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Journey of a Lifetime Award recipient follows in mother’s footsteps through Ethiopia

Journey of a Lifetime Award recipient follows in mother’s footsteps through Ethiopia
16 Sep
This year’s Journey of a Lifetime Award recipient, Redzi Bernard, completed her two-week journey travelling through northern Ethiopia to learn about the lives of women there earlier this year

Following in the footsteps of her mother who undertook the same journey 50 years ago, Redzi travelled on foot and by mule between the towns of Weldiya and Lalibela, and recorded her travels for a BBC Radio 4 documentary. We caught up with Redzi to discuss her journey.

What did you want to achieve with this journey to northern Ethiopia? Why now?

I wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps and get to know a country I had already grown to love through stories told in my childhood. The journey also had particular resonance as shortly after I applied, my beautiful, adventurous and inspirational mum was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. I am fortunate to have been able to travel when I did – we swapped lots of notes and she has enjoyed reliving an amazing time in her life.

What key issues facing women did you come across during your time there – are they being tackled?

In the rural areas where I trekked, women still have trouble accessing good healthcare, especially in relation to reproductive health. But it seems to be improving. I visited the new maternity unit at the hospital in Lalibela and learned about a programme of satellite healthcare services being rolled out across the countryside which takes health services directly to areas where people live rather than expecting women to come to the hospital.

Your mother took this same journey 50 years ago, what do you think has changed since that time?

For the most part I was not able to take the precise route my mother took. But there were points when I was on the exact track she was, and that felt really exciting. Since getting back I have shown her pictures and she has said some of the images were exactly the same when she went in 1968. But a lot has changed. There are more roads, better sanitation, family size is coming down and there are much better standards of universal education.

on a donkeyRedzi atop a mule recording her documentary [Image: Redzi Bernard]

What was the highlight of your journey?

The overwhelming spirituality of Lalibela was astounding – I was humbled and awed in equal measure. The churches were hewn from a single expanse of rock in the 12th century and the fact that they are still in use as a place of worship makes them truly special. When I visited there was a tangible sense of devotion I have never experienced anywhere else.

How did making a radio documentary affect the journey?

It helped me to stop and reflect at points where I perhaps would have walked on by, and it made me pay attention to how I was feeling. It also upped the pressure slightly. When there were no mules available I downright insisted that someone find me one, because I had promised I would ride one on the radio!

What advice would you give to the next recipient of the JOLT award?

Apply! If you’re sitting at home thinking there is no point in applying because past winners have special skills or unique talents – remember that I’m just normal. I had a strong personal pull to a place that I had always longed to see and in taking that one small decision to apply for this grant I have been fortunate enough to have had an unbelievably enriching experience. So if you’re thinking of applying – do it! You have nothing to lose and the experience of a lifetime to gain!

Redzi’s BBC Radio 4 documentary will be broadcast at 1.30pm on Sunday 20 October 2019. The Journey of a Lifetime Award is run by the Society in partnership with BBC Radio 4 and offers a £5,000 grant to make an original and inspiring journey anywhere in the world, and the chance to create a travel documentary. Do you want the opportunity to make your own Journey of a Lifetime? Find out more on our website: www.rgs.org/jolt

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