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.