The Final Frontier as a symbol of confidence

Walking home from Emanuel’s house after an early dinner, I asked why he wanted to study astronomy in university.

“I want to go to Mars,” he said before diving into his fascination with the universe’s birth and theories about what happens next.

Mars! How did we get to Mars?

Were you alone?

During a class break, Emanuel and Mintesnot stopped by the pre-K room to review the schedule for an upcoming training on sexual harassment (part two a three-part training focused on youth becoming community leaders).

Before the two went to their next class, Emanuel asked, “Would you like to come to my family’s house for dinner?” The two said they were concerned the new kid in town spent Fasika weekend alone.

Accepting invites is an incredible way, if not the best way, to discover more about your neighbors and friends. Inside the comfort of their own homes, people kick off their shoes, lean back in their chairs and ask, “How are you – really?”

“They’re afraid to try”

The greatest struggle for Emanuel’s dad, a grade 9 English teacher, isn’t class size management, but encouraging students to speak up.

Classrooms large enough to seat 40-50 students squish 85 students at a time. With such a large number of students packed into a class, you’d assume a reasonable amount – say anywhere between 20 and 40 – actively participate in class, asking and responding to questions ba inglezana (in English).

Nowhere near.

Emanuel’s dad, sitting on the couch adjacent to me, said only a handful of students, maybe 10 at most, pop their hands into the air to participate in discussion while the others sit and listen.

“They’re afraid to try,” he said.

It’s not that students don’t want to participate, he said. They live in a culture where the smartest, the brightest, the most likely to succeed speak English and those who don’t speak with the same fluency feel discouraged and embarrassed to try in their presence, opting instead for silence.

His reflection echoes other educators’ observations. Those fortunate enough to grow up in families where parents speak some amount of English teach their children basic words and sayings throughout childhood so that they enter the classrooms feeling and believing that they can succeed.

Sound like a place you know?

Are we going to Mars, yet?

Not all students are afraid. Some are quiet, and with time, they open up.

When Emanuel first came to a youth development club meeting last October, he didn’t say a word unless he was asked to answer a question. In written assignments, though, his ideas flourished. He didn’t just understand the English language, he commanded it.

One afternoon, I asked if any students wanted to share their assignment with the group. They didn’t have to disclose any details about their writing, but they were asked to reflect on the writing process, who they chose to interview, what questions they chose to ask, why they identified that person as a role model.

I asked Emanuel, the only boy to hand in the assignment, to share his reflections. At the time, he spoke in a whisper, but he did share.

Fast forward to April, where he facilitates training sessions for peers.

That’s the same student who kept his confidence close to his heart, who, six months ago, if I asked what he wanted to study, either would have deflected with an “I don’t know,” or said “medicine.”

Today, with time, with trust, he doesn’t skip a beat when he hears the, “What does your son want to study in university?” question. He belts out, “Astronomy.” He wasn’t even a member of the conversation. His dad and I were talking, but he heard his name, his future, and he had his own idea and he wanted to make it known.

Let’s go to Mars.

Post-script: A promotional video anyone who lived in the Southeast a decade ago would recognize

About eight years ago, the University of Florida had a promotional video it aired during football games. The cameras open to an empty street, a young woman exiting a car and promptly walking past a man who tells her, “Go write the great American novel.”

“Go start a Fortune 500 company,” she replies.

Cut to a waiting room, where a doctor passes a girl no older than 10 reading a magazine in the waiting room.

“Go to Mars,” he tells her.

“Go Gators!” she squeals.

I’d be lying if I said my alma mater didn’t cross my mind the second Emanuel said, “I want to go to Mars.”

I didn’t watch the video before transcribing the dialogue, but I’m 99 percent sure it’s right. (The woman on the street might have spoken to the man first, but the dialogue content is accurate.) YouTube it if you want, if you’ve got the Internet availability to do so. (I don’t.)

That was a great campaign video. UF, bring it back.

Celebrating Easter in Ethiopia in the shadows of a community in mourning

Ethiopia celebrated Fasika (Easter) on April 12. While church songs broke across this Orthodox nation, at least one town juggled holiday celebrations with respecting death.

The hours before the fast snapped

Around 9 p.m. Saturday night, hundreds fill the Orthodox Church and compound for prayer and service, peppered by cat naps, in the seven hours leading up to breaking a two-month fast.

Right before dawn, the party erupts.

Following the service that ends between 4 and 5 a.m., people flood families’ and friends’ homes, where bowls of food and pitchers of drink await consumption.

The food inside the homes

A brief primer on Fasika foods:

  • Doro wat (a chicken dish consisting of chicken – shocker – onions, berbere, oil and hardboiled eggs)
  • Pitchers of tella (a homemade barley beer)
  • Kitfo (a Gurage Zone specialty consisting of raw meat, local spices, sometimes cheese, and always kocho)
  • Bottles of arake (Ethiopia-specific liquor consumed in shot-sized glasses. You’re not supposed to pop it back like a shot, but you probably should unless savoring a drink with the taste of nail polish remover is your thing.

If 4 a.m. sounds too early to start eating, don’t worry.  After two months without meat, your stomach will gladly digest any and all types of food.

The (slightly) boring cultural interlude on time and religion

Last year, Easter and Fasika landed on the same day. By some calendrical anomaly that friends at site couldn’t identify (the best answer for the different celebration dates this year came from a friend who cited pagume, a 6-day mini-month in Ethiopia that precedes the start of the new year in September, as the culprit), Easter fell on the European April 5. Fasika, this year, fell on the European April 12 – Ethiopian April 4.

I don’t understand your pagume and date differences. What the hell is going on?! Read here for more information on Ethiopia’s 13 months, calendrical system and telling time.

About 50 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christian, the largest religious following in the country, according to Central Statistical Agency data from 2010.  (Thirty-three percent of the population identify as Muslim, 18 percent as Protestant, and 3 percent follow indigenous religions.)

In Gurage Zone, the breakdown is about 48 percent Orthodox Christian, 40 percent Muslim and 12 percent Protestant, according to information from the National Population and Housing Census released in 2007. My site is a 45-45 split between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, the remainder following Protestantism. The religious split information comes in handy later.

House hopping till your stomach splits

Friends ask how Ethiopian holiday celebrations differ from American holiday celebrations.

We don’t acknowledge Santa Claus on Christmas, don’t decorate walls with stockings, drink hot chocolate, eat ham or peel off metallic-colored wrapping paper to reveal gifts.

We do sing, dance and spend the day with family and friends, though. In lieu of gifts are plates and plates of food, enough to eat till you can’t stand, and then you’re encouraged to eat more.

We don’t hide multicolored hardboiled eggs around town, believe in the Easter bunny or jam jellybeans and chocolate into pastel-colored baskets.

We do spend the morning in church (if you’re Protestant, if you’re Orthodox, you spent the entire night there), and the afternoon in the company of family and friends.

And we eat. We eat a lot.

For PCVs, new to the culture and mostly alone (unless you’re one of the few to have a sitemate), we enter these holidays without family nearby, but with a ton of friends eager to adopt us into theirs.

Cue the house hopping.

As friendships form and holidays near, people begin to say, “Come to my house on (insert holiday here)!” What time? you ask.

“Any time.”

To be polite, you spend a few hours at each house – enough time to eat, catch up with your friend and friend’s family – and meander to the next place.

Walking through the wrong gate

After leaving Israel’s, I went to visit the owner of the bayonet bet I like to frequent for a fresh meal when I’m too lazy (there is no other justification, some days I am just too lazy) to cook for myself. The entire family has a permanent smile stretched between their cheeks and they love to spend time talking to their customers (a mix between students on lunch break, administration officials and family friends).

When I approached their house, the gate was closed. I knocked, took a step back and waited a few seconds. Then knocked again. And again. (An Ethiopian would have just walked through the gate, up to the door and then knocked, but I’m not at that level yet.) By the third knock, a group of kids had walked up and took me to the gate next door. At the time, I assumed this gate also belonged to the family whose house I was trying to enter, thanked the kids and walked in —

—  to the wrong house.

One of the men hopped up and told me to sit while the compound matriarch came over with a glass of tella. Meanwhile, another man grilled (for lack of a better word) a cow’s small intestine and spinal cord over an open flame. (Does this sound disgusting to you? It was delicious. I’d also like to invite you to read the ingredients list of any hot dog.)

As we ate, a toddler grabbed the tella pitcher, poured a glass and began chugging. Jaw-hit-the-floor shock clearly didn’t bother to hide itself from my face as the guy next to me laughed and said that kids in Gurage start young.


Orthodox priests will drink on this holiday

How are holidays in Ethiopia different from holidays in the States? I never drank with Orthodox priests in the States.

After finishing up at the wrong-gate house (super sweet family!), I tried again to get into this other family’s house. I wasn’t interested in food – by this point, my stomach wanted to split and expand to take over my lungs and intestines. I did want to stop by to say hi to the family, though.

This time, the gate was open, so I walked in, looked around the compound and heard a woman shout, “Sierra!” Bingo. Found the house. Straight ahead.

Inside the home, every seat on the couch, mattress and spare chairs were filled with family, friends and priests sipping bunna, snacking on fandisha (popcorn), taking shots of arake.

The sober end

Remember site’s religious breakdown? This is the part where it’s relevant.

Town tends to split between where Muslims and Orthodox Christians live, but it’s not uncommon for Christians to have Muslim neighbors and vice versa.

My landlord is Muslim. The compound I live on is predominantly Orthodox Christian.

One of our neighbors, a Muslim, died Thursday night.

While half the town spent the days leading up to Good Friday preparing for the holiday weekend, another half spent the weekend mourning.

While half the town darted between houses and churches, half the town filtered into a forest green tent set up outside of the house to pay respect.

Death doesn’t have to destroy celebration, especially a celebration centered on overriding death, but it does affect the holiday approach. In between the house hopping, laughs and hugs, soaking in the day’s events felt sacrilegious knowing that others cried, held each other and sat with heads bowed in a house down the street.

So you wanna visit Ethiopia? Great! Some quick navigation tools

You’re thinking of visiting Ethiopia – betam k’onjo naw! (That is very wonderful.) Before you book your ticket and hop on the plane halfway across the globe to visit a PCV or tour the cradle of civilization solo, a few things might help you navigate the country.


You’re not really going to find any English. You will find some English, but if you’re looking for fluency across the country, this is the wrong country to visit. There are three main languages – Amharic, Afan-Oromo and Tigrayan – and more than 80 local languages scatter across Ethiopia, according to the 2011 Demographic and Health Survey.

Woredas, zones and regions (oh my!)

If you’re coming from the States, you’re familiar with the concept of counties, states and the nation. Wave goodbye to those when you get the purple stamp in your passport at customs.

  • Woreda – same concept as a county.
  • Zone – a collection of woredas within a region. (Example: Ezha and Cheha woredas are a part of Gurage Zone.)
  • Region – same concept as a state.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

We’re a few latitudinal lines above the equator and we don’t tell time the way you tell time. Noon is not noon. It’s 6. 1 p.m. is not 1 p.m., it’s 7.

The easiest way to get time down: Add/subtract six hours from what you’re used to the time being called. (Don’t meet me at the airport at 2 p.m.! Meet me there at 8.)

Every month has 30 days (except February, February is a global red-headed stepchild) and the new year begins on Sept. 1

Ethiopia rejects the 31st day of the months that have 31 days. The 31st days come together to form pagume, a six-day mini month sandwiched between the end of (Ethiopia’s) August and September 1, the start of the Ethiopian new year. (Pagume, on our calendar, starts Sept. 5 and ends September 10.)

Get ready, you’re going to be called ferenji

Ferenji means foreigner, and you are a foreigner, so please don’t be upset if the kid you just met on the street five seconds ago calls you ferenji instead of Susie. (And please don’t be surprised when you hear a 35-year-old of either sex shout it at you.)

Is that it?

Maybe. Read around if there’s more on your mind, or ask one of the 220 PCVs living here.

Learning alongside friends on a Saturday encourages students to exercise leadership skills

Nineteen primary school students from grades 5 through 8 filtered into an open classroom door on a Saturday morning to participate in a seven-hour leadership training.

(It’s easier to come in on a weekend when the front gate has been torn down for reconstruction.)

Eden asking students what qualities make a good leader, a bad leader, and who they identify as a leader.

Eden asking students what qualities make a good leader, a bad leader, and who they identify as a leader.

As students split into groups, sex, age and grade level tossed aside, crafting skits and inventions, unknowingly exercising leadership qualities they were 30 minutes from discussing, it felt like the best Saturday at site. In my journal, I wrote, “I didn’t know Saturdays at school could be so fun.”

Pause. I had forgotten how fun Saturdays at school could be.

During junior and senior year of high school, I coached primary-age teams for Odyssey of the Mind. It’s an international educational organization with roots in New Jersey that encourages kids to exercise creative thinking through designing skits that resolve a problem. (Example from the 2007-08 season: Every time a character goes to bed, he wakes up in a different place. In an eight-minute skit, identify where he wakes up each time, how he gets to each new place, and how his sleep travelling problem stops.)

If I had any photos on my computer to attach to this post, I would. From fourth grade till my sophomore year of college, it had a significant role in my development.

So significant, you almost forgot about it.

Yeah. So significant, so fun, so draining at times, that I did almost forget about it. Like most of life in the States, it got jumbled and tossed into a box filed in my brain as “Stateside life.” Anything affiliated with Odyssey of the Mind sits in two backpacks in the corner of a closet in my sister’s room at our aunt’s house. It became an item to revisit when my brain wanted to revisit it.

So you revisited it!

Yup. Or rather, it revisited me. However memories work.

After a session on identifying what is and what isn't a community, and our roles in our communities, students created goals for themselves to achieve within the next month.

After a session on identifying what is and what isn’t a community, and our roles in our communities, students created goals for themselves to achieve within the next month.

Leaning against a desk in the back of the class, watching as students broke the mold of nodding quietly and scribbling notes whenever words went up on the blackboard and instead opt to contort their bodies into shapes and movements to align with self-invented machines, I saw varying degrees of curiosity that exit classrooms before students walk through the door.

This Saturday, inside of a classroom where the only teachers were fellow classmates and friends, students stopped being shy and started tinkering with possibilities.

Sound familiar?

(This was the first part of a three-part leadership training Eden and Emanuel, two youth development club members, are leading for their classmates. Stay tuned for the next two trainings and a program reflection!)

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?


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 for 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.