“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.)

Cups of coffee

For the elephants in the room (web): There’s a line in the Rent song “Seasons of Love” that asks the number of ways you can measure the amount of time compounded in a year. One of those methods is in cups of coffee.

When you live in Ethiopia and try to imagine measuring the length of a year in cups of coffee, you feel a small part of your brain implode, melt, explode.

(The point is we drink a lot of coffee in Ethiopia. It’s consumed at coffee houses during business meetings, it’s the drink of choice when someone new moves into town, it’s poured in copious amounts during celebrations. The cups, about the size of an espresso shot, come with the option of sugar, salt, or butter. It’s delicious every time.)

But if you can condition yourself to handle the caffeine, it’s an engaging process. Earlier this week, I had coffee and dinner at a coworker’s home. The conversation (innichawat — let’s play, also used in terms of “relax”) turned to dancing, photos, and even learning a few words in the local language. (!!) Coffee is the staple that integrates you into the community. It turns the house you’re renting out to the place you call home.

Settling into home continues as a daily adventure. It’s at the point where I’m not just the “ferenji” walking along the main street to get to the health office (I’ll absolutely hear that word here on out every day for the rest of my days here, but something worth remembering, I think, and something many volunteers sit back and reflect on is that the word, in our case, is sometimes issued as a greeting explicit to us. Perspective is powerful.), but now the word “ihite” (my sister) becomes increasingly common. This is especially true of the market ladies, who see me every Monday and Thursday when they’re in town for market day and always, without fail, ask how I am.

Everyone always asks how I am.

Ethiopians take great care of everyone with an enormous amount of compassion, kindness and respect. They ask, “How is the environment? Are you fine? How can we help you?” and they mean are you fine? Is there anything they can help you find? Can they make you feel more at home? Community is synonymous with family.

The investment and passion my site pours into others inspires me to pour that amount of compassion and care into immigrants I encounter in the States. I think when we meet new people in the States, we do want to know if they’re fine and if they’re adjusting okay, but we don’t (all) do it with a frequency equivalent to Ethiopians. If I ask where a bus station is in the States, someone will surely direct me to the station. If I tell someone here I am going to the bus station, they will often walk with me over to the station to make sure I know where I am.

Even when I’m just walking home from the health office, people will run up to say hi. One of the market ladies told me that people say hi and walk alongside me sometimes because in my community, people don’t walk alone. They like people to be together.

For someone who has grown up in an environment where walking solo is a cultural norm, it’s a unique opportunity to get to know people I wouldn’t get to know otherwise. Sometimes it feels awkward, because I seldom know what to say beyond, “How are you?” because when I walk, I’m used to using that as time to reflect on the day. Sometimes it makes me feel bad, simply because I don’t know what else to say. It’s beneficial to spend time with yourself to figure out yourself as a person, but it’s equally as vital to spend time figuring out other people and discovering what makes them happy, sad, motivated.

Ethiopia has done so much to mold me already, and I wonder what it is I’ve given to this country, what it is I can give.

Maybe we can make it a conversation that happens over a cup of coffee.

Similarities and differences

During lunch and coffee at my landlord’s home Wednesday, his brother dropped the question I’ve spent three months trying to discover, disseminate and dissect.

“What are the similarities between Ethiopia and America?”

For about 30 seconds, I twisted and untwisted my legs on a yellow mattress covering a red carpet floor, shifted my focus to look out the window at the incoming storm rather than at him, hoping the answer was floating somewhere in the clouds, waiting to fall down on the ground like the soon-to-be raindrops.

A haphazard answer flew out of my mouth before the rain came.

Ethiopians and Americans both care about others, but express concern, love and affection in such different ways.

Example: My first day at site (Monday), my neighbor embraced me in a long, extended hug, held me at a distance, exclaimed “Tefash!” (You’re lost from me!) and pulled me into her room for coffee and cookies.

Flash-forward to Wednesday, where my landlord invited me into his home for lunch, about 15 minutes up the main road. Inside, 13 people sat in the living room, munching on potatoes, passing around cups of coffee, carrying on casual conversation. It did not matter to any of them that a foreigner was sitting next to them. No one gawked, no one watered down the conversation, no one made me the center of attention. Sitting in a room listening to people laugh was the only welcome home I could ever need.

Ethiopians bring you into their culture and want you to feel comfortable, at home. When they say “Are you fine?” they really do want to know if you’re fine, and, if you’re not, what they can do to help.

That happens in America, too, but not immediately, and certainly not when a foreigner strolls into town.

I think it’s a human staple to care deeply about others and want to carry others and keep them comfortable and cared for (and if it’s not, please don’t smash my faith in humanity – it’s already lasted this long, let it live a little longer). The difference rests with Americans applying such an amount of care and compassion to those with whom they have already developed a strong relationship. When someone steps out of that norm, we take a step back.

(Momentary pause. There are plenty of towns in America that will not hesitate to apply a similar amount of compassion and kindness to strangers. I realize I’ve made two sweeping assumptions about two cultures throughout this entry.)

But what are the similarities between Ethiopia and America? A few PCVs in my group discuss this relatively often, and I know it fails the Third Goal (and to an extent, the Second Goal, as well) to not know where to begin to discuss the similarities, or even how to discuss the similarities, but it’s such a broad question.

Geographically, these countries stand thousands of miles apart, separated by a desert, half the African continent, and the entire Atlantic Ocean. (Though, fun fact: Pockets of Ethiopia’s climate parallel Texas’s.)

Culturally, some of the differences have already been highlighted. There are 82 ethnicities living in Ethiopia. Quick, someone do a census search for how many live in America.

Religiously, Christianity and Islam pepper the regions.

Linguistically, three major languages are spoken. Let’s not get into the local languages – there are too many to count.

With the differences staring you in the face every day, identifying the similarities isn’t always the easiest task, but you know they exist.

You see them when a child runs up to you packed with curiosity and a thousand questions – why you’re here, what you’re doing, your name.

You see them when one of your host parents smiles because you just belted out your first coherent sentence in Amharic. (Or Afan-Oromo, or Tigrayan.)

You see them when you and your host organization identify a need to meet in the community.

The biggest similarity I’ve found in such a short amount of time is the amount of faith each culture holds in the future. In itself, that’s a general statement, and each country addresses moving forward in its own fashion, but no one from either country will deny the desire to see their children be more successful and live more meaningful lives than preceding generations.

Specifications about that baseline similarity can develop throughout the next 23 months.

Moving to site on Monday

I’m moving to site on Monday (FINALLY!), and while there’s a lot of excitement surrounding the prospect of settling into town, transforming a two-room house into a cozy, scatterbrained Sierra home, and beginning the community needs assessment (more on that later), a little bit of fear has squeezed itself into the mix, too.

Fear resting with, God, I hope there are still mattresses available, I need one of those, compounded with, What do I actually need to live? Do I get one stool for me or one for me and one for a visitor? Will I have visitors? (The answer, by the way, is inevitably yes.)

Beyond the minute supply shopping that consumes our priorities for the first day or two in site, there’s also the confusion (and liberation, but that comes later) of figuring out exactly what it is you’re doing at site, and what to tell your host organization you’re doing. I gamble with this reality fairly often, trying to discover how to launch projects that align with my host organization while also adhering to the Peace Corps project framework. (As life would have it, as I wrote that sentence, it popped into my head how I can blend both worlds — success! Now I just have to figure out this CNA thing.)

Sierra, you keep talking about this CNA. What is it, and why are you rambling about it?

The community needs assessment is basically our site framework for the work we’ve identified as important to do throughout the course of our two years of service. It showcases general information about the community (geography, population, age, etc.) and fuses it with where towns are successful in addressing concerns, where they want to improve, and how we can use the resources available to launch improvement. (!!)

When it’s written like that, it doesn’t seem so intense. Keep in mind, though, there’s not a census bureau door to go knocking on to snag all this snazzy information. More critically, before you can even begin compiling massive amounts of information, you need to sit down and build some trust with the community, first. No one’s going to trust the weird, awkward American who strolls into town and then suddenly demands information from x, y and z as it relates to a, b and c. You have to get to know people first. I’m all about that game, minus the part where I’m terrible at small talk. This is part of acclimating and integrating.

With the typical concerns aside, I’m looking forward to site and the chance to plop both feet into this world and away from the American world where I juggled to keep a presence. Another G10 and I talked about that during dinner one night, when we were the only ones left in Addis. (He’s since moved to site — that lucky, lucky human! I’m the sole G10 left, but my time to move is soon.) I think all PCVs at some point during service wonder where the balance rests between maintaining a presence and a life in the States versus maintaining our lives in our country of service.

The best answer we stumbled across (you know, with all of our seasoned knowledge) was that it’s not a 50/50 balance. It’s more like checking in every once in a while, but never fully living and breathing the experiences as they happen. As bizarre as it sounds (honestly, who wants to be that removed from close friends and family back home?), the prospect sounds liberating.

(Ask me how I feel during the holidays. For the moment, it’s a welcomed break. The chance to dive into my community and just maybe connect with those in my site is a delight.)

Fast Addis update

Some people have been asking for a quick update, and I don’t have much information to provide at this moment in time.

I’m still in the capital to finish the training I missed when I was stateside for Mom’s service. Others from G10 are still here, a result from evaluating site safety and security. (Quite a unique way to launch service! Our spirits are high that we’ll move to site this week and get our CNAs started. My spirits are high that I will move to site Thursday, after finishing my language exam, and I’m stoked to be in my community and get my home situated.)

With this in mind, not much has happened. I’ve had a lot of language training, a few technical sessions. I started counseling yesterday (sorry if that’s too much personal information to divulge, kindly don’t mind me), and I’m happy I did, and I’m happy I’ve had the support of my friends in country who encouraged me to go to a session. I can confidently say I’m happier today than I’ve been in five weeks. As one friend gently reminded, “You’re not cured, this will take time,” and I know that’s true. With that in mind, though, I can say that’s true and that there will be numerous more bright than dark days in the two years ahead.

When I move to site, my Internet connectivity will be limited, so my posts will likely shift from weekly to semiweekly (biweekly? I’m fairly certain AP says it’s semiweekly for once every two weeks, but I don’t have my stylebook at my side at the moment). Those updates, when they come, will be packed with more cultural information and perspective.

Exciting times are coming!