Peace Corps past, present and future

If the most refreshing part of Chuck’s visit was the discovery that volunteers share the same joys and doubts, the most entertaining part of Genevieve’s visit was watching that journey toward joy and doubt begin.

A rising senior at Lewis and Clark, where she studies sociology, Genevieve’s considering her post-grad options, and Peace Corps is on her list. She spent a few days at site shadowing volunteer life.

Post-visit evaluation: Girl’s a pro.

She arrived on Monday, site’s market day. This town of 3,000 swells to 20,000 as people gather from all over the woreda to sell food and livestock (to the tune of fruits and vegetables, goats and chickens), housing items (like jebennas to make bunna and charcoal stoves), and clothing accessories and to purchase these items, too.

It’s a social affair, women chatting with each other as they carry bags of fruit on their backs en route to the market day road situated in the center of town, or talking with others on the bus if they’re traveling to market. (If you’re walking more than 15 kilometers, you try to catch a bajaj or minibus, both of which operate in full force all day Monday.)

It’s a big day for men, too. Oftentimes, they’re the ones who sell livestock, tied to posts situated outside of bars.

Oh God, this girl came to site on a day where there are drunk men galore.

Indeed. Nor! (Welcome!)

After Genevieve got settled into my room, we stepped outside in the direction of the river, a five-kilometer walk because you have to pass through the town before getting to the outskirts and hitting the bridge that covers the waterway.

Thirteen months into site, there are things I’ve forgotten or become immune to, things that she picked up and things that creeped under her skin.

I don’t know if people have stopped staring at me or if I’ve just written it off, ignoring it because this is my home, too, and absolutely no one gets to strip me of that safety and security. (The shouts that accompany the stares have waned, though. Unless I’m walking along the Wolkite stretch of the road en route to the health posts, no one busts out, “Ferenji!” or “Caramela!” or “(noun here) sichagn!”)

So I’ve either forgotten or adapted, but she noticed it. She noticed curious stares masking the questions, “Why is she here? Who is she? What is she like?”

She felt the unease that accompanies a command for money.

If I’m out and around town’s surrounding kebeles during market day, it’s not uncommon for a child or woman to approach me, hands outstretched and bouncing, mouthing the word, “Money” or its Amharic equivalent, “birr.”

I toss it off with a baka (enough – some volunteers say Excabhier yistilin – God will provide – but that phrase feels trite and I only use it if I’m in a city), careful to avoid eye contact. With Genevieve closer to the woman who was asking, it took a few seconds for me to remember how it feels the first time an elder asks, and then I sandwiched myself between them, telling the woman multiple times, “Please, enough,” before she stopped.

That’s a discomfort the two of us share – I still don’t know how to react when older women ask for money. Writing it off isn’t the same as being unaffected. The first time the call for birr happens, it’s a smack to the system, a reaffirmation that you’re different and can never be the same.

By the second day, Genevieve found her feet. Kids darted toward us, coming to a full stop when they reached us, staring at

Genevieve leading students in an after-school program.

Genevieve leading students in an after-school program.

me, at her, then back at me before coming in for their morning hug. Then they turned to her, and as Genevieve crouched to their height, slid out a “Selam nesh,” and that’s when word spread. “There’s another one!” kids whispered. They approached her with the same curiosity from the day before, this time with arms outstretched.

The part that sold me on her ability to dominate life as a volunteer, if she chooses to take that path, was when she took two cups of Gurage-style coffee sitting in a stranger’s home. One cup is polite, two cups says, “Yeah, I liked it, I appreciate your kindness and sure! I’ll do it again.” (Gurage coffee is coffee spiked with a teaspoon of butter and a sprinkle of salt. Tatchi. [Drink.])

That’s the attitude that breeds satisfaction, that keeps you going on the days when you’re wondering what you’ve done and what will last after you’ve gone. It’s the beginning of the journey.

Life, Death and Faith — What You Find When You Get on a Bus

Few things are more American than the feeling of freedom that stems from sliding our fingers along a steering wheel and pressing a foot to the gas pedal.

We navigate our journeys, mold our expectations as we let ourselves slip into a piece of the world. We can talk to others, we can talk to ourselves, we can talk to God on those miles-long interstate stretches.

The month after graduating from the University of Florida, I did all three when I packed up and drove myself out to California.

I never had a car before and bought the best thing $2,000 could buy (hint: $2,000 will buy you point A to point B, baka.)

Opting for state roads instead of highways whenever possible, that 1999 gold Dodge Intrepid took me through Gulf Breeze (Mississippi), Louisiana’s bayous, all of Texas (geographically, a diverse and beautiful state – as long as you stay ahead of the lightning storms), through New Mexico and Arizona and straight to the Golden Coast.

The 2,000-mile stretch was plenty of time to figure myself out – as I wanted to discover myself. If I didn’t want to stop at a particular exit, I kept going until the tank demanded a refill. If I craved a particular item (sweet tea!), it was at my fingertips. Yeah, these are learning moments, but only in the way that I wanted myself to develop. I met people I otherwise wouldn’t have met, but on my own accord. Our culture is great at that – understanding what we want to understand only when we want to understand. (To be fair, this attitude supersedes borders, regardless of whether we want to admit it.)

After completing that drive, I lost interest in driving. Freeing? Sure. Enjoyable? Yeah. But limiting, and not to mention expensive.

Perhaps Los Angeles isn’t the best city to make such a decision, but it is navigable with public transit. It requires some additional planning and time adjustments, but it can work.

It works, and it’s an opportunity to cross paths, to catch glimpses into others’ lives, to share stories and to discover life beyond ourselves.

Bus by Bus in Ethiopia

Cars cost 300,000 birr (15,000 USD) to purchase and own in Ethiopia. In my site, most families live on 20-30 birr a day (900 birr a month – and rent for a one-room home eats 22 percent of that monthly income). Translated: Most Ethiopians don’t drive cars.

We let public transit carry us to our destinations.

Welcome to a transit town's station. Buses not only file in and out of the station, but also line the streets to fill to capacity before heading to the destination town.

Welcome to a transit town’s station. Buses not only file in and out of the station, but also line the streets to fill to capacity before heading to the destination town.

A quick breakdown on bus travel in Ethiopia:

  • Minibus: Think of a Scooby-Doo style van, minus the quirky collection of detectives, plus 27 people crammed inside, sitting on laps and makeshift benches to reach destinations.
  • Level 1 public bus: An enlarged school bus, packs about 60-75 people.
  • Level 2 public bus: Smaller than a level 1, packs 45-60 people.
  • Selam bus and Sky Bus: Charter buses, with televisions and air conditioning (!) that travel along Ethiopia’s paved roads. This is the most expensive form of road travel.

Turn down the music! Close the window! Are you fine? Where are you go? WARAJ.

In the States, we sit quietly on buses. We stare at our phones, our feet, the street ahead, wait for our stop and yank a yellow cord. Maybe we thank our driver as we hop out – most of the time, we probably don’t.

Some buses don signs mandating silence. Don’t answer your phone, keep conversation to a minimum if you must take that call.

Jesus Christ. How sterile. How boring.

From the start, buses in Ethiopia require conversation.

“Wolkite nesh?” – Are you going to Wolkite?
“Ow.” – Yes.
“Gibi! Gibi!” – Enter! Enter!

If you’re one of the first on the bus and have the option, snag a window seat. Nothing is more valuable than window control. (If you’re not sitting by one to keep it open, you can guarantee it will remain sealed shut unless you really pester the crap out of the person nearest to it, or just reach over and open it yourself.)

Music blares from front-seat speakers. As the driver rolls to a stop to pick up people along the road waving the bus down (not every town has a station, and people will wait along the way for an unfilled bus to pick up extra passengers), people climb on amid a chorus of, Selam nesh? Indet nesh? Selam naw! (Is there peace? How are you? There is peace!)

As people fill in next to you, they’ll greet you according to the time of day, ask where you’re going, if you’re fine. If you’re the ferenji on the bus, the questions expand to, Kwankwa tikoyallash? Gobez, gobez. Etiopia indet naw? Yet nesh? (You know the language? Clever, clever. How is Ethiopia? Where are you going?)

You don’t have to answer every question or engage in conversation the entire ride, but a little bit goes a long way. Ethiopians want to make their friends feel comfortable, and guess what? Everyone here is a friend, a part of an extremely large family. Bait the conversation long enough to satiate curiosity, you’ll be taken care of for an entire ride.

For all the talk, all the love, some people are trying to buy time

Bus prevalence makes it the token mode of transportation for getting to a graduation, a wedding, a baptism. It also becomes the mode of transportation for trying to hold off death as long as possible.

Amid so much conversation, so much affection between strangers, so much joy, sitting near someone taking his final breaths is the ultimate dichotomy.

It happened twice in June.

One Wednesday morning, riding into my hub town to submit a camp budget, a husband and wife sat in the row ahead of me, window wide open and a damp cloth resting across the man’s forehead. His wife kept stroking his head, dabbing away sweat dripping down his face. They were trying to get to Addis as quickly as possible. The driver understood their urgency, not pausing to pick up anyone en route to Wolkite, the zone’s major transit point to catch a bus to the capital.

The couple made it to Addis, only for the husband to die a few days later. No one in town knows what happened, what illness he had. He was fine one day, feverish and faint the next.

A week later, on a bus to the capital for our mid-service medical exam, a friend in a neighboring town and I climbed onto a bus as a woman in our row was having a seizure. I’ve never seen a person seize before, and it’s horrifying. It’s horrifying to see the body lose control. Not knowing how we could help or improve the situation, my friend and I took our seats, not staring at the woman, not wanting to bring attention to her distraught mother and husband.

A little more than halfway to our destination, the woman had a second seizure. Her body went limp, and the mother, tears streaming down her cheeks, quietly removed her daughter’s bracelets as the husband removed her rings. A few times, the mother tried flexing her daughter’s arm, trying to circulate blood flow, trying to hold onto a slim hope that her daughter could still be saved.

A boy a few rows ahead of us and sitting in a makeshift aisle seat turned toward our row when the husband began asking for a phone to borrow so he could call someone, anyone. This kid couldn’t have been more than 7 and he looked back with wide eyes. In a country where death fragments families and everyone knows someone who’s lost a parent at a young age, the look in this boy’s eyes made it clear that when you see it, it’s always hard to swallow.

It’s harder, still, to know what you can do to help.

Discovering Faith’s Influence

Religion dominates Ethiopia. During greetings, it’s common to end with an Exchabier miskel (thanks to God).

Children are born into religion and follow their parents’ faith, whether it’s Islam, Orthodox or Protestant. It’s similar in the States, too, yeah, but also common in the States is the personal decision to say, “I don’t agree with this, I can’t practice what I don’t know I believe.

If those doubts happen here, they’re kept silent and guarded. Among non-religious volunteers, we reach a conclusion that amid so much death and disease, it makes sense to lean on God, to have faith that a higher power can ease the intensity of day-to-day living. Is this the wrong approach? Debatable. Is a Western approach? Yes. Is it arrogant, even? Possibly.

Is it how some of us come to terms with how people live amid such extreme poverty? Yes.

The longer I’m here, the more I revisit religion and faith, the more I look at how the two connect, how they mold societies, how societies mold them. I don’t have any answers, and I don’t expect to have any by the end of service. For what it’s worth, I take it in and try to understand it to the best of my ability.

While drivers barrel toward destinations, Orthodox passengers familiar with the routes know where the churches are, and for the split second that the bus zooms by a church’s general area, passengers pause for a quick prayer.

As the months here continue piling up, the more I see religion accepted as religion. I’ve said before that my landlord is Muslim, yet most of the people who rent on his compound are Orthodox. Religion can be a barrier, but in this town, it’s not. Faith gets respect.

On a bus from Addis down to site last October, two men – one Muslim, one Orthodox – switched seats with each other so the Muslim man could have space to pray.

That’s what you get from public transit, here, there, anywhere. You find faith in humanity.

A town in transition

The dirt road that connects the woreda administration offices to each other, and the piles of stone waiting to solidify the ground as rainy season kicks into full gear.

The dirt road that connects the woreda administration offices to each other, and the piles of stone waiting to solidify the ground as rainy season kicks into full gear.

This time last year, an asphalt road linking east Gurage to west Gurage was under construction. The road, completed in mid-June, runs straight through site.

Within the last five years, site became one of the towns in Gurage Zone to find itself tapping into the power grid. (We’re not talking about a grid system that exists to the extent of New York City, but the formation of one.)

An asphalt road, the literal link for families and friends to (re)connect, became the link for a few other developments moving this town forward. For example…

  • The health center has two ambulances. Two! Laugh at the excitement if you want, but this is huge, especially when the country’s undertaking a campaign to encourage mothers to give birth in health centers and hospitals. Having access to an ambulance to transport a mother during labor means fewer deaths during delivery.
  • Two of the dirt roads jutting off from the main road have two-foot piles of stones spaced every five feet lining them. Cobblestone and asphalt won’t pave these roads (both of which house the woreda’s administration offices), but rain won’t turn this clay roads laced with goat feces into a slip and slide during future rainy seasons one day.
  • The demolition of a centuries-old tree and construction site to expand the health center into a hospital. I whined last October when I saw a group of 10 men hacking away at the tree’s trunk, stupidly assuming the tree would be there for all of service, if not for the town’s entire lifespan. When I asked why we were killing the three, people exclaimed we were going to make the health center a hospital. Sweet. In theory, we’re about to save some lives.
  • WE’RE GETTING A BANK! How rural am I? Most G10s have a bank at site, or within 10 kilometers of site. Those in
    The future Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. It's been under construction for about a year.

    The future Commercial Bank of Ethiopia. It’s been under construction for about a year.

    larger towns have a bank and post office. This place has neither. But not for much longer! We’re moving on up in the world, the G13 moving here in September will never know what life once was.

Words can only say so much. Here are a few photos of site from a year ago to today, highlighting some of the structural changes coming our way. (Will a longer post reflecting on development come later? Undoubtedly. Rainy season provides copious amounts of time for thought.)

A year ago, there was no gate outside of the health office, anyone could stroll in at any point in time. (Convenient when you're an American accustomed to working during lunch.) As of two weeks ago, a gate now halts spending out-of-office hours at the office.

A year ago, there was no gate outside of the health office, anyone could stroll in at any point in time. (Convenient when you’re an American accustomed to working during lunch.) As of two weeks ago, a gate now halts spending out-of-office hours at the office.

Entering the side of town residents refer to as "old town," where town's settlement began about 70 years ago.

Entering the side of town residents refer to as “old town,” where town’s settlement began about 70 years ago.

To the left rests the remains of a centuries-old tree hacked down last October to make space for the health center's expansion into a hospital.

To the left rests the remains of a centuries-old tree hacked down last October to make space for the health center’s expansion into a hospital.

Let’s take an adventure

It takes 12 minutes to walk from the east side of site to the west side of site.

That’s along the main road. There are networks of dirt roads that branch off from the main road to get lost along, to adventure along.

Israel worked with a G5 PVC when he lived in Bonga a few years ago. Now an RPCV, Chuck came through to visit Israel for a few days before jumpstarting research for his graduate thesis. Sometimes with Israel, sometimes just PCVs, we trekked through town (and I got a mid-service mental health check, an added bonus of having the chance to spend time with someone who’s been there, done that).

Israel finds his inner child – and slides down a cliff

Israel digs into the side of the cliff to step down to the road before deciding it was easier to slide down.

Israel digs into the side of the cliff to step down to the road before deciding it was easier to slide down.

As we walked to the river – and then beyond – I told Israel that one day, I wanted to walk along the top of the hills and not just along the road that tore the mountain in half.

“Why don’t we do it today?” he asked.

A few seconds later, Israel’s jogging to the right side of the mountain, leaving Chuck and me to follow behind.

We got to the top, paused for a few seconds, and then Israel began his descent.

Slow, calculated steps carried him a quarter of the way down the cliff. As sturdy, cratered clay gave way to soft, red dirt that can send anyone tumbling, Israel snapped a branch off a mountainside plant and carved footsteps into the side to carry him down.

The two ferenji standing at the top grabbed the attention of a group of three boys. They strolled our way to see what we were staring at, and two of them sat down, swung their legs over the cliff and watched as Israel dug his way down.

The third boy slid down, stopping near Israel, presumably to ask how he was doing, then slid the rest of the way down. Amused, the two boys at the top followed suit.

Seeing three kids slide safely and not to greet death, Israel kicked his heels in and down he went.

Satisfied (and relieved) to see he made it, we kept walking along the top, looking for the road that would merge with the main road’s side road.

Three kids take us to shay and a waterfall

Israel stood at the junction, waiting for Chuck and me to meander down and with him were the three kids who taught him to embrace his inner child and take a ride.

20 minutes outside of town's borders rests this beauty.

20 minutes outside of town’s borders rests this beauty.

As we turned left and began to walk, presumably toward the main road, the boys asked us to come to their place for tea.

In between sips, the boys told Israel to tell his ferenji friends to hurry it up because they wanted to take us to the river and waterfall.

They had me at let’s show these people how a landlocked country does water.

Ten minutes later, we’re standing near water tumbling over rocks as it slugs its way toward a cliff and lets gravity command its fate from there.

Sharing with someone who has done it before

Wiped out from a morning at the primary school or having an afternoon agenda that required Israel to split from the fun, Chuck and I had some time to chill out solo and talk RPCV to PCV.

One: I’ve discovered when Americans come to site, I begin speaking at a thousand words a minute, unlocking and unloading thoughts that get scribbled away in a journal. Being solo at site is fun, but it’s not until you’re not alone that you realize how lonely it can be. (File under, “You can integrate, but you can’t shake your cultural identity.”)

Two: There’s a whole world of experience-sharing overlap! Some of the things I worry about (like the time I snapped at a bus full of people, or whether kids will remember the time I asked how they were or motioned to throw a rock in their direction in retaliation – side note, don’t judge, if you don’t live here, you have no idea) are similar sentiments that others do as well. The beauty of hearing someone’s hindsight is discovering someone before you had the same feelings – and it works out. It’s okay. People won’t hate you. To throw out a cliché, love stands above hatred.

G5 meets G10!

G5 meets G10!

Okay, then. Dusting off my heart and sleeping easier.

Three: There are so many similarities and the (R)PCV network holds such a beautiful web of people. Every experience is individual, but a lot of the thoughts, emotions and wonders are similar. I don’t do sappy, so maybe it’s a blessing for everyone that I lack the words to express how special it is to meet someone with whom you can be like, “So this is a thing,” and look into an expression that says, “Yeah. That’ll happen again.”

And when it does happen again, it’ll still be an adventure.

In teenagers we [learn to] trust – A leadership training reflection

When Eden and Emanuel said they wanted to do a leadership training, I said game on.

The two spent afternoons at my house, and I spent a few at the primary school, piecing together schedules and sessions. They wanted me to help craft the training, I wanted them to learn the process of creating a training so they can be pros at it by the time university rolls around.

We’d sit on a tree-trunk bench underneath a tree and stitch together what Eden and Emanuel thought their peers should know – positive and negative leadership skills (and which traits they exercise, as well as which ones they’d like to exercise); how to make and achieve a goal; how to become a role model within self-defined communities; and harassment within the community – and how to halt it.

Talk about a full set of proposals.

We had 24 hours spaced throughout three weekends – if it was too short, Eden and Emanuel worried some of the points would blur and become lost; if it was too long, we risked losing students in the timespan following Fasika and preceding national exams.

Three weekends. We can work with that. (We did work with that.)

At first, the school administration pushed to identify students they thought would benefit from the training – i.e. the top 20 students in the school. Eden and Emanuel had their own idea. They wanted to target students who had the potential to become stronger role models, persons to look to for advice. They insisted these students weren’t always rank students.

The administration admired their drive, but insisted it select the participants. (The administration ended up running out of time to select students despite having a monthlong window to identify them – as is the case in the States, administrators are stretched thin for time and resources. Limited time greenlighted Eden and Emanuel deciding which peers would participate in their facilitation premiere.)

The afternoon before the first training

Eden and Emanuel recruited some of their friends to clean and set up the preschool classroom for the trainings.

Eden and Fetiya directing dirt out of the classroom in preparation for the next morning's training.

Eden and Fetiya directing dirt out of the classroom in preparation for the next morning’s training.

Students filed into the classroom, grabbed the benches and desks, hoisted them on their hips and lifted them above their shoulders, and carried them out of the door, leaving an empty floor to dump water over and mop. Four students grabbed brooms and channeled the water flow toward the door, sweeping pieces of dirt and pencil-lead tips out the door. Before the floor had dried, students were bringing the desks and benches back inside, this time setting them up in quads as opposed to the normal U.

Classroom cleaned, Emanuel and his friend Minte used blue, yellow and green

sheets of construction paper to design group names and nametags. Eden and her friend Fetiya wrote leadership quotes to hang around the room.

I committed myself to making 20 personal reflection journals. (Hint: Do this before the night before a training, unless tiring your carpals in rote motion is your thing.)

Quotes hanging, journals sitting, nametags nametagging, we were ready to start this training with a bang. The kids (kids – they’re all eighth graders, 14 and 15 years old) spent an hour reviewing the itinerary, trying to smooth any bumps before they happened.

Here we are, on time and eager to move ahead of schedule

I don’t remember the last time a training ran on time, stateside or Ethiopiaside, probably because no training has ever stuck

Who said a Saturday at school had to be boring?

Who said a Saturday at school had to be boring?

to its schedule. Shay and bunna arrive late, we still have to spend 30 minutes catching up and whoops, we’re an hour behind, just like that.

Sometimes we’re trapped in traffic. In the States, it’s almost a badge of honor, a rite of passage, to start a conversation with, “Man! I spent three hours on the 405 to move three miles this morning!” We’re a traffic-jam-loving culture, in a very contorted way. (It enhances the stress of our way-too-busy lifestyles.)

In Ethiopia, traffic cases are more along the lines of “The bajaj didn’t come, I had to walk half of a 12-kilometer stretch before seeing a bus’ exhaust-pipe smoke trail and flag it down before I could get here.”

This morning, everyone had their breakfast, factored in walking distance and had found seats by the time the clock hit 8.

Zooming through introductions and an energizer, we discussed power’s role in leadership and how it can damage or strengthen leadership. (When I asked if I were to walk into the classroom, stop Eden, tell her she should facilitate my way or get out of the way, everyone not only identified the hypothetical as an abuse of power, but they said they would feel no inclination to ever trust me again if I were to do such a thing. Gobezoch.)

Two hours were allotted for lunch, but everyone was like, “Why? We can eat in an hour!”

All right, then. Innibila.

Zooming two weeks forward

The first part of this three-part series went better than any of us could have imagined. It’s natural, then, that we’d hit some snags as we tried to keep high momentum.

The afternoon before the second training (on mitigating harassment) was set to happen, we learned we would not have access to the classroom that weekend. A few days earlier, someone had stolen a few items from the preschool, and administration wanted to keep extracurricular activities out of the class until the culprit came forward.

We flirted with the idea of using another classroom, the library, even another venue. With such short notice, it would have been unrealistic to secure another location on such short notice, not to mention stressful to run across the woreda’s kebeles to track down students who had already gone home for the night to tell them of a new location.

It’s a classic example of how Peace Corps experience teaches you to shrug off what’s beyond your control. In the States, this entire situation would have had my blood boiling. (Even here, it had my kids disappointed – hard to hide frowns and drooping eyes.) The better approach is to develop an alternative strategy.

Ours became fusing harassment with identifying and becoming a role model, this training series’ finale.

Two full-day sessions in a half-day

One week later, a church threatened to thwart our resolution.

Our participants and facilitators for our three-part training series!

Our participants and facilitators for our three-part training series!

On the outskirts of town, a non-denominational, all-Christians-can-practice-here, church was set to open the Saturday of our final training. People from across the woreda, zone and region bused in for the extravaganza. All but five training participants (not to mention both facilitators) would be participating in the event’s activities.

With this information, rewriting the training for a third time to accommodate the time constraint would have been a brilliant, smart idea. Nope. We didn’t do it. We decided to see how far we could get and if we needed another weekend, we’d do another weekend.

Turns out kids know about harassment – all they needed (wanted? The two are the same verb in Amharic, ponder that if you will) was the space to talk about what they’ve seen and experienced. The stories are theirs to hold and not mine to blast on the Internet. What felt like a heavy session turned out to be therapeutic (as participants said), paved an easy transition for discussing who students identify as a role model and why, and how to become a role model for someone else.

We wrapped up by noon (a combination of kids already knowing the material and just wanting the space to bring it up for open discussion and impatience to jet off to the festivities down the street), and while the timeline looks rushed, it didn’t feel rushed. In a country that praises God, maybe these were trainings worth having fresh in mind for discussions inside walls that preach love.

Rats don’t pay rent and spiders send them scattering

Spiders scared my rats away.

I moved to site weeks before rainy season began pounding Gurage Zone’s mountain towns. For three months, the three-inch gap that takes the place of a baseboard in my room posed no problems.

In the heat of dry season, the dark, cramped place with tunnels to burrow beneath became a rat haven.

Tired of squeaking and sliding along tin-roof rafters, these eight-inch beasts chewed their way through mud-wood walls and into my room, an entire family of new house guests.

They didn’t knock and they didn’t make a fuss. One day, a rubbery, tan tail slithered along my brown clay floor. A furry, grey body emerged from the gap in the wall.

Insert a high-pitched wail here. I curled into a ball on a corner of my mattress and reached to pull down the bed net, as if it would provide an impenetrable block between me and a rodent that’s always one bite away from triggering a trip to Addis for a rabies shot.

Accepting these assholes would never pay rent – and even if they could, they’d likely try to negotiate the price to the most acceptable minimum – I moved out of my bedroom and into my kitchen area. Earplugs became my best friend as I tried to drown out the sound of those four-footed buffoons scuttling along the floor 10 feet away.

Does this sound irrational? It is. Welcome to Peace Corps.

Rainy season has brought in a new tenet: Two- and three-inch brown, brittle spiders. They too emerge from the gap in my wall as they crawl up to the ceiling en route to the roof.

I don’t know what’s going on inside that gap, if these spiders launched a war of attrition or marched those rats to the edge of the compound, but the rats are gone.

…till dry season.

From Staging to 15 months in Ethiopia — redefining failure as success

Inside the conference room of a four-star Philadelphia hotel for Staging, a daylong training that attempts to introduce us to the valleys of twists and turns awaiting us in Ethiopia while enveloping our to-be specificities inside the similarities of serving in Peace Corps anywhere, staff tried to calm our nerves.

A staff member sitting in the back, near our ready-to-issue passports, said, “I’m so jealous. Peace Corps taught me how to fail. I wish I could go with all of you.”

Hold up. Wait a minute. Back up. You’re jealous because Peace Corps taught you to fail?

Her statement rested in the back of my mind, waiting to be revisited until I could piece together the statement’s sentiment.

Fifteen months in Ethiopia, and 12 at site, I revisited my CNA (community needs assessment) to take a look at successes and failures in the quantitative way we like to bring authority to abstractions.

Not so easy to do after everything you thought you’ve known gets tossed on its head.

The CNA includes a potential projects section. With fresh insight eyeing decades-long problems plaguing a 70-year-old town, all sorts of so-called links and solutions dotted notebook sheets. The saying you can kill two birds with one stone? Yeah, forget that, we could bludgeon five with one alone!

Good joke.

These were some of my brilliant ideas, all under the umbrella of “Increased Awareness about Healthy Lifestyles to Improve Health Status through Practices that Reduce the Spread of Disease”:

  • Safe Sex Education
  • HIV Awareness Campaign
  • Nutritious Meal Preparation
  • WaSH (Hand washing construction sites and latrine construction)
  • People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) Association Overhaul
  • Prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMCT) Association Creation

If we address failure based on whether those projects have come to fruition in any regard halfway through service, then I’ve failed. Magnificently.

I’ll spare you the details of why four of the six project ideas listed above crumbled. (You read that right, a sparkling 66 percent fail rate. In any other organization, I would have been fired.)

We’ll look instead at the one similarity of those failed project ideas.

Those ideas were mine and mine alone.

When I created their outlines, I kept the community in mind, I remembered what people had said during shay-bunna breaks, but I didn’t include them. I didn’t ask, “Hey, would encouraging a drama club to create a safe-sex skit work?” Talk about being forward. Anyone with a brain would’ve told me that idea would go up in flames. Anyone could have suggested another way to approach the topic.

Define that as failure if you will. I’ll call it a hidden opportunity.

The ideas that thrive come along, and they come along because they’re someone else’s ideas.

The ideas come from the eighth-grade boys who want to do condom demonstrations for their peers during the summer months. (Hello, HIV prevention strategies in a site-friendly way.)

They come from a man who wants to empower mothers to improve household nutrition so students don’t struggle and slide behind in classroom performance.

They come from a community tired of fighting preventable diseases like typhoid.

Failure means an inability to perform, a lack of success.

Life at site has shown me that success comes as a community from the community. Life at site has revealed that one person doesn’t have all the answers, all the solutions, and that’s fine. No one’s expected to know it all. Life’s boring when it’s all one person, when there aren’t shared ideas, conversations or discussions.

Peace Corps hasn’t taught me how to fail. Peace Corps has taught me how to make failure succeed.