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 government-mandated 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 rock 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.

Revisiting a town in transition

One of the most unique things about living in this town has been the chance to witness it develop. At what other point in my life will I have the opportunity to live in a town as it builds itself?

There’s the structural component – a paved road, a bank, an eventual post office – and the social component. In June, I touched the structural components. Five months later, I want to discuss the social shifts.

Roads connect rural towns to resources. Suddenly, thousands have access to improved healthcare structures, to electrical power, to towns previously closed off.

The social shifts that accompany road expansion remain hidden.

Increased access to cities like Addis Ababa, Jimma and Hawassa means men travel with more ease on the weekends. It means more men return to the town with exposure to HIV. It means women who have never left this town or woreda become exposed to a virus that five years ago, they never would have had. Data from the health office indicate the infection rate among women above the age of 14 (pregnant and non-pregnant) has increased 15 percent within the last three years, the same period during which road construction opened entrances to major cities.

A paved road spikes the transient population. It spikes the homeless population. It invites a spike in physically violent mentally unstable individuals (I’m sorry, I don’t know a kinder way to word it) moving in.

Developmentally, you see the struggles a town endures in catering to its current population and its new population.

When I moved here 19 months ago, no one slept on the streets. There were no six-by-three tin boxes lined along the street acting as someone’s home. If you had nowhere to go at night, it was okay because you knew someone, you had some sort of loose relationship with someone in the town, and you could sleep at the compound. These days, people sleep in those tin boxes. People sleep on makeshift dirt sidewalks. There’s a woman who walks around every few days with a pile of dirt-caked blankets covering her back, and sometimes she plops herself in the middle of the road and won’t move. That spot becomes her temporary home.

A punch to the stomach would be easier to handle.

When I moved to site 19 months ago, there was only one man everyone knew to ignore. These days, there are five. Each carries his own story, most don’t care to know how someone deteriorated to that point (it’s easier to wedge distance and believe you could never fall to such a low).

In Ethiopia, no one owns land. It’s rented from the government. One of the men here rented the land where the high school now stands. He had land one day, lost it the next and had no way to reestablish his life. The way his story is told, he went crazy. He wanders the streets and has recently begun striking people. My sitemate and I were en route to dinner one night when he jumped out and motioned to grab – one of the judges saw us and shooed him away. The situation was enough to end any post-dusk walks within town’s boundaries. Nineteen months ago, hyenas were the only concern.

Up until two months ago, everyone knew my name. The “Ferenji, give me money! (or any object)” game ended, people knew why I was here, and bringing in a new volunteer to teach at the high school made sense. A humble, developing town of 3,000 where everyone looks out for everyone. Is there a more ideal site setting?

Depends on how well you maintain your perspective.

Adults run up to me these days, most of them older women, and grab my arm to demand money, and if I don’t give any, they spit at me, if not on me. It’s not even a matter of reintegration at this point because these people are passersby. Here one day, gone the next. These interactions happen along the main road, along back roads, at the junction near the health center, there is no location discrimination. In what feels like an overnight change, I’ve gone from blending in to becoming an outcast all over again. Because these populations are so temporary, there’s no choice but to accept it. Having the “Wait a minute, I’m a volunteer” conversation that happens during site visit and site installation is trite and more exhausting than it is to focus on the relationships that made this place beautiful in the beginning and keep it beautiful today.

And that’s what you have to remember. Things flux, towns transition, you feel your element stretched, but there are pieces that keep you grounded, that remind you why you came and why you’ll stay.

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.

This year, I’m thankful for…

…the little things.

I’m thankful for friends, strangers, students, parents who offer glimpses of light and reassure there can be bright moments and days in grief’s thorny aftermath.

It ranges from a hug, from a pause in conversation to say, “How are you, really?”, to silence when I need silence, to an extra shoulder when I don’t realize I’m looking for one.

A few things led me to Peace Corps, one of the biggest things needing to find a community anywhere in the world where people still cared about each other. I was burned out by a country where people fell through the cracks and no one with the power to reverse those situations seemed to care enough to improve issues ripping millions to pieces.

Ethiopia has been a healthy dose of discovering communities do care for each other. Community is a word is broader in some situations than it is in others, and that in-your-face obvious realization has honed how I approach interpersonal and personal development.

I didn’t expect to make any stateside discoveries while here. I didn’t expect to see how a community can form from thousands of miles away to support someone not a single member has ever met. That’s how humanity functions in a utopia, not in a reality.

Except this time, it is reality.

After Dad died, a friend’s mom posted in the Peace Corps Parents facebook group. As a PCV and not a PCV parent, I’m not a member of the group.

Peace Corps moms with sons and daughters serving across the world have sent letters, cards, packages. Several have lost one or both parents, and they share advice. They offer reassurance. They give the greatest gift a person can give to someone else – renewed faith.

After returning to Ethiopia, I spent a weekend with two friends in the Jimma Loop, and met one of the G12 PCVs along the way. He kept asking for my PO Box number. Thinking he was banking on a poor network quashing our new friendship, I gave it to him, asking for his in return. It takes months to deliver in-country letters, but I’m game for maintaining new friendships.

Turns out he asked for his girlfriend. During a hub town visit to send a few letters, I was stunned to see a letter from his girlfriend waiting for me. Someone I’ve never met took the time to write a beautiful letter telling me about herself, her hobbies, her life since her boyfriend became a PCV. Talk about a treat.

It would be easy to take a pass on being thankful for anything this year because it means taking the time to review all that this year has entailed. It means acknowledging what I’ve lost because there’s no way I could be thankful or grateful for the support I’ve found absent of it.

There have been so many reminders, among PCVs, among parents, among Ethiopians, among strangers, that in an imperfect world, it’s okay. We can move forward if we’re willing, and we can move as quickly or as slowly as need be, and that’s okay, too, because there are people guiding you along the way.

What I wish people knew about losing both parents during service

Spoiler alert: This isn’t about to become a pity-me, cry-with-me post. Rejoice and grab your dancing shoes.

Dad’s birthday was Oct. 9. Mom’s was earlier in the year, Feb. 18. This is the first year Mom wasn’t alive for hers, and the first Dad wasn’t alive for his. I didn’t put two and two together until talking to my brother, who said, “It feels like Mom just died yesterday and now Dad’s gone, too.”

The ALS Society of Canada made a manual (for lack of a better word) for people with ALS and families of persons with ALS to guide individuals through the grieving process. Well, hello! The guide reassures that somewhere else in the world, others have felt the way I’ve felt, and they made it through all right. (Pause. Yeah, I did Google this stuff. There is indeed a word for people like me.)

While the guide offers strategies to cope with grief, it also reminds that we (we being grievers) are not the only ones on the planet. Needing an extra shoulder doesn’t mean it will be provided.

Sounds simple, right? Logical, even.

Too bad logic and grief don’t walk hand in hand.

Until seeing that simple reality in front of my face, I juggled a lot of misdirected anger. Ethiopia’s a hard post, let’s not dismiss that fact for a second, yet despite knowing that, I wanted someone to listen, damn it. What do you mean you’re incapable of sparing 20 minutes to listen to me lose my mind?

Oh wait. That’s not something anyone in any part of the world wants to handle. For me, it’s enough to discover other people also experience a strong pang of wanting others to understand, as if repeating or sharing the most intense parts of loss will make someone understand. (Again with faulted logic.)

We’re making progress. Let’s get to the rest of this post.

  • You’re given a chance to restart everything.
    An unexplainable softness lines the heart following loss. Sometimes this makes me feel more vulnerable – kids ripping open my backpack to yank anything they can find, hidu! (go!) – a little edgier (Protestants attempting to lead a crusade against a growing Muslim population in the area, there’s a word for people like you), and more reflective. Emotions blend and create reactions I didn’t know existed.

    In a twisted, contorted way, losing both parents when you’re completely out of your element and in the midst of establishing a new one mimics rebirth. The phrase, “I want to feel normal” laces more journal entries than I care to count, despite being aware of the reality that the old normal is gone. It’s been gone in a lot of ways for a long time. Normal is not a stagnant, static pace of life. Events happen every second of every day that morph our sense of being, recalibrate how we define normal, how we approach future experiences.

    What I mean to write, then, is I want to feel comfortable with having every sense of normal I’ve known shredded.

    My sitemate said it best. “There are no good days and there are no bad days. There are days where you have one good moment and you love it here, then you have a few bad moments and can’t wait to leave, and then something good happens again.” This is life in Peace Corps, this is life with grief. It’s a bit shocking the two haven’t dated.

  • You start to learn who you really are. Refer to the previous section, where we discuss emotions blending and producing unpredictable reactions.

    I hear enough PCVs talk about feeling like their emotions have been kicked off the balance beam to know it’s natural to not know how I’ll react to a situation – it becomes enough to know you’re going to react in the way the body wants to react whenever something happens. To some degree, this means picking your battles. (Is it worth spending energy getting one kid to not shout, “Money,” at you? Maybe. Maybe not. Is it worth scolding kids who rub their fingers together and shout, “Money,” at you? Absolutely.)

    I’ve become increasingly aware that I don’t like attention. I’ve also become acutely aware that although I prefer to listen in groups, I really, really need to share day-to-day experiences with someone. It’s a fantastic way to learn, make new discoveries, widen perspective. I did it with Mom. I did it with Dad. I did it within an environment of people who knew me (well, to be more to the point, made me), and that need didn’t disappear when they died. It magnified. The catch-22 is I don’t know if I’m ready to start sharing pieces of my life with others. Conversations get screened, muted, and it’s no one’s fault. I’m just not ready and need the space to take it slow.

  • Is this sounding easier than anticipated? Here, let’s throw in this wrench – there are a ton of tears. 

    I don’t keep count, but I think I cry twice a week, no rhyme or reason. Sometimes I’ll get upset, want to go to a place that feels like home, realize what I really want is to talk to Mom or Dad, get upset again and be over it within a few hours. Do I sound like I’m 12? Great. Because I feel like I’m 12 when that happens, so I’m glad we’re all on the same page. Let’s move on.

  • It’s okay to talk about your parents in front of me.I’m not going to shatter into a million pieces. I like hearing about friends’ families. I want to hear about your sister who just finished college, your mom’s newest business idea, your dad’s fishing trip. Our families mold who we are, so unless you tell me you don’t want to talk about your family, expect that I will ask about them – and it’s okay to respond.
  • Ethiopia still helps me to become a better person. (Even on the days where I think it’s stripped me of all sanity.)

We need to stop justifying violence.

As the holiday season neared its end, one of my friends who runs a shay bet was smacked across the face by the town’s resident crazy guy.

She hid her face against a wooden fence as tears flooded her face. People ran out of her shop to console her. One of the men running a neighboring shop identified the man at fault. Police officers tracked the guy down and arrested him.

Meanwhile, two others took control of my friend’s shay bet to keep her business open while providing her the time she needed to heal from the situation.

In 18 months of living at site, I’ve never seen that woman cry. She smiles every day, darts across the street carrying her jebenna to serve her friends running shops across the street during morning and afternoon bunna times. She’s one of those people you meet who brighten your day and life. (Sure, I’m biased because she was one of my first friends here. You’d say the same if you met her, though.)

While everyone witness to the situation was sympathetic, some slid in comments like, “He’s the crazy guy, he’s not right in the head.”

We need to stop justifying violence.

The 2011 National Demographic and Health Survey cites that 68 percent of women say domestic violence is acceptable. Split into specific circumstances, the numbers tell a plethora of stories.

Of women between ages 25 and 29, 48.9 percent say it is acceptable for her husband to beat her if she burns the food. Forty-eight percent say it acceptable for her husband to beat her if she argues with him. The number dips to 47.4 percent when it comes to leaving the house without notifying the husband.

Nearly 53 percent (52.7) say it is acceptable to be beat if she neglects her children. Almost 42 percent (41.7) say it is acceptable for her husband to beat her if she refuses to have sex.

Women living in Somali Region and Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR) are more likely to accept domestic violence. (82 percent of women in Somali and 76.5 percent of women in SNNPR, respectively.)

Whereas 68 percent of women surveyed accepted some degree of domestic violence, 45 percent of men surveyed accepted some degree of domestic violence. On paper, this suggests men are becoming more progressive. It also suggests that men know domestic violence plays poorly on the 21st century’s global stage, so it’s better to admonish the practice publicly and let what happens in the home stay in the home.

On a bus to Adama a few weeks ago to visit another PCV, a man in the back row of the minibus scooted himself near a Muslim woman no more than 25 and began pulling at her hijab, trying to peel the cloth away from her face. The woman shouted, “Waraj!” immediately and got off the bus kilometers before reaching her destination.

Was that man crazy, too? Or does he just not represent the majority of Ethiopian men? If he falls into the latter category, is the assumption his actions don’t need to be handled because of its presumed rarity?

Enabling complacency fuels a culture where violence becomes acceptable. Commonplace.

Violence (including domestic violence) isn’t restricted to developing countries. American friends, let’s look inward.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey in 2011, a compilation of data pulled in 2010. You can read the report, but let me highlight the point relevant to this post. In the States, it is estimated that 20 people a minute are victims of physical violence initiated by a partner. That figure equates to about 10 million Americans a year.

When will we move forward?