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.