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.
“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!