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The Ottawa Councillor Who Lived The Canadian Ideal Abroad

08/23/2013 09:17 EDT | Updated 10/23/2013 05:12 EDT

Long before Katherine Hobbes became a noted Ottawa City councillor - she took a break from exhausting careers with Bell Canada and Bank of Nova Scotia to be part of the international development wave. She went to unknown destination to her - Ethiopia - to volunteer as a teacher with Ethiopia's Gibson Youth Academy.

She shares with me about her adventurous journey, why getting involved in international affairs are an important civic duty and why she had left a piece of her heart in Ethiopia.

You have often been described as someone who is never afraid to jump in to the unknown. You once took an adventurous trip to Ethiopia and lived there for a year. How was that like?

Previously I had spent time on the African continent. I had camped for a month in the Kalahari desert in Botswana, and had traveled in Morocco. I was looking to go back to Africa to visit but hadn't chosen a country in particular. Then I found an ad for a teaching position on the Internet, and in a matter of days I had decided to go for the school year. I landed in Addis Ababa in the middle of the night, with my entire luggage in tow for a year and all the cash I would need. At the time you couldn't use credit cards in very many places, and money transfers would have been the only option.

I didn't know it, but no one was at the airport to meet me as scheduled and take me to the house I was going to live in. (At the old airport no one but those who were flying in or out were allowed in the building.) So I walked out, had to get in a cab and ask them to take me to a hotel. Strangely enough it turned out to be blocks from the house I was going to live in and the school where I would teach. I walked out the next morning and an Ethiopian gentleman who worked at the hotel walked me to an Internet cafe where I could get in touch with the school. I will always remember that kindness, but it isn't unique in Ethiopia for someone to jump into the car with you and show you directly where you need to go - and then insist on walking back to where they were when they decided to help.

What surprised you the most about Ethiopia that you may not have known or seen through TV or words of mouth?

What probably surprised me was the strength and resilience of the people of Ethiopia. So many live with such hardship, and yet will give their last bite of food to a stranger. In terms of the country itself and its beauty, when I toured in the North I felt I was stepping back into the 12th century, where things hadn't changed one bit in all that time. It was thrilling to be in the monolithic churches where everyone still worships underground, without electricity and in the manner they have always with drums and incense. To get a chance to look and touch the ancient prayer books written in Ge'ez, now an extinct language, and see all the artifacts still in use. There are not many places in the world you can go and be immersed in the history directly like this.

Where were you teaching in Ethiopia?

I taught in Addis Ababa at Gibson Youth Academy. It was a private school with a number of campuses. I taught English to students in Grades 2 to 6.

On rare occasions, cities such as Ottawa and Toronto have taken the lead to help in international affairs. Do you think there is a role for cities in international developments in the world or should it be an entirely a federal issue for Canada?

I do believe Cities should be involved in International Affairs. It would be wonderful if Ottawa could have a "sister city" program where we could share knowledge and ideas and provide needed items with a Capital City, like Addis Ababa. I know recently one of the City of Ottawa Emergency Preparedness experts travelled to Kenya to share practices, and we can and should be involved in initiatives like these at all times.

You have often spoken out about the lack of recreational opportunities for the youth in Ottawa. Do you also think that is also important to have the same quality life for Ethiopians in Ethiopia or is that too much to expect in a country that lacks much resources to meet what is a lofty goal (in Ethiopia)?

I think it is important everywhere in the world for children to have all the opportunities possible to succeed in life. In Ethiopia I'd witness the kids playing soccer with raggedy old balls, and wished they had better equipment. I did have some sent over so I could give them away when I saw groups of kids playing, but they needed so much more. Many children work, either watching animals or in the City shining shoes or selling items on the street.

So with all the many things children need in Ethiopia - clothes, medical care, food and shelter so you might think it would be luxurious to have recreation. But it doesn't mean they shouldn't have it. Even bicycles are in very short supply - they would be such a help when children who live in the countryside have to walk 10 or more kilometers to get to school. And they need opportunities for education in music, art, and sports. The students at the school I worked at had a gymnastic period, and all the kids loved it. But our school was lucky to have so much equipment.

For those who may want to follow in your footsteps and venture on an adventurous yet fulfilling international journey, what advice do you have for them??

I always encourage people to visit Ethiopia, and if they do to take school supplies. Ethiopia is such a safe country, with proud and kind people. I have never felt so welcome and so well taken care of. I had so many wonderful and unique experiences and I have never witnessed so many interesting and beautiful places in any other place I have been to.

A piece of my heart has been left in this beautiful country.