We took kids in the Jimma Loop to the Final Frontier during Camp GLoW

Campers from Agena show some Gurage Zone pride during Thursday afternoon's scheduled group photos.

Campers from Agena show some Gurage Zone pride during Thursday afternoon’s scheduled group photos.

Forty-eight students, 11 PCVs and 11 PCV counterparts lifted off on August 29, after a week of sessions addressing sexual health, gender empowerment and community leadership.

(Sorry. Floridians love space and cramming space-related verbs into space-related stories. Anyway…)

Stretching from as far east as Gurage Zone (housing Agena) to as far west as Illubabor Zone (holding Metu and Gore), Camp GLoW brought together strangers and equipped them with the skills to transform their towns. We made them believe they had the opportunity to change their lives.

GLoW, an acronym for Girls Leading our World, began in 1995 with four PCVs and three PCV counterparts in Romania. They took 80 girls to a mountaintop town for a week of leadership-driven sessions, and since then, the camp’s model has infiltrated Peace Corps posts across the globe.

In split-gender sessions, girls learned about the menstrual cycle and made reusable menstrual pads.

In split-gender sessions, girls learned about the menstrual cycle and made reusable menstrual pads.

Historically, the camp targets young women and provides them with health training, life skills training and goal setting to give them the tools necessary to thrive as they grow. Some camps, like ours, are coed, justified with the belief the world becomes a stronger, more unified and better atmosphere when we’re playing on the same level and understand what goes into getting us all to the same level.

How did we arrive in space?

During the camp kick-off meeting the first week of April, participating PCVs tossed around camp themes. What’s endless? What can always be explored? What can we see? What can we always learn more about?


Space, the link between discovery of the world around us and above us, and the world within ourselves.

Finding our astronauts (campers)

Opening the conversation on self-esteem, how we perceive ourselves and how those perceptions fuel how we approach others.

Opening the conversation on self-esteem, how we perceive ourselves and how those perceptions fuel how we approach others.

We put together an application to determine which students would travel mountain roads to SOS Children’s Village in Jimma, our camp’s venue. We wanted a way to gauge creativity, original thought and analysis. The following questions became the pieces of our camp application:

  • Who is a leader in your community? Why? (Describe why that person is a leader.)

Choose ONE of the below questions to answer.

  • If you could have shay-bunna (coffee or tea) with anyone in all of history, who would it be? Why?
  • If you could change any problem in your community, what would it be?
  • Please describe something you are proud of in your community.

Students were encouraged to respond in whatever language was easiest for them to write – English, Amharic, Oromifa.

Male staff and campers inside the fish bowl discussing life as a man in Ethiopia.

Male staff and campers inside the fish bowl discussing life as a man in Ethiopia.

Maneuvering around the room as students scribbled answers, chewed pencil erasers, crossed out sentences and rewrote thoughts showcased the effort dozens were putting into the application (and their writing styles). It quashed some of the cheating going on, muting whispers and darting eyes, but there were still a few applications that mirrored each other.

And there were the essays that popped. Sixteen applicants whittled to six interviewees, and six interviewees narrowed to four campers.

Some of the best responses from the essays and interviews…

From one camper’s essay, a response to the question, “Who is a leader in your community?”

Everybody is a leader in his/her own life. We can do whatever we like in our lives. […] I would change women’s inferiority from men. We have a constitution that says all females are equal with man, and this may be found in the constitution, but it does not work like this on the streets.

Pulling from that excerpt came the interview question, “You say everybody can be a leader. Can you tell me how you are a leader?”

Part of the response:

We choose our own destinies. I can change my attitude to feel more at peace with myself, and no one can force how I choose to react.

This is the caliber of students we had to work with for a week. They latched onto the sessions, they popped hands in the air to ask questions and challenge answers. They showed all of us they’re ready to take these ideas home and, excuse the gushy pride, change the world.

The lessons we gave our students

Timeliness. While, as PCVs, we’ve adapted to multitudes of Ethiopian culture, we still cling to the saying, “If you’re early, you’re on time, if you’re on time, you’re late.” Imagine, then, what happens when everyone shows up 20 minutes late to a session on the second day.

It only happened once. We remember what it’s like to be a teenager, to make new friends, to soak in fresh experiences. We know we have to be flexible and modify schedules (see “The lessons our students gave us”), but we also know that we’re going to do all in our own power to keep our end of the schedule on time.

Action planning. Volunteerism is on the rise, with university students returning home

Agena's plan: Introduce language training classes at the youth center. Gobez hasab!

Agena’s plan: Introduce language training classes at the youth center. Gobez hasab!

during the summer and setting up tutoring programs and summer schools to get younger kids to where they need to be for the upcoming school year. The foundation is there, so let’s take it to the next level with what it means to have goals, how to evaluate them, how to achieve them. Everyone’s got the dream of a better Ethiopia, now they’ve got the most basic tool in making it a reality.

Sexual health, HIV prevention, malaria.

The space to discuss gender (in)equity. On Wednesday, we did fish bowl (what some people call Gender Stadium, if you’re using GrassRoots Soccer jargon) – the activity where you read a statement, and those who identify with it sit in the middle and discuss it, while the rest of the participants sit silently in an outer circle and listen to the dialogue. The idea is to give individuals an opportunity to hear an issue from an “inside” perspective.

One of the highlights from the boys’ dialogue: What’s one thing you wish you could say to a girl?

“They should have to be serious like us if they want to be treated like us.”

(Yes, that did trigger whiplash among the girls.)

The lessons our students gave us

Patience. When dinner ran two hours late on the first night (an outlet issue delaying food preparation), staff threw an American-style hissy fit, complete with the, “WE’RE OFF SCHEDULE! WHAT DO WE DO NOW?!” hysteria. Meanwhile, students are racing around the compound getting to know each other, chatting like they’ve known each other for years. Some of the boys played basketball. Counterparts were around to monitor students and keep things under control while PCVs pondered what to do with all the time we unwillingly inherited.

As the week rolled on, we found ourselves modifying the schedule each day, pushing sessions back, cutting excess breaks we didn’t need, etc. to keep our track clear, but our kids engaged.

Love. One of our students came down with typhoid and typhus, and he spent most of the week with an around-the-clock medical team of counterparts taking him to the clinic, picking up antibiotics and monitoring his health. Campers rotated meals to eat with him, wrote him get-well-soon messages and on Thursday, he surprised all of us by leaving his room and joining in for the group photos and evening candlelight ceremony.

The lesson my kids gave me

My beautiful babies!

My beautiful babies!

Faith. The only reason I returned to Ethiopia at the end of two weeks as opposed to staying stateside for a month was camp. There were logistical and operational tasks still needing completion (the biggest ones: getting the entire venue ready for a week of camp – laying down mattresses, washing bed nets, hanging bed nets, rearranging classrooms, creating a cafeteria – and, vital to everyone’s sanity for a week, finalizing a food order – wanna guess how much fun it is catering Orthodox Christian and Muslim meals? It’s like a giant, unperceivable puzzle you hope comes together in the end).

There were my kids. Some of them went to Addis for the summer to live and work with extended family, others stayed in town to help their families with younger siblings, and they were all counting down till they could go on this journey. No way could they miss this opportunity.

I didn’t see much of them throughout the week, but other PCVs relayed messages.

Minte and Amanuel did a joint performance at camp's talent show -- they were the first act!

Minte and Amanuel did a joint performance at camp’s talent show — they were the first act!

Amanuel cracked jokes (he cracked his shy shell!), Minte busted out a spontaneous free-verse poem Thursday afternoon, Mahder floated from person to person during each break and spoke to everyone at least once, Eden encouraged others to look at issues from ignored perspectives.

They had the chance to dig into themselves and become the best versions of themselves.

In the weeks since camp has ended, they’ve taken turns popping onto the compound, sifting through photos and videos from the week. They all talk about the service project they agreed to initiate as a group – a language and mentoring program – and they share how they’re already using the lessons learned at camp to transform how they approach scenarios within town.

They’re the reason the world will become a better place. What more could anyone ask for?

Host country cultural cues: “I think on the new year in America, you eat turkey.”

The Gurage people count down to September – a little bit for the new year (this year, on Sept. 12, in preparation for the upcoming leap year), and a lot for Meskel (the finding of the true cross, on Sept. 28 this year, also due to the leap year).

In the same vein with all Ethiopian celebrations, the two holidays feature copious amounts of food – more than any person could ever swallow in one setting, so brace yourself, holidays are esophageal marathons.

The new year has plates of doro wat (a chicken dish with pieces of chicken and hardboiled eggs in each serving) that migrate around the room. Meskel features kitfo, a zonal raw meat specialty, served with aib (cheese), gomen (spinach), and spices atop of kocho, a type of bread special to SNNPR that comes from the core of inset leaves.

We’re noticing the food theme, right? We’re noticing that food accompanies family, that the holidays are a time to celebrate with loved ones, and part of that expression of love includes food?

No wonder Ethiopians have asked if Americans celebrate their new year by eating turkey.

Enter explaining Thanksgiving.

“But then what is the purpose of celebrating the new year?”

Sharing site in September

G13, the newest group of education volunteers to arrive in Ethiopia, completes pre-service training in mid-September and then proceed onto site to direct teach English to grade 9 and grade 11 students for 24 months.

In line with our post’s design to move to smaller sites, the majority of G13 PCVs found themselves discovering last week at site announcement they would be moving to towns no larger than 5,000 people.

One of those sites was mine.

Welcome to SNNPR, Alice!

Enter Alice.

Born and raised in Kenya, she spent part of her life in Santa Cruz, Calif., before moving back to Kenya to work for an international NGO and joining Peace Corps.

We only spent a few days together (site visit is a four day deal), yet that was enough time to demonstrate age carries no weight in forming friendships.

Oh yeah, and the kids adore her. Winning their hearts is the key to becoming part of the Gurage Zone family. We’re stoked to welcome her just in time for Meskel!

Trying to make your heart meet your mind

It’s easier to write about Dad than it is to talk about Dad.

Part of me doesn’t want to vocalize that he died. Every time I do, my heart clenches a little, my temperature rises, my eyes fill with hot tears. If someone beats me to it and says, “I didn’t know your dad died, I’m so sorry,” as my counterpart did, I can write it off, but the second I’m alone at home, tears spill. (Challenge: Try getting a condolences call right after you’ve applied toothpaste to your toothbrush, then force yourself to choke back tears because you have to brush your teeth. Grief doesn’t care about hygiene.)

It’s hard to hear a reality your heart can’t yet accept as a reality.

Dad began using a speech device in late 2011/early 2012, after ALS stripped him of his voice. He lost use of his arms, hands and fingers in 2011, too, halting any communication we had with each other via text.

(ALS is a neurological disease that stops neurons from delivering messages to the muscles, causing the muscles to atrophy, lending to the disease’s name. His vocal cords stopped working, and he waited until the last possible moment to begin using a speech device, and even then, would still mutter phrases like, “Oh, my God,” because he hated that thing so much. And yeah, he was also stubborn.)

In shorter words, I haven’t been able to communicate with my dad in a traditional sense for a number of years. That complicates and simplifies his death.

For years, unless I was home visiting during school breaks and holidays, someone on the other line – mostly Mom – was holding the phone to his speech device, conversation lagging minutes behind, as his eyes moved across the screen to compose sentences for a mechanized voice to deliver. When I was home, it would be reading his device and piecing together what he was trying to say before he had completed the thought. (I’m not sure if that irritated him – part of me did it to save his energy, but a larger part of me did it because I was his daughter and I got a huge ego stroke from knowing what he wanted. That’s how close we were.)

Half a world away, communication with Dad became more one-sided – e-mails to my aunt, then letters directly to him. It took months after Mom’s death to write letters to Dad because I knew those letters would have no response, no reply, and the last thing I wanted after already losing one parent was feeling like I was writing empty letters. When you know you can’t get a response, that’s how it feels. In some ways, it’s blistering because you know the person on the other end wants to be able to respond.

Our communication had become limited, but it wasn’t done. Maybe the piecemeal approach of losing our ability to communicate prepared me for his death, but did it ease it? Not at all. I still had someone’s laugh to hear, someone to write letters to, someone’s smile to see. I still had someone I could hug.

But that’s gone now, too.

It’s gone and I’ve known for the last five years that it eventually would be. My mind has no problem registering he died because it was going to happen and there was no way of reversing any of his disease. I knew that. I still know it.

Don’t ask my heart to believe it.

Perception and generalization isn’t the small-town reality in Ethiopia

I was angry before returning to Ethiopia.

The same three scenarios raced through my head on repeat.

Agarish indet naw? (How is your country?
Tefash! Lamin? (You’re lost from me! Why?)
America hedkish? (Any item here) sichign! (You went to America? Give me something!)

Those are the horror stories volunteers pass down through the line. I believed the tales, then heard none of them. Not a single one.

I returned to site after 20 days of being away – way too long, I never want to be gone so long again – and people had noticed, but not a single person asked if I had returned with anything to give.

These are the people who beg me to “go play” with other PCVs when I’m at site for too long, fearful their American isn’t getting enough America time. When word spread I had gone back to the States, their eyes glimmered as they asked, “Betasabish indet naw?” and “America konjo naw?” (How is your family? Is America beautiful?) We just finished celebrating Ramadan, and the new year and Meskel are on the rise. Translated: it’s prime family time out here.

I braced myself for the worst, not expecting to get something much calmer and easier on the heart to manage.

As word circulated about Dad, people stopped exclaiming Tefash! and replaced it with Excabier yanorish (God will give you strength and patience). Friends began inviting me to breakfast, to lunch, to dinner, all while reiterating that death is an inescapable part of life, yet despite its inevitability, it’s okay  to be sad. It’s okay to miss what I lost, and it’s also okay to let myself be happy, too, because being happy doesn’t diminish my parents’ memory.

A healthy dose of pragmatism with support. That’s what the sympathy cards lack.

The cross-cultural component of grief

My dad died Monday morning (July 20) around 3 a.m., ending a five-and-a-half-year battle with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

I won’t elaborate on the details. They’re not necessary for the content of this post, and they’re too fresh to process, let alone express.

My dad was 51. According to the World Bank, the average life expectancy in the States is around 79 (78.74, to be exact, forgive me for rounding up). In Ethiopia, life expectancy is around 63 (62.97, to be exact).

To an Ethiopian, my dad died old. If we want to look at the age he was diagnosed, 46, and blot out the years he lived sick — the years he couldn’t work, the years where he spent months in and out of hospitals — and, forgive my crass, please, forgive my crass, consider that as his final year of active life, then to an Ethiopian, my dad still died old.

In a country where people are born malnourished, born with bodies fighting to stay alive, diseases that ravish anyone — diseases like typhoid, typhus and malaria, not to mention the swing of acute upper respiratory infections and tuberculosis — thrash the body harder, more mercilessly. Antibiotics flush most of these diseases out of the body, especially if you catch the signs early enough and can find your way to a health post or health center.

You can be sick for a short amount of time, then get better, or you can be sick for a short amount of time and die. You can be chronically weak and snap.

To say living in poverty is fierce and heartbreaking goes without saying.

The aforementioned diseases are preventable. Peace Corps volunteers across all sectors — it’s not just a health volunteer’s priority, although we do focus on teaching and enacting prevention methods more closely than other sectors by the nature of our project framework — spend the duration of service identifying members of the community to train as trainers to keep the flow of knowledge alive, to keep people alive.

Those diseases are preventable, and there is nothing more I want to see than Ethiopians stop dying in the numbers they do from those diseases. Loss brings too much pain, too much shock value and short-term paralysis, things no person should have to experience, let alone repeatedly. They can have better lives because they deserve better lives, and day by day, they’re discovering they have the tools within their own homes to lead those lives.

Ethiopians are not immune to death and the grief that comes attached to loss. Whereas we hide from it, they have a public mourning process. Tents go up outside of the deceased’s home, family members and community members alike notice this visible sign of loss, and they stop to pay their respect. Most towns have a community-based organization designed to help families finance funeral services and burials, and in some circumstances, help keep the family afloat for a short period of time following the death.

Death will happen, here, there and everywhere. We can run from it, or we can know it will happen and stand together as a community to assist each other when the blow comes. Ethiopians do the latter.

It’s that open embrace of a very private, very personal experience, that look of understanding and empathy rather than the loss-of-words look of sympathy that reassures me returning to Ethiopia will be okay.

Why, then, do I feel such hostility to any comments that might suggest he died old?

Culture. Cultural differences. Because while it seems he lived into old age in one part of the world, in the part of the world where I grew up, he didn’t. He died young. He died young and without the opportunity to live his life. (Though I say this, and every single one of his brothers and sisters tells me his greatest joy was his kids. I believe that, but I also believe he got cut off entirely too early.)

Peace Corps envelops itself in cross-cultural activity, it’s the foundation of the organization. It’s rare to have the chance to discuss such a personal, intense part of life while living within another culture, and that’s what I need to remember. Sugarcoating aside, this situation sucks, but it doesn’t mean there’s nothing to learn from it.