From Staging to 15 months in Ethiopia — redefining failure as success

Inside the conference room of a four-star Philadelphia hotel for Staging, a daylong training that attempts to introduce us to the valleys of twists and turns awaiting us in Ethiopia while enveloping our to-be specificities inside the similarities of serving in Peace Corps anywhere, staff tried to calm our nerves.

A staff member sitting in the back, near our ready-to-issue passports, said, “I’m so jealous. Peace Corps taught me how to fail. I wish I could go with all of you.”

Hold up. Wait a minute. Back up. You’re jealous because Peace Corps taught you to fail?

Her statement rested in the back of my mind, waiting to be revisited until I could piece together the statement’s sentiment.

Fifteen months in Ethiopia, and 12 at site, I revisited my CNA (community needs assessment) to take a look at successes and failures in the quantitative way we like to bring authority to abstractions.

Not so easy to do after everything you thought you’ve known gets tossed on its head.

The CNA includes a potential projects section. With fresh insight eyeing decades-long problems plaguing a 70-year-old town, all sorts of so-called links and solutions dotted notebook sheets. The saying you can kill two birds with one stone? Yeah, forget that, we could bludgeon five with one alone!

Good joke.

These were some of my brilliant ideas, all under the umbrella of “Increased Awareness about Healthy Lifestyles to Improve Health Status through Practices that Reduce the Spread of Disease”:

  • Safe Sex Education
  • HIV Awareness Campaign
  • Nutritious Meal Preparation
  • WaSH (Hand washing construction sites and latrine construction)
  • People Living with HIV/AIDS (PLWHA) Association Overhaul
  • Prevent mother-to-child transmission (PMCT) Association Creation

If we address failure based on whether those projects have come to fruition in any regard halfway through service, then I’ve failed. Magnificently.

I’ll spare you the details of why four of the six project ideas listed above crumbled. (You read that right, a sparkling 66 percent fail rate. In any other organization, I would have been fired.)

We’ll look instead at the one similarity of those failed project ideas.

Those ideas were mine and mine alone.

When I created their outlines, I kept the community in mind, I remembered what people had said during shay-bunna breaks, but I didn’t include them. I didn’t ask, “Hey, would encouraging a drama club to create a safe-sex skit work?” Talk about being forward. Anyone with a brain would’ve told me that idea would go up in flames. Anyone could have suggested another way to approach the topic.

Define that as failure if you will. I’ll call it a hidden opportunity.

The ideas that thrive come along, and they come along because they’re someone else’s ideas.

The ideas come from the eighth-grade boys who want to do condom demonstrations for their peers during the summer months. (Hello, HIV prevention strategies in a site-friendly way.)

They come from a man who wants to empower mothers to improve household nutrition so students don’t struggle and slide behind in classroom performance.

They come from a community tired of fighting preventable diseases like typhoid.

Failure means an inability to perform, a lack of success.

Life at site has shown me that success comes as a community from the community. Life at site has revealed that one person doesn’t have all the answers, all the solutions, and that’s fine. No one’s expected to know it all. Life’s boring when it’s all one person, when there aren’t shared ideas, conversations or discussions.

Peace Corps hasn’t taught me how to fail. Peace Corps has taught me how to make failure succeed.

Fame and fortune through the eyes of a 15-year-old

Minte ranks second in his class. After nationwide ministry-issued end-of-year exams in June, he will leave the primary school and move to the secondary school to begin ninth grade and continue his path to university.

He wants to attend Addis Ababa University, where he hopes he will obtain a scholarship to take him abroad, to the States or to Europe, as he pushes forward for an advanced degree.

During an interview on Wednesday afternoon to determine which applicants will attend this summer’s PEPFAR-funded life skills and leadership camp, Minte and I stumbled along what he hopes to achieve in his future.

“You want to go to Addis Ababa University,” I said, “and what do you hope to do after university?”

“I want to become famous,” he said.

Wait, what? Famous?

The follow-up question: “What will make you famous?”

“Becoming a scientist,” he said.

The follow-up question’s follow-up question: “Why do you want to become famous?”

“Being famous means people look up to you,” Minte said. “It means you’re an expert, someone to trust, someone who changes the world.”

Here I was thinking fame meant money, fortune, an easy life. Minte wants those amenities, too (he said so himself), but he was quick to tell me fame supersedes its monetary accomplice.

As I reflected on his response, I thought of Ambe’s off-the-cuff demeanor with his self-proclaimed fame at site that has emerged from his songwriting. His musical fame isn’t Minte’s science-dream fame.

When Ambe and I spoke, he pointed out the attention he receives for his music is what Americans would classify as fame. It is.

When Minte said he wanted to achieve fame, I half expected him to talk about becoming a musician, an artist, an actor – professions Americans identify as fame.

The money, the everyone-knows-your-name calls of attention. That’s famous enough.

Minte, though, he gravitates toward a social-responsibility model of fame.

Being an expert. Being someone to trust, to call on, to shake society. How does that sound for the future?

The judge who writes his own music

Hanging out in the candlelight at Israel’s house one night (hi, welcome to the countryside – mabrat mindin naw?), jotting chicken-scratch words in my journal while he mapped out a preaching schedule for his dad’s church, he began to sing.

“You’re friends with the judges,” he said. “Ask Ambe about this song. The kids sing it to him. Everyone knows it.”

“Okay,” I said, “but why?”

“It’s his song!”

I’ve known Ambe since site visit! Not once has he said a single thing about writing his own music.

Inside a spiral blue notebook, I flipped to the next blank page and wrote, Ambe writes music. Ask.

Three days later, after a walk to the river, a little girl ran up and as we walked into the center of town, she pointed to one of the shay bets on the hill and said someone wanted me to come up for coffee.

Hello, Ambegabriel!

Before the customary Selam naw? Indet nah? Tefah! (Is there peace? Are you fine? You’re lost from me!) greeting that precedes every conversation in this town, I said, “Israel tells me I’m supposed to ask you about this song – know anything about it?”

He started to laugh, then said, “Yeah, I wrote it. It’s mine.”

Cue a three-hour conversation that fluttered between work, town, American politics (“Is Hillary going to be the next president?” he asked. “She should be.”), and this music interest.

“I enjoy it,” he said, sipping his Walia (a local beer). “I have a friend in Addis [Ababa] who has a studio, so I put on headphones and start to work.”

This line of work is more of a hobby. As Ambe said, he doesn’t have to do it, songs certainly don’t pay the rent and as a judge, he’s not scheduling any tour dates. For him, it’s a way to reflect on themes he sees surface throughout day-to-day routines, some of which evolve from his day job.

As he jumped into a story about his university days, the power snapped back on and music began to filter out to the shay bet patio. A few seconds later, the suk owner next door walked over to tell Ambe good job on the song.

He broke conversation to start a brief conversation with this man. When he finished, he turned back to me, bowed his head and said, “Sometimes this music gives me attention. I believe you Americans call it ‘famous.’”

The Final Frontier as a symbol of confidence

Walking home from Emanuel’s house after an early dinner, I asked why he wanted to study astronomy in university.

“I want to go to Mars,” he said before diving into his fascination with the universe’s birth and theories about what happens next.

Mars! How did we get to Mars?

Were you alone?

During a class break, Emanuel and Mintesnot stopped by the pre-K room to review the schedule for an upcoming training on sexual harassment (part two a three-part training focused on youth becoming community leaders).

Before the two went to their next class, Emanuel asked, “Would you like to come to my family’s house for dinner?” The two said they were concerned the new kid in town spent Fasika weekend alone.

Accepting invites is an incredible way, if not the best way, to discover more about your neighbors and friends. Inside the comfort of their own homes, people kick off their shoes, lean back in their chairs and ask, “How are you – really?”

“They’re afraid to try”

The greatest struggle for Emanuel’s dad, a grade 9 English teacher, isn’t class size management, but encouraging students to speak up.

Classrooms large enough to seat 40-50 students squish 85 students at a time. With such a large number of students packed into a class, you’d assume a reasonable amount – say anywhere between 20 and 40 – actively participate in class, asking and responding to questions ba inglezana (in English).

Nowhere near.

Emanuel’s dad, sitting on the couch adjacent to me, said only a handful of students, maybe 10 at most, pop their hands into the air to participate in discussion while the others sit and listen.

“They’re afraid to try,” he said.

It’s not that students don’t want to participate, he said. They live in a culture where the smartest, the brightest, the most likely to succeed speak English and those who don’t speak with the same fluency feel discouraged and embarrassed to try in their presence, opting instead for silence.

His reflection echoes other educators’ observations. Those fortunate enough to grow up in families where parents speak some amount of English teach their children basic words and sayings throughout childhood so that they enter the classrooms feeling and believing that they can succeed.

Sound like a place you know?

Are we going to Mars, yet?

Not all students are afraid. Some are quiet, and with time, they open up.

When Emanuel first came to a youth development club meeting last October, he didn’t say a word unless he was asked to answer a question. In written assignments, though, his ideas flourished. He didn’t just understand the English language, he commanded it.

One afternoon, I asked if any students wanted to share their assignment with the group. They didn’t have to disclose any details about their writing, but they were asked to reflect on the writing process, who they chose to interview, what questions they chose to ask, why they identified that person as a role model.

I asked Emanuel, the only boy to hand in the assignment, to share his reflections. At the time, he spoke in a whisper, but he did share.

Fast forward to April, where he facilitates training sessions for peers.

That’s the same student who kept his confidence close to his heart, who, six months ago, if I asked what he wanted to study, either would have deflected with an “I don’t know,” or said “medicine.”

Today, with time, with trust, he doesn’t skip a beat when he hears the, “What does your son want to study in university?” question. He belts out, “Astronomy.” He wasn’t even a member of the conversation. His dad and I were talking, but he heard his name, his future, and he had his own idea and he wanted to make it known.

Let’s go to Mars.

Post-script: A promotional video anyone who lived in the Southeast a decade ago would recognize

About eight years ago, the University of Florida had a promotional video it aired during football games. The cameras open to an empty street, a young woman exiting a car and promptly walking past a man who tells her, “Go write the great American novel.”

“Go start a Fortune 500 company,” she replies.

Cut to a waiting room, where a doctor passes a girl no older than 10 reading a magazine in the waiting room.

“Go to Mars,” he tells her.

“Go Gators!” she squeals.

I’d be lying if I said my alma mater didn’t cross my mind the second Emanuel said, “I want to go to Mars.”

I didn’t watch the video before transcribing the dialogue, but I’m 99 percent sure it’s right. (The woman on the street might have spoken to the man first, but the dialogue content is accurate.) YouTube it if you want, if you’ve got the Internet availability to do so. (I don’t.)

That was a great campaign video. UF, bring it back.

Celebrating Easter in Ethiopia in the shadows of a community in mourning

Ethiopia celebrated Fasika (Easter) on April 12. While church songs broke across this Orthodox nation, at least one town juggled holiday celebrations and respecting death.

The hours before the fast snapped

Around 9 p.m. Saturday night, hundreds fill the Orthodox Church and compound for prayer and service, peppered by cat naps, in the seven hours leading up to breaking a two-month fast.

Right before dawn, the party erupts.

Following the service that ends between 4 and 5 a.m., people flood families’ and friends’ homes, where bowls of food and pitchers of drink await consumption.

The food inside the homes

A brief primer on Fasika foods:

  • Doro wat (a chicken dish consisting of chicken – shocker – onions, berbere, oil and hardboiled eggs)
  • Pitchers of tella (a homemade barley beer)
  • Kitfo (a Gurage Zone specialty consisting of raw meat, local spices, sometimes cheese, and always kocho)
  • Bottles of arake (Ethiopia-specific liquor consumed in shot-sized glasses. You’re not supposed to pop it back like a shot, but you probably should unless savoring a drink with the taste of nail polish remover is your thing.)

If 4 a.m. sounds too early to start eating, don’t worry.  After two months without meat, your stomach will gladly digest any and all types of food.

The (slightly) boring cultural interlude on time and religion

Last year, Easter and Fasika landed on the same day. By some calendrical anomaly that friends at site couldn’t identify (the best answer for the different celebration dates this year came from a friend who cited pagume, a 6-day mini-month in Ethiopia that precedes the start of the new year in September, as the culprit), Easter fell on the European April 5. Fasika, this year, fell on the European April 12 – Ethiopian April 4.

I don’t understand your pagume and date differences. What the hell is going on?! Read here for more information on Ethiopia’s 13 months, calendrical system and telling time.

About 50 percent of Ethiopians identify as Orthodox Christian, the largest religious following in the country, according to Central Statistical Agency data from 2010.  (Thirty-three percent of the population identify as Muslim, 18 percent as Protestant, and 3 percent follow indigenous religions.)

In Gurage Zone, the breakdown is about 48 percent Orthodox Christian, 40 percent Muslim and 12 percent Protestant, according to information from the National Population and Housing Census released in 2007. My site is a 45-45 split between Orthodox Christianity and Islam, the remainder following Protestantism. The religious split information comes in handy later.

House hopping till your stomach splits

Friends ask how Ethiopian holiday celebrations differ from American holiday celebrations.

We don’t acknowledge Santa Claus on Christmas, don’t decorate walls with stockings, drink hot chocolate, eat ham or peel off metallic-colored wrapping paper to reveal gifts.

We do sing, dance and spend the day with family and friends, though. In lieu of gifts are plates and plates of food, enough to eat till you can’t stand, and then you’re encouraged to eat more.

We don’t hide multicolored hardboiled eggs around town, believe in the Easter bunny or jam jellybeans and chocolate into pastel-colored baskets.

We do spend the morning in church (if you’re Protestant, if you’re Orthodox, you spent the entire night there), and the afternoon in the company of family and friends.

And we eat. We eat a lot.

For PCVs, new to the culture and mostly alone (unless you’re one of the few to have a sitemate), we enter these holidays without family nearby, but with a ton of friends eager to adopt us into theirs.

Cue the house hopping.

As friendships form and holidays near, people begin to say, “Come to my house on (insert holiday here)!” What time? you ask.

“Any time.”

To be polite, you spend a few hours at each house – enough time to eat, catch up with your friend and friend’s family – and meander to the next place.

Walking through the wrong gate

After leaving Israel’s, I went to visit the owner of the bayonet bet I like to frequent for a fresh meal when I’m too lazy (there is no other justification, some days I am just too lazy) to cook for myself. The entire family has a permanent smile stretched between their cheeks and they love to spend time talking to their customers (a mix between students on lunch break, administration officials and family friends).

When I approached their house, the gate was closed. I knocked, took a step back and waited a few seconds. Then knocked again. And again. (An Ethiopian would have just walked through the gate, up to the door and then knocked, but I’m not at that level yet.) By the third knock, a group of kids had walked up and took me to the gate next door. At the time, I assumed this gate also belonged to the family whose house I was trying to enter, thanked the kids and walked in —

—  to the wrong house.

One of the men hopped up and told me to sit while the compound matriarch came over with a glass of tella. Meanwhile, another man grilled (for lack of a better word) a cow’s small intestine and spinal cord over an open flame. (Does this sound disgusting to you? It was delicious. I’d also like to invite you to read the ingredients list of any hot dog.)

As we ate, a toddler grabbed the tella pitcher, poured a glass and began chugging. Jaw-hit-the-floor shock clearly didn’t bother to hide itself from my face as the guy next to me laughed and said that kids in Gurage start young.


Orthodox priests will drink on this holiday

How are holidays in Ethiopia different from holidays in the States? I never drank with Orthodox priests in the States.

After finishing up at the wrong-gate house (super sweet family!), I tried again to get into this other family’s house. I wasn’t interested in food – by this point, my stomach wanted to split and expand to take over my lungs and intestines. I did want to stop by to say hi to the family, though.

This time, the gate was open, so I walked in, looked around the compound and heard a woman shout, “Sierra!” Bingo. Found the house. Straight ahead.

Inside the home, every seat on the couch, mattress and spare chairs were filled with family, friends and priests sipping bunna, snacking on fandisha (popcorn), taking shots of arake.

The sober end

Remember site’s religious breakdown? This is the part where it’s relevant.

Town tends to split between where Muslims and Orthodox Christians live, but it’s not uncommon for Christians to have Muslim neighbors and vice versa.

My landlord is Muslim. The compound I live on is predominantly Orthodox Christian.

One of our neighbors, a Muslim, died Thursday night.

While half the town spent the days leading up to Good Friday preparing for the holiday weekend, another half spent the weekend mourning.

While half the town darted between houses and churches, half the town filtered into a forest green tent set up outside of the house to pay respect.

Death doesn’t have to destroy celebration, especially a celebration centered on overriding death, but it does affect the holiday approach. In between the house hopping, laughs and hugs, soaking in the day’s events felt sacrilegious knowing that others cried, held each other and sat with heads bowed in a house down the street.

So you wanna visit Ethiopia? Great! Some quick navigation tools

You’re thinking of visiting Ethiopia – betam k’onjo naw! (That is very wonderful.) Before you book your ticket and hop on the plane halfway across the globe to visit a PCV or tour the cradle of civilization solo, a few things might help you navigate the country.


You’re not really going to find any English. You will find some English, but if you’re looking for fluency across the country, this is the wrong country to visit. There are three main languages – Amharic, Afan-Oromo and Tigrayan – and more than 80 local languages scatter across Ethiopia, according to the 2011 Demographic and Health Survey.

Woredas, zones and regions (oh my!)

If you’re coming from the States, you’re familiar with the concept of counties, states and the nation. Wave goodbye to those when you get the purple stamp in your passport at customs.

  • Woreda – same concept as a county.
  • Zone – a collection of woredas within a region. (Example: Ezha and Cheha woredas are a part of Gurage Zone.)
  • Region – same concept as a state.

Does anybody really know what time it is?

We’re a few latitudinal lines above the equator and we don’t tell time the way you tell time. Noon is not noon. It’s 6. 1 p.m. is not 1 p.m., it’s 7.

The easiest way to get time down: Add/subtract six hours from what you’re used to the time being called. (Don’t meet me at the airport at 2 p.m.! Meet me there at 8.)

Every month has 30 days (except February, February is a global red-headed stepchild) and the new year begins on Sept. 1

Ethiopia rejects the 31st day of the months that have 31 days. The 31st days come together to form pagume, a six-day mini month sandwiched between the end of (Ethiopia’s) August and September 1, the start of the Ethiopian new year. (Pagume, on our calendar, starts Sept. 5 and ends September 10.)

Get ready, you’re going to be called ferenji

Ferenji means foreigner, and you are a foreigner, so please don’t be upset if the kid you just met on the street five seconds ago calls you ferenji instead of Susie. (And please don’t be surprised when you hear a 35-year-old of either sex shout it at you.)

Is that it?

Maybe. Read around if there’s more on your mind, or ask one of the 220 PCVs living here.