In 1969, as young boy of seven, I moved with my family to Degan, an archetypal small town in north-eastern Ethiopia. I had already lived in Ethiopia for 5 years and knew the local language very well. My parents moved to Degan to set up a new mission. Even though I have not followed their religious path, I am very proud of my medical and missionary parents, Ron and Maria Cunningham, who are from Belfast, Northern Ireland and Schaffhausen, Switzerland. They are inspiring yet humble humanitarians who considered Africa their home from 1964 to 2016. I am also deeply honoured to be the son of people who are living legends in communities in at least five countries.
I learned the Amharic language so quickly and well that my parents thought it’d be good for me to learn my mother’s native (Swiss) German. So, at the age of 5, I was sent to live with a German family in the capital city Addis Ababa called the Hagens whom I still remember very fondly. I commuted daily by public bus with the Hagen kids to the German community school to learn German by total immersion. I remember sitting at my little desk on the first day completely bewildered and confused. It was my first day at school, I didn’t understand a word and my parents were 400 kms away. That was tough. I lasted a term and did manage to learn a little German.
At age 7 I had another attempt at boarding school. This time it was much easier. Until the age of 12 I boarded at Bingham Academy in Addis Ababa. This was a boarding school run by an American Baptist mission group called SIM. I was one of the few students who could chat with the national staff including the gardeners and kitchen staff. Over the years since, I have occasionally bumped into some of these fine folks with many smiles and hugs.
My high school education was in my father's home town of Belfast, Northern Ireland at the height of the bloody bombings and daily murders. This European mayhem contrasted markedly with my idyllic and peaceful Ethiopian childhood. In 1984 I earned a BSc in Earth Science at Kingston University, London before migrating to New Zealand in 1987. I have lived in New Zealand since then apart from 3 years in Melbourne.
Lifelong friendships were kindled in my early years in Ethiopia. In 1978 I visited my parents in Ethiopia for the school summer holidays for the last time. That year the Marxist - military dictatorship of Lt Col Mengistu Haile Mariam refused to renew their work permits and they were forced to leave. Dad talks about that day as a huge funeral when many in the community came to bid their tearful farewells. As pioneers of essential services like the first school, clinic, maternity service and TB recovery centre, I'm proud to say my parents were well respected and appreciated by the community they sought to serve.
Eighteen years later, in 1996, I returned and was tearfully welcomed. The peoples’ dignity in their poverty and suffering was striking. However, despite their huge efforts to help themselves, so much was stacked against them. I had an epiphany. I felt I had to do something. This is where the DESTA Project started.
Ethiopia is a place I cannot stay away from. Now I would like to share it with you.
I have 12 years of entrepreneurial business experience running my own project based small businesses after completing my Diploma in Business (New Venture Management) in 1996 at the University of Auckland School of Business. I also know Ethiopia and the culture well and am blessed with many friends at all social levels. I have also held senior and contract positions in the Auckland NGO community specialising in fundraising and award winning volunteer leadership.
I have a lot of fun being in Ethiopian company and starting to speak fluently in their language. In cafes, people at other tables turn around and come over curious to learn how I can speak so well. Ethiopians have a very dignified culture that values showing hospitality to guests and politeness to strangers and are always warm and friendly when I have encountered unfamiliar people in public like this.
Apart from English and Amharic I speak a moderate level of French, low level of German and very weak Russian since studying the latter at the University of Auckland but not speaking it for the last 20 years.
Come and let me introduce you to some of my friends and show you a country that touched my heart many years ago.
I do a lot of travelling and have taken quite a lot of tours. I can honestly say that I have never experienced such a kind, thoughtful and knowledgeable guide as Sam proved to be.” - Penny C, Waiheke Island, New Zealand – May 2016
“I was totally impressed by with Sam as a guide, his attitude to the participants and his manner in all circumstances were above reproach.” - Penny C, Waiheke Island, New Zealand – May 2016