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Starfish interview: Perth Physio’s Life-changing Spell in Ethiopia

September 6, 2020 / Jacqueline Lang

A chance encounter with an elderly nun in WA’s north-west was to change the course of Perth physiotherapist Julie Sprigg’s life.

The nun, newly returned from Africa, told Julie that in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, the sisters were looking for an assistant to help at their clinic.

“Be prepared, though, the poverty and sickness will be like nothing you’ve ever seen,” she warned. “ You will never be the same again.”

Which is how, just a few weeks later, Julie came to be winging to the African nation.

Here, she’d be confronted by poverty, pain, civil unrest. She’d also make lifelong friends, gain a greater understanding of world politics, and fall in love.

After two intense years, Julie knew it was time to leave Ethiopia, the land that had captured her heart but caused her to feel great despair at her inability to change things.

Now 44, Julie has written a book about her time in Ethiopia, from 2004 until 2006.

Small Steps, A Physio In Ethiopia, published by Fremantle Press, is on sale this month.

The book tells how, for first three months, Julie lived with the nuns, which turned out to be less than ideal for a single 20-something non-nun. Each day, she’d set off to work at a tiny clinic, inside a converted shipping container, to treat her patients.

Julie then took a job in the country’s north, in the city of Gondar, helping run a new course training students to become physiotherapists. (When Julie arrived, there were only seven physiotherapists in Ethiopia. Now, there are more than 600.)

Here she would also lose her heart to a handsome colleague.

Julie chats to The Starfish.

What prompted the book?

When I was living in Ethiopia, I used to send out a regular group email to family and friends. I saw how much interest there was in the stories of the kids and in life over there, because quite a few people started reading it. Sometimes people would send over donations or splints or text books. So the idea to use some of this material for a book went from there.

Julie, what sort of cases did you have to treat over there?

I’d see ailments we just wouldn’t see here in Australia. For example, I’d often see kids with TB of the spine. We had lots of primary school school children who’d become paralysed this way. After they’ve come to hospital for treatment,  physiotherapy is so important, for them to regain the ability to walk, go back to school, play with their friends.

You must have seen some really heartrending cases?

I’ll never forget one nine year old girl who had TB of the spine and was paralysed in both legs. After she’d been treated and had some physio, she was making good progress. But sadly, she couldn’t keep coming back for more therapy, as her mum had to go home to ensure her other kids were cared for. I was devastated, because with the physio her condition had really been improving. But then later, they came back and the mum showed me how she’d worked with her daughter on the exercises I’d shown them. The treatment was working. I was elated.

The physiotherapy had made such a difference to her life?

Yes. The stakes are so much higher over there, without support services in place. If she’d gone home and not done those exercises, her life tragically would have been very different.

So when you arrived in Ethiopia, how many physiotherapists were there?

I was one of only seven across the entire country. Now, there are hundreds. The course I enrolled in was the very first to train locals how to become physios.

Living in such a different culture, so far from home, did you often feel lonely?

Not at all. After I moved to Gondar, I was working and mixing with a small gang of expats; we were a close knit department. There were Dutch, Japanese, English, Indian.. I was the only Aussie. I had a great mix of expat and Ethiopian friends.

So it was a wrench to come home?

Yes, I was so torn. I loved the work, it was so rewarding. And I loved the kids. But I had to prioritise my own wellbeing. I felt I needed to leave for the sake of my mental health.  I’d gone to Ethiopia on my own with no preparation, without the necessary safeguards. I’d set off there, thinking ‘surely we can solve any issues, if we all work a bit harder,’ and eventually I realised, there aren’t any solutions to these extremely complex problems. The nature of global inequity is so complicated, there are no easy solutions.

When you came home, how did our easy WA lifestyle seem to you?

I remember going to Cottesloe beach, just sitting there, looking around me, thinking, ‘this is paradise!’ We’re safe. We’ve all got enough to eat. We’ve got this amazing, pristine environment. None of us want for anything! At the same time, living in Ethiopia was a reminder that happiness isn’t just for the materially privileged. Being connected and part of a community is what makes for a meaningful life.

After you returned home what did you do then?

I worked with two charities and then in 2014 I started working for the WA government, working to help the most vulnerable and disadvantaged people in the State. I’ve always been drawn to issues of social justice.

Ethiopia still means a great deal to you?

Absolutely. It takes up such a big place in my heart. I miss the delicious food, the coffee, the friends.

Could you live there again?

Well I have a young child now, so not at the moment. But who knows what lies ahead?


Recent Podcasts


Fremantle Press Author Interview, with Jay Martin

The pair talk about the genre of travel memoir, and how their novels fall into the category of ‘narrative non-fiction’, a book that’s based on truth but adapted into the flow of a novel. Speaking about her debut book, Julie says she wasn’t prepared for the culture shock of living in Ethiopia, where she had to relearn how to do everything from the way she brushed her teeth to how she ate her dinner.

Radio New Zealand Author Interview

West Australian physiotherapist Julie Sprigg has captured her experiences working as a physio in the slums of Ethiopia in an extraordinary work of narrative non-fiction. It’s her first book, which was shortlisted for 2018 City of Fremantle T.A.G. Hungerford Award. Julie joins Kathryn from Perth.

Good reading Author Interview, with Max Lewis

In this episode, Max Lewis joins Julie as she reflects on her time in Ethiopia. As a child, Julie dreamed of being somewhere else, of making a difference. Now, she can’t wait to meet the nuns she will live with and the children she will provide physiotherapy for in Ethiopia.

RTRFM Interview, with Tom Reynolds

Julie Sprigg’s new book Small Steps: A Physio in Ethiopia is about her experiences at an Ethiopian university, training some of the country’s first physiotherapists and navigating some of the country’s political issues during her tenure.