that are?

I think we’re shy to talk about it. People are like, “Come on, it’s just one project.” Let me give you one example. I did the research. I was doing a master’s program. I just finished last month. My topic was on corporate social responsibility and marketing. I interviewed around 10 people from different organizations. One of the questions that I asked these people is, “Do you do any corporate social responsibility activities?” They said yes. I was trying to understand how they use CSR as a marketing tool. Nobody does it, yet these are big companies.

Culturally, you don’t talk about what you did — especially as a volunteer… Everybody says, “How could we talk about this with our culture? Somebody should approach me to ask about what I did. I shouldn’t be the one who talks about it. If I start talking about it, it’s like bragging.” …For us, someone else should talk about what you do.

I asked them why that was the case. I wanted to understand the cultural side of it. Everybody says, “How could we talk about this with our culture? Somebody should approach me to ask about what I did. I shouldn’t be the one who talks about it. If I start talking about it, it’s like bragging.”

So humility is part of the culture? I’ve noticed that in North America, especially Americans, the culture is talk a lot about what you do. But when I interview people from Britain, they find that offensive. They joke about how the Americans behave. Is this similar?

Yes. That’s exactly it. For us, someone else should talk about what you do.

I don’t think I’m a typical Ethiopian. I talk a lot. The majority would be very shy and just say we did a water project. But I sometimes I also think that I’m bragging. At the office, I really don’t like when people say thank you to me publicly or when I’m recognized publicly. I just can’t. I really get embarrassed. It’s my work, but I don’t need to be recognized.

That is such a good point. You framed it as bragging versus doing good evaluation and communicating learning.

Yes, that’s what I was trying to say. I’m proud to be a Rotarian. Don’t get me wrong. I’m proud of what we do. However, talking about that takes effort. The reason I can do it is because I worked a lot with the Americans.

In Kenya, the newspaper will cover a Rotary club that has given sanitary pads for 20 people. I’m not saying that’s small, but in Ethiopia if I invite the media they would tell me “It has to be impactful.” It’s not clear how that is defined. It might be that a girl who is not missing school is more impactful. But in Ethiopia the way impact is interpreted is different. It’s our culture and also our media landscape. For example, if I did a project for a hundred thousand dollars, they might be interested — but I don’t think that they would be. I’m almost a hundred percent sure that they’re not interested in a project valued at a thousand dollars.

Doing good monitoring, evaluation, research, learning work — especially the documentation and articulating what you did — takes a lot of time to do well.

Yes. And in addition to the humility there is a lack of understanding of the impact of doing that work. I’m in communications. When I hear something, I understand the story. I think about how to frame it. The story angles. But when other people do a project, they do the reporting because it’s required. But they don’t share. 

When you share what you do, you’ll have more impact. People learn from what you have done. But I don’t think we do that. There’s a club outside of Addis Ababa that did a $400,000 project. That’s a huge amount of money for a club like that. However, I don’t think they have ever shared anything with anyone.

The problem is that they didn’t know about the importance of sharing. Or they don’t have the tools to share, or the knowledge of how to share. I’m not well versed about the different kinds of sharing tools that we need to use. I’m not trying to blame others. I’m blaming myself.

Maybe the tools need to be very simple, where any layman can understand. You don’t need to be a communication person or researcher.

Agreed. Listening to you, I realize that if you’re thinking about a water project then the metrics are very clear. People are not getting sick. Kids are not missing school. But the knock-on effects of sharing your story or learnings is really hard to measure. Also it doesn’t get captured within a project timeline. In two years, I might remember that we had this conversation and I can re-connect with you to ask a question.

Yes, definitely. You and I have been talking for the past an hour and half. We understand each other. I have seen your dog, coming in and out. I have a dog too. I don’t mind if the dog sleeps in the house, but 99% of Ethiopians do mind. That’s our way.

I was lucky because I had the opportunity to work for an international organization. That helped me understand different cultures. I am less likely to be surprised. Those kinds of experiences matter. The kind of things I read matters. I don’t know if it makes sense to you.

It makes total sense. I saw you notice Greta leave the room. And I thought, oh that’s not cool. He may be horrified at the dog being in the house. I wonder if that’s bothering him.

That’s why I mentioned it. Because I know what bothers some people. Experiences are always related to your exposure to culture. How we grew up.  Where did you go to school?  Who are your friends? Where did you work? Those are the things that matter. I went to private school. I had the opportunity to travel by myself a lot. I worked for different international organizations like the UN. Those exposures really helped me with Rotary because I can see the different aspects of life. I don’t mind asking myself  questions. There are things that you learn from other cultures, like being bold. I don’t mind asking questions — but the majority of Ethiopians don’t.

Has Rotary influenced this process of opening up and exploring?

Two hundred percent. More than that. It has made me a better person. It has made me more tolerant. It has made me a better citizen. Because I’ve worked  with other people, with international partners. This is what our project does, how we do our work. One of our main contacts is in his eighties. He’s an inspiration for us. He cares about people. This is what matters.

You learn from these people. These are the values that you learn: love what you do, give back to your community. This time that I’m spending with you today, I enjoy it because I’m trying to give something back. I’m learning a lot too, because you’re putting things into a different perspective. So these are the things that Rotary has taught me.

One of our main contacts is in his eighties. He’s an inspiration for us. He cares about people. This is what matters. You learn from these people… This time that I’m spending with you today, I enjoy it because I’m trying to give something back. I’m learning a lot too, because you’re putting things into a different perspective. So these are the things that Rotary has taught me.

Let me give you another example related to dogs. This was in 2000 or 2004. I was a group study exchange fellow. I got an opportunity to go to the US for a month. I was in the Seattle area. I was involved with Rotarians who are there because they used to come to Ethiopia every year for the polio campaign. One of the couples I knew from when they were in Ethiopia. They invited me to their house for dinner. I went to their house and we were at dinner. So when I went in, they had two really really big dogs. They were BIG dogs. I was shocked. After some time in the house, one was sleeping on my lap and the other was licking me. At first, when I entered the house the first thing that was on my mind was,  “Oh my God, they are going to eat me”.

Rotary gives you this kind of experience. I would never get that kind experience anywhere else. Another time we went to the Cheesecake Factory to eat. It was a cultural shock. The individual portion of the food was so big. I couldn’t even finish a quarter of the cake.

I’m Canadian and the Cheesecake Factory freaks me out. We don’t go there.

I learned from each experience. I want to try everything. I’m open to anything. I don’t want to say no. That experience for me, being in Rotary, and knowing those people from all over the world is something that made me who I am.

I learned a lot from people and I learned about compassion. I learned about humility. I learned about giving not only your money, your time, your energy. At the end of the day, you see the impact.

What’s the main thing you want people who don’t know anything about Rotary to know about your work?

I want people to know that we are people of action. We get things done. We go beyond borders, cultures, and any other differences. What matters is helping our community. I want people to know that we achieve our goals. We are committed. We are unique. We look for partnerships. We want peace. We’re a an open society.

You don’t need to be a Rotarian to help your community. We are open to partnership and we are open to new ideas. We are open to working with communities.

I want people to know that we are fun. We like to entertain ourselves. We combine fun and service together. That’s very unique. We do excellent fundraising where people come to dance. We are having fun, but we are also fundraising for the project. That makes a huge difference.

Is there anything more you want to tell me or anything you want to ask me?

I honestly didn’t think that I would stay one hour and 41 minutes with you. I thought it was fun. I love Rotary and it has changed my life completely.

I don’t know what I would have done if I didn’t join Rotary. I’m not exaggerating. It has made me a better person. It’s a place where I can give back to my community. And for me at the moment, there is no other avenue where I can do this.

This story is copyright Samson Tesfaye Woldetensaie and published on the StoryEngine website under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.