For the elephants in the room (web): There’s a line in the Rent song “Seasons of Love” that asks the number of ways you can measure the amount of time compounded in a year. One of those methods is in cups of coffee.
When you live in Ethiopia and try to imagine measuring the length of a year in cups of coffee, you feel a small part of your brain implode, melt, explode.
(The point is we drink a lot of coffee in Ethiopia. It’s consumed at coffee houses during business meetings, it’s the drink of choice when someone new moves into town, it’s poured in copious amounts during celebrations. The cups, about the size of an espresso shot, come with the option of sugar, salt, or butter. It’s delicious every time.)
But if you can condition yourself to handle the caffeine, it’s an engaging process. Earlier this week, I had coffee and dinner at a coworker’s home. The conversation (innichawat — let’s play, also used in terms of “relax”) turned to dancing, photos, and even learning a few words in the local language. (!!) Coffee is the staple that integrates you into the community. It turns the house you’re renting out to the place you call home.
Settling into home continues as a daily adventure. It’s at the point where I’m not just the “ferenji” walking along the main street to get to the health office (I’ll absolutely hear that word here on out every day for the rest of my days here, but something worth remembering, I think, and something many volunteers sit back and reflect on is that the word, in our case, is sometimes issued as a greeting explicit to us. Perspective is powerful.), but now the word “ihite” (my sister) becomes increasingly common. This is especially true of the market ladies, who see me every Monday and Thursday when they’re in town for market day and always, without fail, ask how I am.
Everyone always asks how I am.
Ethiopians take great care of everyone with an enormous amount of compassion, kindness and respect. They ask, “How is the environment? Are you fine? How can we help you?” and they mean are you fine? Is there anything they can help you find? Can they make you feel more at home? Community is synonymous with family.
The investment and passion my site pours into others inspires me to pour that amount of compassion and care into immigrants I encounter in the States. I think when we meet new people in the States, we do want to know if they’re fine and if they’re adjusting okay, but we don’t (all) do it with a frequency equivalent to Ethiopians. If I ask where a bus station is in the States, someone will surely direct me to the station. If I tell someone here I am going to the bus station, they will often walk with me over to the station to make sure I know where I am.
Even when I’m just walking home from the health office, people will run up to say hi. One of the market ladies told me that people say hi and walk alongside me sometimes because in my community, people don’t walk alone. They like people to be together.
For someone who has grown up in an environment where walking solo is a cultural norm, it’s a unique opportunity to get to know people I wouldn’t get to know otherwise. Sometimes it feels awkward, because I seldom know what to say beyond, “How are you?” because when I walk, I’m used to using that as time to reflect on the day. Sometimes it makes me feel bad, simply because I don’t know what else to say. It’s beneficial to spend time with yourself to figure out yourself as a person, but it’s equally as vital to spend time figuring out other people and discovering what makes them happy, sad, motivated.
Ethiopia has done so much to mold me already, and I wonder what it is I’ve given to this country, what it is I can give.
Maybe we can make it a conversation that happens over a cup of coffee.