Come to coffee

Shay bets house site-changing information.

During pre-service training (PST), a PCV who has since completed her service (Mary Gaul, I hope you read this!) encouraged me to attend as many, if not all, bunna (coffee) invitations that pop up at site.

Late last month, one of my friends called me over for coffee, 30 minutes before site shut down for lunch. We sat together for a few minutes, discussing work, the weather, life in town, our families. Baseline conversations.

Once school wrapped up for the morning, preparatory students filtered into this shay bet. One of them walked in, grabbed some chat (sometimes spelled khat) from another man, then took a corner seat to listen to discussions, but not necessarily engage. Around this time, another man, middle-aged and wearing a grey collared shirt, walked in and took a seat across from me.

The middle-aged man began talking with my friend, and as they two caught up, I turned to the preparatory student, wanting to include him in the conversation, too. As he chewed a chat leaf and twiddled the stem between his fingers, I asked what his favorite club was at school, and he said he enjoys the HIV club because it changed his perspective on what it is like to live with HIV and helped him to understand how he can help people in the community living with HIV.

At this point, my friend had tuned into our discussion, and he scurried to say HIV isn’t a problem, no worries.

Then the man in the grey-collared shirt piped up and said HIV may not be a major problem, but typhoid and typhus are. For 20 minutes, this man commanded everyone’s attention. He didn’t raise his voice once, he didn’t shout. He gave clear, short, simple solutions that anyone at site can employ to encourage people to seize control of their own health (he cited the example of creating low-cost hand washing stations near the shint bet and washing hands when water is available as methods to help reduce the spread of disease). He paused every few minutes to answer questions, then jumped back into his spiel.

This man does not work at the health office or health center. He attended an open forum discussion on hygiene practices in the community. One of his daughters is a preschool student at the primary school where they are learning to practice and improve hygiene strategies at school, a venue with semi-regular water availability.

He proved you don’t have to be a health expert to have good health.

Global room for improvement

There’s a bayonet bet in town a coworker introduced me to during a polio vaccination campaign last fall, and now I find

Inside the bayonet bet at site, from my coveted corner. Bayonets, for lack of a better description, resemble a vegetable platter, except the injera is edible and how you eat the food (potatoes, shiro, tagabino, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, etc.) on top of it.

Inside the bayonet bet at site, from my coveted corner. Bayonets, for lack of a better description, resemble a vegetable platter, except the injera is edible and how you eat the food (potatoes, shiro, tagabino, cabbage, lettuce, peppers, etc.) on top of it.

myself there at least once a week for a fresh, hot meal.

I take my seat in the back corner of the bayonet bet, letting my backpack rest beside me while my journal or planner sits on the table near the water glass, and I promptly begin reviewing ideas, meeting notes or journal entries to keep myself occupied. Whereas in the States few will approach you if you sit by yourself, in Ethiopia, people will encourage you to become a piece of the conversation, to not sit alone, to be part of an extended family. I’ve come to love this inclusion, but sometimes, I want the atmosphere while not being actively involved in it. If I yank out a notebook, people let me be — most days.

From the front of the restaurant, two of the woreda (county) court judges asked if I would feel comfortable moving next to them and joining them for lunch.

I’ll spare the details of the entire conversation, but we discussed how to feel like a member of a community, what it means to be a part of a community, and then meandered in the direction of the courthouse and health office, located near each other. Rather than split into our respective offices, the judges invited me into their office so we could continue conversation as we worked.

One of my friends (welcome to Ethiopia, where everyone is your gwadanya after one meeting — and when I say friend in this context, I mean friend in the way Americans would use the term) began discussing how judges are an extension of social justice, and how people should feel comfortable reporting problems when they happen. As he said, people should trust that they will be respected and the situation resolved.

He cited sexual assault as an example. He paused and said, “I believe this is not a problem in America.”

Insert shock when he heard the States grapples with its own problems involving sexual assault.

“But how?” he asked. “It is a developed country. How is that possible?”

Because this is clearly a global issue that every person, socioeconomic status, gender, nationality, everything, aside, can and should work together to improve.

Dads, be proud

As January neared its end, students walked to the primary school in the mornings and afternoons to take their end-of-semester exams. I stayed away from the school, not wanting to provide a distraction to students scribbling every ounce of knowledge they had into their exams  to score the best grade possible.

Those mornings, while an invitation to snag an extra 30 minutes of sleep, felt hollow and quiet. There’s joy in watching kids as they write the Fidel script and Roman alphabet for the first time, when kids pump their arms in the air and wave their hands to grab your attention because all they want to do is answer the question. Selfishly, spending time with those students provides the energy, inspiration and motivation necessary to tinker with and tailor future projects.

While they sat in their classrooms taking their exams, I walked from my compound to the health office. During one of their exam days, I walked to the health office via the main road in site. After passing the first shay bet (tea house) along the way, a man sitting inside the bet shouted, “Won’t you come have coffee?”

10:30 in the morning with no strict timeline, yeah, I’ll be polite and sit for a cup of coffee. It won’t take more than 15 minutes.

Or it will last for two hours.

Once I sat down, sliding my backpack underneath my feet to make room on the bench for anyone else who wanted to pop in for a pre-lunch bunna break, the man said, “You teach two of my daughters, they are 3 and 5. They came home one day saying, ‘The ferenji is teaching us! The ferenji is teaching us!'”

Cue that awkward moment where a parent says thanks and you sit quietly, nodding your head, smiling as you say minim aydal (rough translation: you’re welcome), holding back the “It’s the students doing more than I am” thought in your head. The devotion and willingness to learn they possess doesn’t come from me, it comes from their homes. It comes from their not-yet-defined, but present, role models.

As this dad and I talked, he said his home is Nazret (Adama), the capital of the Oromia region. He reflected on his opportunity to grow up in a regional capital and the increased access to education he had as a result. He spoke of wishing he could have sent his girls to school in Addis Ababa, where they would have been in classrooms that only instructed in English, where they would have been given a fighting chance to participate in a global world.

“But now,” he said, “they can learn from a native speaker within their own town. They can have that chance to succeed.”

No. They don’t get that shot at success from me. They get it from their dad. They get it from the man who speaks of his dream to see both of his girls go to university, to grow to become strong, independent women who will mold their communities.

They get it from the person who encourages their curiosity and expands their knowledge base by teaching them the English names of animals and places they see along the street.

They get their shot at success because they are the children of a parent who encourages his daughters to be perceptive, to ask questions, to seek answers.

If I had closed my eyes while this dad spoke of his children and all he wanted to see them accomplish, I swear I would’ve heard my own dad’s voice. He endlessly repeated as his three kids grew up that he wished he could have done more, that he could have afforded to buy a house in a better neighborhood, that enough money would have been saved up to cover his kids’ college expenses.

We learn from our parents, our first glimpses and stored memories of insight in how to live life.

They may not believe, internally, that they have given their kids all they can give by the impossibly high standards (the majority of) parents hold themselves to, but externally, they give us the foundation to develop into the people we become, locations, schools, financial amenities be damned. If they give us faith in ourselves, we’ll run with it until we can’t run anymore.

I missed the mark on telling my own dad how proud I am of him and all he’s done for his kids — woven out of pride and the result of being raised in an environment where we silently acknowledge situations, benefits and disadvantages — but didn’t want to miss the chance with this guy.

All parents want is for their kids to have the best future. That’s so simplistic and sounds so trite, and sometimes, as people, all we need (whether we realize it) is a reminder that we’re doing all right.

Dads, be proud.

8,000 miles away

I have a habit of downplaying situations to reduce their severity, significance and effects.

Moving 8,000 miles away is a lot to swallow, and then you remember thanks to today’s technology, the world has become smaller. There are still ways to keep in touch with family.

I knew when I accepted the invitation to Ethiopia, I wouldn’t be talking to my family on a regular basis anymore. Of everyone this would affect, I think it was going to affect my relationship with my sister the most. Melissa, sorry for not knowing how often we did talk, but it was a few times a week, sometimes multiple times during the day. We got a lot closer to each other when we were both at our respective colleges, and we’ve developed a friendship I’ve come to enjoy far more than some blog post will express.

I didn’t know when I accepted the invitation to Ethiopia how much not having (semi-regular) contact with my siblings would affect me 11 months into service.

For the first six weeks in country, during pre-service training, Mom was the gatekeeper, the cheerleader, the supporter. She sent three emails a week, and sometimes three in one day, to check up on the baby she let move away, to hear about training, to share stories about home, discuss her day. Sometimes we scheduled Skype conversations, and they were always a welcomed reprieve following Saturday language assessments. Whenever photos went up online, she scanned them for photos of her daughter, insistent she see proof her kid was doing alright, and then shared all the photos with her friends. It was like she was experiencing service with me. We had something new to share with each other, something to love.

Then she died.

In the nine months that have passed, I haven’t reached out to family. Both my parents come from large families, and while relatives on both sides offered support, I grew up with the comfort of my immediate family. If there was anyone I’d want to talk to about Mom, it would be my brother or sister.

You don’t do that when you’re the oldest child, though. Or rather, I don’t do that as the oldest child. There are a lot of (still fresh) emotions enveloping Mom’s loss, and I want to process them solo before sharing them with others, mostly because I don’t know what I’ll say or feel, and I want to understand those thoughts before screening whom I feel comfortable enough to talk to.

Besides, loss is an independent experience. Everyone reacts individually, and it’s not like one sentence cures any amount of confusion or pain that comes attached with someone’s death.

I don’t want to lose pieces of my relationships with my brother and sister. They both knew Mom better than I ever knew her. My sister knows her favorite color, my brother knows her favorite song. I knew neither. I still don’t know either. I don’t want time to pass and not know simple, little parts of them, either.

My sister graduates from college this semester, and we both knew from the start I wouldn’t be able to go to her graduation. My brother is talking about going to college, and I want to be able to help him with the application process.

Both events are massive milestones and I won’t be there. Mom isn’t there. That’s not fair. I want to be a better support for them because I had support when I was both of their ages, and they deserve the same. They deserve better.

When you make a decision to move overseas, or to move anywhere for any amount of time, you plan for the things you can predict and design methods to cope with those situations. Such planning provides a peace of mind that although life will operate a little differently, it will still operate.

It’s the unpredictable situations, the scenarios no one in a million years would ever see coming, like someone’s sudden death, that knock you off course. And it’s hard.

I came back to Ethiopia because that’s what made sense to me, and it’s still what makes sense to me. I enjoy my site, I enjoy getting projects started, I love seeing my kids grow (yes, they are all affectionately known as my kids). I thrive on the support community members — friends — at site provide. It helps me stay motivated more than anything.

But it doesn’t erase the competing emotions I feel with keeping myself happy and focused, and with wanting to maintain an active role in my siblings’ lives when we need that the most. I think we all have a moment, or moments, in life where we have to come to terms with our decisions and justify them to ourselves and others a thousand times along the road to finding peace.

That’s where I’m at these days.

Inside an Ethiopian classroom

On Tuesdays and Thursday, Israel and I spend the days at site’s primary school, co-teaching the school’s first preschool program.

Practicing "good morning" greetings in front of the class.

Practicing “good morning” greetings in front of the class.

The preschool program stems from Israel’s vision that early childhood education inspires curiosity and moves the country forward (in terms of economic development and innovation). He wants students to believe learning can be fun. He wants to train teachers to facilitate a safe-space environment that encourages hands-on, interactive learning.

At site’s primary school, about 40 students pack a previously vacant classroom. The classroom, with pastel green walls, has letters plastered along the right side of the classroom, numbers up to 10 along the left side. Stuffed animals dangle from the ceilings, held by thin pieces of white rope. Adjacent to a five-foot blackboard rests a play area, complete with pop-up books, plastic pipes to build mazes for marbles, pencils for students who need them to complete assignments (like writing their ABCs, basic words), markers, Matchbox-size cars and trucks. A sign hangs above the corner encouraging students to touch and play with the materials.

Tables are arranged in a U shape, leaving the middle area of the class open for students to get up, stand in a group, practice nursery rhymes, greetings. The center of the classroom is a stage for practicing assertiveness, confidence.

Students, who sit at eight kids to a table, are split into teams to encourage teamwork and ease classroom management. When Israel and I meet with them, they practice their English. They’re great at it. I can’t emphasize that point enough.

The students are young, ranging in age from 3 to 6, and much of their English is based on repetition. For example, we’re learning greetings right now. In many languages, there’s a formal tense (used for elders and people of respect) and an informal tense (used for friends). Thanks, English, for being so relaxed. It helps when you teach kids that a “Good morning! How are you?” will do. (As an aside, it’s incredible how short that greeting feels in comparison to the battery of questions you ask Ethiopians when you meet on the street at any time of day.)

When you ask students to come up in front of the class to practice greetings with each other, some pop up, some bury themselves in their seats. (I was the burying type when I was that age, too, to the point where one teacher told my mom she was “very concerned” with my social interaction and put me in time out for not singing the Itsy-Bitsy Spider out loud, solo, on the spot. If that woman could see that old 5-year-old now.)

When you ask students, seated at their team tables, to repeat numbers, to repeat letters in the alphabet, or to form an “A” with their hands, they do it, and they do it with a huge grin on their face. It’s the one-to-one interaction we all crave, but it’s not on-the-spot attention. It’s inside a comfort zone.

Perhaps this goes without saying, but it’s special to watch students, kas ba kas (sorry, “slow by slow” just doesn’t sound right) discover it’s okay to make mistakes and smile at themselves when they nail something as simple (and powerful) as ABC order, if they’re this confident today, imagine what they can do tomorrow.

I can see clearly now

(I do still enjoy obscure song references, and enjoy them a little more when they produce blog post ideas. Cheers.)

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright, bright, bright sun-shining day
- Jonny Nash, “I Can See Clearly Now”

With 2015 here, everyone in G10 can say we’re one month away from the one-year-in-Ethiopia mark. Or, as one RPCV said in a letter, “your second year of service.”

We count down months, weeks, days here like never before. If NASA ever wants to send a shuttle into space again, there’s a whole league of people who are experts on counting down. (And it’s a government organization, NCE status has never been so great!)

Example: G10 has been here for nearly 11 months, we have about 16 left. A year and some change. Our mid-service conference (MSC) has a date for May, and hey, our close-of-service (COS) conference isn’t that far behind, considering how time flies when you’re having fun (or searching for fun, depending on how the day’s going).

We spend time thinking of how much time we have left. It’s a common question at site – “For how many months will you stay here?”, “After how long will you leave?” I never once have looked as the one-year mark as the start of anything – but behold, it is indeed the start of the second year of service.

(Pause for the “Holy crap, my mind feels a little blown” interlude.)

Let’s take a look at some of the Year 1 reality checks from site.

Reality Check 1: Take it slow (because you have to)

Every PCV we met during pre-service training (PST) said it would take a year to start the projects we actually wanted to start at site.

Oh yeah? Forget that noise. I’m going to hit the ground running, start everything I want and my service is going to be the most meaningful.

We could have a discussion on, “What is meaningful?” but we’ll leave that for MSC. The lesson really is take it slow.

Change doesn’t happen overnight anywhere, and if it does happen overnight, there’s probably a good chance a decent portion of people are wondering what you’re doing, why you’re doing what you’re doing, and going, “Yeah, this is never gonna work.” That happens everywhere. It happens in your cubicle in your multi-story office building squished between banks and railways, it happens on the other side of the world.

We have a new country director in Ethiopia, and he spends his part in the weekly update we get delivered to our PO boxes and email inboxes reminding us Goals 2 and 3 exist. Not everything is technical capacity building, and it’s the relationships we form along the way that last longer than that shint bet anyway. (Quick poll: Do you remember the projects you did with your boss, or do you remember the laughs and arguments along the way of that project?)

Perspective matters. It matters there, there being your comfy, cozy couch in the States, and it matters here, here being home. The health office. The primary school. The shay bets.

Reality Check 2: Keeping (a positive) perspective

So perspective matters. It matters here, it matters there. Big effing deal.

It is a big deal.

When you’ve been at site for eight months (or any amount of months) wondering what the hell you’ve done and, Jesus Christ, if you’re going to get anything done, perspective keeps you together.

Perspective example, round 1: Service sucks because (so far) I’ve done nothing to directly help PLWHA (people living with HIV/AIDS). I could spend hours – and don’t worry, I have spent hours – frustrated that the infection rate is growing among pregnant women and I can’t get any work done because I’m not about that per diem life. I could be frustrated that the funds to cover transportation costs to hold a training exist but the fund remains untapped for unexplainable reasons.

I could be frustrated that an association director and I have a great idea for an income-generating activity (IGA) that fuses income and improves hygiene! but the idea doesn’t become reality because unless I’ve got money to pop out on per diem, people already in the association won’t attend the meeting because what’s there to gain?

(Sierra, you say callously, comfortably from your air-conditioned apartment living room, there’s plenty to gain from attending a meeting that establishes a foundation for a healthier, stronger future. Guess what? I agree with you. Every PCV you talk to will agree with you. But your life expectancy, according to World Bank, supersedes 63. You didn’t grow up in a country where NGOs flock in and out to achieve their own goals while disregarding the communities they’re supposed to benefit, creating a culture where people get paid to attend meetings that seemingly only benefit the NGO and not the people. People need to believe they are part of a benefit, part of a change.

Wow, you say, that must be hard. It is.)

Perspective example, round 2: Service is okay. There’s a major international NGO in town linked with the health office, and it focuses on (behavior change) trainings in the fields I want to work (nutrition, sanitation, HIV prevention), so you know, I can still do the work I want to do, escape the per diem nightmare, and hope that a few generations from now, all these NGOs and Peace Corps won’t have a need to be around. (I love Peace Corps, but man, what a statement it would be to create something so self-sustaining we weed ourselves out.)

Perspective example, round 3: Service rocks. There are some (personal) issues I want to improve, but it’s not 16 months left, it’s entering Year 2 of service, there’s still time to make some change. There’s time to improve what I want to improve about myself. There are resources to make that want a reality because I’m serving alongside 300 of the most beautiful people this planet has to offer, and if I need it, we’ve got counselors in Addis to help us through the rough patches.

There’s plenty of time to address some of the issues I want to work on at site because there is a major international NGO in town that works alongside the health office, and while it employs a tactic I’m not a fan of, it serves as the venue for creating the changes that will make a healthier future. The NGO trusts me to add input into developing and executing trainings. The trainings are an opportunity to meet potential people in neighboring kebeles I can work with on future projects. Even if no work stems from the relationship, a new friendship did, and that counts for something. That counts for a lot.

By pure luck, someone familiar with Peace Corps moved back into the woreda to launch his own nonprofit because he believes in his country’s future, and he believes the future starts with access to sufficient preschool education. By pure luck, this former Peace Corps counterpart has again found himself acting as a counterpart, helping the strange ferenji adapt to site, forge new friendships and find a sense of self.

Kids have started showing respect – not just to me, because that’s one thing, but to others, too. Fewer boys whistle in the streets, not just to me, but to other females, too.

Teachers say hi in the middle of the street.

There’s a female suk owner near the health office, and I’ve never bought anything from her (maybe I should at some point), but we talk every morning.

It’s not just making work happen, it’s making life happen, too. It’s finding and spreading a comfort zone.

Since I’ve already stolen this post’s title from Johnny Nash, I’ll keep with it – here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for.

Reality Check 3: Love is a real thing

I have friends at site, all of whom I love dearly, and one of them always seems to find me on the days when I don’t realize I need a pick-me-up the most. On a post-sunset walk home, we bumped into each other, and he began telling me I’ve become betasabawi­­ – familiar, among site, among neighboring kebeles. It’s a small statement, and not insignificant. This guy acts as my Amharic tutor and has spearheaded a huge amount of confidence at site and in service, and to hear him say, “You act like you’ve lived here for 10 years! You’re so confident!” makes me want to hug everyone I meet because NO. I didn’t do that. He did that. Everyone else here did that.

Everyone at site, snags included, has made me realize love can exist even when it doesn’t seem like there should be room for such an overwhelming (and positive) emotion. Another PCV laughed when I told him this and said, “Well, yeah, I’d hope love can still exist, it’s supposed to be that powerful.”

Valid. I learn just about everything the hard way, though, and I don’t know. It’s refreshing. It’s beautiful. It’s inspiring. In a full-circle realization that would have my high school literature teacher jump up and shout, “Yes! That’s it!”, love was my first word and it took 24 years to figure it out. I don’t care how cheesy it sounds, but it’s awesome.

Reality Check 4: Life (and service) goes on

Boiling everything into one sentence: Life has an uncountable amount of ups and downs that Peace Corps magnifies, but life keeps going. Might as well make the most of it and enjoy the ride.

Besides, we’ve got a full second year to tackle!

Site’s newest PCV

Meet Ellie. On Mondays and Wednesdays, while waiting for students to show up for our English club, Ellie has started popping over to our meeting place to hang out. One afternoon, she tried my backpack on for size.