Meet (one of) my best friends

This is Abraham, one of the most gobez (clever) kids on the planet.DSC_0162

Three months ago, as I scuttled between town offices to collect information for that community needs assessment, I was three footsteps from the gate of the education office when a boy came rushing out of his parents’ home, carrying a red, soft cover human anatomy book and shouting, “Wait! Please read this for me!”

How can you say no?

(Aside: If you could say no, I don’t believe you. This kid earnestly wanted someone to read to him. He wanted to understand. How do you say no to helping anyone understand anything?)

Letting the education office wait, I stood alongside one of the main side roads with this kid, pointing to locations on his body and saying, “This is your leg, but this bone is your femur.” About halfway through the impromptu anatomy read-a-long, I realized it would probably be more beneficial to explain all of this ba amarina (in Amharic). So I did, going back and forth between pointing to my body, the boy’s body, and book diagrams.

So you looked like a marionette.


As minutes gathered and approached the half-hour, one-hour mark, other people encircled us to watch the weird white girl and the random anatomy lesson. Some people laughed, some smiled, most went back to their regularly scheduled routine, bored after a few minutes.

Throughout the streetside anatomy lesson, I forgot how much I loved just holding a science book, how fascinating it is to discover the systems within the human body (no, I don’t know why I didn’t study any branch of science in college).

I never forgot that boy’s question, though, or his excitement, or his curiosity.

(Whereas we caution children to be wary of strangers in the States, in Ethiopia, there is no such cautionary tale. Community almost serves as an umbrella term for universal parenting.)

Fast-forward to Meskel.

While walking along the main road, the boy’s older sister, Tigist, saw me and invited me to her home for dinner. As we walked, I pushed myself to remember from where I had met Tigist – I remembered telling her it is one of my favorite Ethiopian names, remembered we were along a street when this conversation happened, but could not remember the context. With so many new faces to dedicate to memory each day, this sort of memory lapse can be common.

As we approached the orange-tarp shay bet (coffee and tea house), though, I remembered Tigist. I remembered the anatomy book. (“Please, will you read this for me?”)

Inside her home, her little brother Abraham bounced up, pulled up a chair, plopped himself down and said, “We are about to have a traditional Gurage culture meal.”

This child! I had no idea he was such a character. During dinner, he and Tigist took turns sharing details about making kitfo, making kocho, celebrating the holidays with their family. Then they began pointing to items in the living room – the chairs, the table, the window, the window, the mat – and rattled their names away ba amarina and Guragina (site’s local language).

Because this is Ethiopia and it’s cultural to walk with people and not let anyone be alone, Tigist and Abraham walked me home. As we passed one of the trees outside of the health center, Abraham pointed to it and said, “Do you see that tree? It gives us all our oxygen!”

Dude. You’re in the first grade. In eleven years, I hope you’re ripping open a stateside university acceptance letter.

Celebrating Ethiopia’s biggest holiday down in Gurage Zone

Meskel, the finding of the true cross, stands as Ethiopia’s largest holiday. In Gurage Zone, what serves as a two-day celebration for most of the country extends into a three-week adventure.

Three weeks. American friends, what’s the last thing you celebrated for three straight weeks?

Riding on the heels of the new year, which falls on the Gregorian Sept. 11 (Ethiopia’s Sept. 1), Meskel preparation begins hours after the new year has begun. For weeks preceding the holiday, families saw inset leaves to pull out the leaves’ cores, which serve as the key ingredient in kocho, a Gurage Zone specialty.

Wait, a dish of made of leaves? Does it taste…leafy?

Depends. What do you think a leaf tastes like?

Kocho has three layers. The outside layers, which range from a dark green to a brown depending on how long kocho is cooked, are crunchy, while the inside, middle layer is either a light green or white, and is chewy. During Meskel, kocho is served with kitfo, a dish comprised of diced raw meat and local spices.

Did you just say you eat raw meat?

Yup. Bonus point: Avoided intestinal infections, too!

As with other major Ethiopian holidays (the new year, Fasika – Easter), Meskel provides an opportunity for families and friends to shower each other with hours-long visits. Embedded within these visits exists copious amounts of local food and drinks. Every family participates. It’s common to start your day eating k’urs (breakfast) at one home, move to have misa (lunch) at another home, and end your day at a third home, where you’re eating irat (dinner).

For those living in Gurage Zone, the house-hopping practice runs throughout the month of September, thanks to the new year and Meskel falling in the same month.

In the weeks preceding Meskel, I began to notice mounds of sticks pop up outside of compounds. At the top of each mound stood a cross. One afternoon during work, I asked a friend about the significance of these cross-studded mounds.

“They are a sign that a holy day is coming!” he said. He continued, saying the night before Meskel begins (Sept. 27, Ethiopia’s Sept. 17), families will gather, bringing their cross-studded mounds with them to a central location and lighting them on fire in one large demeri (bonfire).

Lighting the fire ignites the (technical) start of the holiday.

Some families will go to church to celebrate the holiday’s beginning, others will start visiting friends and families.

You’re an American. You have no Ethiopian family. Did you even celebrate?


I can’t speak for other PCVs, their sites, their experiences, but the thing I value the most about my site is the immense amount of energy everyone puts into making each member of the community feel at home, like we are all part of one large extended family. The holiday season heightens the sense of love and compassion. Earlier this week, a friend asked how long I’ve lived in Ethiopia, and I paused because it feels like it’s been years.

(Oh God, she’s become that person. Sorry. Really, I am.)

So you had your three weeks of festivities. Are you going to, you know, work now?

Back up. I’ve been working. I’ve got action plans ready to go for nutrition and sanitation, and the PLWHA director and I are working together to create an income-generating activity (IGA) for people living with HIV/AIDS.

While the last month has been spent dancing between compounds, I’ve still held onto the American sense of needing to do work to feel satisfied. I think it’s worth keeping in mind, however, that work operates at a different pace in developing countries. Whereas it takes a few minutes to organize and uphold meeting schedules in the States, it can take days, weeks, sometimes months, to organize the same meetings here. Work moves at a slower pace, but it also provides the time to nurture the projects you want to see succeed.

What would drive you back home?

Peace Corps Volunteers can rely on one piece of steady, constant mail throughout service – the National Peace Corps Association magazine that finds its way to our hub town post offices once a month.

The magazine hosts a collection of articles, stateside updates and graduate school advertisements. It also features a section highlighting (R)PCV service stories.

One of September’s stories zeroed in on the question “What would have to happen for you to come back?” The story commented that prior to departure, PCVs come face to face with the possibility of potential, theoretical demise, establishing powers of attorney, releasing leases, seeking out storage for items PCVs didn’t want to bring along for the ride and didn’t want to give away. I suppose somewhere along the planning route, most people had what the story dubbed “the conversation” with loved ones – who would you have to lose to drive you back to the States?

I never had that conversation. The closest I came to that conversation was with my aunt the week before Staging. By this point, she and my grandmother had begun stopping by the house to primarily visit Dad, secondarily provide Mom with company.

The day this visit happened, Mom’s stress levels were spiking. The family car wasn’t running, there was an ongoing Medicare/Medicaid battle concerning coverage for Dad’s medications and oxygen, I was days away from moving to the other side of the world (a factor I didn’t realize at the time would contribute to parental stress – there will always be things children, regardless of age, don’t realize). Mom, moments from a breakdown, sat with my grandmother while my aunt took me outside to figure out what was going on.

As our four-minute conversation neared its end, my aunt asked, “What will you do when your dad…?” (The understood verb here was “passes.” “What will you do when your dad passes?”) I told her Peace Corps grants a two-week leave for family emergencies.

Neither side of the family – Mom’s or Dad’s – makes a strong effort to sway decisions when decisions are already made, but they will do everything in their power to vet whether you’ve paused to consider any and all ramifications that come attached with a particular decision. Pragmatism, McArthur-Mision style.

Maybe it’s because we were all bracing ourselves for the inevitable that the hypothetical “What if so-and-so dies?” conversation wasn’t relevant. We could have the real “What are you going to do when so-and-so dies?” conversation instead. Rather than entertain the question of whether I’d return to service, the (understood) question hinged on, “Can you handle it?”

It’s a good question. It’s a valid question. I don’t have an answer. Day by day, manageable. Hour by hour, more variable. Part of the blessing of Peace Corps is that you really do cherish, value and love your job, snags included. Perhaps another part is that because amid so much change, your brain doesn’t always know whether to classify an event as adjustment-related or grief-related – events find themselves tossed in folders labeled, “this was hard,” “this was unexpected,” “this was weird.”

I don’t know what other PCVs would do, but I do know that we all come to Peace Corps looking to push ourselves beyond our comfort zones, to discover what truths and possibilities exist in atmospheres previously believed to be beyond our realms. Sometimes we get more than what we could have ever asked for or anticipated.

(As an aside, if anyone knows of any PCVs or RPCVs who lost a parent during service and returned to post to finish their service, hook me up. I don’t think Peace Corps maintains a database or has a group tailored for those volunteers – it’s probably not a large enough amount to warrant the energy to compile such data or compose such a group, but if the outlet exists, I’ll use it.)

You never write, you never call home!

Hi, yes, I left this blog abandoned in the World Wide Web scene, decrepit and collecting digital dust. Apologies.

Part of the absence stems from not knowing where to begin, how to share. I’ve said it before, as have numerous other PCVs (and many, many more will continue to blog home the same sentiment), that life continues as life regardless of where you live.

Would you find it interesting that I washed my clothes today? No? Then yeah, I elect to spare you the details that instead find themselves jotted down in my journal.

The last three months were spent hustling around town – well, hustling is an American word and an American mentality; I spent the last three months adjusting to town, to the place that feels like home, gathering information to compile and write what became a 45-page community needs assessment. (Shocker, I still do that data and words thing.) Along the way, I found myself in multiple neighbors’ – now gwadanoc (friends) – homes, sipping coffee, listening to them share what they love about their culture, answering questions about American culture as honestly as possible.

Myth 1: America the beautiful, America the perfect

In a nation where nearly every person will tell you “We are a poor man’s country,” it sounds shocking to hear that a place as wealthy as the States could possibly have problems of its own.

The problems aren’t the same, that much is true. One example I gave to a friend is America’s allotment of resources, how we go back and forth on whether we help others within the country too much or too little (cc: the social safety net), whether a department like family and youth services needs the exact amount of funding requested.

Terrible example.

“Yes, but your country has those resources available, at least,” was the response.

In the States, we’re taught to not discuss money, politics or religion. The conversation – sorry, the lack of conversation – around those topics molds who we are as a society, as we wait for hints suggesting someone’s background before moving to ask a question like, “So did you hear about that one church?”

It complicates adjusting to a culture where few topics are forbidden. You can feel your spine shrivel every time someone turns the conversation to what we’re uncomfortable discussing (add on to the fact that all Westerners are perceived as rich, and the discomfort discussing anything monetary magnifies).

People ask because they’re curious. The last three months at site have made me wonder what America would be like if we let childhood curiosity grow into adulthood. Quick, someone test it and report back.

Maybe that sample test could go something like this: “My name is ______. What’s your religion?”

The key word here is your. Not your family’s religion, your religion. What you believe. During pre-service training (PST), we’re taught that so much of the culture here leans on family matters (it does). To hear such a you-specific question rips even egocentric Americans out of their bubbles for a moment.

Those bubbles should pop. When they do, everything in the environment emerges as a new experience, a new opportunity to learn and grow.

On a Monday afternoon in my hub town, which also serves as my zone’s* capital, I walked across the street from the bus station and into the zonal PEPFAR office to get a better idea of what highly vulnerable children (HVCs) look like within the zone as compared to site specifically, and what PEPFAR does to address HVCs’ well-being.

As two supervisors spoke, I started scribbling basic program names, their goals, the audiences served. Before leaving the office, I asked if I could take a few photos of the data on the walls to make sure I had correctly written down the information they shared. (That was a half-truth. It’s really because it’s still awkward to sit with an open notebook writing down every detail a wall dons – seven minutes can feel like three hours in those moments.)

Myth 2: Developing countries don’t appreciate American foreign aid

The answer was the most humbling, grounding response I’ve heard to date.

“Your job is funded by American taxpayers, yes? We’d be honored. We appreciate all that Americans do to help us become better, stronger, more independent, and we would be honored to help you help us.”

Not to call out the American South, but to call out the American South: THE FUNDING IS WORTH EVERY DIME.

Myth 3: If you can adjust to a shint bet, there’s no culture shock left

It’s not hard to train your body, it’s a very malleable unit. It reacts to stress, it reacts to small spaces, to large spaces, to a cut, sprain and a break. The body is designed to withhold change.

Physical elements require little adjustment. A shint bet – yes, that would be a hole in the ground – is not a hard adjustment. Life without power is not a hard adjustment (the places that need power the most have generators to keep them running), although you can see the effect (ir)regular power sources have on development early on during the adjustment period.

Life with a mattress on the ground and a mosquito net cocooning you at night is not a hard adjustment.

The (hard) adjustment comes from realizing you live in a culture that is not your own. (Oh! That’s what culture shock means!)

Example: In the States, the average age for marriage among women is 27. Twenty-seven! Imagine, then, discovering one of your friends is 16 and married.

That’s the discovery that reminds you you’re not stateside. The physical variables, the body reacts to and handles. For me, a human face to a number that anyone in the States would classify as young is what required adjusting.

As unsettling as that process can feel, though, that’s where the cultural exchange happens.

So, what is it that Ethiopians love about their culture?

I can’t and won’t speak for every Ethiopian in every town, every woreda, every zone, every region of the country. I can speak for my town, though, and I can interject pieces of conversations that other PCVs have shared to provide a more whole image of what makes a collective culture tick.

Ethiopians value the emphasis they place on community. They invite neighbors over for dinner. If they see a friend on the road, they pause to check in and see how that friend is doing, if life is fine. When a compound member’s daughter becomes ill, mothers rotate between caring for the girl to give the mother some reprieve.

They value their children. They value the gift of tomorrow. They value God.

That’s snazzy! I should think about what I love about my culture. But first, what do you love about Ethiopia?

I love the women. They carry the culture on their back, whether it’s toting a baby around town, crating fruit, water or wood down the street from one end of town to the other. The women here are strong, they are persistent, they see the end.

They don’t quit.

For someone who lost her mom five months ago, Ethiopian women serve as an inspiration to keep moving forward. They embrace you with love, with energy, with the belief that you are okay today and will be okay tomorrow, too.

Perhaps I’ve been more acute to notice mother-and-child interactions, searching for hints of how my mom would have cared for me as an infant, searching for maternal similarities between cultures. I don’t know much about childrearing in the States, but I’m keeping notes while I’m here to have an idea of how cultures intersect long after I’ve COS’d.

* Zones represent a cluster of woredas (counties) within a region of Ethiopia. It goes woreda-zone-region. There’s your fun fact of the day!

“Dahna nesh?” and the “Are you okay?” transition

There is one main road in my site. If you go one way, you end up in the town where G9, G10 (and soon, G11!) trained. If you go the other way, you end up in my hubtown. One road, two ways to communicate.

Same with language.

All volunteers have their moments when they realize they’ve integrated. For some, it’s one big moment that happens once, sticks through and defines service. For others, those moments happen once, and then again. And then again a time or two after that. Service is what you make of it, and it’s the moments that remind you you’ve become a piece of the community that carry the most weight.

I’ve said it before, but it warrants repeating: Ethiopians take you in and adopt you as part of a large, extended family. Typically, this is in the “Dahna nesh?” (Are you fine?) variety. My host organization (the woreda health office) is only 10 minutes up the street from where I live, yet some days it will take 20 or 30 minutes before my feet plop into the office because everyone on the street stops to say “Selam naw! Dahna nah/nesh?” to each other. Communities invest time, energy and care into everyone living in the community. If you want to talk about a place that understands it’s a community that carries an individual, come to Ethiopia ibakih (please).

Each day, it’s a treat to have those conversations, to pause and play with a child, to discover what Ethiopians cherish the most about their towns. It provides a sense of direction and provides an incredible amount of insight into what drives people to serve others. (Oh, and yeah, it also helps with knowing how to initiate conversations about what projects people would like to do.)

Strolling around site one afternoon this week after work, a suk (shop) owner caught me and, rather than say “Dahna nesh?” as has become the norm, he paused for a moment and said “Are you okay?”

It’s a powerful moment to hear someone speak your language.

We heard during pre-service training that speaking the language spoken at your site — whether Amharic, Afan-Oromo, or Tigrayan — would carry us miles as far as integrating into the culture is concerned. On one level, let’s introduce the duh factor. Of course knowing the language helps. It helps you to buy food, navigate around town, form friendships.

On another level, hearing someone make an effort to speak to you in your native tongue, and to ask a question so sincere, shifts your perspective and molds your day.

More than any other experience in Peace Corps, it is the language acquisition that has exposed me the most to what it is like to live as a minority, what it is like to navigate around a town — a country, even – that isn’t your birthplace. It teachs how to develop tactics to integrate into the community, how to understand others and form relationships to not be the ferenji, not be the outsider, but become part of the family.

Can you hear me? Nope.

Some days, afternoons and nights, raindrops plop and slide down tin roofs peppering Ethiopian towns. During those times, it sounds like someone tiptoes above you, wanting you to know he exists, but he doesn’t want to disturb you. Carry on, take it easy, enjoy the power while you’ve got it.

Other days, afternoons and nights, raindrops pound the roofs, launching races against each other to see which drop can hit the tin first and splatter against dry, cracked clay ground and turn it into a river of mud. When the rain gets that heavy, you can jack your music up loud enough to have a house party for one and still not hear a single beat.

When the rain gets heavy, power snaps, so hopefully you have a candle or a flashlight within reach to give you some sight. While the light isn’t necessary, sometimes it’s nice to see shadows dancing on the walls as you sit under your mosquito-net fort with an uninterrupted amount of time to reflect.

You might not hear your thoughts (I’m telling you, the rain gets intense. Floridians, think of a category 1 hurricane – that might not sound so strong, but remind yourself that this place is landlocked and stands about 9,000 feet in the air.), but the drumming drops offer the chance to dig into your head and reflect on why you’re here, how you feel, what you wonder might change (something will certainly change during service, right?).

I can’t, and won’t, speak for everyone, so I’ll zero in on me for a moment, forgive the self-reflection you didn’t ask to read.

In the States, headphones provided white noise. More powerful than music oozing out of speakers, the direct line to my ears offered the chance to get lost in my thoughts while still present in the surrounding environment.

Rain serves that purpose better. Without a background track to potentially sway or dictate emotional response, I’m at the mercy of my own thoughts and their streams of consciousness. That amount of liberty can feel damning and overwhelming, but it’s that amount and depth of reflection that gives you the clearest image of who you are and who you can become.

The ant that lived in my hair

A dead, blank ant came tumbling out of my hair June 11th as I took my hair out of its messy, not-washed-for-two-weeks, haphazardly brained bun.

I’m not sure how long the little guy was chilling out on my head, crawling along my scalp, nibbling on the available sunburned scalp skin. He clearly was not satisfied with his living conditions, though. Pity. All he had to do was bite me. I could’ve thrown a baby wipe or two up there to ease the grease.

(By the way, if you’re horrified with my bathing habits, let’s recap. Water’s a hot commodity. I feel like a complete pig when I hop into a stall, twist the knob and wait for some low-pressure droplets to drip out of the shower head. That’s water no longer available for drinking, washing clothes, or preparing meals. A baby wipe can do everything five minutes in the shower can do. So, yes. I don’t bathe in the traditional sense these days. No one has told me I smell, yet, so I think we’re doing okay.)

When our little friend – he needs a name, got a suggestion? – found himself freed from the sloppy mess that asphyxiated him for an undetermined amount of time, he fell into the palm of my hand. As I looked at him, it dawned on me that in the States, discovering that an ant had lived in my hair would have terrified me to the point where I jumped up and darted for the shower to scrub out whatever other critters might have also been nesting. Sometimes, though, the reality of “Well, what can I really do about a situation that’s already happened?” sets in. No mad dash for a shower, I let the little guy meet the inside of my garbage bin.

Although one ant already deemed my head subpar, there are a few things I could do to keep ants from bouncing along town with me on a free ride in the future. The most obvious one would be to stop throwing my backpack on the ground to use it as a seat every time I pause to talk to a child or community elder. I think that’s how the ant migrated to my head, though I can’t be sure.

Peace Corps emphasizes teaching the value of Americans to host country nationals, and teaching the values of host country nationals to Americans. What the goals forgot to include, though, was accommodating the needs of those who want a bird’s eye view of what it’s like for a foreigner trying to integrate into a new community and culture. (We’ll assume that’s what the ant wanted, anyway.)