20 October 2007

ethiopia kunjo (is beautiful).

I live in Ethiopia! I'm still getting used to the notion - as we're
walking through town, we occasionally stop to remind each other.
Usually after stepping in a fresh cow pie to avoid an approaching
donkey, but such is life. We spent three nights in Addis Ababa for a
crash course in PC policies and the myriad ways you can injure, maim,
or kill yourself in Africa, topped off with a host of injections to
inoculate us against such fun diseases as typhoid, yellow fever, and
rabies. A few of us played a roundtable game in which we took turns
naming ways we could die in Africa, but we got bored before we ran out
of scenarios. We've also been on malaria drugs for two weeks now, and
although we've all had some vivid dreams (I had one involving a
Yorkshire terrier being executed by a police officer), no one's
hallucinating yet.

We moved to Wolisso, our training site and home for the next ten
weeks, on Wednesday night. We're all staying with local families for
total language immersion in a community that looks like we imagined
Africa - livestock and chickens roaming freely on the dirt streets,
stick-and-dung huts, and of course, the small armies of children
shouting "firenji!" (foreigner) as they clamor to touch us. The
novelty of that is rapidly wearing off. The community is well served
by municipal facilities, so we all have electricity and most of us
have running water, a situation that disappointed most and, I think,
illustrates the masochism present among those who join the Peace
Corps. Since most of our sites will be entirely rural, with no
electricity and most likely only well water, not even pumps, we were
hoping to transition ourselves to latrines and bucket showers. Alas,
it's TVs in every home and in my case, a western toilet (that doesn't
flush) and a (icy is an understatement) shower. A few of my friends
came over on Saturday afternoon (after escaping a gang of pinching
children in the market), and after they left, I told Simret how
jealous they were of my luxurious shint beyt (bathroom) because they
had outside latrines. At least, that's what I meant to say, but since
I was using an elaborate pantomime and a smattering of Amharic words,
there's no way to know for sure. She seemed happy though, and told
her husband about it when he got home later that night, so I think the
message got through.

In addition to the facilities I wasn't expecting, my family also
includes two toddlers, ages two and four. Those who know me well are
already amused. After two awkward nights of laughing and staring at
each other, I bought their love with some crayons and paper.
(Incidentally, my love is also for sale, for the low price of a
letter. But not cards, I can write my own cheesy poetry!) For
children who often play with plastic bags tied to string, it was a big
hit. Zacharas, my four-year-old brother, was playing in the yard next
door when Simret, his mother, called him inside to get his present.
He broke the gate when he ran full speed into it, thinking it was
open. The daughter, Sarah, finally noticed my existence as more than
a silly nuisance and even sought me out after I went into my room that
night. Then, the next morning, Simret made me a hot bucket shower.
Score one for me. With the shots out of the way, ten weeks with
babies will be my biggest challenge.

Although the language barrier is intense (my family speaks only a
handful of words in English, few sentences), I at least retain the
ability to be thoroughly amusing. I told my host mother (in Amharic)
that my head was full (in the food sense of the word) from class, and
she was in stitches. My attempts to act out new words are similarly
amusing. Demonstrating my knowledge of the words for breast and butt
guarantees a laugh. My crowing achievement to date, however, was an
evening learning traditional dances from music videos. After nine
years of ballet and five of winterguard, I'm a pretty quick study at
the technical side, but anyone who's seen me attempt hip-hop knows
there's a certain je ne sais quais required to actually look good
doing new choreography. Fast-paced, jumpy dancing plus (milky white)
cups that runneth over equals bouncing hilarity. They were impressed,
however, with my ability to master the complicated footwork. I think
it makes up for my not eating meat.

Amharic is as hard as I expected it to be, but I've been doing well in
class because of my Arabic background. A handful of words are
identical and others are clearly related, but more importantly, I'm
used to Semitic structures. Others are better at regurgitating
greetings and phrases, but I'm quicker at recognizing patterns and
making new sentences. My family likes to help at night, reviewing the
words I've learned and playing the "point to something and name it"
game, so I'm feeling confident about not being entirely incompetent in
this language. I've also never spent this much time outside of class
actually doing work (I hope my former Arabic teachers arenít reading
this!), so that's a plus. Unfortunately, we're not learning to read
and write - the fidal (alphabet) system is extremely complicated, so
they decided our ten-week course was better served with spoken
language. Illiteracy is killing me, so I'm going to try to pick up
what I can on my own and get my language teacher to help me.

On Friday, we spent the afternoon doing a "community mapping" exercise
to prepare us for the one that will eventually become part of our
emergency evacuation plan once we move to our sites. For those
worried about my being kidnapped or caught in an Ethiopia-Eritrea
border war, this should make you feel better. In addition to mapping
such locations as the closest place for a small plane and helicopter
to land (the asphalt road and handball court, respectively), we were
also required to visit and speak with the local police and government
officials. As though forty some-odd foreigners weren't inherently
obvious, now they REALLY know we're here. More importantly, the
exercise illustrated a common stereotype about Ethiopia - people are,
in fact, ridiculously friendly and helpful. Even in our broken
Amharic, there was no shortage of people ready to walk us to our
location and introduce us to the local officials. Our families walked
us to and from language class (no more than a few minutes away, since
we meet in small groups at people's houses) and training for the first
few days, and even now, still offer in case we haven't learned the way
yet. I'm two turns off the asphalt road (yes, there's only one), so
even I can find my way home now.

Eating is a big part of Ethiopian culture (spare the famine jokes!) -
the major meals revolve around injera, a spongy, sour, floppy flat
bread that looks like a cross between naan and tortillas and tastes
nothing like any grain I've encountered. Food is eaten without
silverware - instead, you tear off a piece of injera and use it to
scoop up food or leftover sauces, placing it in your mouth without
letting your fingers touch your tongue or lips. It's a bit of an art,
but my eating skills warranted a surprised compliment from the mayor
of Wolisso at our welcome reception, as well as one from my host
father. I think it's the polite Ethiopian way of calling me a fat
American, but I'll take what I can get. I got to pour the batter onto
the hot plate on Tuesday to make the injera. It wasn't pretty, but
she was amused, so maybe I'll get to try again soon.

I went to church on Sunday. For two hours, beginning at 7 AM. Wow.
I'm pretty sure I haven't been in a church since the Vatican in May
2004, save a lecture at the coffee shop side of one in Gainesville,
but I don't think that counts. It's all in Amharic, usually sung, and
everyone (except a few special people - maybe the elderly?) sits or
stands outside. It's just as I remember Catholic mass - kids
fidgeting and looking around, waiting for the doughnuts. Except in
Ethiopia, there are no doughnuts, just a hike up a mountain to visit
the site of the old church. I gathered that it was a special
anniversary trek, not a weekly activity. The collection box goes
around frequently, of course, and, as usual, I was amazed by its
power. Mothers standing there with their coughing, hungry, shoeless
child, dropping their last few birr for the week into the box. I
quasi-understand the notion of religion as a source of hope in a hard
life, but I just don't think I'll ever really get it.

EDIT: Due to internet struggles in the last few days, this post has
gotten progressively longer. Posts won't be that common, so at least
there's some consolation for you. Although I was dominating my
Amharic class there for a while, I'm a complete novice again starting
Monday. We received our regional placements on Friday, and it turns
out, despite essays and interviews expressing my profound interest in
learning Amharic and being placed in the Amhara region, I'll be
working in the Oromiya region. That means I'll be learning Oromiffa,
an easier, Latin script-based language that's only spoken in the
region, as opposed to Amhara, which is the national language and
understood across the country. I was pretty pissed and disappointed
all afternoon, but I've since discovered that PC will reimburse us for
tutors if we want to learn Amharic, so I'll not only walk away with
two languages, I'll have a private tutor and will hence be able to
learn to read and write. Plus, all the monkeys are in Oromiya. As is
the fruit, something my family doesn't appear to know about. I'd kill
a man for a banana. Always a silver lining, though, I suppose.

I haven't shaved my head yet, but there are a few of us planning to,
so I've at least rallied a few comrades for the cause.

There are two internet cafes in town, with one computer each, and 42
PCVs trying to use it between the end of training and dark (this
really is kindergarten - have to be home before sunset since there're
no street lights!), so my original vision of weekly internet access
may have been a pipe dream. I'll do my best to update the blog, but
since it takes 10 minutes to load each message, I won't be responding
to email. Just write me letters (address to the right)! The service
is excruciatingly slow dial-up, so posting pictures will not be an
option. I may be able to burn them to CD and mail them to someone to
post for me periodically, so let me know if you're interested. I've
written a few letters, so watch your mail. Not too closely though,
since they'll take a few weeks and it'll take me a while to get to
everyone. Feel free to send one of your own in the meantime though!

Letters take 1 week to 10 days judging from everyone's postmarks, and
packages have gotten here in as little as 2 weeks, although 3 is more
likely. All in all, mail service doesn't seem to be as bad as I
anticipated. I also have a cell phone here - the number is posted on
Facebook and was sent via email to immediate family, so ask around and
spread the word.

Things you can send me to make my African life that much better:

-Gummi worms (or similar non-melting candy)
-Peanut butter
-Dried fruit (mango, cranberry, pineapple, etc)
-Reese's pieces/Peanut butter M&Ms
-Ramen Noodles (oriental flavor)
-Kraft Mac & Cheese (just the powdered cheese packets if it's easier,
I can get pasta here)

For my family:

-Coloring books
-Squishy/Nerf-esque balls
-Saltwater taffy

PS. If you were interested in having your class penpal with me, go
ahead and have them write to me about whatever you so desire (thanks
Kimberly for already sending me mail!). I'll respond accordingly! If
I haven't already registered your class, go to www.peacecorps.gov and
find the World Wise Schools section to register your class with me so
you can get curriculum materials. My address is to the right and I'm
a health volunteer in Ethiopia.

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