Chapter 8 – Inside The Little Tin House

Inside little tin house

The flowers have grown since the last picture of the little tin house (chapter 2). They are looking for sunlight.

When Norm proposed to me, one of the first things he said was that he couldn’t promise me a big house because he had dedicated his life to God for missionary service. This adventure was one of the shining examples! Both Norm and I had grown up in humble circumstances. Most of the houses we lived in growing up had been small. I enjoyed homemaking – making a house into a cosy home was a happy challenge for me.

In Ethiopia, we enjoyed a beautiful climate for living part of the day outside. However in the rainy season, the house seemed small, and the deafening roar of bursts of rain on the tin roof was a new experience for us.

If you had been a fly on the wall of this little tin house you’d have been able to watch how we made our lives in the bush as comfortable as possible.

One of the first things Norm did to the little house was to put in a sink, and running hot and cold water for the kitchen area. The hot water was piped in from a barrel with a fire under it. In the photo above, it is inside the cement block structure to your right, on the side of the house. It made life so much easier.

Each morning we were awake in plenty of time to have breakfast together with the children, and then be out and about on the compound, ready to answer questions and to organize whatever was going on.

house under the treeWe brewed our coffee with beans from the local market which we roasted in a cast iron skillet, carefully watching them so they’d darken up and get an oily look to them, but not burn. After grinding, we perked the coffee in a regular percolator. Mmm! Can you smell that brew?!

The house was in total about the size of a single car garage here at home. As you entered the front door, a tiny kitchen was to your right and a dining table to the left. We had been given some big sturdy wooden storage boxes which we padded and covered with the same colourful market fabric as the curtains. They were our seating at the table for the time-being. Behind these were the children’s built-in bunks and our bed and wardrobes. (The mission provided every missionary with a bed and stove.) The windows didn’t have glass, just screen and curtains. The night Norm saw a leopard eyeing our chicken pen as it slinked over the fence and across the garden, we wondered about the wisdom of the screen.

Would you like to know what we ate in the little tin house? If you are a woman, you probably would!

Breakfast varied, but our default was toast and homemade jam (mmm…guava jam, is there anything like it!). Coffee for us; milk for Cathy and Jeff. I made bread once a week. Edna Ratzliff, a colleague at a previous SIM assignment on a mountain top was a dear homemaking mentor for me. I learned so much from her; she didn’t mind me popping down to her house, sitting on her wood box, watching and listening for a few minutes each day. She usually divided up the weekly dough for a loaf, a half dozen buns and a few cinnamon rolls, so I tried to do the same. The cinnamon rolls made Sunday breakfast special.

We bought full cream powdered milk in big tins, imported from Holland. Most missionaries had tried the local milk. However, often when the countryside people milked their cows, they milked into a gourd which had been first smoked for hygiene. The smoke flavoured the milk. Once I tried putting cottage cheese, which I had made from a gift of local milk, into lasagne. I thought the smoky taste was hidden, but the family spotted it right away!

Dinner at noon was a variation of meat, potatoes and vegetables. The “beef” part was tricky because for quite a while we couldn’t afford a kerosene fridge. So, from the local market, from a side of beef hanging in a tree, I would ask one of the compound workers to buy me a piece of meat. I would use a bit of this beef right away for tenderized steaks, then pressure cook the rest. I would keep it in the pressure cooker with the little wobbly weight on the lid, still on it, feeling that I was keeping it as sterile as possible until I wanted to use it. Then a few days later, I took off the lid and proceeded to use the cooked meat in various ways and we never got sick from it.

When we went to Addis Ababa for business, we often brought back fresh fruit and vegetables from the culturally interesting and delightful row of venders in the big market there. Sooo different from a supermarket at home. It involved bartering, and different vendors calling out to us to buy from them!! We bought cold cuts from the lovely Italian deli in downtown Addis. And we used local chickens, cooked in the trusty pressure cooker for all kinds of chicken dishes. Chicken curry and rice was one of our favourites. Our SIM Business Department kept a little store of basics for us, also.

The evening meal was light: a slice or two of bread, some imported (expensive) tuna fish or cheese from a can or just some poached eggs. And, we tried to keep green beans and tomatoes coming along in the garden. I felt adventurous by always keeping a jar of imported mayo on the counter. It was such a treat, and contrary to expectations, it never went bad. Cheese and tomato sandwiches ranked high on our list of favourites.

Each week, I usually baked a pan of brownies, or lemon squares, etc. in our propane stove’s oven. We would enjoy a square with tea in the afternoon. It was nice to know I had those squares – we rarely had company in the beginning as we were so far off the beaten path, but should we have guests, I was ready……. tea or coffee, a treat and a sincere welcome.

injerra and wat

Traditional Ethiopian food, injerra and wat.

For special, on Saturdays we slowly made the custom of having traditional Ethiopian food, injerra and wat, at noon. Chicken wat and vegetable wat – how we all loved it.

When teenage fellows came to help during their school breaks, we often barbecued shish-kebabs outside in the evening. We slowly roasted cooked potatoes, bits of raw chicken, and other vegetables placed as we wanted, on skewers. We enjoyed this over a “Norm-invented” creative charcoal barbeque, incorporating a barrel lid (the missionary barrel!), two cement blocks split lengthwise, one above and one below the barrel lid, some sand and locally-made charcoal. What a guy!! We slathered the loaded shish-kabob with a sauce made with finely grated onions, canola oil, tomato puree and many spices. (Thanks to Gerry Nelson for her mother’s homemade French Dressing recipe!) We placed the skewers across the split cement block, and really enjoyed our shish-kebabbing on our square of lawn in front of our little tin house. The only negative was mosquitoes that came around us at dusk.

On Sundays we all took the little 25 mg. Daraprim pill to prevent malaria. It was suggested by SIM administration. We never had malaria, praise God and SIM.

In the outside eaves of the little tin house, we kept, for want of a better place, the rolled-up skins of huge pythons. It seemed that our neighbours enjoyed python steak, and thought foreigners liked the skins. They very kindly brought us the skins as gifts; however, we never got around to all the work of having a hide professionally tanned in Addis Ababa, and then obtaining a permit from the Ethiopian government to take one home with us.

poinsetta bushSoon after the little house was built, Norm dug a long narrow garden in front for poinsettias. At the same time, Mr. and Mrs Cain, another older missionary couple, gave us a large, absolutely delicious papaya, a lovely deep rose colour. I took the seeds, just for fun, and made a little trench with my hand along the front of that garden Norm had dug, and put those papaya seeds in. Would you believe we got over two hundred papaya trees from it!! We planted out the seedlings in clumps because they needed a male and female to bear fruit.

papaya tree

Papaya tree

We had papaya trees all around the perimeter of the compound. Of course we had to make sure they were watered regularly. We enjoyed homegrown papaya and bananas. Papaya is full of vitamins, and soft for babies. We tried to get our Arsi friends interested in growing them, especially for their babies’ health, but it didn’t appeal to them. Their lives were very busy without hauling water for watering fruit trees. Their animals would trample them. They would be obliged to share generously with extended family, also. Only so much one little Arsi family can do!


At the end of the day we needed to boil the kettles, full of water, for 20 minutes. Then we poured the water into a cylindrical metal container with 3 clay filter candles in it and a lid on top. It was fitted onto an identical container to catch the filtered water. The bottom one had a little tap, and the whole filter sat on the counter. That was our drinking water for the next day. The metal also kept the water cool.

When the sun went down, Norm would light the kerosene pressure lamp. We would take care of bits of business, etc. We used the dining table as a desk. We stayed in together after supper, a good family time. Occasionally a monkey above dropped a twig onto our tin roof. At first we were startled, but we became accustomed to it.

Radio Canada sometimes came in clearly on our little short wave radio. We would try to get the program, “ As It Happens” with Barbara Frum. Norm had the interesting experience of getting a Stanley Cup hockey game one evening, and then disappointingly, at half-time it switched to French. Not a happy man.

Radio brought us a touch of home. Nice! We were happy to be in Ethiopia, but all of us missionaries tried to keep our homes and lives decorated with a little touch of the western culture. At this time there would be about 300 missionaries in SIM Ethiopia. Many were from the USA, some from Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, England and New Zealand. Many denominations were represented.

Before bedtime, I would read to the children. We carried about with us, a shabby paperback copy of Hurlbutts Stories of the Bible. Small and thick, it easily fit into our suitcases. I had also bought an encyclopedic looking set of traditional stories while we were on furlough. “ Brer Rabbit and de Tah Baby ” (A southern American folk tale) was a favourite for sure! I would use the southern dialect and add quite a bit of drama! The children would want to play on their bunks for a while, and sometimes I would read in bed with a flashlight on my shoulder.

We were blessed in that we missionaries had a vacation resort started in the 1950s by SIM, and it had a library. We could borrow a few books, so sometimes I would be reading Agatha Christie, or a classic, or a missionary biography, or my new cookbook, bought on furlough. I had arrived in Ethiopia the first time with Joe’s notebook, an eclectic group of recipes collected by a radio talk-show host in Victoria, and a small Purity cookbook. I needed more. So, on furlough I bought the big, indexed and organized Betty Crocker cookbook. I could get most ingredients for baking in the city.

I learned to keep a small notebook with me for other missionaries’ recipes. We all shared. I still have that little book. It is faded and splattered, but I notice that there are a few easy ice cream-like recipes. Someone gave me dandy, quick and easy lime sherbet recipe made with a lime jello, milk, a freezer at the top of our fridge and a small electric hand mixer.

Dadto - in kitchen

Dado in the kitchen. Note the plumbing and the tent frame structure.

Of course, when I was able to have a young Arsi lady to help me in the house while I was in the clinic, life changed for me. She was clever, and she had a beautiful attitude. She was our trusty caretaker, Borema’s sister. She learned to make our bread, boil the water, etc. She called me “my sister” in Amharic. Sweet! I had the joy of teaching her to make herself a dress from a Simplicity pattern, using my little hand sewing machine. And she learned to make a delicious chocolate cake.

This little tin house lost a good part of its warmth and vitality when the children were at boarding school. We really missed them.

14 Responses

  1. Pearl says:

    Love those cheery curtains. I’m impressed – papayas!

    • Thank you, Pearl. I imagine you have sewed a lot of curtains in your life, also. Yes, papayas! Such a fun experience it was for me to see those tiny trees popping up out of the soil! Thanks for commenting. xo

      • Pearl says:

        No, I couldn’t sew if my life depended upon it! My mother tried her best to teach me but nothing frustrated me more than trying to sew. Within minutes the bobbin was always knotted.

        • Betty Harrison says:

          Yes, I don’t think there is much in-between ground, with sewing you either love it or hate it. Nowadays, there is really no reason to sew much, there is so much inexpensive clothing around. However, I did shorten some red gingham curtains lately! xo

  2. Carol Stevens says:

    Betty and Norm, I’m enjoying every chapter, but I could especially relate to this one. Many similarities to keeping house in Kathmandu, including boiling and filtering the water. The lime sherbet recipe was very popular, and we were always grateful when international visitors blessed us with a packet of lime jello.

  3. That is so interesting, Carol! I never thought of the lime sherbet being an internationally known recipe. I am thinking that we must have had more access to imports than you did. Haven’t our lives been rich in experiences. From Kathmandu to Lake Langano!! Thank you for your comment. xo

  4. Sharon & Jim says:

    So wonderful Betty.. I love your details and the papayas, the poinsettias (I didn’t know they grew so tall), you both are the same today as yesterday.. as Jesus is too.. Praise God and keep up the good work you and Norm with your delightful stories. Love all the pictures and of Cathy & Jeff. You guys are such a blessing and always pursuing greater things. “He” who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it in you.. (can’t wait for the rest of the story…)!! Love from your TH friends!

    • Well, thank you, Three Hills friends, Sharon and Jim!

      God is with us! Isn’t that a wonderful truth.

      You have been a great encouragement to us to write our story, actually it is God’s story.

      Yes, I remember being surprised by the size of the poinsettias when we first went to Africa. And then, there is the classic joke about the auntie in the West who wanted to send something to her nephew in Ethiopia for Christmas, so she got in touch with a florist in the capitol, to have a potted poinsettia delivered to him!!

      You folks are a blessing to us, also. May God continue to bless you. xo Betty

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  7. chip welton says:

    Interesting , I will encourage Tammy to read this chapter. How far were you from Addis Ababa ?

    • Norm says:

      Thanks Chip for your comments. I’m sure Tammy will enjoy our story too. Addis Ababa was about 250 miles to the north.

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