Chiquita bananas are not Ethiopian bananas (and other fun reintegration realities)

I’ve been stateside for all of 24 hours and leaning on my staples: Smiling at everyone, greeting everyone, and wanting to have a conversation with everyone.

The dietary staples are kicking in, too. If it’s not an avocado, tomato, onion or a combination of the three, my brain refuses to acknowledge its existence. I got a little crazy early on in this momentary reintegration ride and grabbed a Chiquita banana, remembering the fruit is a post-meal delicacy in my host country. Skin peeled, pastel yellow inside exposed, my teeth sank in and took a bite.

When it came time to swallow, my brain was like, What the hell is this food? This is not a banana.

Ethiopian bananas are mushier, gentler on the gums and easier to swallow. Chiquita bananas are not Ethiopian bananas, and the United States is not Ethiopia.

Since my layover in DC, the following banana moments have happened:

  • You can’t talk to a crying child in a security line.
    • You especially cannot talk to a crying child in a security line if Mom is with said child, glaring at you for looking at her child, and the first reaction in your head is a combination of, “Min honsh?” for the child, and, “Chigger allesh?” for the glaring mother.
      • (Language: “Min honsh” = “What is wrong?”; “Chigger allesh?” = “Do you have a problem?/What’s your problem?”)
  • You can smile at everyone and still greet everyone, and even want to proceed to have a conversation with everyone as you would at site. Some people even take the bait and engage in a great little tale!
  • If your final connecting flight gets delayed three hours because of a storm and the rest of the plane is going crazy, you can sit back, pop out a journal and be like, “It’s like I’m waiting for a minibus to fill.”
  • Water is everywhere. Irrigated, clean water is everywhere. Excuse me as I have an indefinite amount of meltdowns over this fact.
  • Target is not the local market.
  • The sun doesn’t set until 9 p.m.

The existential crises might take a little longer to set in, after the novelty of being around family fades and as I move closer toward heading back, but here we go for now.


Are you still out there?

Indeed I am! Stay tuned for a layover in Frankfurt next week for a battery of updates, including Fasika, Ramadan, and some cool nutrition gigs.

Finding words, 11 months later

(This will be the last post I make directly related to my parents, promise.)

During a car ride home from an afternoon in St. Petersburg, where Dad spent his teenage years, Dad asked what I wanted to do with my life.

I was 14, in the spring semester of eighth grade. We were curving around our neighborhood’s canal that spilled into the Gulf of Mexico and was the source of major flooding every summer when he asked and I gave him the answer I thought he wanted to hear.

I was going to be a neuroscientist, obviously. Not only does the word have that big, authoritative, commanding ring to it, but it oozes intelligence. It sounds good at a dinner party. It sounds fantastic in cubicle let’s-compare-our-kids discussions.

“Mike, what’s your oldest up to these days?”

He would lean back in a black Staples office chair, take a swig of Coke or Pepsi, whatever was on sale that day, fail to suppress his grin, and say, “Oh, you know, she’s in the middle of brain surgery.”

I mock the situation, but my dad really would have smirked if such a conversation ever happened.

“Don’t do that,” he said. “You’re good at writing. You like writing. You should do that instead. Write a book.”

That’s quite the compliment and reassurance to get from your dad at any age, but there was a little problem: Writing doesn’t pay the bills, and it doesn’t buy a house big enough to have your parents move in with you.

It didn’t seem to bother him. When I finally met his coworkers, they all said the same thing. “You must be the one who goes to UF. He never shuts up about you.”

I open with this anecdote because Dad gave me an identity. It’s how I found myself charged with writing Mom’s eulogy, an almost impossible thing to do when you’re trying to wrap your head around a death you found out about less than 200 hours before the service.

Fast-forward to Dad’s service, where I sat with no idea of what to say or where to begin, so I let others drive conversations. I was relieved my aunt and uncle found a friend to deliver the eulogy.

That was about 11 months ago.

In the time since Dad died, not much has changed. To my knowledge, no one’s talking about him or his death, including me, and I want to desperately. If we had buried him, he’d be rolling in his grave over this bullshit.

“I raised you better than this,” he’d say, and I know he’d say it because that was his favorite thing to say when I didn’t meet his expectations. It was his equivalent of the famous, “I’m not angry, I’m disappointed,” line other parents like to say.

He did raise me better than that, so let’s get to it, 500 words later.

I’ve heard to be an expert, you need at least 10,000 hours of experience in the field of desired expertise. It’s been 10,944 hours without Mom, enough time alone to qualify me for this distinction. But wait! It has also been about 8,040 hours without Dad. Data analyst nerds will certainly frown upon what I’m about to do, but if we combine the two, then I have nearly 19,000 hours of experience. That’s double the amount of time required for expert status. Thank God, because I’ve got a lot to say.

I hope this doesn’t get complicated. Experts like to complicate text to demonstrate newfound authority, but
I’m not sure whom that helps.

Unless you’ve skated by in life loving no one, carrying no depth of appreciation for anyone, you’ll find yourself bathed in grief one day. For me, it feels like an oil spill. It has seeped into every pore and no amount of cleansing (read: tears!) scrubs away the amount of intense emotions that continue to stick to me, blur my vision and keep me married to the daily reality when I wake up every morning, it’s just me.

I compare grief to an oil spill because, despite being a Floridian and being aware of the effects it wrecks on a community, oil is dirty. Dirty and visible. Everyone sees it, no one wants to touch it because then it sticks to you, too.

When someone dies, hordes rush to the rescue. Maybe someone comes with a meal. Maybe someone else calls the funeral home. Maybe a friend brings you to her home to give you a familiar place, a safe space, to begin to process or to merely be. (Michelle, thanks for that.)

When the novelty fades, when well-intentioned, “Call me if you need anything!” sentiments flood text messages, the full force of grief starts to settle.

Life begins to feel lonely. I’d call anyone if I knew what to say beyond, “Hey, I want to talk.” As anyone who has grieved will tell you, I don’t know what I need. I need a hug, but a happy hug, not a sad hug. I need to hear myself vocalize this reality and need someone to be on the other end hearing it, too.

Neither of my parents were superhumans, and that’s what I loved the most. They weren’t afraid to be human. We could all be a little more realistic, a little more honest, with ourselves and others.

Those who knew my dad knew he was stubborn and full of pride. Those who knew him also know those qualities masked his insecurities. He constantly wondered, to the point of worry, whether he was doing enough for his kids, his wife, his mom and siblings. He never said it outright — remember, pride — but he worried the people he loved would leave him. He didn’t talk about why a lot, but if you listened, you caught enough to piece together information.

My dad was no superhuman but he did try to be Santa. I’m convinced no kid sleeps on Christmas Eve — we’re too busy tossing and turning, waiting for the first crack of light to spring out of bed and head for the tree. Tapping into our restlessness and youth, Dad climbed onto the roof one year, prancing around on the shingles, saying, “Ho, ho, ho!” He did it right above our bedroom.

Mom might have been more honest than Dad in the regard she hid behind no pride. She was who she was, take it or leave it.

For a while, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. Mom had bipolar disorder, and when her medicine ran out or became unaffordable, it got pretty ugly.

Our relationship got better. After Dad got sick, she might have been the only person to see the full effect his disease had on me. Friends can nod their heads and say, “That sucks,” but she was the one explaining, time and time again, Dad didn’t mean what he said, it was his reaction to new medications.

The more I work with mothers and see the relationships they have with their children, particularly young children, the more I piece together what my mom must have done for me during the ages I can’t remember.

What I do remember is the secure childhood they strove to provide. We had the luck of growing up within 10 miles of both of our grandmas. This translated to a few nights when we’d pile into the car and drive to Mom’s mom — who doesn’t love a sleepover at Grandma’s? — because rains had snapped the power lines. I didn’t realize it then, but we only drove during or after a storm once. That was a cover for the power being turned off after falling behind on bills.

Mom and Dad would go on to file bankruptcy twice — I guess that means we should’ve been ashamed of ourselves — but even when money was tight, we made it work. Life inside the house at 3622 Cheswick Drive wasn’t always sunshine and daisies, nor was it a chronic storm. It was life. (As an aside, no one should move to that house. It sits on a sinkhole.)

My dad would probably seethe over a few parts of this, but Mom would quash that with a reminder I didn’t say anything wrong or non-factual. Did I get it all right? Debatable. Did I get it honest? I did.

I don’t know what anyone else thinks. I never hear about my mom or dad. I don’t know what anyone cherished, what anyone couldn’t stand. I don’t know what made people laugh or cry. After Dad died, a few people in the family and family friends apologized for not visiting him, for not checking in on Mom. Many have stayed silent. In the best way I can comprehend, people came seeking reassurance that it was okay, that their actions weren’t selfish and out of line. It was okay, it’s still okay.

What hasn’t been okay, for me, is not talking about it. It’s hard enough when someone dies, piling on an added, unnecessary layer of silence has done nothing to make it better. I might be the oldest in the family, now, but I am by no means indestructible.

As a voice inside my head would remind, I was raised better than that.

Lessons and Reflections Two Years after Mom’s Death

Before Mom died, so many times before Mom died, she urged me to seek counseling. She begged me to open up to friends. She encouraged me to put myself first.

In a letter she had written to a friend but never addressed, she said, “I fear she [me] has burned out. She is only 23.”

She never sent that letter. It sat in a journal she would have mailed me had she not died.

As more time passes, the more I realize how well my mom knew me and how well I knew her.

Reflection 1: Comprehending subtext

There are realizations that began to come out of hiding as I prepared to graduate and dived into job searches while waiting to hear back from Peace Corps. These were conversations born only from beginning to understand the pure insanity of the post-graduation world. I began to respect her in a new light because I could comprehend what she routinely sacrificed.

When I saw how much my landlady’s daughter kicked and screamed during temper tantrums, I called my mom that evening to apologize for being difficult to manage (for forever). She laughed and said I was the easy one. With time zones as our friends, she began calling when she couldn’t sleep. I never had all the answers, or even a fraction of the answers, she had to be seeking at the time. I realize now it’s not about having answers, it’s about being available to listen.

What I can’t tell her is how much I’ve discovered about our relationship and about her since moving to site. She died during PST. The entire ride at site has been solo, but not without memories of her that filter into the adventure.

I didn’t understand her at 17 or 18, but at 25, I do. One night, in the middle of what were regular squabbles between us, she said, “I wanted to go to college, too, but I didn’t.” I realize now that comment was much more about what her life had become and much, much less about the futures she wanted her kids to have. She got married when she was 19, and had her first kid (hello, world!) when she was 22. She regularly said, “Don’t get married, don’t have kids,” whenever she washed dishes or prepared dinner. Again, not designed to inflict confusion, anger or pain. It was a moment of honesty.

No one in this world has a level of honesty that can match my mother’s. The wording wasn’t always delicate and sometimes (oftentimes) commanded digging beneath the surface to uncover what she really meant, but neither devalues the merit, though that comes from the privilege of reflection. If I could, I’d call and let her know I get it now. Her friends insist she always knew, mothers can figure out these things, but that’s hardly comforting when you want, or need, to hear yourself say it. I want my mom to hear me say I’m sorry. She deserves that.

Lesson 1: Practicing Mom’s advice

I’m very, very slowly beginning to accept I can’t blame myself for how my mom died. In the same vein, I’m slowly beginning to accept I can’t be angry for missing a window to let her know what she meant to me because so many of those realizations have, in the ultimate catch-22 fashion, come at the expense of her death. This realization comes with the blessing of the brain of a 25-year-old on the other side of grief. It comes independent of the 19-year-old brain on fire with late-stage adolescence and first-stage confusion of a parent’s terminal-illness diagnosis.

She urged me to set up counseling appointments at my university. I tried. Twice. I quit. Twice. I wasn’t ready. It seemed stupid then and even now when I think about it, I know if I kept trudging through appointments, it would have ended as a waste of time for all parties. I wasn’t ready to accept my dad was sick. I didn’t even accept he was dying until the moment he actually died.

She begged me to open up to friends. Definitely didn’t do that in university. A bit of an awkward conversation to introduce. “Hi, I’m Sierra. My dad’s dying, my mom lost her job, and if it’s not obvious, I’m a bit of a train wreck.”

Since her death, I’ve started counseling. I maxed out on the six-sessions-per-issue Peace Corps permits, but I feel okay with that. I left those sessions equipped with tools to navigate who I am, to evaluate when I need to seek new routes, to determine what’s difficult to discuss and how to confront those topics. Success. (It comes with a ton of patience and practice.)

I’m still practicing how to open up to friends. I don’t do it easily. There’s a lot of history to wade through to understand why my parents became who they became and how that affects how I’ve developed and process information. No one has time for that. Sometimes I don’t even have time for it. The moments when I know I should write the most, I don’t. I sit and let whatever emotional wave it is crest over me, and when it’s done, then I sit down to write. I’m still navigating the fine line between experiencing and processing, and I’m still learning where to link the two.

I’m doing the things Mom wanted me to do, but I had to establish a level of comfort with it, first. If she could, she would smirk and mouth, “I told you so.”

Reflection 2: Make time matter

Mom shelved her dreams. She wanted to be a writer. She ended as a sales assistant for our local newspaper.

I don’t want the people I love to settle. Life’s too short to settle. We all do what we have to do to make ends meet, but when it’s possible to fuse making ends meet with goals, I want people to do that. I want passion to spill into the workplace or into side projects, because life becomes too boring, too overwhelming otherwise.

None of us are too busy to take care of ourselves. Unless you’re a full-time caretaker in a financially-strapped family struggling to pay bills and stretch Social Security and Medicaid/Medicare checks far enough to pay for medications and hospital visits, you are not too busy. The clearest lesson I have from Mom’s death is I have to take care of myself – and then tackle ways to connect passions with goals.

Reflection 3: Communities stretch across borders…

About a month ago, my sitemate, Alice, and I visited Zelalem, the high school bookkeeper, for a pre-Fasika fast lunch. Zelalem originally from Amhara, left behind everything she knew when she moved to Gurage Zone, her husband’s home, after they married in the 1980s.

When he died, she was left to raise two daughters on her own. She could have become angry. No one would have blamed her. Ethiopians don’t become angry, not over matters beyond their control, and death is a factor beyond everyone’s control. Instead, she attends church twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening, to pray for strength to get through the day and comfort to carry her through the night.

During our visit at Zelalem’s house, Zelalem asked if I could bring her back a pair of comfort shoes because “my feet are too big,” and she feels sores form on her soles. Yeah, no problem. Reasonable request. (Her insistence she would pay the cost certainly helps, too.)

“In return,” she said, “I will present your mother with a Gurage jebenna!”

Zelalem has never met my mother. She will never meet my mother. Yet despite this simple fact, she wanted to extend a piece of the community where I live to the community from where I came. She wanted to do it in the most respectful way, too, through appreciation for our mothers.

Reflection 4: ..and communities come from within, too.

In the first year after Mom’s death, I streamlined the topic, not wanting to open it and any discomfort among others that evolves from discussing dead parents. The result was some afternoons and nights where my brain channeled every fiber of attention to Mom, regardless of whether I wanted it that way. In those moments, I either called one of two people I thought could lend an ear, but even then, I only did that a handful of times. A weak network and pounds of pride when you’re in a relatively new group of people will keep you from opening up.

By the time Dad died, my group had been in country together for 17 months. That made it a little easier to vocalize what was going on, and responsibilities like coordinating camp’s TOT weekend had to be routed out to other members of the leadership team, so the latter component kicked me into telling others.

It’s easy to let grief derail any sense of reality, and it’s way too easy to feel lonely. I’ve spent too much time the last two years questioning whether anyone would ever answer the phone or respond to a text when I know plenty of people would have done either if I had only reached out.

There’s Josh, who called before my flight took off the first time. He did it again with Dad. All the time in between, he’s called and texted regularly to share site updates, med school application updates (!!!), to invite me to his site and insist I stay as long as needed. He’s kept me involved in holiday events when I’ve dabbled between wanting to celebrate holidays with a bang and wanting to stay secluded. Alongside Kendra, he coordinated a group card that made its way to my aunt’s house the day before I returned to Ethiopia. That card is the staple feature of my bedroom wall. It brings comfort each morning.

There’s Kendra, Tayler and Ellery. It’s a bit sacrilegious to lump the three into one paragraph, but they’re three of the most wonderful people you’ll ever meet. They each epitomize strength and humanity, and they each demonstrate, through sharing snippets of their own lives with me, an understanding that we don’t cease to be people in light of someone’s death. We continue to function as individuals, we continue to care about our friends, we continue to want what’s best for those whom we love and we continue to want to support them. They didn’t lock me out, they let me in, and they’ve kept me in, and there are no words to express how special that feels.

There’s Michael, who has stuck through the wildest two years with me and hasn’t distanced himself, for some bizarre reason. He called from Ethiopia when I went to Florida last summer when Dad died. He doesn’t press conversation, he reminds he’s available when I need an ear to be available, and then off I go. One of the first things I did when I got back to Ethiopia in August was call him on the verge of screaming and tears. I wouldn’t wish a phone call like that on anyone, and since, I’ve started practicing processing my thoughts before calling anyone. It works. I think.

There’s Aaron and Ryan, who don’t take turns checking in, though sometimes it feels that way because their check-in schedules seem so coordinated (maybe that’s just how it goes in Peace Corps).

There’s James, who cracked open a conversation last fall during dinner that still leaves me stunned because at the time, we knew each other, but we didn’t know each other. I didn’t realize relative strangers would be willing to bait a “How are you, really?” conversation, let alone sit to listen to the answer. That softens a calloused heart.

There are many, many others who have taken the time during the last two years to check in. I condensed the list and condensed it to G10 (while knowing there are plenty of others in my group who deserve a paragraph of love, too), but there were a handful of G8 extenders who opened their houses and phones, too. I wouldn’t have known any of this existed, though, had I not started following Mom’s advice to open up to others.

Dad said we can’t rely on friends, we can only rely on work. He meant the benefits a job provides – health care, a paycheck – he meant a tangible return, the way an accountant would view the world. He didn’t think friends would come to help when push comes to shove, the way Mom believed. They’re both a little right and a little wrong.

Sometimes I wonder if Mom would recognize me if she were the one picking up from the airport when home leave begins. I’m not arrogant enough to say I’m the person she wanted to see me become, but I’m comfortable enough in how I understand her to trust she’d be proud of who I’ve become.

Readjustment Realities: Cultural fusion forces reflection, reevaluation

Writings in italics are excerpts from Feb. 12’s and Feb. 14’s journal entries.

Moments after Alice and I placed our lunch order, an older woman, barefoot, in a rumpled skirt, carrying a black plastic bag entered Tenker’s [a migib bet in our town]. Rahel saw her, watched her take a seat, and disappeared behind the curtain that leads to the family’s kitchen. A few moments later, Rahel reemerged, carrying a plate of food, placing the bayonet in front of the woman. [A bayonet is a vegetarian dish comprised of local vegetables and stews plopped on top of an injera roll.]

“Ima,” she said as she placed the plate in front of the woman, “misa. Biyi.” (“Mother, lunch. Eat.”)

I watched the woman from the corner of my eye, wanting to provide her the privacy this haven provides me, while wanting to understand her. I watched as she ate half her meal, dumping the rest into a smaller black plastic bag hidden inside the larger one. The leftovers will likely be her dinner, maybe even her breakfast tomorrow. Before she left, she took the water from her tin cup and washed her feet, then dumped water over the plate, rinsing it before she placed it back on the table and left.

Where will she sleep?

When she left, Alice asked, “Where are her people?” I wondered, too. Where is her family – her children, her siblings – to provide her with shelter, with food? How did she end up alone?

It’s so out of place here, in a small town, for family to not provide for family. Americans do that, so in love with the idea of being “so busy,” bathed in self-importance, but Ethiopians don’t do that.

Where was her family?

Before I left my hometown for Ethiopia, I wrote about what I wondered would change over the course of two years and what would remain the same. I focused on a lot of structures, the things that clearly don change.

Individuals change much more, and much deeper, than any structure. It’s harder to chart individual change, harder to see how someone has morphed absent of massive weight loss or a tan, than it is to track whether some stability has finally come to the shopping center behind the CVS at the corner of US-19 and Moog Road.

Yet those are the most powerful changes that have emerged from the last two years.

The house my siblings and I grew up in is no longer ours. The neighborhood no longer houses my parents. They’re gone. The sinkhole sitting beneath the house didn’t need to open up to swallow us alive and swallow us whole, life found a way to do that all on its own.

My life is split between three addresses – two aunts in the Tampa Bay area, and my power of attorney in the Bay Area. My goal is to consolidate it to one address during home leave, though more realistically, it’ll be between two.

There are some memories you think you’ve forgotten that snap back into focus when you least expect it.

I came home from the dentist’s office Monday afternoon during spring break of my junior year of college, my first appointment in years, and an ambulance arrived at our driveway 10 minutes later. I had no idea what was going on. As paramedics loaded Dad into the back, I learned he was going into respite Hospice care.

My body shook as they loaded him away. I came home for spring break to be with him, burned out by a terrible semester and wanting – needing – time with my dad.

Mom tried to ease my nerves, though I don’t remember what she said. I remember snapping and saying, “It’s not the same! You get to talk to him every day!” I remember her shaking her head, mouthing the words that wasn’t the case.

I knew it wasn’t. I knew Dad wasn’t easy to handle. He was too stubborn. I was having such a hard time being away. Being in school didn’t feel right when Mom lost her job, when she was taking care of Dad on her own. I wasn’t enjoying where I was and I didn’t know where to go for help.

Mom knew how much I needed to decompress after Dad left, after we spent days trying to identify an assisted-living facility for him and failed to find anywhere that could care for him. She dropped me off at the beach one morning. After two hours, after listening to waves crash against the shore and feeling sand creep between my toes, sensations I once enjoyed, I was over it.

I spent the last day of spring break in Dad’s Hospice room, the only place to feel comfortable that week. We flipped between watching Animal Planet and Discovery Channel. As time passed, Dad became less interested in news and political noise. In the 2012 election, my sister and I voted for President Obama, negating our parents’ votes for Romney, a fact the two of us cherished. Even a family bathed in – drowning in – a medical mess is still an American family.

In the States, we don’t know how to confront mortality or how to handle situations that command time. We pass those duties along to specialists, washing our hands of responsibility but carrying the guilt in our heart of not doing more. (If there’s one thing I’ve become acutely aware of the last two years, it’s the double-edged sword that accompanies end-of-life support, for those dying and for those coping with the impending death.)

In Ethiopia, and in many other countries, families tackle the challenges head-on, knowing it won’t be easy, knowing it may involve financial burden (though never publicly addressing it as such), knowing their loved one needs to be surrounded by love in final moments.

It shouldn’t be financially, logistically or emotionally impossible, in the States, for people to have the luxury of dying at home. We’ve developed systems to cater to our allegedly busy schedules, but what happens when those systems fail? Who, then, will take care of you?

Where are your people?

Frisbees for Gender Equity

When my friend Michael, a PCV in Amhara, visited site for a few days after COS conference, he left his Frisbee with me. I didn’t realize how the lime green disc would come to represent all that embodies gender equity.

In the field that hugs the forest and borders the river, scores of children gather to play football and hopscotch, and to monitor cattle as they graze. Our game of three expanded to a game of 15 by the time evening storm clouds rolled over the hills, signaling it was time to head home.

Michael and Shanzy bailed to grab coffee – Shanzy, who has moved to Dire Dawa (almost as far east as you can get in Ethiopia) for six months for work, invited me to come along, too, but these were my babies coming to play.

One of them, Meseret, 10, no longer walks around toting her baby sister to her back. When I met her last year at an after-school village reading program launched by my counterpart, that’s the only way I knew her. She came to every session, always with her baby sister strapped to her back. (These are the girls the Let Girls Learn initiative targets, if you wondered.)

There are the kids who don’t go to school because they need to help with crop rotations, and a family has to eat before it can send children to school. There are the students in school – high school – who cannot read or write in their mother tongue.

There are the students who didn’t pass their national exams and that’s it. School’s done.

There are girls who believe they hold no crown to men (though the number one student right now in the high school is a young woman). They slide into roles in which they’re more comfortable, into roles they’re allowed to assume – meal preparation, household maintenance, sibling care.

Many young women and girls tote their siblings around on their backs, babies becoming an extension of their bodies, superimposed by a cloth scarf that wraps under the baby’s bottom and across the girl’s chest.

Here, in this Frisbee throwing moment, girls got to be girls. They could experience childhood, though three of them played with baby siblings strapped to their backs. Those are also the girls who had the best balance and tosses the entire afternoon.

The boys in our group understood inclusivity, grabbing the disc and passing it to a girl with the next throw. Similarly, girls threw it over to boys. Of course, it’s easier to practice gender equity when it’s not labeled as such – these are friends playing with friends. Many of them are neighbors, they all attend the same school.

It’s in those moments Ethiopia steals my heart.

Can you love Ethiopia the way I do?

From Feb. 8, 2016’s journal entry.

On market day, a town comes to life

It’s 5 a.m., the sun has yet to shine, and chickens cluck outside my window. Roosters crow. The Orthodox church has begun its morning call to prayer, a priest garbling into a megaphone hooked up to a speaker that transmits throughout town.

In another hour, black birds with thick beaks that look like a toucan’s rejected cousin, endemic to Ethiopia and Eritrea, will screech and their talons will rip into the tin roofs, shaking out any sleep that tried to linger.

It’s Monday morning, our market day. In a few hours, men and women from across the woreda (county) will descend upon this little Gurage town situated in the mountains that form the Great Rift Valley. Women, toting burlap bags of mangoes, muz (bananas), dinich (potatoes), gomen, pom (apples) and prim (plums!) will settle along the dirt road that serves as the market’s venue and dump their livelihoods into thatched baskets for sale. Other women will sell salt (not iodized – that stuff is available at the suks for 5 birr), berbere and mit mita, local spices. There are bunna beans, too. All women will set up under the refuge of umbrellas they carried with them, dispelling the unforgiving rays of an equatorial sun.

Men, if they have livestock – sheep, goats, cows – to sell, will settle further down  to the road, closer to where the hill dips into a valley, where the heart of the Monday market rests. There, you can buy clothes, cooking utensils, clay pots and jebennas for brewing those bunna beans you got up the road. If there’s nothing to sell and nothing to buy, men will populate the two bars near the courthouse, one of which serves tej, a honey wine that gets you drunk fast.

I tried to avoid the Monday market, opting instead for the Thursday market, when only fruits and vegetables are sold. When a town of 3,000 swells to twice that size, and quadruple during the holidays, it’s easier to hang around the compound or to lock down at the health center or health office until the noise simmers.

This town comes to life during the market.

Day-to-day routines and establishing who you are and what you aren’t

When we have power, less than half the week on a generous estimate, music booms from suks. When plums are in season, people scramble to buy them by the kilo, then hand out the delicacies to friends as they seem them on the streets. Heading to the next kebele town? Here, take a handful.

If you view poverty as unending sadness and despair, then Ethiopia would shock you.

The market is only one component of this town. If the most extreme examples of prosperity can be found at the market, so too, can the most extreme examples of poverty. Girls no older than 10 tote bundles of sticks wrapped in blue tarp on their backs, often barefoot, the open sores on their soles an invitation for disease.

We’re surrounded by a river on three sides, so water shortages are rare, but waterborne diseases are plenty. They light up the under-5 disease registry at the health center. Diarrhea and dysentery are most common, and occasionally typhoid squiggles into the mix. I’ve worked with the health office, the women’s and children’s affairs office and the primary schools the last two years to press clean water and storage strategies. I’ve grown so tired, and frustrated, of children dying from preventable diseases, from even being diagnosed with them. Sure, ORS (oral rehydration salts) and antibiotics will cure the body, but those don’t even need to be necessary. Just boil your water before drinking it. Wash your hands. That visit to the health center that costs up to two days’ worth of income, if you’re one of the lucky ones on the income scale, can be avoided.

Government workers here live on 30 birr a day, more if they’ve been with their office for a while or have been promoted. Non-government workers live on much less. (Thirty birr is equivalent to 1.50 USD.) In theory, some can afford to get sick. What’s more, they can afford to be role models to springboard behavior change.

That’s what got me to tackle the Monday market. It’s one thing to go for food, to soak in the environment. It’s another to shake that environment, to carve out a space on a ledge under the shade and make camp with a poster that begs people to spend five minutes to boil drinking water. I don’t care if it comes from the river or the spigot.

People responded. To no surprise, women stopped to ask questions, obviously concerned for their families’ well-being. Men also stopped to ask questions – mostly in their 20s – to ask when they should boil their water and where to store it afterward. Gobez nateboch (clever points, a saying I like to spit out with students and in moments of sarcasm) for everyone! Taking control of your health is easy and can be affordable. That’s what I’m trying to get people to understand. You don’t have to be rich to have clean water.

I bow out of the market before drunk men waltz in, lacking the patience to tolerate crass behavior. When I first moved to site, I quietly ignored their screams, as all the women do. I was too new to cause a storm. As I prepare to begin my third year, timidity has been thrown to the burn pile. I’m just as much a piece of the community as anyone else. Making a comment that, “I want you alone in my house,” no longer gets me to silently stand and remove myself from the situation. Instead, it warrants a public scolding – I have the language and confidence to do that, now.

One man doesn’t speak for the majority. It’s important to remember that.

It’s not Starbucks, but…

Oftentimes, I’m the only woman at Samira’s shay bet (mostly because women are at home preparing their own coffee to supplement meals, not indulging in an already-made treat, a privilege of which I’m painfully aware). I can adopt the language and adapt to the culture, but I’m still a foreign woman, and I don’t carry the burden local women carry.

Samira and I met in September, 2014, after she had worked up the courage to invite me to coffee. Every day that week, she gave me coffee on the house as she learned about the weird ferenji.

I visit at least four times a week, now. She asks nothing of me and expects nothing out of me – it’s a friendship rooted in kindness and not out of wonder of what the American can give. She sees me at my best and at my worst, and she can always tell. When the kids make my heart swell, she hears about it. When the resident drunk guy becomes too much to handle, she passes me a sini (cup) of her freshest bunna. When I’m trying to figure out women’s health issues, she waits for the men to leave, then she tells all. She’s the one who agreed that menstrual pads cost too much, that women and girls need a better alternative.

Her shay bet is 10’x5’, and 10 people, not including her, can squeeze inside. She has four Jimma stools – three-legged stools that, shockingly, derive from Jimma Zone – and sets them up outside, offering more room for people to drink and socialize. Four wooden poles comprise the bet’s frame. Rice bags and orange-and-blue tarps cover the frame, while a tin roof blocks the sun. It’s not your Starbucks, but it’s so much better. In close company, you have no choice but to talk to the people to your left, your right, and those sitting across from you. There’s no internet to glue your face to your phone, no newspaper to hide behind. Why wouldn’t you want to talk to anyone, though? Most of the time, people are on break, and they’re not too removed, or worse, too busy, to ask about your day, about work, about your life. You can still be sipping from your first sini when you get an invite for a second, and then a third.

Sometimes, business emerges from these spontaneous interactions. Samira and I were chatting away one afternoon last month when a health extension worker from a neighboring kebele town stopped in. The two of us began discussing nutrition and sanitation within the woreda, and then we were planning lessons we could take to schools and mothers.

Does that sound like something out of Starbucks to you?

You’d never know what could exist if you never stretched your boundaries, if you allowed yourself to believe progress can’t emerge from a developing country.

Knowing when to engage and when to reflect

In between valleys and highlands rests an enormous amount of hospitality.

I was on a minibus, the third out of four that day, when the driver stopped to pick up more passengers along the road. In a moment of unfiltered excitement, as a man stepped onto the vehicle, a man in the row behind me jumped to greet the newest passenger.

When’s the last time you were on public transit and leapt when you saw a friend hop on board? When was the last time you took public transit?

Similar to shay bets, minibuses are methods of communication. Where are you go(ing)? Why are you here? For how long?

How can an introvert survive in a country where everyone talks? Are there moments of solitude, moments that yield reflection?

All the time, but yeah, it depends on how much effort you want to engage and when you want to pull back.

I’m trying to gobble all I can about Ethiopia, but I still take pause each day. If a guy yanks out my earphone on a bus to talk, I ignore him, opting not to reward childish behavior. If I’m on a bus within my area and a song comes on (via the flash drives drivers insert into the radios) that everyone begins to sing and dance along to, then I get a strong urge to participate.

In some ways, I’ve modified my personality to survive – thrive? – in Ethiopia, but in other ways, this feels like the home I’ve always craved. Everyone greeting everyone on the street? A town that looks out for and cares for its own? This is the faith in humanity I so desperately needed renewed.

Perception versus reality

Life is molded by perception. We see what we elect to see.

Life’s too short, too frail, too unpredictable to not hold onto every piece of happiness. Ethiopians know that well. They won’t deny they crave improvements for their country, but they don’t let those cravings inhibit how they behave. I swear to God – no one values God more than Ethiopians, by the way – Ethiopians are among the happiest people I’ve met. Progress is slow (see: clean water campaigns), but it is forthcoming. The luxuries we take for granted in the States – electricity and running water, for starters – don’t dictate satisfaction, though an argument for generators can be made when we’re discussing health care.

The States is a land of excess. Before we flew out of JFK, charter buses drove us from Philadelphia, where we staged, through Manhattan, one of the richest districts in the world. Twenty-four hours later, we landed in Ethiopia.

Can you see gojo bets, sometimes called sar bets, for the resource-efficient structures they are, or do you see them in photos and think to yourself, “What a cute hut!”? The thought may be innocent enough to you, yet it registers as a smack to the face when it’s vocalized. Slowly, people are moving away from these “cute huts,” opting to construct four-wall mud houses in the name of development, in the name of modernization.

Not so cute anymore, huh?

I can gripe about my host country because I want it to be better for the friends I have here, for the people who have so eagerly welcomed me into their homes, who have shared their lives with me and have made me feel like part of their families.

And that’s what I want you to understand.

I realize the futility, but I want you to love Ethiopia the way I love Ethiopia.

I want you to walk down the street near dusk with a friend when you bump into a group of teachers and everyone’s arms twist into a spider web because everyone’s so delighted to see each other and no one knows whom to greet first.

I want your emotions to ride a rollercoaster. I want you to rage when, during recess, you see a group of kids throwing rocks at a boy with a case of Down syndrome. I want you to stop everything you’re doing in that moment to split up the group and keep that boy by your side. Life is hard enough without kids practicing herd mentality.

I want your heart to swell and melt every time that kid sees you on the street and stops everything he’s doing to run up, jump up and squeeze you in a hug with all the love he has to give.

I want your heart to break because this is the one child you wish you could help and you don’t know where to begin.

I want you to never have to experience another holiday alone because you will always have a first, second, third, fourth and fifth family waiting for you to arrive.

I want your body to freeze as you walk by the mosque and see your landlord open the gate, then move aside to let a body he just blessed be taken to a final resting place.

I want you to fall asleep to the sound of raindrops pelting a tin roof, a sound so deafening you can’t hear yourself think. I want you, during the peak of rainy season when power disappears for weeks at a time, to peek outside your window and have your breath stolen by red-and-orange lightning strikes lighting up the valley over the hill.

I hope you remembered to pack a sweater. Ethiopia gets cold. We’re talking hail and snow. (But if a ghost has more color than you, I hope you remember to pack sunscreen, too, as sacrilegious as it may feel to wear it in a landlocked country.)

Can you do that? Can you throw everything you’ve ever known out the door to make space for what you will learn?

Maybe then you can love Ethiopia the way I do.