Mesi the Matriarch

(Think I forgot about that whole yibejish thing? I didn’t. I’m just embracing my erratic update style. Here’s to the next segment!)

The Horn of Africa is a male-dominant society, and Ethiopia is no different. Despite men’s upper hand, though, is the understanding women rule the household.

The finances, not so much. The social constructs of childrearing and empathy, the household chores, those are women’s spheres.

Unless you’re Mesi.

Within our compound, Mesi keeps us together. My landlord’s son lives on the compound with the 15 of us, yet despite being the landlord’s son, even he knows this space of land is Mesi’s reign.

Every afternoon, during lunchtime, she knocks on each compound door, saying, “Bunna tatchi! Bunna tatchi!” (“Come drink coffee!”)

Twice a week, in the evenings, she brews coffee for the compound. We sit under a freshly installed lightbulb that emanates a glow through our grassy area when clouds hide the moon and stars, passing kolo (grains) and sinis of bunna. Alemu, one of our newer renters, never hesitates to crack a joke. (It’s not hard to master when you’ve always got a grin plastered on your face. When my door collapsed on Christmas Eve, he all but pranced over as he said, “Sierra, selam nesh?” If it had been anyone else, I would’ve screamed – hell no, there’s no peace! The door just came crashing to the ground! But it was Alemu, so I hid my head under a pillow so he wouldn’t hear me laugh.) Occasionally, the women quiz me on everyone’s names, and to their pleasure, I’ve got everyone down.

If there’s something to discuss, some matter to rectify, Mesi handles it.

Mesi is short for Meseret, the Amharic word for foundation. Fitting.

During one of our evening bunna gatherings, as we leeched to each other for the warmth of body heat to abate chilly mountain air, Mesi reminded the compound to wash our hands regularly and to always dump any urine from the night before down the shint bet, amid a typhoid outbreak in town. People nodded, chiming in on what we could do to stay healthy. That’s Mesi, the teacher.

There’s Mesi the counselor, whose door is always open to young women when they experience heartbreak, when their fresh marriages seem to falter, when women doubt who they are. Mesi takes them in, prepares shay, serves them dabo, and listens. She listens better than most people I’ve met. She lets people excise their thoughts, then chimes in with her thoughts and offers her advice to keep these women motivated.

There’s Mesi the healer. During Timket, Ethiopia’s Epiphany, she invited me into her house before I could even unlock the door to my room.

“Sierra,” she said, “bunna tatchi.”

“Ahun?” I asked, key in the door.


Gotcha. Coming right away.

She motioned toward her mattress-style couch, I sat down, then broke out my flashcards and journal. As she prepared coffee for the two of us and stuffed me with an unbelievable amount of bread (to think I liked carbs before Peace Corps – those days are gone), she sang along to the Orthodox music reverberating from her phone. I asked how her family was, her job (she’s a librarian at the local primary school), herself.

I’m at a point in my childlike curiosity with language, and with Ethiopian culture, where I’ve graduated beyond observing and now want to ask questions about everything. (Does this make me 3 or 4?) She doesn’t have children, she’s unmarried. Is she unmarried because she’s a widow or unmarried because she never married? It’s not exactly a question you pop into conversation, there is such a thing as consideration, but I’m curious, and I am baiting my time to ask. In a world where women are disrespected unless they belong to a man, this woman has risen above that boundary. Everyone looks to her.

And she knows it.

As we sat, in between intermittent conversation, song and pen scribbles, Mesi poured cups of coffee, reminding, on a holiday that celebrates rebirth, it’s okay to be sad as long as you remember to be happy.

How did she know?

Because it’s that level of perception that allows you to command a community.

A trimester mental-health report.

Every four months, we’re required to complete a VRF (volunteer reporting form). The document is a collection of our work at site, complete with target audiences, objectives, indicators and Peace Corps initiatives. It’s made of the coding that would make a data nerd’s heart swell, and of the project management reflections that make Peace Corps boast when it goes to Congress to say, “This is what our volunteers can do with miniscule funding.” (We can brag about that, but hey, Congress, wanna give us another readjustment allowance hike?)

I took serious steps back the last four months. I sliced out any noise polluting an already overfilled head. I quit teaching at the kindergarten (when you slam a metal door hard enough to fracture a bone in your hand, it’s time to step away). I cut out people oozing with negativity because I don’t have the time, or energy, to bait it, or to try to remedy it. (I’ve also come to realize it’s not my responsibility to remedy it.)

I stopped focusing on what others wanted of me and expected of me and focused on what I want out of myself.

Anyone who grieves will tell you about the enormous amount of energy it saps from the body. I’m exhausted by the end of each day, and if it was a day where I cried, then forget it, I’m crawling underneath my blanket, tucking in the bed net, and hoping for 10 hours of sleep – if my body will let me slip into sleep.

I’ve felt my voice crumble. Sometimes, glimmers of it snap into focus, usually when I’ve heard enough b/s spew from someone’s mouth to reflexively call it out. (Some volunteers have discovered the hard way friendship doesn’t grant immunity in this situation – apologies?)  Most times, I keep to myself, knowing what I want to talk about, but acknowledging it’s not culturally appropriate by American or Ethiopian standards.

A counseling visit greenlighted this focus-on-yourself parade, with the astute observation that if I can’t take care of myself, there’s no way I can do anything for anyone else. If I need a weekend away, I take it. If I need to cut back on work, I cut back. It’s not weak to acknowledge you need time and to give yourself time to move forward in the best way possible. It took some time to realize that.

In 2014, I ignored fall and winter holidays. In 2015, I approached them cautiously, letting myself slide into group settings but keeping distance.

I started running again, and now I do it three times a week. If I hadn’t restarted, I wouldn’t have discovered the economic limitations HIV/AIDS places on a family.

On the days when leaving the compound seems like a ludicrous idea, I force myself to Samira’s, where I can slide into her shay bet, pull out my journal and begin to write. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have met a health extension worker adamant we work together to do a nutrition campaign. (Yes, please!)

I spend Sunday mornings at the health center, poring over the under-5 diseases log, where diarrhea, dysentery and typhoid dominate the entries. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have realized the need to push – and push hard – for water sanitation in the community above everything else.

I go to Rahel’s to play with Abselat, her 8-month-old baby girl. If I didn’t, I never would have found my second (third?) family in Ethiopia.

Taking the step back helped me lunge forward.

You get an extension!

A few hours after Friday’s post found its way to the World Wide Web, my country director stopped by the safety and security team’s office, across the hall from his office, where my former LCF (language and culture facilitator) and I were chatting away, having a grand old time. Fresh from a laugh, I sat up a little and said I could leave, assuming he had a question for the safety and security team.

“I’m actually looking for you,” he said.

Oh. Okay. Across the hall to his office we went, where he closed the door behind us.

I’m used to the open-door policy, offering anyone the opportunity to walk in when they have a question. A closed door means stay out, the country director has business to handle.

I took a seat at the round glass table situated in the far corner of his office, waiting for him to sit, too, waiting to find out why I was here.

He was holding a stapled collection of papers that my eyes kept trying to read while also trying to focus on him and hear his words.

Then the sentence my ears needed to hear: “We really liked your scope of work, and we want you to do that.”

Wait. Wait, wait, wait. Ears heard it, brain forgot to register it. Does that mean what I think it means?

Thoughts still floating, searching for some sort of verification, it came a few minutes later when my country director said, “And yeah, you’ll get 30 days of home leave.”

Okay, wait. Back up again. It did happen. It did get approved.

I’M EXTENDING! For a third year! In the most beautiful of beautiful mountain towns!

It feels real and it feels surreal, and it’s approved. It was easy. No trial by fire, swimming through pools of lava, just a call into the country director’s office.

I keep wanting to play it cool, like it’s no big deal, but the more the reality sets in, the harder it becomes. I keep smiling. I keep wanting to dance.

This is the best gift ever.

It takes a village to raise a child.

Excerpted from Dec. 8’s journal entry:

Did not want to leave this morning.

Didn’t want to leave site and contemplated staying in bed, spending another day on the compound, staying away from Addis Ababa. This is my defense mechanism kicking in – if I don’t leave, if I don’t put myself on a bus, I don’t interview. I don’t have to consider saying goodbye (even though goodbye will eventually come). Sometimes defense gets mired by irrationality.

I didn’t want to leave site this morning and delayed departure by getting coffee at Samira’s. Four months from now, it’s her coffee I will crave. She serves it black, but always adds a pinch of sugar to sweeten it slightly. The sugar is a light icing – her brewing technique makes her coffee her coffee.  I want to learn her secret. My coffee will never be her coffee, but I’ll think of her every time I grind beans.

In between sips, the man to my left played 20/20. I think I was the interviewee, but the other three men chimed in to answer why I’m here.

“For two years? You’ve been here for two years?!”


The man to my left, the ringleader in this round-robin affair, paused for a moment before asking, “Can I ask a question?”

Mindin naw?” I asked in return, letting each syllable slide with narrowed eyes.

“Many Ethiopians want to go to America…” he began. (Here we go, I thought.)

“…but many Americans come here to work. Can you explain the process?”

Oh! Well. Sorry for being a presumptuous insert-the-noun-here. That’s a cool question.

Too bad I had a lackluster answer.

I told him in my case, I was invited here after a ton of paperwork and interviews and no real idea of where I’d go until a welcome book saying, “ETHIOPIA” found itself in my inbox. I told him I was here to work. (“Where?” he asked. – the health center and schools, for HIV transmission, nutrition and water sanitation.) I added I really enjoy Ethiopia.

Hulum selam naw?” (“There is always peace?”)


Coffee done, I paid Samira and told her I was going to Addis for a few days for a meeting and would return Thursday.

Iwadishallahu, (I love you) our now-standard departure line to each other.

Stopped by Kedir’s and Dender’s (the tailor who shares suk space with Kedir) to say hi and ask about their mornings. In small towns, not stopping by your friends’ places every day to pass a simple Selam naw? (“Is there peace?”) warrants a Tefash! (You’re lost from me!) the next time you meet.

Morning greetings fulfilled, headed toward the bus station, purple duffel bag slung over my shoulder.

When I carry my black backpack, everyone knows I’m working (or trying to set up work). When I leave, that backpack will probably accompany every sentence featuring my name.

The purple duffel bag came along for this trip instead, carrying clothes and magazines to leave in the VRC. (More on the clothes in a minute.) This bag came to Thanksgiving, too, but everyone associates it with July’s trip to the States.


As I walked away from Kedir, he asked if I was going to the States. I went back to his suk to tell him I have a meeting in Addis but will come home Thursday.

He smiled.

During the ride into my hub town to transfer buses, I thought of site. This town feels stronger and stronger with each day. Increasingly comfortable, including the good and the bad. It feels like home. My heart feels more tied to this kebele town than it has anywhere else in the world.

With four months left, maybe it’s time to think of gifts to relay to stateside family and friends. I had a list at one point but can’t fathom looking at it. I’ll see those people soon enough.

I don’t know the next time I’ll see anyone from this town. I don’t know who will move, who will get sick, who will marry.

Everyone here has played a role in my most significant period of development. Unknowingly (probably for the best, because who would do it willingly?), many of them have carried me through grief. Many have shown me, through actions as simple as morning greetings, joy exists in each day and peace exists in the moments even when saying, “Hulgize dahna nagn!” (I am always fine!), feels sacrilegious.

These are the people who took a person burned out on alleged American ideals and ignited a set of beliefs so much stronger than any white-picket fence dream.

They have shown me love can exist among strangers. They have shown me cultural barriers aren’t really barriers at all (if they are barriers, they’re the most malleable ones in existence). They have shown me we can rise above linguistic and religious differences because those aren’t foundations of friendship.

Acceptance is the foundation.

Acceptance, laced with laughter, with handfuls of mouthfuls of food, with curiosity and a desire to know more is the bond that links us to each other, if we’re willing to take that step.

It comes as quickly as Gurage Zone footwork in our local dance, as cautiously as a child toting gerry cans of water, as fluidly as a Bunna tatchi! (Drink coffee.)

Love involves letting the people we care about follow their own paths, even if they don’t know where those paths yet lead. We trust the ones we let go away will return to us with a better idea of who they are or a discovery of something unknown at the time of departure.

I was scared to get on the plane to Staging. I waited until the night before my flight to pack whatever items I thought I’d need for 27 months.

I didn’t pack my mom and dad (I mean, really, how can you?), but they (tangibly) came along in song selection and clothing choices.

On this trip to Addis, I’m dropping off clothes – some not worn since PST and some that haven’t fit since PST – and I go back and forth on whether I’ll let those clothes find new homes. I don’t wear them and they’re in good condition, so it makes sense to pass them along.

They’re also the last clothes I bought with Mom.

Memories are woven in the heart, not in pieces of fabric, but it still feels like I’m giving up a piece of her.

I know I can’t hold onto everything forever, I know not everything is permanent. A degree of that line of thought got me on the plane 23 months ago.

Except now that line of thought is totally wrong. Invalid. Some things do last forever.

The love I have for site will be permanent. The lapses of breath after dancing won’t (luckily), but the thrill of the holiday festivities will. The pitter-patter my heart experiences watching my campers initiate service projects will. The tendency to refer to people as, “my sister, my brother, my mother, my father,” may ebb with time, but the sentimentality of embracing a community and being embraced by a community won’t.

What gifts can I give to stateside family and friends? I’ve no idea. I’m trying to figure out what I could give to everyone here that could possibly express and reflect the amount of love and joy they have given.

Yibejish (You make me strong)

There’s a word in Amharic PCVs and Ethiopians pop out: Izo/Izosh. There’s no direct English translation, the word being a combination of, “Be strong,” and, “I am with you.”

You can use the word in almost any context — tumbling off a bus, tripping in a drainage ditch, finding words to fill conversation, easing a friend in distress.

The response rocks, too. Yibejish. (YEE-bej-ish.) “You make me strong.”

There are multiple women in my town who make me strong. For this post, I’m going to loosely focus on two — more on one than the other. Others will find themselves laced into future posts, in a series of those who have molded what site has become to me.

There are two young women in my town, whose lives follow no parallel, despite being similar in age.

The first is Eden, the grade 9 student I met last fall. The girl who has spent countless hours in my house studying English, listening to Elton John songs to pick apart new words and rhythms (and discovering she’s a fan of kaleidoscopes). This is the girl who asks questions, stretches her limits, opens her heart to her friends.

The second is Maroke, a grade 10 student who lived on my compound before moving to Addis Ababa with her husband this summer.

Did you say your tenth-grade friend has a husband?

I did. She got married a few months before she finished the ninth grade, in spring 2014. I refused to believe she was married until her husband showed me wedding photos.

DSC_0082.jpgWhen she lived in town, she went to class in the mornings, came home around lunchtime and began preparing lunch and dinner for her husband, who worked at the water factory about 10 kilometers outside of town. Then she would wash laundry. Then dishes. Sometimes I saw her washing and braiding her own hair. At night, she pounded bunna beans, softening them to a fine powder for the next day.

When the shint bet needed to be bleached, that was Maroke’s job. When the ferenji on the compound did laundry for the first time, it was her who stopped what she was doing to come over and teach me her technique.

When rain drummed hard enough to keep us all confined to the compound for days on end last year, she came inside my room to watch Discovery Channel documentaries (a word now pronounced as doc-U-men-TARY) and asked about the white rain falling from the sky (snow).

When I tore my meniscus in the shint bet, it was Maroke who kept me in bed, washed out my house, put me to bed and stopped by a few hours later with dinner. Once a week, she invited me over for dinner and coffee. We’d read together and sometimes dance. As our friendship developed, she began letting me prepare wats (sauce-like dishes) with her. She’d let me beat the bunna beans. Most nights, she asked me to hold a light up while she grounded the beans.

On the nights when her husband was gone and she couldn’t get a hold of him, she’d come over, sit in my room and say, “Issu tefah.” (He is lost from me.) Where did he go? I’d ask. Some nights, she’d shrug her shoulders as she said she didn’t know.

Maroke, a grade 10 student who should have spent all of her waking moments studying to pass the national exam, never did an hour of homework. School was a formality.

She moved this summer to Addis Ababa when I was in Addis Ababa for a week of mid-service medical exams. I didn’t realize she had moved for good until two months after the fact. (I thought she had returned to her parents’ home in Adama for the summer, as she had last year. It was only when I saw new people moving into her room that I realized she may have left. Even then, I saw my new neighbors as short-term renters, individuals who would pack up and leave once Maroke returned.)

Maroke hasn’t returned and her phone number has since changed, but she remains a piece of me. By extension, a part of her remains rooted in this small mountain Gurage town.

When I ride into town, her voice fills my head. Yet tefash? Where have you been lost from me? Never Where have you been? but always a soft tefash, a “my friend, I missed you,” intonation strong in her voice.

She has shown me, time and time again, that there is never too little time to care for someone you love. Time and time again, she has demonstrated racial and linguistic barriers mean nothing in friendship.

I have no idea if she ever began the eleventh grade. (We can assume she didn’t…) She’s one of the many faces to the millions of girls whose lives take on a new direction as a result of factors beyond their control.

She’s one of the faces of a few who can see the scope of her situation yet smile through each day. You hear it in her laughs, see it in the energy she invests into household chores, feel it when she greets people as they walk onto the compound.

Does Addis Ababa give her the opportunity to continue her dance between adolescence and adulthood? Has it thrust her, more prematurely, into adulthood?

She has taught me to best serve others, we must understand others second, and we must respect ourselves first.

Suicide in a small town opens conversations about mental health, family support

On 15 November, a man and a woman wed. The following morning, the husband, not 24 hours removed from his wedding ceremony, had hanged himself.

Our town is gripped by grief. We’re bound by shock. We cling to each other for support, we lean on neighbors’ shoulders as we cry.

The man was well-known and well-respected. A young merchant, he navigated the financial sphere and gave his family the support it needed to thrive. He had a mother, a father and three sisters.

He was the light of their lives.

On 15 November, after vows concluded, his family expanded to include a new wife and a host of in-laws. On 16 November, a family, old and new, brought together to celebrate, now came together to mourn.

This town has come in to share the burden, to ease the pain in whatever way it can be eased.

In small Ethiopian towns, when a mourning tent plops itself outside of the mourning home, everyone in the community stops by the home to pay respect, to embrace the grievers, to let the family know it is not alone. In Ethiopian cities, neighbors stop by to pay respect to the family. But here, where everyone knows everyone and families cross lines, we are all related. We all share this pain.

Even as a newcomer, an outcast, it breaks my heart that a life ended so horribly, that a new chapter has been burned before it had a chance to blossom.

The town has been muted, hushed, since this man’s loss. Behind closed doors, I don’t know what people say, but on the street and in shay bets, everyone is shocked by such an unpredictable death. No one is asking what drove him to this point, no one has shunned his spirit or discredited his contributions to this town.

His funeral was on Wednesday, 18 November. Every suk in town shut down. This man was Orthodox, but everyone showed up to the service. Hundreds upon hundreds of people filed outside the family home, inside the forest-green mourning tent, sat on eucalyptus-bark benches. People stood along the road and sat on lawns and front porches across from the home. Men and women alike, young and old, openly wailed. Some silently sobbed. Muslims came. Protestants came. People passed tissues.

I sat on a boulder across from the home, watching, paying respect. One of the men a few meters behind me, sitting on a front porch, called me over to sit under the shade.

Together we watched. Together we talked.

“No one knows what happened,” he said. “We are all so sad for this family. He was a merchant, he helped his sisters. I don’t know who will help them now.”

My bench neighbor continued, saying this man also had social stock. He hosted parties, stopped by neighbors’ homes when someone was sick. This was a man with a heart larger than the size of Ethiopia.

His suicide doesn’t lock him out of a proper burial. He will be buried at the Orthodox cemetery with full rites. The same holds true in Islam.

It us, as individuals, who stigmatize suicide.

The Addis Ababa University School of Social Work reports there were 7,228 documented cases of suicide in Ethiopia in 2012. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says there were more than 41,000 cases of suicide in the United States in 2011.

Each year, there are 800,000 recorded suicides, according to the World Health Organization. In 2012, 19.4 people per 100,000 committed suicide in the United States. In Ethiopia, the figure was 16.5.

In the States, we can hide suicide from death certificates sent to banks and life insurance companies. Mark the cause of death as unknown. In the States, we talk about suicide only in networks in which we feel comfortable.

In Ethiopia, in this town, everyone knows what happened. Everyone will feel sorrow for this family and the “bad fortune” it inherits as a result. (Whether this means that whenever something poor happens to the family, it is linked to the suicide, or whether the family will never again feel joy, I’m not sure. There wasn’t a clear answer.)

As wailing from the mourning house intensified, cries filling the air and echoing across the street and throughout the town, my bench neighbor asked if we do anything like this in the States.

We gather at churches, homes, and funeral homes if we were family members or close friends. Sometimes colleagues come, too. But an entire town? Never.

Would an entire town contribute to the price of a funeral to ease a family’s burden? No.

Would thousands of people stand and form a human sea that blocks the street from incoming and outgoing traffic as the body is marched to the church for burial? No.

Ethiopians are public with their grief, whereas Americans hide their grief, as if grief is something we should be ashamed to hold.

Grief reflects the memories and roles the deceased had in our lives. We should display our sorrow. We shouldn’t approach grief by hiding love, concealing pain. As much as we try to present ourselves as strong, it is okay to be vulnerable in these moments. It is okay to showcase we have lost someone special, a bond has broken, and we are sad. We are human, and it is okay. It is beautiful. Displaying grief shows we hurt now, but in the embrace of a community, we can take steps forward day by day to heal.

Suks have reopened, people laugh again as we drink bunna, but we still hurt.

Can you live on $2.50 USD a month? HIV-positive people in rural Ethiopia do.

Some mornings, I wake up with an urge to run, and run for kilometers. If it squiggles under my skin on a Saturday or Sunday morning, when there’s no rush to a school or health center, I pop outside and go.

Earphones jammed inside my ears deep enough to make me wonder how I’ve retained any sort of hearing, these runs are a chance to air out thoughts racing through my head. (Though based on the last 20-kilometer stretch, I’m starting to think I could hit triple digits and feel like I haven’t gone long enough or far enough.)

One of those mornings, I was on my way home when Zariun, a guy from the health office who focuses on nutrition strategies, called me over to his parents’ place for coffee.

While we sipped, he told me a woman with HIV lives up the road. When we finished, he took me to her place (in this part of the woreda, every home’s a gojo bet) to “meet her and ask any questions you want to ask.”

I’ve wanted to start an income-generating activity (IGA) for people with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) since moving to site in May 2014. If the timeline doesn’t make it obvious enough, this has been a process. The PLWHA association is all but defunct, a result of HAPCO, the funder for PLWHA associations, being phased out and leaving the associations strapped for cash. I don’t want to believe that people aren’t genuinely interested in jumpstarting an IGA – the PLWHA director’s eyes light up every time at the mention of it – but it’s difficult to think about getting people together to discuss an IGA when everyone’s scattered across the woreda and lacks funding to come into town for a planning meeting.

The health center has gotten better about synching appointments with the Monday and Thursday markets, when people from surrounding kebele towns will be here anyway to purchase enough food for a few days. Coming to the market? Come in for your monthly ART appointment, too! This link has made the audience easier to address.

With Zariun’s help, I learned the woman we visited makes kudans (the lids that cover kitfo) and sells them for 20 birr at the market. Each kudan costs 10 birr to make, and this woman sells 5 a month.

She lives on 50 birr ($2.50 USD). That’s how much I spend on mobile cards in a week. That’s enough to rattle you out of your element.

Knowing PLWHA now have dates they definitively attend the health center eliminates the need of needing to bring them into town twice – we can meet while they wait for their appointment.

Now we turn to establishing an IGA and getting the health office and health center on board.

The IGA idea: Stitching baby hats. After a Peace Corps mom sent a package of 21 baby hats, the idea clicked. Newborns need to maintain and regulate body temperature. Women here knit all day. People with HIV need additional income.


The health center jumped on the idea, with the lead doctor in the ART division saying, “The biggest concern with our patients is a lack of financial stability.”

The health office modified the idea, suggesting we sell the hats to the health centers. The health center in town sees 80 births in one month alone.

Idea, meet support, meet source.

Now where’s the structure?

This is the part where this awesome idea has gotten stuck. There needs to be a centralized place to collect, store and distribute funds. We need to discuss who gets funds – is it just those who help with the hats or all PLWHA? – when funds are distributed, and what funds should be used to assist. This requires a meeting with the health office director and PLWHA director. If that sounds easy, you don’t live here, where you have meetings to set up meetings, all while praying an unknown meeting doesn’t creep up and obliterate your plans.

There are five months to make this happen. Let’s see where it goes.