Finding (Goal 1) work when you’re not looking for it

When you wish for sector-specific work, it comes all at once. It’s like the saying, “When it rains, it pours,” except the rain is more like a hurricane.

It’s refreshing (keeping with the hurricane metaphor, are those ever refreshing?), tinish overwhelming, and did I say really awesome? Because it is.

For someone who thrives on planning, on mapping out an A-F itinerary for foreseeable situations, discovering work when there is no intent to find work feels…different.

Let’s break down different.

In the most bizarre way, finding work when you’re not seeking it feels freeing. It feels freeing because genuine excitement, fresh perspective explodes in the moment. We’re talking about clapping your hands, jumping out and shouting, “YES! Let’s do it tomorrow!” genuine explosive excitement. That’s the emotion that fuels you to pound through writing objectives, breaking down goals.

Inside the pre-K classroom Israel has built. Education doesn't have to be boring, and Israel's creating an environment where students embrace learning.

Inside the pre-K classroom Israel has built. Education doesn’t have to be boring, and Israel’s creating an environment where students embrace learning.

Before leaving site for a two-week training back in November, a man carrying a 3×3 green picture book approached me at the bus station. Standing to my left, he walked up and said, “I believe you are a Peace Corps Volunteer.”

Hi, yes, I don’t know if it was your perfect English or your beautiful statement that caught my attention first. I am indeed a PCV, what’s up and how can I help?

Turns out this guy, Israel, used to be a counterpart for education PCVs when he lived in Bonga. (Whereas Gurage Zone is in the northeast corner of SNNPR, Bonga is in Keffa Zone, way west in SNNPR. It borders the Gambella region of the country, its nearest international neighbors are the Sudans.) He moved back this way to jumpstart a preschool-focused NGO and we’ve been working together for about a month. A few photos of the model classroom he’s designed at the primary school pepper this post.

When not bouncing between the health office, health center and women’s affairs office trying to coordinate meetings to talk about starting trainings (red tape is a universal construct, except here we use a purple stamp to seal approval), or having impromptu English lessons inside the compound or having English club-turned youth development club meetings (the highlight of my week every week), Israel asks me to work with him at his reading programs, where he teaches preschool-age kids letters, basic vocabulary and English nursery rhymes to train their ears to a new language at a young age. (Those kids rock at “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and go to town with “Old McMickey,” in case you wondered.)

The last week and a half, we haven’t had any joint reading-program meetings, and I haven’t been by the primary school to help Israel with the preschool. I’ve been doing WaSH (water and sanitation, hygiene) trainings for HEWs (health extension workers) in the woreda and helping finalize a gardening training with the health center to kick off a nutrition campaign. The projects are incredible, don’t get me wrong (and do forgive the bias), but I hate feeling like I’ve bailed on someone who gets Peace Corps and was really eager to work together.

During a five-day, woreda-wide WaSH training, health extension workers taught local leaders the causes and effects of open defecation, and what communities can do to take charge and reverse effects. When this woman heard the diseases linked to improper sanitation and hygiene practices, she shouted, "We've been killing ourselves!"

During a five-day, woreda-wide WaSH training, health extension workers taught local leaders the causes and effects of open defecation, and what communities can do to take charge and reverse effects. When this woman heard the diseases linked to improper sanitation and hygiene practices, she shouted, “We’ve been killing ourselves!”

In the only time where I’ve embraced the Ethiopian fashion of visiting someone unannounced, I stopped by his place last Sunday afternoon, compliments of the WaSH training not extending past noon. Before I even stepped through the gate, I just popped out apology after apology. This guy gave me a flash drive packed with energizers, lesson plans, activities to do with youth, helped me find someone to start a gender club with AND sealed a meeting place, and I’ve just tefashed around, like that typical American jerk only concerned about work.

He laughed and pulled me into his house, where I discovered he had another friend who stopped by to visit, too. In small-world, small-site news, this guy lives on my compound. He just moved to town. We didn’t meet him on my compound, which would make sense, we meet in another guy’s house on the other side of town. The new compound neighbor works in water sanitation, and when Israel said I came from a WaSH training, this guy said, “We will work together with the schools!”

Look at that exclamation point! I swear, it’s the small things – like a stranger’s candid expression – that make each day worth it.

You are habesha, you aren’t habesha, you are habesha, you aren’t…part 2

Riding on the high from passing what felt like Cultural Integration 101, bouncing into the suk when the owner shouted, “Selam nesh!” seemed appropriate.

The owner, sitting to the side of the shop with two of his friends, asked the typical, “How is the weather? Is work fine? Are you enjoying it here?” starter questions. (The weather is lovely, work has never been better, I’m loving just about every second here.)

One of the owner’s friends and I began talking about life in Ethiopia versus life in the States. He said he often sees friends’ sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, uproot and settle in the States. When they return to Ethiopia to visit, he said, it’s like they’ve forgotten the country they once called home. The culture slips away. It’s no longer sitting inside a suk sipping coffee, discussing how your family’s doing, it’s “What’s next? How does that help me?”

Talk about statements hard to swallow.

In between our own coffee sips, I tried to explain not all Americans are like that, although as a culture we do maintain a very strong sense of time and getting as many things done as possible. It is easy to see, though, how our fixation on work (and not just doing it, but finding it, “keeping busy,” as we like to quip) chips away at maintaining and establishing relationships.

This sounds depressing. Tell me this is about to get better.

My friend asked if Ethiopia and the United States were the same developmentally, economically, everything-ally, where I would prefer to live. I’m keeping my reply offline because I’m interested to hear what other people would have said.

By this point, the sun had set and some people were heading out for the evening’s church service, the cue to head home. Before we parted, though, my friend said, “You know, you’re not habesha.”

WHAT THE EXPLETIVE! We have three months of cultural training sessions designed to help us understand (and integrate into) the culture! What do you mean I’m not anywhere near habesha? My high school has more students than my site does people, all I wanna do is fit in!

We never will, though. Some people get closer than others, but at the end of the day, we’re still Americans. We still do things that are distinctly American.

I asked, a little concerned, if this was a bad thing. (Because I’m an American, the first thing my mind rushed to was work, along the lines of, “Well, Christ, if people don’t think I’m adjusting to the culture, I’m never going to get a single piece of work done.”)

He said no. He said he liked that I was willing to discuss my thoughts openly and engage conversation.

So, yeah, not habesha. Never will be. I’m solo at site, and I think sometimes it’s tempting to become a piece of the culture to fit in, be accepted, minamin (etc). But everyone at site accepted me despite being different, and it’s not in any of Peace Corps’ three goals to become a walking, talking replica of host country nationals. I forgot that. I’m glad someone reminded me of it.

You are habesha, you aren’t habesha, you are habesha, you aren’t…part 1

I’ve been at site for seven months (SEVEN MONTHS!), which translates to, “You’d think I’d know my way around by now, gin astanaki kald naw (but that’s a fantastic joke).

I really want to lift this nutrition training off the ground, and I’m searching for whatever medium I can use to launch it in the community. Everyone can agree it’s a good idea, it’s something that should be done, but no one can identify the organization that should partner up with this weird ferenji.

So I set off for the women’s affairs office one afternoon, where I spoke with one of the men in charge. (Pause for a moment so we can all appreciate the situational irony.)

We’ll talk about the women’s affairs office in a second – and by second, that means a different post altogether.

I never made it to the women’s affairs office because I turned down the wrong back road, and instead found myself along the health center-education office road. Put another (more joyous) way: I was on the same road at Tigist’s parents’ shay bet (tea house!).

The moment that thought registered, Tigist shouted, “Sierra!” and seconds later, we were hugging, kissing, and throwing “Selam nesh? Indet nesh?” back and forth for two minutes.

That’s a really intense way to say hello to someone, does it ever get tiring?

It’s more confusing than tiring. I don’t know what the magic number is for the amount of “selam neshes” a person spits out, or how many cheek kisses are enough before it’s okay to jump to conversation.

Anyway…

Tigist and I greet each other, then plop inside her parents’ shay bet, now a venue for impromptu Guragina lessons. I really don’t remember how it started, but it did.

(An aside: During a permaculture design training in Bahir Dar, my roommate, Sally, encouraged me to make a list of professional and personal goals I want to accomplish every three months as a method to recalibrate myself. One of my personal goals is having 100 Guragina words and phrases down by February, and without evening mentioning a word of that goal, site’s making it possible. [It’s because my site rocks, sorry to all other PCVs who think they have the best site. Come on over, we’ll compare notes.])

Between scribbling down new phrases (by the way, chigger, the amarina word for “problem” is way easier than the Guragina word for it, tifurkarareh), students started gathering outside the shay bet, watching Tigist break down words syllable for syllable, popping out words ba Guragina whenever they got the chance. At one point, one the kids broke out of the semicircle to tell the adults outside, “The ferenji’s speaking the local language! The ferenji’s speaking the language!”

Thanks for the ego stroke, site, now onto me actually helping you out…

Kas ba kas.

A lot has happened within the last six weeks that I’ve struggled to come to terms with and put into words. I’m not about to talk about that – I’d rather address a PCV’s question, “How do you handle it?”

When my friend asked, I didn’t really have a good response. I don’t remember what I said, and if I didn’t say, “I don’t know,” I should have. I spent the following day thinking about it, though, and I think I might have a better answer.

I focus on what makes me happy. Some days that’s easier said than done.

Mom made it look easy.

During college, I minimized visits home to avoid seeing Dad in whatever new shape he’d be in since the last time we had seen each other. (For all the elephants in the room, web, continent, Dad has ALS.)

Mom, though, she didn’t shy away. (She didn’t really get a choice, but still, she took it head on.) Whereas I’d come home and snap every time a nurse would swing by to check Dad’s oxygen, change his catheter, say, “Well, it looks like he needs to go to the hospital,” Mom kept it together. When her twenty-something daughter screamed, “How can you not be angry? How can you keep living like nothing’s happening? We’re losing everything and nothing’s getting better,” she listened. She responded with, “I can be angry with the situation and not let it control me.”

I had no idea what she meant two years ago. I thought it was some b/s line she designed to keep her spirits high.

If I could have five minutes, I’d ask for an answer. Whatever the answer would be, I think I get it now.

It’s worth reiterating that Peace Corps, new for each person who does it, provides an environment where you have every opportunity to mold your experience, from the moment you roll off your mattress to the moment when you (maybe) tuck in your bed net. Any actions sandwiched between ride on your reactions. You can scoff that a kid didn’t appear to take you seriously during a lesson (I can indeed hear you when you laugh and distract everyone around you). You could also smile because your kids run up to you every morning, your friends call when you’re away at a training and are eager for you to come home.

(An aside – Let’s talk about the kids at site. I adore them. I love it when they smile, when they laugh, when they run up for their hugs and tackle their ferenji friend to the ground. I would do anything in this world for them.)

You could smile because you have a place to call home and a place to belong.

As Mom would say, I can control my reactions. As my counselor would say, we look for what we need.

I arrived at site craving love and acceptance. It’s here every day. I might be the 24-year-old who babbles in Amharic and Guragina like a toddler, but when people see me jotting down every word they say, they gather around to watch and introduce new vocabulary. I might still be figuring out where everyone lives in this 3,000-person town, but no one gets upset when I lose the way – they just walk me back along the road again, and three right turns later, there we are.

Is every moment perfect? Absolutely not. That doesn’t mean it’s not a beautiful experience. One action doesn’t get to dictate how I feel about service. One action doesn’t get to tell me, “Well, it was great, but I better go on home.” I get to do that. I get to choose how I want to react, how to seek what I need. For better or for worse, Peace Corps and Ethiopia are stuck with me.

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.

Basically.

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?

Absolutely.

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.)