What’s love got to do with it?

I may never find the words to describe how much my mom meant to me.

I tried to compose a post describing the ups and downs, twists and turns embedded within the last year. It’s too soon. Not yet. (Go ahead, exhale relief, this isn’t about to be one of those blog posts.)

I’d rather focus on the people who have stuck out one weird year with me and have given me the chance to discover the incredible amount of support and love we carry within us.

(Apologizing in advance for names I forget and for sections that will end up longer than others.)

Hannah found facebook, and Meredith called Headquarters

While we wrapped up site visit and hopped back into training, Hannah caught a glance at my mom’s facebook timeline, where people were posting comments like, “RIP little sister,” and “You were the strong one.” Hannah called our friend Meredith and the two began messaging those who had posted. Once Meredith got a confirmation, she called Headquarters to tell them what happened. It became a round-robin affair with HQ finding someone in my family to verify the news before shooting it across the globe.

Hannah picked me up from the airport once the plane landed in Tampa and spent, God, I don’t remember, I think four days, with me and I’m positive I was just a bustling, joyful person to be around.

Charlie took charge and went with me to Addis Ababa and the airport

When I had enough time to compose myself enough, I walked up the stairs leading to Kassech Hotel’s meeting room. I didn’t bring my phone with me, I don’t remember if I had my glasses on.

I got into the training room and began scanning faces. I wasn’t looking for anything other than being able to tell someone, “My mom died.” That’s it. A statement of fact. Vocalizing a new reality.

Sliding two rows back, careful to avoid eye contact, focused on not stepping on anyone’s shoes or backpacks, I walked until I stopped in front of my friend Charlie, then proceeded to interrupt his conversation.

“Charlie,” I said, “Charlie, my mom died.”

Done. Fact stated. World still turning. We could all sit down and proceed with training, right?

Nope.

Within seconds of processing what he heard, Charlie popped up, grabbed my shoulder and took me outside. A few minutes later, another volunteer in our group, Michael Fulton, came outside, too, shortly before our training manager walked with me downstairs.

One of the PCMOs gave me water and cookies and said I needed to eat. I took the water, left the cookies unwrapped. One of the counselors Peace Corps/Ethiopia contracts was in town for a mental health session. She said hi and said she’s one of the counselors here.

“Good timing,” I said. She laughed.

While the counselor was talking to me, explaining I would need to go to Addis Ababa and could bring a friend with me, another Peace Corps staff member was giving the same spiel to Charlie. After both conversations ended, we regrouped and discovered we had been given the same information.

After another PCV came downstairs, I started to realize this was really in motion. I would be in a car en route to Addis within an hour, still needed to pack my things and the only thing I knew was that for a few minutes, I didn’t want to be the one making any sort of decisions.

Cue Charlie’s initiative and the ride into Addis. It was comforting then, and it’s still comforting today, to have had someone alongside to keep conversation and balance thoughts.

Michelle, Paul and Lauren came down from Gainesville, near the end of the spring semester and right before final exams, to help clean out the house and organize a funeral

I’m not sure if anything else needs to be said. I’m still at a loss of words. The three took turns answering my phone, making calls and setting up meetings. They took me to the hospital to visit Dad. They didn’t shy away when I started bawling in the middle of trying to separate necessary items from unnecessary items to yank out of the house.

The Oromia PCVs got (un)lucky and consolidated in Addis while I had to finish training, and Andrew got me into counseling

The first question Andrew asked after Charlie brought him downstairs was, “What was your mom’s name, Sierra?”

That’s a great question. It has a definitive answer. It doesn’t invite an unanticipated wave of emotions. Sandy. Sandy was her name, “like the dog in ‘Annie,’” as Mom would quip.

Less than a month later, as shock began to ebb, I shifted between wanting to sleep all day and not being able to sleep at all. Andrew suggested counseling, careful to remind it needed to be something I wanted to do and needed to feel ready to do, while also pointing out that if personal thoughts were driving a wedge into physical activities, it was time to get the two in check with each other.

Counseling is the best thing I’ve done in Peace Corps. It’s helped regenerate and reorganize my life. It’s better when people are hanging around waiting to hear how the session went.

Tayler sees me like a normal person and by extension, gives the gift of appreciating life for life

Tayler rocks. We’re roommates for every Peace Corps conference. We text each other the random, the mundane, the mind-blowing (but now normal) events as they unfold at site. We talk about our families without being like, “Wait, don’t wanna hear it,” because families are a component of life and who we are. We’re finding a way to keep it together in this bizarre 27-month ride.

Blanket statement for everyone else who deserves a piece of this post

  • G10 stretches throughout Ethiopia and various PCVs at various moments in time have given hugs, sent texts, called (and received phone calls) that have made service shine. We get what it’s like to be here at this moment in time, and individual circumstances aside, use that simple reality as a baseline for random check-ins and new friendships.
  • My sister has encouraged me to keep in better touch with our family and to not be so cautious of sending an email to aunts, uncles, cousins just because we haven’t been in touch for years. Her kindness and honesty has encouraged me to adopt some of her behaviors. We had a chance to hang out when I was in the States last month for Meredith’s wedding, providing the time to flush out our weird flux of emotions that ignited a series of petty arguments while we tried to navigate death’s legal, financial and emotional spheres. There’s a huge cliché that sisters become your best friends, I think we’ve reached that level.
  • Elissa, Eliora, Christy, Andrew and David for stopping by my aunt’s house with breakfast when I came back. The heart-shaped, smiling pancake was an awesome touch. (I almost didn’t want to eat it!)
  • Everyone who called, texted, messaged and offered to help and who did help.

In every phone call I had with Mom, she encouraged me to look at people’s positive qualities, surround myself with those whose company I enjoyed, who I could learn from and give back to in some way, shape or form – and if I couldn’t find a way to do those things, she said, but we still enjoyed the company, then that worked, too, because that’s what friendship and love is about.

More so than me, Mom believed that people meant well, that it was beyond human nature to ignore a friend, neighbor or stranger in need. She thrived on relationships with others, and used their energy and hope to refuel her own. A year later, I’m learning to keep her practice alive with me.

Learning to lead

Sitting in a migib bet in the last major transit town and transfer point before arriving at site, Eden said, “I learned how to be a better leader this weekend.”

As she twisted spaghetti noodles with her fork, this top-of-the-class eighth grade student said she assumed leadership meant people trusted you with your ideas, that it became your responsibility to craft the best idea for others to follow. She said she didn’t realize part of leading was listening.

Then she found herself in Addis Ababa with 39 students from the Amhara, Oromia, Tigray and SNNP regions — the four

Eden listens to US Ambassador Haslach answer her question about leadership and self-empowerment.

Eden listens to US Ambassador Haslach answer her question about leadership and self-empowerment.

areas where PCVs in Ethiopia serve — for the Action for Gender Equality summit. Students participated in activities that emphasized gender empowerment, encouraged them to analyze their roles in society, highlighted their leadership styles.

During a group exercise where students were asked to identify leaders for activities that involved making machines, crafting two-minute skits and designing flags for a new, made-up country, Eden discovered that when she disregarded her teammates’ ideas, their final product suffered.

“When I listened,” she said, “and took the time to combine ideas instead of ignore them, we were able to make something better than what I could have made alone.”

One of our male campers participating in the "Walk a Kilometer in Her Shoes" activity, designed to demonstrate how men can do activities assumed to be women-only roles, such as washing clothes, preparing food and caring for children.

One of our male campers participating in the “Walk a Kilometer in Her Shoes” activity, designed to demonstrate how men can do activities assumed to be women-only roles, such as washing clothes, preparing food and caring for children.

Tagas, part two

The day my friend reminded me of how to be patient doubled as the day my project manager (PM) came to site for my second site visit.

(In Peace Corps, volunteers are supposed to have three site visits – the first is the installation and sings to the tune of, “Hello, [site name]! This is your new ferenji, this is why she’s here, play nice!”; the latter visits are check-ins to make sure you haven’t totally bailed on Peace Corps.)

The weekend before my PM came to town, mild panic started setting amid the realization of, “All of my counterparts are out of town this week, this site visit has been scheduled for a month, my PM will expect to speak to anyone in the community to verify I’m not a useless volunteer and no one will be here.” As that panic neared its peak and regressed into complacency with a situation beyond my control, one of my counterparts, Israel, called.

He had tried to text me the day before, but with the network being the network, the text was never actually delivered. He wanted to know how class went on Friday. Appropriate, because before he even got a chance to ask, I started babbling about how awesome the kids were. (Friendship reaches a new level when you’re both reading the same page.)

Israel listened, and I swear I could hear the smile in his voice when he said, “You must tell Mekdes when she comes about the students. If she comes early enough in the day, she can sit in the class!”

Without skipping a beat, he told me to show her where on the school compound we’ll be starting the garden, where in the town we’ll be building a bottle bench and (hopefully) creating an outdoor library to complement it, tell her about the mothers’ economic and nutrition training we’re in the middle of writing the lessons for.

Way to make site visit a tangible collection of items.

Tagas

Fifty-one students clamber, flail their arms back and forth, and say, “Teacher! Teacher!” to grab your attention as you move from student to student, trying to focus on their assignment sheets to see if they wrote all of the day’s “k” words – knife, key, kangaroo, kitchen.

They’ve learned the quiet sign, to raise their hand – and keep it still – when they’re ready for their work to be reviewed, and to not jump up out of their seat and walk over to wherever I’m standing when they’re ready for someone to review their work with them. Still, they’re kids. They crave positive reinforcement, affection and attention.

In the moment, it can feel like 51 smacks to the chest. All you want is a little patience – and a quiet moment to figure out how to move from one end of the classroom to the other as quickly as possible while also spending enough time with each student to note the handwriting, whether the letters are upside down or vowels are missing and to amend those mishaps now so they don’t repeat themselves later. (The Fidel script characters blend a consonant sound with a vowel sound, for example, “ha, hu, he,” so it’s not uncommon for students, when they first learn English, to neglect vowels.)

During a morning lesson, one of my friends, a grade 8 student, strolled in during a class break to ask if she and another student received administration’s clearance to attend an upcoming gender and leadership seminar. As I told her yes, I said, “By the way, what’s the word for patient? I’m trying to tell them to be patient.” “In this case,” she said, “you want to use ‘tagas.’”

Tagas!

While I was asking students to be patient, be strong, wait their turn, I was also, implicitly, reminding myself to be patient, to remember what it is like to be so young, so full of energy and so eager to please.

I didn’t go to preschool like these kids, and when I started kindergarten, I was too shy to make much noise, but I do remember what it’s like to be 3 and shout, “MOM! MOM, MOM! Come look at my painting!” or “Dad! Dad! Come look at what I made!”

Those squeals, those tugs, those “Teacher! Teacher!” cries are part of growing up. Maybe it only feels stressful when we forget what it’s like to be that young. (And I’m 24, “a kid,” as every other adult at site says.) – and maybe it’s a suggestion we should hold onto youth and curiosity for as long as we’re willing to let it last.

Come to coffee

Shay bets house site-changing information.

During pre-service training (PST), a PCV who has since completed her service (Mary Gaul, I hope you read this!) encouraged me to attend as many, if not all, bunna (coffee) invitations that pop up at site.

Late last month, one of my friends called me over for coffee, 30 minutes before site shut down for lunch. We sat together for a few minutes, discussing work, the weather, life in town, our families. Baseline conversations.

Once school wrapped up for the morning, preparatory students filtered into this shay bet. One of them walked in, grabbed some chat (sometimes spelled khat) from another man, then took a corner seat to listen to discussions, but not necessarily engage. Around this time, another man, middle-aged and wearing a grey collared shirt, walked in and took a seat across from me.

The middle-aged man began talking with my friend, and as they two caught up, I turned to the preparatory student, wanting to include him in the conversation, too. As he chewed a chat leaf and twiddled the stem between his fingers, I asked what his favorite club was at school, and he said he enjoys the HIV club because it changed his perspective on what it is like to live with HIV and helped him to understand how he can help people in the community living with HIV.

At this point, my friend had tuned into our discussion, and he scurried to say HIV isn’t a problem, no worries.

Then the man in the grey-collared shirt piped up and said HIV may not be a major problem, but typhoid and typhus are. For 20 minutes, this man commanded everyone’s attention. He didn’t raise his voice once, he didn’t shout. He gave clear, short, simple solutions that anyone at site can employ to encourage people to seize control of their own health (he cited the example of creating low-cost hand washing stations near the shint bet and washing hands when water is available as methods to help reduce the spread of disease). He paused every few minutes to answer questions, then jumped back into his spiel.

This man does not work at the health office or health center. He attended an open forum discussion on hygiene practices in the community. One of his daughters is a preschool student at the primary school where they are learning to practice and improve hygiene strategies at school, a venue with semi-regular water availability.

He proved you don’t have to be a health expert to have good health.

Global room for improvement

There’s a bayonet bet in town a coworker introduced me to during a polio vaccination campaign last fall, and now I find

Inside the bayonet bet at site, from my coveted corner. Bayonets, for lack of a better description, resemble a vegetable platter, except the injera is edible and how you eat the food (potatoes, shiro, tagabino, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, etc.) on top of it.

Inside the bayonet bet at site, from my coveted corner. Bayonets, for lack of a better description, resemble a vegetable platter, except the injera is edible and how you eat the food (potatoes, shiro, tagabino, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, etc.) on top of it.

myself there at least once a week for a fresh, hot meal.

I take my seat in the back corner of the bayonet bet, letting my backpack rest beside me while my journal or planner sits on the table near the water glass, and I promptly begin reviewing ideas, meeting notes or journal entries to keep myself occupied. Whereas in the States few will approach you if you sit by yourself, in Ethiopia, people will encourage you to become a piece of the conversation, to not sit alone, to be part of an extended family. I’ve come to love this inclusion, but sometimes, I want the atmosphere while not being actively involved in it. If I yank out a notebook, people let me be — most days.

From the front of the restaurant, two of the woreda (county) court judges asked if I would feel comfortable moving next to them and joining them for lunch.

I’ll spare the details of the entire conversation, but we discussed how to feel like a member of a community, what it means to be a part of a community, and then meandered in the direction of the courthouse and health office, located near each other. Rather than split into our respective offices, the judges invited me into their office so we could continue conversation as we worked.

One of my friends (welcome to Ethiopia, where everyone is your gwadanya after one meeting — and when I say friend in this context, I mean friend in the way Americans would use the term) began discussing how judges are an extension of social justice, and how people should feel comfortable reporting problems when they happen. As he said, people should trust that they will be respected and the situation resolved.

He cited sexual assault as an example. He paused and said, “I believe this is not a problem in America.”

Insert shock when he heard the States grapples with its own problems involving sexual assault.

“But how?” he asked. “It is a developed country. How is that possible?”

Because this is clearly a global issue that every person, socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, everything, aside, can and should work together to improve.

Dads, be proud

As January neared its end, students walked to the primary school in the mornings and afternoons to take their end-of-semester exams. I stayed away from the school, not wanting to provide a distraction to students scribbling every ounce of knowledge they had into their exams  to score the best grade possible.

Those mornings, while an invitation to snag an extra 30 minutes of sleep, felt hollow and quiet. There’s joy in watching kids as they write the Fidel script and Roman alphabet for the first time, when kids pump their arms in the air and wave their hands to grab your attention because all they want to do is answer the question. Selfishly, spending time with those students provides the energy, inspiration and motivation necessary to tinker with and tailor future projects.

While they sat in their classrooms taking their exams, I walked from my compound to the health office. During one of their exam days, I walked to the health office via the main road in site. After passing the first shay bet (tea house) along the way, a man sitting inside the bet shouted, “Won’t you come have coffee?”

10:30 in the morning with no strict timeline, yeah, I’ll be polite and sit for a cup of coffee. It won’t take more than 15 minutes.

Or it will last for two hours.

Once I sat down, sliding my backpack underneath my feet to make room on the bench for anyone else who wanted to pop in for a pre-lunch bunna break, the man said, “You teach two of my daughters, they are 3 and 5. They came home one day saying, ‘The ferenji is teaching us! The ferenji is teaching us!'”

Cue that awkward moment where a parent says thanks and you sit quietly, nodding your head, smiling as you say minim aydal (rough translation: you’re welcome), holding back the “It’s the students doing more than I am” thought in your head. The devotion and willingness to learn they possess doesn’t come from me, it comes from their homes. It comes from their not-yet-defined, but present, role models.

As this dad and I talked, he said his home is Nazret (Adama), the capital of the Oromia region. He reflected on his opportunity to grow up in a regional capital and the increased access to education he had as a result. He spoke of wishing he could have sent his girls to school in Addis Ababa, where they would have been in classrooms that only instructed in English, where they would have been given a fighting chance to participate in a global world.

“But now,” he said, “they can learn from a native speaker within their own town. They can have that chance to succeed.”

No. They don’t get that shot at success from me. They get it from their dad. They get it from the man who speaks of his dream to see both of his girls go to university, to grow to become strong, independent women who will mold their communities.

They get it from the person who encourages their curiosity and expands their knowledge base by teaching them the English names of animals and places they see along the street.

They get their shot at success because they are the children of a parent who encourages his daughters to be perceptive, to ask questions, to seek answers.

If I had closed my eyes while this dad spoke of his children and all he wanted to see them accomplish, I swear I would’ve heard my own dad’s voice. He endlessly repeated as his three kids grew up that he wished he could have done more, that he could have afforded to buy a house in a better neighborhood, that enough money would have been saved up to cover his kids’ college expenses.

We learn from our parents, our first glimpses and stored memories of insight, how to live life.

They may not believe, internally, that they have given their kids all they can give by the impossibly high standards (the majority of) parents hold themselves to, but externally, they give us the foundation to develop into the people we become, locations, schools, financial amenities be damned. If they give us faith in ourselves, we’ll run with it until we can’t run anymore.

I missed the mark on telling my own dad how proud I am of him and all he’s done for his kids — woven out of pride and the result of being raised in an environment where we silently acknowledge situations, benefits and disadvantages — but didn’t want to miss the chance with this guy.

All parents want is for their kids to have the best future. That’s so simplistic and sounds so trite, and sometimes, as people, all we need (whether we realize it) is a reminder that we’re doing all right.

Dads, be proud.