29 December 2008

melkem firenji addis amet.

Happy Foreigner New Year!

That's what it's called here. Ethiopians rang in 2001 on 11 September, so this is just a Thursday to the rest of my temporarily adopted country. I got an intestinal parasite for Christmas, so I've spent the last few days in Addis producing stool samples to identify the little bugger. It's been loads of fun. On the upside, this is my first "real" illness in Ethiopia, so I'm just glad I made it this far. I was probably due.

Christmas itself was fun - Steph and I cooked up a storm at Kelly's place in Ambo, shared some cookies with the new trainees (I've never claimed to be above bribery), and watched mindless movies. All in all, a strange-but-good holiday. I'm looking forward to being back in Assela, if only to be able to check my mailbox. T-minus 17 days until Zanzibar!

20 December 2008

the ecstasy of being free.

Merry Christmas!

I've realized what it is I miss about home. Anonymity. Or just individuality. Knowing that whatever I say or do won't be extended to every other American/young/female/white/ suburban/Polish/atheist/vegetarian/middle-class/sad music-loving/educated/ sarcastic/southern/liberal/brunette person. The ability to represent my country was part of what attracted me to the Peace Corps, but sometimes I miss just representing Jessica. When I could just have a bad day and not worry that I was fostering anti-Americanism by not discussing the weather with every person on the street. Part of what makes me want to represent America abroad is that we're proud of what makes us different, that conformity (besides to unreasonable physical standards of beauty, that is) isn't valued - I miss that. So on that note, Merry Christmas! Celebrate in your own weird way and be thankful you don't have to explain or justify it to anyone.

Dad, Grandpa, Mary Ann, and Sinead, I got your Christmas mail - thanks!

Wishlist:
-dried fruit (apples, cranberries, or cherries)
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-non-refrigerated cheese
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Fritos
-sour cream & chives noodles
-sour jelly bellys
-yarn
-books

08 December 2008

nobody said it would be easy.

Happy belated Thanksgiving...we celebrated in Assela with veggie lasagna (from scratch - homemade noodles and everything!) and brownies. And birthday cake. Not exactly festive, but then I've never seen a turkey in this country (well, outside of the commissary at the embassy, but that's technically American soil and hence not "in this country"). I've realized that I haven't spent 14 consecutive months in the same country since high school (but no, I'm not an addict) and am now suffering from cabin fever. So, I've decided to go on vacation in January. Cheapest destination with a beach is Zanzibar (and in the southern hemisphere, so it's summer, and the Indian Ocean is warm. Victory.). Anyone want to join me? My trip falls over MLK day, so it's even a real holiday for Americans.

Thanksgiving week, Alliance for Development's major donor came to visit (she's from a Canadian foundation based in Quebec), so we had a two-day tour of all the programs she's funded around Assela, plus my prison farm, which is Alliance-sponsored but Peace Corps-funded. One of those was a kindergarten, which translated into thirty minutes in my own personal hell, but another included a visit to Konicha kebele (district/neighborhood), my favorite kebele in Assela. It's way out on the edge of town, down a ravine, across a river, and back up again, so it's pretty isolated. In May, Alliance built a water point for the community so they'd no longer have to make that trek to get water. When we inaugurated it, the entire community turned out for singing, dancing, and lots of heartfelt speeches thanking Alliance, plus an elaborate coffee ceremony. We expected to make a quick trip out there, see the site, maybe talk to a couple of the beneficiaries, and then head back to town. Not so much. Everyone greeted us at the bridge to escort us to the site, then the kebele committee set up an even-more-elaborate coffee ceremony than last time on the bank of the river (arguably one of the most beautiful places in Assela). Both kinds of ceremonial bread to start (one of which is delicious; the other is, at best, strange), then coffee. Then the local Oromo delicacy, gunfo. In both forms. One is basically barley flour, which will suck all moisture out of your mouth but is otherwise harmless. The other is a bit more special - they call it porridge. PCVs call it "play doh volcano with spicy melted butter lava." Our description is more reflective of the actual taste (and appearance). Then we got "milk at the mother house" (so named because of Anna's story - she was the first volunteer to have the experience), which is watered-down sour yogurt mixed with cottage cheese. Not "like." "Is." There's no other way to describe it. Both of these things are expensive and difficult to make, and hence a very big honor to be served. (see photos: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2662617&l=4f875&id=2001205) Like PIKE frat boys, Ethiopians just won't take "no" for an answer. Crappy food aside, I still love Konicha.

I spent last week in Ambo helping with "training of trainers (ToT)" for the language and culture facilitators for this year's new volunteers. We have quite a few returnees from last year, so we had fun bonding with them again. Plus teaching them about the eccentricities of American culture, lessons they seemed to enjoy. Almaz, one of the leaders, especially did a good job absorbing the "diversity" lesson - during a practice lesson by one of the new teachers, he touched her leg (completely normal in Ethiopia) and she turned around to us to ask if that'd be weird for Americans. She also played the role of the disinterested, lazy student who couldn't pronounce anything, which cracked us up. All in all, thoroughly amusing. And I finally finished Orientalism. The back half of the last section and the epilogue were tolerable. I can't say the same for the preceding three hundred pages, but at least I've finished it.

Yesterday, we had a welcome party for the new trainees (yes, they're finally here!) and four of us got the honored distinction of being the first volunteers to meet them. Then we had a dance party with various Ethiopian dances, followed by "Born in the USA" and "Sweet Home Alabama," the two songs we picked when instructed to bring some American music, which are classic but not necessarily dance-able. Plus, we don't really have "traditional" American dances. So we did the electric slide and various dances in the lawnmower/sprinkler/shopping cart/cabbage patch family, much to the amusement of our staff. One of the trainees commented that we seemed sane and well-adjusted - I think that may have had more to do with the previous six days of hot showers than anything else, but we took the compliment. We have forty new trainees (including 19 men, a ratio unheard of in the Peace Corps, especially in the health sector. I'll plead the fifth on that one.), all of whom seem like good times - bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, which brought back fond memories of our arrival 14 (!!) months ago. It's nice to have a group of people who are genuinely interested in as much as you have to say about PC and Ethiopia as possible. Then Smith and I discovered a new, cheap pizza place in Addis that has an extensive (for Ethiopia) wine list and cocktail menu, but doesn't actually carry any of said drinks. In a poignant testament to how long we've been here, that wasn't surprising or even disappointing.

I'm currently reading (and loving!) Reading Lolita in Tehran and have developed a newfound fascination for modern Iranian history (especially the overthrow of the Shah and its aftermath). I want to learn more. If anyone can recommend/send me a good, balanced historical overview, I'd love it. Or two not-at-all balanced histories from competing sides. It IS almost Christmas, after all...

Christen's dad, thanks for the SEC championship update!

Pouya, Grandma/Mary Ann (I could definitely see your influence in that package!), and Mom - got your mail, thanks! Happy Birthday little bro!

Wishlist:
-dried fruit (apples, cranberries, or cherries)
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-non-refrigerated cheese
-brownie mix
-Fritos
-sour cream & chives noodles
-sour jelly bellys
-Pantene conditioner (small-ish bottle)
-yarn
-books

24 November 2008

where would we be without wishful thinking?

Last week, Susie and I had our debut meeting for the debate club at
the teacher's college. Unfortunately, it fell on the same afternoon
that the college distributed living allowances to students, so we only
had four people show up, but it was still a riot. Has the potential
to earn "most-favored activity" status if it keeps up. We debated
polygamy ("a man who marries two wives is better than a man who
marries one wife") on the suggestion of the debate club organizing
committee, but I don't think they were fully aware that "debate" meant
people had to argue both sides. They all (two guys, two girls)
supported the idea of one wife and the two on my side (I elected to
lead the pro-polygamy team) had such a hard time grasping the notion
of devil's advocate and making the case for the side that you don't
believe that Susie and I ended up switching them all to the same side
while we argued for polygamy. I think that's why we had so much fun -
we came up with the following reasons:

-If a man's first wife is sterile, he can marry a second wife so he
can have kids without having to leave the first wife
-A man won't get bored and cheat if he has two wives
-The two wives can help each other with housework and caring for the
children so they don't get too tired
-There are more women than men in the world, so in order to spare
women a life of prostitution (because women need men to complete them)
and to allow women to fulfill their purpose by becoming mothers, men
should be able to take second wives
-With two wives, one (or both) can get a job, thus bringing two (or
three) incomes into the household and making everyone happier, since
we all know money buys happiness.

Such good times. Susie and I couldn't maintain straight faces, but we
did manage to teach them about arguing opinions in which you don't
believe. We think we may have gotten a little hasty with such a
contentious topic to start, so we picked "Is it better to live in the
city or the country?" for this week. Still fun, although not as
entertaining. We're hoping to transition them towards a more
structured one-on-one or team format, loosely based on Lincoln-Douglas
debate but probably with less-strict time constraints.

While the city v. country debate was less entertaining than polygamy,
one student did bring up a very interesting point that I think
brilliantly illustrates the problems I (and all non-Ethiopians) face
here. On the country side, he said that the country is better because
everyone is of the same nationality and culture, but in the city,
there are lots of different ones. Just to verify that nothing was
lost in translation, I had him clarify whether one culture was better
than diversity. He says yes. Goes a long way towards explaining the
pervasive sense of dehumanization I feel here. Susie and I were
laughing about it afterwards (because, honestly, how else do you deal
with someone telling you that your presence and differing opinions are
a detriment to their quality of life?) by saying we should dismantle
the english language program to preserve the Oromo nature of the
college. It's funny in a way, but then it's really not.

In english class last week, we talked about American culture and I had
a lot to say about diversity (and not just of the racial variety).
Namely, how my staunchly non-violent parents would have backhanded me
if I'd ever screamed "look, a black!" and pointed across the road as a
small child. As well they should have. Another student asked me about
Ethiopian politics, so I unloaded about election fraud and the law
banning foreign organizations from addressing transparency, human
rights, or good governance. All this prefaced with how the Ethiopian
government technically doesn't allow me to express my thoughts on
those matters, but since I love the first amendment (albeit not
applicable in this situation), I choose not to honor that law. The
kids all had those nervous smiles that people get when you're
preaching to closeted choirs, which suggests that change isn't a
complete pipe dream here. I really don't think I'd mind getting
deported, as long as I could make sure they all knew why I had to
leave.

But moving onto the topic of things I like about Ethiopia (I'm really
not trying to be negative here, but I'm at a low point on the
"cultural integration" timeline), emergency contraception recently
became available in a handful of pharmacies around Assela. Over the
counter. For five birr (about 50 cents). Not quite cheap, but
certainly affordable when used correctly (i.e. only after the rare
condom break, not as regular birth control). I saw posters at a few
pharmacies, so I went in and asked. Score one for the Ethiopian
healthcare industry. Sad that it's still age-restricted and
pharmacists can refuse to sell it to you in the states.

Last weekend, we had an HIV "awareness-raising" day at the teacher's
college, put on by the anti-AIDS club. Three hours of Afan Oromo got
old for me and the VSOs, but the students had a good time. I had a
brief presentation on HIV statistics worldwide and Ethiopia, then they
did a long drama dealing with multiple partners and being tested.
Pat, the VSO volunteer who's been fighting tooth and nail to start the
Gender Issues club at the college, was about to fall out of her chair
during the drama. The woman was the victim, of course, but no mention
of the man who infected her (and, the character was pregnant, but no
discussion of his future role). Then I almost had an aneurysm when
the HIV counselor told the main character's friend about her test
results. Blatant violations of confidentiality like that are why
people don't get tested! After the drama, we had the traditional buna
ceremony - the women served while the guys had a dance party. In a
related development, I've decided to join Pat in her quest for a
discussion of gender at this college.

The prison farm is being planted this week. We (okay, they) prepped
the land last week and the water reservoir is halfway done. I can't
wait for those cucumbers. Solomon, the nurse at the prison who
basically looks out for all the prisoners (and me), warned Gizaw and I
that the administrators and officers would try to steal the tools and
supplies for their own use, so we should form a committee dominated by
prisoners (and Solomon) to control their storage and distribution.
That dampened my excitement about seeing the farm come to fruition,
but Solomon risked his job to warn us, which warms my heart. But to
end on a happier note, this only serves to further illustrate why
Solomon is fabulous. We were making conversation in the prison
courtyard last week while someone found the key to the classroom, and
he asked what I thought of the prisoners. I said they were all very
good students, polite, respectful, and always asking good questions.
He smiled and said it's because the administration (well, really just
him, but he'd never admit that) is pushing "behavioral change"
programs to teach prisoners to be better citizens. I told him that
everyone should go to prison, only half joking, and the look on his
face was priceless. Just this enormous, glowing smile. I imagine he
doesn't get much feedback or gratitude for his work, so hearing it
from the exalted foreigner was a big deal to him.

I met with Masay, the environmental health and sanitation officer at
the health center (where I, unsurprisingly, did not run into Daniel,
my "real" counterpart), and she wants to work with me on some health
education programs. She just finished a survey of health issues
around Assela, so we're going to analyze the data and propose some
programs to address the biggest issues. I'm very excited, not just
because it's more work, but because Masay has the potential to be my
first female Ethiopian friend. Everyone I work with is male and those
few women who do work outside the home are still responsible for the
housework at home, so they don't have social lives. But she's
unmarried and lives alone, so we can actually spend time together.
Hooray! I like her already because she wrote notes to me during our
first meeting since she reads and writes English better than she
speaks it and wanted to make sure we understood each other. That's
true of everyone here, but she's the first person I've ever met
willing to admit her shortcomings with spoken English. I respect her
honesty.

The first time I've ever wanted to do something silly like run 10 km
and terrorists ruin it. In response to a recent series of vague
threats, the US Embassy forbade US citizens from running in the Great
Ethiopian Run. I suppose it IS a gathering of tens of thousands of
people, which is generally the sort of thing you're supposed to avoid
if you're security-minded in the developing world, but still. I was
annoyed. Alas.

During the course of shopping for farm tools, I discovered that our
hardware store sells metal screen. I don't really have mosquitos, so
I don't need window screens, but I did construct a pretty impressive
(if I do say so myself) fruit drying rack instead. I bought a cheap,
haphazard wood coffee table and tore it apart to build a frame, then
encased the whole mess in screen. Warake and her visiting son were
amused - I couldn't explain "fruit-drying rack" in Amharic, so they
didn't really understand why I was destroying the table and nailing
pieces back together with little regard for attractiveness. But they
did lend me the saw and hammer, so it went a lot quicker. All in all,
a surprisingly productive Saturday. My first project was sun-dried
tomatoes and bananas. So far, so good. Next up is an attempt at
potatoes. Maybe they'll turn into chips. I can dream. I also made
some guava wine since the mangoes are still MIA. I'd have been such a
great frontier woman.

Some sort of work is being done on the internet connections around the
country, which means internet access is more limited than usual for
the next few months. Response time to emails will be delayed and blog
posts will be longer and more infrequent. Apologies. TIA.

New book recommendation: The Wisdom of Whores by Elizabeth Pisani.
Sounds a like a black comedy satire, but is actually about global HIV
interventions. Amazing. Scathing critiques of the religious
institutions hindering HIV work worldwide (led by, but by no means
limited to, the Bush administration and the Christian right).
Basically, she makes the point that the reason HIV has become such a
problem is because it's most commonly spread by things people (meaning
individuals, organizations, and governments) don't want to talk about
- sex and drugs. Add in fears of sounding racist and culturally
insensitive in developing nations, and you've got a recipe for
disaster. Read it. It'll change the way you think about the
pandemic. It makes the top ten best book I've read thus far in this
country.

Wishlist:
-dried fruit (apples, cranberries, or cherries)
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-non-refrigerated cheese
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Fritos
-sour cream & chives noodles
-sour jelly bellys
-yarn
-books

11 November 2008

start making a fool out of me.

"And to all those who have wondered if America's beacon still
burns as bright: Tonight, we proved once more that the true
strength of our nation comes not from the might of our arms or the
scale of our wealth, but from the enduring power of our ideals:
democracy, liberty, opportunity, and unyielding hope."

Watching Obama's victory speech, I've never been so proud to be an
American. I really hope his election makes it okay for liberals
to like America again. I'm tired of patriotism having to mean
support of the Iraq war and liberal meaning America-bashing.
Can't I love my country and also like diplomacy, healthcare, and
comprehensive sex education? I think so.

Last week I met with two of the contacts on this end for the
school improvement project with the organization of Ethiopians and
RPCVs in the States. Afterwards, we talked about some of the
cultural differences between Ethiopia and America (including, for
instance, how it's rude to point, stare, hit, or throw things at
people who look different....). My favorite was homosexuality
though - I said that in America, men don't really touch each other
unless they're a couple. They didn't get it, so I spelled it out
- holding hands with another man means you're a homosexual. They
gave me that pained, giggly, awkward look of school-aged boys when
you say the word "penis." Homosexuality is culturally taboo and
illegal (punishable by deportation in some cases) in Ethiopia, so
even the most liberated colleagues of mine are pretty squeamish
about the topic. During training last year, a volunteer asked how
gay male friends visiting would be received in Ethiopia - we all
decided that they're probably be uncomfortable with the level of
public displays of affection, but would otherwise be fine. Ahh,
irony. I really miss gay culture.

On the prison farm front, we've purchased our seeds, tools, and
selected a location for our water reservoir. Choosing said
location required two hours of what can only be described as
"wading" through mud. I couldn't make them understand that
although I applied for and won the grant, I have absolutely no
background in or knowledge about water storage or construction.
After this little adventure, we went for shay/bunna at Inspector
Deraje's house, where, as these things often go, the conversation
turned to religion. I tried a new diversionary tactic and said
that I believe in science (which is true). They seemed to like
the notion, although I see it as an obvious dodge - saying I
believe something that's not religion is a lot easier to hear than
saying I don't believe in god. Worth filing away for future
reference - pacifies the religious while allowing me to preserve
the integrity of my beliefs. Victory!

Tool shopping was almost as exciting - judging from everyone's
reaction, I get the impression that women don't usually hang out
at the hardware store. Especially white ones. I found a roll of
screen, which will make my planned fruit drying rack a much more
organized contraption (this, of course, assuming that the rain
stops and the sun returns). When I asked about the price of small
nails, I got a handful of them as a free gift. They also sold
compact fluorescent light bulbs, which warmed my green little
heart. Planting at the farm should have started, but since the
rainy season refuses to end, the entire field is mud. This is
also ruining the grain harvest - fields are flooding, so farmers
can't harvest. Between the delayed rains this year and now the
extension that's preventing new planting, this could be bad for
next year's food supplies.

Wishlist:
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Fritos
-sour jelly bellys
-yarn
-books

04 November 2008

election day!

Happy election day! Tomorrow morning, I'll be parking my behind
at the Darartu Hotel and forcing the staff to leave the TV tuned
to BBC or CNN, whoever has better return coverage. It'll be
strange not to stay up all night - somehow
celebratory/drowning-of-sorrows drinks don't seem appropriate at
noon. Alas.

Last Tuesday night, we had a going away party for Jenny (of the
anonymous letter at the post office fame), the VSO volunteer who's
leaving. As has become tradition, I made a chocolate cake
(layered - I'm trying to master the skill so I can produce
aesthetically-pleasing cakes by the time I go home) that proved
popular among the Ethiopians. There's definitely a market for
cakes that don't suck in this country - Betty Crocker and
Pilsbury, are you listening? Then I took over the music selection
for a bit and we had a dance party to the Beatles, Simon &
Garfunkel, and the Police. Ethiopian men have no qualms about
dancing in general, but after a few beers, they were out of
control. I guess in a culture where men hold hands and often rest
their hands on parts of the inner thigh I wouldn't let a lover
touch in public, not much else is sacred. I impressed the wait
staff/buna ceremony girls (we went all out and had the party
catered) with my ability to pick up on Oromo dancing from the
music videos. I didn't want to spoil it by telling them I'd been
here for a year and had had plenty of opportunities in which to
practice. But I'm still a pretty quick study for a foreigner.
Not that I don't look ridiculous - the dances involve a lot of
shoulder and head-shaking, so I think everyone looks at least a
little silly.

The next morning, I went with Peace Corps staff south to Bekoji,
the next city (I use the term loosely) down the (dirt) road for a
site development visit. I dearly love my freshly-paved road. I
wasn't taking it for granted or anything, but I definitely gave it
an affectionate little toe nudge when we got back. It'll be nice
to have another volunteer nearby, but I think I'll be pushing them
to visit me instead of vice versa. They don't have internet in
Bekoji, so that's an incentive. The staff insisted on driving all
over the town of 15,000, instead of walking, which serves as a
vivid illustration of why they had no idea what any of our sites
were actually like when we moved here (case in point - they speak
Amharic in Assela). That's a bureaucracy for you.

Last week, we were all in Addis for our mid-service conference,
which turned out surprisingly well. Nice presentations from some
organizations with whom we can possibly work and an excellent
session on the nature of the food crisis from the World Food
Program. I've never taken economics and I was enthralled. Would
have been nice to know about some of those organizations earlier,
but now we're pushing the staff to invited them to the inservice
training for the new volunteers, which comes three months after
they move to site. A woman from the US Embassy came to talk about
their grants, one of which comes from the "Democracy and Human
Rights Fund." If the new Ethiopian law restricting foreign aid
passes, the fund might be squashed, but if not, I'm ridiculously
excited about applying for one.

Continuing our tradition of staff exodus, our country director
resigned as of the end of October. No comment.

Gizaw, my counterpart, and I went to Adama to buy seeds for the
prison farm. I've subtly suggested an experimental plot of
cucumbers to "test the market" (or so I can eat them, whichever.
I'll be paying for them, so it wasn't an entirely selfish
suggestion). We're going this afternoon to set a planting
schedule with the administration, so hopefully we'll be planting
by the weekend. Finally!

Happy birthday Jason! Nothing personal, but I hope tomorrow's not
as celebratory as it could be...

Claire, Kimberly, Jolene, Mary Ann, Gordon, Caitlin, Sinead, Dad,
and Mom, I got your mail - thanks!

Wishlist:
-reese's peanut butter cups
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-powdered drink flavorings (gatorade, crystal light, etc)
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-Fritos
-sour jelly bellys
-yarn
-books

18 October 2008

i don't want to be adored for what i merely represent.

This week I met with Susie and Pat, two of the VSOs, about our 1000
pounds to spend. We've decided to have a week of seminars, one long
one for teachers, talking about stigma and the role of community
leaders, and one (well, a lot) for the approximately 4000 students,
with more of a focus on prevention. Since we have money, we're going
to bring in some speakers and have refreshments so people will be
motivated to stick around. And of course, testing from the hospital
or health center. From there, we're going to recruit interested
students to form a peer educator group that will become the backbone
of the Anti-AIDS club, who will then run future seminars for new
students. We're so sustainable. Once we cover per diems, copies,
shay buna, etc, we're spending the rest on condoms since the teacher's
college is out on the edge of town and far from the health center and
NGO offices that distribute free condoms. I'm super excited - these
women are great and very dedicated to HIV and gender programming.
Then we had a lunch party at Pat's house, which is approximately the
size of four PCV houses combined. Massive living room/dining room
bigger than my entire house, two bedrooms, a bathroom with a water
heater, internet access, and a kitchen, also bigger than mine.
Jealous doesn't even begin to cover it. I'd settle for just the water
heater.

I'm joining the Tae Kwon Do club in Assela. This could well turn out
to be even more fascinating then me buying a chicken. Then I promptly
sprained my ankle on a run and hence had to delay my "sparring with
small children" debut. Damn. My grant money for the prison farm
finally came through - in the form of a check that has to be picked up
in person in Addis. At least I get a hot shower or two, good food,
and the chance to go grocery shopping. Two weeks ago, an evaluation
team from Peace Corps DC came to talk to volunteers and visit sites.
Thanks to this blog, a member of the team (hi!) was thoroughly amused
by my profound love for cheddar goldfish crackers. She didn't think
they'd travel well, so she brought us chocolate instead. Our love is
so easy to buy.

I was watching some Southpark after a day of crappy children and found
myself suddenly nostalgic for the holiday season after the Mr.
Hankey's Christmas Classics episode. So I spent the afternoon
listening to my collection of Christmas music. Between this and last
week's sudden craving for shiro wat, I think I might be going round
the bend.

Wishlist:
-reese's peanut butter cups
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-powdered drink flavorings (gatorade, crystal light, etc)
-hot cocoa mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-sour jelly bellys
-baking products (chocolate chips, frosting, mixes, etc)
-yarn
-books

10 October 2008

i'm a joke that you probably enjoy.

I'm sorry that formatting is always screwed up on these posts - I have to post via email since blogger is blocked in Ethiopia (but not on the PC computers, which is why this one has been corrected).

I was walking down the street this week and suddenly found myself craving shiro wat (chickpea), so I went to the famous tibs (meat) beyt and had some. This has never happened to me in the ten months I've been living in this town. Ironic that I'd pick the tibs beyt, but it's a good place to get vegetarian food since everyone else eats the meat - they have to make the shiro fresh.

We ended up not discussing religion in english class - we talked about the relationship between parents and children. They were interested in the notion of allowances and chores and learning
fiscal responsibility. We also talked about how women are generally better savers than men - some of the older guys said that's because the men have to do the calling (rather pricey on the Ethiopian telecom network) and "inviting" (taking out for tea, coffee, food, etc). I said, and most of the women agreed, that that's a small price to pay for also having the freedom to be out after dark and not be a domestic servant in your own family. Some of the girls mentioned that their mothers are better with money because they're the ones who go shopping and see how changes (well, really just massive increases) in food prices affect the whole family. Men in Ethiopia generally have no idea how to cook food, let alone what it costs.

Case in point: Gizaw, my counterpart at Alliance for Development, mentioned that injera is easy to make. His daughter was visiting and she said it's not. It's a 3 day process to ferment the batter, then the baking takes the better part of an afternoon. The teacher mentioned that men get married when they want someone to take care of them at home - us women said that makes marriage a very attractive arrangement for us. We had to explain the sarcasm, which ruined the moment, but they got it eventually. All in all, not as exciting as religion, but a good discussion. I'm pushing for religion next week. I'll also be investigating the location of the Tae Kwon Do center since I feel I need some variety in my physical life and I don't think there's a dance studio in this country.

After class (which fell on t-minus 4 weeks until Election Day), the teacher, Bantie, and I got into a discussion of the election. He'd vote for McCain to make the world safer. He's a die hard, neo-con, Bush-loving Republican who supported and continues to support the Iraq invasion as a means of catching the 9/11 perpetrators and ensuring global security. Bantie also believes the world is safer since the invasion - I think victims of bombings in Madrid, London, Casablanca, Amman, and elsewhere might beg to differ. It was an ironic little moment to hear a US policy most conservatives have rejected defended so passionately. He's the most fiercely anti-Islamic person I've met outside the American south - he contends that all Muslims want to see the destruction of the West and all infidels. Then he asked if I knew any Muslims (you can actually see the minaret of the main mosque in Assela from the window of the classroom, a visual irony I enjoyed). It seemed to deflate him a bit when I reminded him where I lived for the better part of last year. While I'm hardly an apologist, I think even moderate religion (of any denomination) does in fact pave the way for extremism, and I didn't mention my Iraqi neighbor who made us watch "Insurgent TV" (the propaganda channel often celebrating the deaths of American soldiers), my experience in the Muslim world suggests that the vast majority don't give a damn about global jihad and would prefer to have things like schools and hospitals and the ability to use them without fear of untimely death. But I remember why I love my conservative friends - I realized I hadn't had a genuine debate over policy since I left last year. I still think he's a bit nutty, but I enjoy the debates.

One of the students was lingering after class during this discussion and couldn't resist the urge to jump in. He had a hard time following in the beginning, and assumed I was the McCain supporter and interrupted to ask me why I liked McCain. The horrified look on my face set him straight (although it's not really McCain I can't stand, it's Palin being second in line to a man who's a long way from young and vital), and then he seemed painfully confused defending Barack Obama alongside me against his teacher and fellow Ethiopian. I was proud that he was willing to stand up to his teacher and assert himself - that's pretty socially unacceptable here. He probably only dared because it was an English class and I drive home the point every week that discourse is an important part of my class, but it was a small victory nonetheless.

On Thursday night (okay, afternoon), I got mildly tipsy on homemade moonshine that's been brewing in a bucket next to my toilet (covered, of course) for the last two weeks. What has my life become? FYI, the last two inches in a 20 liter bucket equals more glasses than you'd think. For my first attempt, it wasn't half-bad. I may have a future in this. You know, if bringing peace to Israel and Palestine doesn't end up working out.

Photos from the Olympic celebration last week:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2480158&l=25661&id=2001205

Wishlist:
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-powdered drink flavorings (gatorade, crystal light, etc)
-hot cocoa mix
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-sour jelly bellys
-baking products (chocolate chips, frosting, mixes, etc)
-yarn
-books

04 October 2008

where do you stand when all your idols have fallen?

It's been a year since I signed my life away to the Peace Corps.
Tuesday will be 1 year in Ethiopia. Time flies....

The new VSO volunteers arrived, and while a strapping young Irishman
with a sexy accent was not placed in Assela, I did get Susie, a
twenty-something British woman working on English language education,
which is potentially more exciting. And not just because it's a
friend who will understand what it's like to be a white woman of
marriageable age in this country. Since we're all here for the start
of the school year at the teacher college, we can work together on
programs and get them started from the beginning. I'll get to play a
bigger role in teaching English - we're planning a film club to help
get people used to english and provoke discussion in a stress-free
environment, plus some classes for the teachers. We're also doing an
HIV/sex ed orientation for the first year students, bringing testing
to campus, and reviving an info board where students can leave
questions anonymously and we can post answers for a little passive
education. I'm excited.

Thursday ended up an unofficial holiday of sorts - the Olympic
medallists and president of Oromiya region came to Assela for a
ceremony and dedication of land for a new athletic village being built
just south of Assela. This is one of those times I love my
disproportionately famous little town, although lacking such amenities
as the cheese, customs agents, olive oil, and affordable internet
found in the big-city sites of other volunteers. Being white served
me well throughout the morning. I got caught up in the parade of
people entering the stadium (Ethiopians don't just walk into events
silently, they parade en masse - see photo link below) and instead of
getting held up with the pesky pat down searches, a cop just waved me
in (a valuable security lesson in and of itself). I was sitting in
the crowd along the edge of the stadium, but then other army guys kept
noticing me and moving me into gradually better spots. I ended up on
the field next to the stage with free reign. I guess carrying a
respectable looking camera made them think I had to be a journalist.
I also managed to get myself interviewed by ETV, the Ethiopian state
channel. I'll be famous.

(edit: On Saturday, I was in Adama for some grocery shopping and
someone recognized me from Friday night's news broadcast.)

As a result of being mistaken for someone important, I ended up within
a few feet of Tulu Darartu (of Darartu Hotel fame, Assela's equivalent
of the Ritz) and Haile Gabreselassie, Ethiopia's most famous
marathoners and former (possibly still current) world record holders.
It motivated me to not embarrass myself at the Great Ethiopian Run
next month. They had a 3000m men and women's race for some of the up
and coming athletes in the area - some of the runners were barefoot,
which befits Africa. All in all, a fun morning. I'll try to get some
photos up on facebook in the next week or so, but no promises.

If you don't believe religion should be subject to the same discourse
and challenges as other ideas, then you should probably skip the rest
of this post. This is a culmination of spending the last two years in
highly religious cultures and there are just some things I can't
handle being silent about anymore.

I was reading Dawkins in a cafe when a guy asked me what it was. The
children had been rather touchy and demanding that morning, so I was
in a "take me as I am, I won't lie to win your approval" mood. I gave
him one chance and said it was about religion. He responded, "Oh,
you're a Catholic." Not so much, so I said it was a book about how
there's probably not a god and religion has a negative impact on the
world. He gave me that awkward, pained smile people resort to when
you tell them something shocking that they're not sure how to take.
He asked if I knew about Orthodox Christianity and said I had to
believe it since I lived here. If you know me well or have ever tried
to convert me, you can probably see where this is going. I told him
that in my country, we respect people's right to hold different
beliefs. That's probably rude, but we all have a breaking point and I
can't handle being preached at like I'm incapable of reasoning for
myself. In my book, forced conversion is equally rude.

I've realized that when you move to a new culture, you have to examine
your personal values and decided what's nonnegotiable for you - what
you won't compromise to fit in. For me, it's how I feel about god and
religion and attempts to convert me. (We can discuss whether I should
keep spending time in devout countries another time, but I'd say that
beliefs are strengthened by discourse). I won't stand for having my
opinions belittled. People tell me that's insensitive, so then why is
it courageous and noble for a Christian to continue practicing in the
Muslim world, or for Catholics to worship in Orthodox areas like
Ethiopia? My rejection of his faith would be just as strong if I were
a Catholic. Stronger, even, since I'd believe he was destined to
eternal hellfire and now I just think he's wrong. I'm tired of having
my beliefs rejected when I'm not allowed to do the same.

Anyway...moving onto our religion discussion in English class. Eid
Mubarak. The holiday fell a few days earlier than expected, so
Tuesday ended up a day off and class was cancelled. Lunar holidays
can be tricky. I celebrated with a Owen Wilson mindless comedy, some
instant broccoli cheddar soup, and a few beers. I tried to have a
meeting with the HIV-postive prisoners in the afternoon, but was shut
down, despite the fact that neither I, my counterpart, my translator,
nor any of the prisoners, are Muslim. I suppose I learned my lesson
about trying to work on holidays. Alas. I also learned that Ayalew,
my translator, was just released after serving seven years for killing
a man. I knew he was an inmate working in the prison administrative
office because he spoke english and was well behaved, but I had no
idea of his initial crime. I sort of wish I still didn't know.

In sum, I'd like to reiterate that you all should read The God
Delusion. Seriously.

Wishlist:
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-powdered drink flavorings (gatorade, crystal light, etc)
-hot cocoa mix
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-sour jelly bellys
-baking products (chocolate chips, frosting, mixes, etc)
-yarn
-books

25 September 2008

i'm not like all of the other girls.

Last week, I was eating leftover new year's cake with Negash and
Warake (my landlord and his wife). We had a brief discussion of
how Ethiopian cakes are generally pretty bad, and I was glad they
can at least recognize the weakness, even if they're not clear how
to fix it (hint - add sugar). I'll make them a chocolate fudge
cake sometime soon and see how it goes.

Cake aside, the conversation turned down a very interesting road
after talking about the little spawns of satan - oops, I mean
children - returning to school and thus having less time to follow
me down the road. Warake, who speaks virtually no English, was in
and out cleaning up the kitchen, then sat down and said, in
Amharic, that she was tired after the new year. She said had to
make the tella (moonshine), dorro wat (holiday chicken dish), and
all the other food, then clean up the house, all while the men
(pointed look at Negash, sitting in the comfortable chair in the
living room) sat around. Negash said that the men work outside
the home while the women work in it, so I countered that he's a
teacher, and hence hasn't been working for months (summer
vacation), plus he gets evenings and weekends off. Warake, on the
other hand, works all day, every day. I said he should help and
she agreed, but he said that other people (read: men) would make
fun of him if he did housework. I said that the only opinion that
matters is his and Warake's - she agreed - but he wasn't buying.
I told them I wouldn't marry a man who refused to contribute and
the daughter agreed, so at least the younger generation is on
board. Funny how the women tend to want change before the men
do.

This week in English class we started talking about the role of
the West in development. My views can be summed up as: "Give a
man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, you feed
him for a lifetime." Hence why I came here and why I don't give
money to children or beggars (besides not having enough for the
sheer number who ask). I saw a few students writing it down, so I
think a lot agreed. One brought up the Marshall Plan and I think
that's the model we ought to use - the recipient nations need to
play much larger roles, from project development to implementation
to monitoring and evaluation to accountability. No handouts and
no forced ideals - change has to come from the ground up, with
community support, to be sustainable. It might take longer, but
it'll last, and I think that's the goal we ought to keep in mind.

Someone brought up the question of whether the West really has an
interest in helping poor countries. I think there was a time
where a source of cheap resources outweighed any real humanitarian
interest, but I think we've reached a point as a globalized
society where security is a bigger priority. Rogue states are all
underdeveloped. No one's threatened by Sweden. I believe with
development comes stability, and with stability, security. We
can't expect people fighting for their next meal to think of the
future, let alone tomorrow or any notion of "greater good." But I
digress.

A couple of students suggested that it's the responsibility of the
West to fix the problems of the developing world. Bantie, the
teacher, in particular is a big proponent of the notion that the
developed world is somehow superior - he uses the term "backward"
to describe Ethiopia and Africa often. I cringe every time. I
disagree - I believe developing nations need to have a stake in
all stages, and the developed world should only come in to fill
resource gaps and provide guidance as requested. Imposed
solutions rarely (never?) work, especially in the long term. I
asked these students if they would be willing to accept my
solutions just because I'm an American. A handful said yes, then
I said that one of my solutions would probably include turning all
religious buildings into schools or hospitals and removing all
semblance of religion from laws and government. They disagreed.
I rest my case.

It turned into a rousing discussing of American foreign and
development policy - shouting, interrupting, the works. I was
proud - Ethiopians aren't generally accustomed to passionate
discourse because so much is taboo here. I explained that moments
like that illustrate why I defend my country and why I get riled
up when it's blindly criticized. I'm allowed to disagree with my
government - in print, in a public forum like this or in a
classroom, even - without fear of retribution. They don't have
that privilege but I think they're starting to grasp why I value
it so dearly.

Next week we've decided to tackle religion. I'm so excited! I'm
currently reading Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, so I'll be
bursting by the time class rolls around. Dawkins is basically the
CS Lewis of the atheist/agnostic community, so if you've ever
suggested I read Mere Christianity, I have - now I urge you to
read Dawkins. It's the sort of book that would change my life if
I weren't already on board. It's joining Middlesex on the list of
best books I've read thus far. I also finished the Harry Potter
series and I'm sorry I ever made fun of anyone who waited in line
at midnight to buy the next book. Unless you did it in costume.
Then I still reserve the right to judge you, but just a little.

Wishlist:
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-sour jelly bellys
-Right Guard extreme invisible solid deodorant
-baking products (chocolate chips, frosting, mixes, etc)
-yarn
-books

20 September 2008

always a siren singing you to shipwreck.

Happy New Year! We celebrated with a reggae party in Adama until the
wee hours of the morning. Not a very Ethiopian celebration - here,
the holiday is only on New Year's day, they don't do the "countdown to
midnight" aspect, but then I'm not into the church services, so it
seemed a fair compromise. The hotel that sponsored put up tents for
those too cheap to shell out for real rooms - that turned out to be
just us, but it was a good night and the tent remained waterproof
during the dawn downpour, so everybody wins. Plus there was a pool,
and we won't even discuss how much I miss water activities. Seems the
band we saw is sort of a big deal in the Ethiopian Rastafarian
community. Quite a few people from Jamaica and the US attended, but
only a handful of "real" (read: white) firenji were there, so it was a
pretty interesting experience. I have virtually no experience with
the Rasta community, but we had a great time. In true Peace Corps
fashion, we ate before the party and smuggled in our own liquor.

While waiting to meet up with Sarah and Suzi at a cafe in Adama, a
group of guys at a neighboring table attempted to attract my attention
by playing cell phone ringtone music, making noises (and laughing in
response), and finally, by taking photos of me reading quietly with
their cellphone cameras. They forgot to turn off the fake camera
noise, so it was pretty obvious. What do I have to do to be seen as a
human being? They wouldn't do that to an Ethiopian woman, so why am I
any different? I hate how angry this makes me, but things like this
are so common, I can't just write it off as a handful of rogue
individuals. It just helps to vent, so pardon the negative tone.
It's not all butterflies and rainbows over here.

After sleeping most of the day after New Year's (some things cross
oceans and continents), I went up to the fancy Darartu Hotel cafe for
the afternoon. It's no Maude's, but it's nice to have a change of
scenery and they don't do enough business to force you out if you want
to read for a few hours while only ordering tea. While there, a man
and his three kids came in for sodas and donuts and I had fond
nostalgic memories of my brother and I going with my dad to Dairy
Queen for Blizzards or Mister Misties after playing miniature golf.
I'm not sure if we ever actually did those two things in the same
evening (Adam/Dad - did we?), but in my mind, they're associated. Or
maybe I just really miss ice cream? Probably a combination thereof.

Sarah, Suzi, and I are working together on a series of HIV seminars
for the nursing students at Rift Valley College, a private school in
Adama. We had our first session this week - HIV basics and ARTs. We
had a good turnout - about 100 people for the two sessions, although a
lot were pharmacy students instead of nursing. At least we focused on
ARV drugs, so hopefully they learned something. We're offering a
certificate program for those who attend 3 of 4, so I think that was a
big incentive. Offering certificates in Ethiopia is like offering
free food and cash in the States - everyone will show up. If the
certificate might be relevant to your career, even better.

My latest group of prisoners was exceptionally interested in HIV's
possible monkey origins. They assured me humans got HIV because
someone had sex with a monkey (cue giggles). I tried to explain that
we don't really know where it first came from because of the long lag
between infection and symptoms, but they were having none of it. I
suppose if you're going to cling to strange myths, I'd rather it be
that than "HIV is an invention of the west to kill Africans" or "HIV
is in the condoms, so don't use them." There's really no harm in
being amused that a man may or may not have made sweet love to an ape.
The following day, another group got on the topic of "double-bagging"
(using two condoms, for those readers not fluent in modern sexual
colloquialisms). I managed to get that message across (don't ever do
it, unless you want two broken condoms!), so I'll call the week a
victory.

Amisha, I got your package - thanks so much! Mom, your box and letter
arrived as well. Thanks!

Wishlist:
-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-gummi Lifesavers
-sour jelly bellys
-baking products (chocolate chips, mixes, etc)
-yarn
-books

09 September 2008

you've changed so much but it's still you.

Happy Ethiopian New Year (11 September)! Party like it's 2001.

Last week I met with the women at the prison. Gender inequalities
persist right down to the penal system. Their compound was
haphazardly built and lacking most of the facilities that the men have
(like tables and chairs). We had our session in a glorified barn -
one real wall, the rest more of a stick fence - with most of the women
crouching on the dirt floor, breast feeding children to keep them
quiet. Conditions aside, they were just as polite and grateful as the
men, perhaps more so. Especially when we talked about how part of the
reason women are at higher risk for sexual transmission is that they
have very little control over their sexual decisions. It's one of
those things everyone knows but few actually say. My translator even
did a little double take when I said it. This remains one of the most
rewarding projects I've ever undertaken.

The following day, while back on the men's side, I stumbled across a
"Government and Civics" textbook. I only made it through the first
few pages discussing the rule of law and origins of democracy, but I
was thoroughly intrigued. I was just about to get into the
independent judiciary section when my class arrived. Pity. If I find
it again, I'm tracking down the teacher and offering my services.

23 November: The Great Ethiopian Run. Most all of the PCVs not
traveling then will be huffing and puffing our way through a 10K at
8500 feet. I think the altitude is getting to us.

Living here is turning me into a total sap. I find myself misty eyed
at every corny romantic comedy I watch. Even ones by the Farrelly
brothers. For shame.

I watched the documentary "Jesus Camp." Horrified, traumatized, and
nauseous don't even begin to cover it. I honestly had to stop it and
walk away several times. Bad flashbacks to that <a
href="http://www.new.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2351095&l=b18d7&id=2001205">website</a>
I found last year. Fortunately, Harry Potter 6 and Richard Dawkins
arrived the following day, so I have more than 1000 pages of blasphemy
in which to drown myself. I threw in Fear and Loathing too, just for
good measure. I'm immensely proud to be the "enemy."

Obama...Biden 2008? Not my first choice, but hey, go Dems. Figures
the Republicans would once again (potentially) have the first woman in
an important position.

I made donuts, guava jelly, homemade ravioli, and my first layered
cake recently. FYI, donut recipes have a high yield and the "jelly
stage" takes quite some time to reach. Fortunately, it wasn't like I
had plans for any of those evenings.

Nick, Will (and Illana - love the cookbook!), Caitlin, Candace, and
Jason/Julie, thanks for making my week. I may not feel nostalgic for
icy showers and muddy roads when I'm home again, but I'll miss the
excitement of opening a mailbox to more than bills and junk mail.
Speaking of junk mail, kudos to those political staffers who bother to
send ads to the international absentee addresses. I don't now nor do
I ever intend again to live in Orange County, so I won't be voting in
the local elections, but I do appreciate the thought.

Wishlist:
-mac and cheese
-freeze dried mangoes
-Gillette Venus razor refills
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-dried seasonings
-gummi Lifesavers
-sour jelly bellys
-yarn
-books

27 August 2008

no alarms and no surprises.

Jenny, one of the VSO volunteers in Assela, started a community
library at the teacher's college. I was in her office (also the
library) last week talking to her about the private school plans for
Assela when a group of kids crowded the door, waiting for her to open
for business so they could get more books. Apparently our meeting had
run past opening time. It's the only time since arriving in this
country that anyone besides me objected to an establishment opening
late. It was pretty cute, and I don't even like kids.

Nod and I watched the Olympic men's 10,000 m finals last week in
Assela. It's pretty exciting to watch crammed into a satellite TV bar
with fifty other people, many of whom probably know or went to school
with the Ethiopian runners (who took gold and silver, with Kenya
taking third - shocking, no?). I'm still backing the Americans in
every other event, but after watching the white guys get lapped in the
10,000, I'm comfortable rooting for my temporarily adopted country in
long-distance running.

Someone at the prison filled in the holes on the path to the classroom
I use each week. It was formerly a muddy obstacle course, but now
it's relatively smooth. I felt loved.

During English class last week, we somehow found ourselves on the
topic of "dating," which proved amusing. It's a basically nonexistent
notion here, so the students were thoroughly amused. And intrigued.
Seems they'd like the opportunity to get to know people before
settling down for marriage. That's odd. One kid asked if I was
married, and when I said no, asked what I thought of the teacher.
Contrary to popular belief, Ethiopians can, in fact, blush. They had
a hard time understanding that finding a husband is not a priority for
me. Another student suggested that since women outnumber men in the
world, men should be allowed to take multiple wives so the women don't
have to go into prostitution. I explained that not being married
doesn't necessarily mean you have to sell your body to find
fulfillment in men, but he wasn't buying. To each his own, I suppose.

In a related discussion, Hiqma, my favorite student, said that she
wants to make encouraging Ethiopian women to stand up for their rights
her life's mission. I love Hiqma. Another kid wants to study
computer animation so he can make movies about Ethiopia's long
history, which I thought was interesting in a country where the
ability to use MS Word makes you an expert. Then on the walk back
home, a random guy asked if I wanted "the fucking" with him. I wish
we'd export more romantic comedies and less pornography to the
developing world.

The week before, we were talking about Ethiopia's historic sites
(specifically the churches at Lalibela) - one student asked why I
though Ethiopia formerly had advanced civilization and was now one of
the poorest countries in the world. I said that although the churches
are beautiful, all I can see when I look at things like that is the
time, labor, and resources that could have been put into schools or
hospitals or other considerations of the future generation. I think
that plays a large role in the collapse of civilizations (thanks Jared
Diamond) - expending resources on venerating gods or kings that (I
believe) could be put to better use elsewhere. Worship as you want,
but put the cement and labor towards a school. Ethiopian culture is
still very religious, but they were all silent for a bit pondering
this idea. I wonder if god would really care if you became a doctor
while worshiping him in a field instead of a gilded church. And if he
would, is that really a notion in which you can find salvation and
comfort?

We had a three car accident at the intersection by my house.
Unremarkable, except that area generally sees about ten cars per day,
so three of them attempting the turn simultaneously is pretty strange.

I just read Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides) and everyone should do the
same. It's in the running for best/favorite book I've read thus far
in Ethiopia, an honor I don't imagine Orientalism will achieve (still
suffering through that one). Adam, thanks for indulging my need for a
properly organized iTunes. You're my favorite brother.

Invitations are starting to go out, so howdy to any Ethiopia invitees
who've stumbled across this blog. See you in December, but feel free
to email me with any questions/concerns/etc you may have in the
meantime.

I've outsmarted the computer and am now capable of compressing and
emailing the volunteer newsletter on the excruciatingly slow dial up.
Email me if you want copies.

Wishlist:
-mac and cheese
-freeze dried mangoes
-Gillette Venus razor refills
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-gummi Lifesavers
-yarn
-books

21 August 2008

in defense of youth.

A while back, Yahoo! published an article
(http://news.yahoo.com/s/csm/20080425/ts_csm/opeacecorps;_ylt=AjH.oCVEqOGhNjRa3lG9HNys0NUE)
criticizing the youth of Peace Corps volunteers in general and their
inexperience in Ethiopia in particular. Nicholas Benequista called
for "professionalizing" the Peace Corps along the lines of the UK's
Volunteer Services Overseas (VSO) in order to better address the
increasingly complicated issues (i.e. environmental degradation or
HIV/AIDS) that now fall under the umbrella of the Peace Corps.

The Peace Corps would certainly not suffer from greater numbers of
older volunteers, but it is a fallacy to suggest that age or
experience causes or is even correlated with success in the Peace
Corps. The issues volunteers are facing in Ethiopia are incredibly
complex and, as the article pointed out, quite new - experience in the
American professional world doesn't necessarily translate to
experience combating the spread of HIV in a culture almost entirely
unlike that of the United States.

A significant portion of the young volunteers currently working in
Ethiopia have lived and worked in developing nations around the world,
including Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Tanzania, South Africa, Guinea,
Argentina, Mexico, Vietnam, and Jordan. Volunteers are currently
organizing zonal home-based care programs for HIV patients, starting
income generation projects for reformed commercial sex workers and
people living with HIV, creating job and health training programs in
prisons, reforming hospital record-keeping systems, writing
curriculums for health education in schools, and developing
eco-tourism programs to support and fund development projects.

Age is not the only measure of experience, nor is it an accurate
predictor of success. With age comes experience, perhaps, but then
with youth comes innovation. New, creative solutions don't come from
a lifetime spent in the same career; they come from a fresh pair of
eyes looking at a situation from a new angle. Some of the world's
most successful companies (including, incidentally, Benequista's
employer, Yahoo! and its chief rival, Google) were founded by young
professionals who looked at a blossoming industry and saw gaps they
could fill. Young volunteers look at development in the same way -
connecting and combining resources when new ones can't be afforded,
challenging social practices that perpetuate problems. Today's
twenty-somethings were raised to believe they can do and be anything -
is that really an attitude that doesn't have a valuable place in
development?

There is a practical reason the Peace Corps attracts "youthful zeal" -
it is a volunteer agency. Volunteers live on no more than three to
four dollars a day, often in conditions unfathomable to the average
American, and earn less than $2,500 a year for their efforts. For
recent college graduates, the experience outweighs the meager pay, but
for older professionals, it is difficult to walk away from a five- or
six-digit salary for a couple of years in a developing nation. The
problems faced by Ethiopia (and other Peace Corps countries) are
complex and deep-rooted. It will take passionate, dedicated
individuals who can "afford" two years away from the comforts of the
Western world to make lasting contributions. They should be applauded
for taking on a task most wouldn't even consider, not criticized by
those who've never walked in their shoes.

These young Peace Corps volunteers, the vast majority of them female,
are working in a culture that values youth and masculinity above all
else. Women don't question their husbands and children never
challenge their elders. These women face near-constant sexual
harassment in their communities and even their workplaces. Many
struggle to work with counterparts who are reluctant to take their
ideas seriously and to genuinely work with them. Yet they're still
there, striving every day to be seen as individuals with something to
contribute. If your boss commented on your body, your bus driver
tried to grab your breast, and children threw stones at you every day,
would you persist in your work? They do. It would be absurd to
contend that they were incompetent by virtue of their sex - is it
acceptable to suggest the same because of their age?

While the Peace Corps would certainly not be harmed by an increase in
older volunteers, it would be remiss to abandon the passionate young
people who have formed its heart and soul for the past forty years.
The Peace Corps applicant pool isn't exactly overflowing with older
professionals - should the young really be turned away?

15 August 2008

living well is the best revenge.

First sessions with the prisoners were great. They made a captive,
curious audience, even without an armed guard in sight. The following
day, a group were convoying (by foot) into town and those in my class
said hi to me. I felt loved. They had some entertaining questions:
"If a person with HIV uses a condom and throws it away, then a chicken
eats it (not out of the questions - there are no garbage services here
and the chickens run free), will you get HIV from the eggs?" Good
times all around.

Later that first day, I discussed HIV prevention with my English class
and I was betam (very) proud when two of them figured out why women
are at higher risk for HIV transmission. (If you don't know, you
should write me a letter and I'll explain it to you.) One of the guys
asked if masturbation was bad for you. I said it was sex with someone
you love. Well, I think Woody Allen said it first, but they had no
way of knowing. Half the class didn't know what it was (or pretended
not to, it's still pretty taboo here), so it resulted in a
particularly entertaining episode of charades. My life is absurd
sometimes.

Fun Fact: It takes approximately 4 hours to download a 52.8 MB file on
a dial-up internet connection. I don't want to talk about it.

re: Beijing '08 - go USA!

Wishlist:
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Gillette Venus razor refills
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-gummi Lifesavers
-yarn
-books

08 August 2008

i've got nothing to do today but smile.

Last week, my english class and I had a free discussion period. They
asked about US-Iranian relations, climate change, the undemocratic
nature of the UN, race relations in the US, and post-war Iraq and
Afghanistan, among other things. They may have never heard of
censorship, but they're better informed than Americans with
near-constant access to television, internet, and print news. That
saddens me.

My prison education program starts next week - twice weekly small
group discussions until we get through everyone. This will keep me
occupied for quite some time. The prisoners are prepping the land
while we wait for the grant to be dispersed - they're so excited they
don't need any prodding at all. Either that, or the administration's
so excited that the free labor is motivated by proxy. I don't ask too
many questions.

Biofarm hired a new education director (not actually his title, but
definitely his job) to oversee the development of schools in Mekele
and Assela. He's an Irish man (a conspiracy to remind me of a certain
Irish volunteer who's no longer eating my brownies...), which means
he's blessed with a western work ethic and understands my insatiable
desire to start now, instead of next week. We're in the market for
funds to build a network of schools in Assela, Mekele, and hopefully
in the southern Sudan as well. The primary school will be in a
converted existing building and should open in the fall, while the
secondary school will be built on the lake near the Biopark. From
there, we're hoping to use the school as a springboard to start
ecotourism projects and get the community to use the space. Biofarm
offered me a job overseeing the school when I finish PC, which made me
feel good about myself even if I don't have a serious interest in
staying on in Ethiopia after I finish Peace Corps.

My landlord fired another maid while I was on vacation, lettuce and
corn arrived in the market, and I think it might snow. I'm adapting
to the new, lonelier life here. On the upside, my Amharic is
improving and I'm saving money on phone minutes.

photos from the northern circuit:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2574749&l=1501d&id=2001205

Wishlist:
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Gillette Venus razor refills
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-gummi Lifesavers
-yarn
-books

23 July 2008

clever, not beautiful.

After 10 days in northern Ethiopia, I've decided that this country,
despite some transportation and culinary flaws, is beautiful. Of
course, this is the rainy season and everything is lush and green, but
I think my ability to love it while wading through ankle deep mud is a
testament to its beauty. I had my first visitor, the lovely Alana,
and we tore up the historic circuit, Gator-style. This included not
one, but two, hikes up muddy mountains in flip-flops and a nearly-lost
shoe in a deep puddle the local shepherd boy was kind enough to point
out as a breeding ground for malaria mosquitoes before retrieving the
shoes. For a price, of course.

The inappropriately named Bahir Dar ("house of the sea") on the shores
of Lake Tana is a charming city with good food, dancing, and palm
tree-lined boulevards. Although the last bunch of volunteers to go up
there got robbed on three separate occasions and hence holds a grudge,
I'm in love. I'll be back. I impressed (amused?) the clientele of a
local "asmari beyt" (traditional dance house) by joining in the
dances. Ethiopian traditional dancing involves primarily
shoulder-shaking, which is humorous for any white person, but the
sight of Levi, the giant linebacker, was almost too much. Alana and I
would have had the hottest YouTube video since the stoned UF
management professor, but for our lack of a camera and YouTube's being
blocked in this country. Alas.

We celebrated Steph's birthday, then headed to gorgeous Gondar,
perhaps my favorite city in Ethiopia thus far. Castles, a trek to the
Simien mountains to see the endemic gelada baboon, and the fabulous
Tara Center, an animal-rescuing/poverty-reducing NGO that I wish
desperately had a branch in Assela. We played with dogs who actually
love people and lovable, if mischievous, monkeys (photos coming soon)
while being wildly jealous of the three PCVs who actually live there.
I was minutes away from adopting Lulu, a hyperactive little brown
puppy who stood up to the big dogs even though she was half their
size. Alas, I had no means of getting her back to Assela, but I'm
keeping an open mind. A monkey farted in my face and attempted to
remove my clothes, which is always amusing. I'm now fully committed
to going to Rwanda to see the gorillas - anyone want to join? In
another life, I'd most certainly have been Jane Goodall.

Lalibela turned out to be a bit of an overpriced disappointment, but
we still had a good time crawling through the towers and tunnels of
the church complexes. Orthodox Christianity continues to frighten me.
It's the icons. We met a German and Italian guy who'd just finished
a few years working in Kenya and were in the process of driving from
Nairobi to Italy. After a night of tej (honey wine), we discovered
the bus we planned to take neglected to show up, so we rode in the
back of their ancient Land Cruiser, thus cutting our travel time in
half. They had little patience for the ubiquitous livestock in the
road, which made for a thoroughly amusing trip. We spent the night in
Debre Tabor, stuffed our faces, then headed back to Bahir Dar, a trip
covering half the distance but taking twice the time of the day before
due to the dilapidated bus. Can't win 'em all, I suppose.

After nine months, I'm starting to actually like (as opposed to just
tolerate) Ethiopian food. Just shiro wat so far (chickpea puree), but
it's a start. Perhaps there's hope for me after all.

I read The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J Maarten Troost - perhaps one of
the funniest writers ever. I want to be him. If I wrote a book about
living abroad, I would want it compared to his. I also read Collapse,
Jared Diamond's sequel to Guns, Germs, and Steel, and although he's as
long-winded-but-thorough as ever, I respect a man who lists religion
as a major reason societies make irrational decisions and slips not
one but two subtle critiques of US family planning policy abroad (or
lack thereof) into a chapter about hope for the future.

I'm currently back in Addis, saying goodbye to my site buddy, Candace,
who's leaving to take a job as a flight attendant with Emirates
Airlines in Dubai. Two other volunteers also left this week, one also
from my area, so it's been a rough week for the Peace Corps and me in
particular. I suppose I expected PC to be a lonely and isolated two
years, but after 9 months of being pleasantly surprised with my
proximity to other volunteers, it's hard to return to that mindset.
Hamda allah for knitting, I suppose.

Jason, Dad, and Mom, got your mail - thanks!

Wishlist:
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Gillette Venus razor refills
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-instant broccoli cheddar soup mix
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-yarn
-books

09 July 2008

for it irony, for the thrill of it, for everything that mattered.

Week two of language class: Censorship. Once I explained the term to
everyone (teacher included) - a fact that I think says more than the
discussion ever could - we had a lively discussions, much of it
focused on the famine and former Derg government. I won't go into
more detail, but read the article I linked to in my previous post.

Week three: Comprehensive v abstinence only sex ed. Everyone should
be well aware of my feelings on this matter, so suffice it to say that
if certain policy makers had consulted much of the world before
implementing PEPFAR, we'd be looking at a very different (and much
more effective) HIV-prevention program on this continent. Alas.

The prison program is off to a good start - thanks to the health
center, testing is in progress and everyone is surprisingly eager to
volunteer for testing. I'm working on a proposal to fund vegetable
farming and chicken coops for the HIV-positive prisoners - nutritional
support, income generation, and job training. Next month, we'll start
weekly small-group discussion classes, which will hopefully eventually
expand into a peer education program, but that's tricky since it's
such a transient population. Even if they're just bringing prevention
education back to their hometowns, that's progress.

I'm off to Bahir Dar, Gonder, and Lalibela for the next 10 days - back
in Assela 20 July. I'll be taking my first domestic Ethiopian
Airlines flight. Wish me luck. Although, given that Ethiopia is the
most dangerous place in the world to ride in a car, I'm looking
forward to my first peaceful transport experience in 9 months.

24 is only getting more stressful. I read Tucker Max's I Hope They
Serve Beer in Hell and almost peed myself. Degrading, offensive, but
oh-so-hilarious. Wouldn't recommend it for fathers though.

I learned to make cornmeal pancakes, which puts me halfway to arepas,
one of my favorite foods. Now all I need is a regular supply of
cheese. I also successfully had pants made in Assela, thus solving my
increasingly hole-y and baggy pants problem. Victory.

Ruby, thanks for the excellent reading material!

Wishlist:
-Vanilla frosting
-Gummi LIfesavers
-Non-refrigerated cheese products
-Original cheddar goldfish crackers
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Dried fruit
-Right Guard extreme stick deodorant
-Gillette Venus razor blade refills
-Yarn
-Books

30 June 2008

just because i couldn't say it doesn't make me a liar.

Barack '08! And I found broccoli again, twice in one month. To put
that in perspective, it's a bit like finding a hundred dollar bill in
the gutter...twice. And since I'm probably the only person in the
country, and definitely the only one in the greater Rift Valley area
who gives a damn about broccoli, it's dirt cheap. Unlike the
cauliflower, which was 12 birr/head. I've never watched inflation
happen before my eyes like this. I did notice that US postage
increased - thanks to everyone who loves me that 4 extra cents.

After a crappy day involving both screaming children and the town
lunatic chasing me down the road while raving about what a good lay I
was (as bystanders just laughed), I went to a night school english
class run by a former student of my Amharic tutor. What a day
brightener. The students were nervous to practice with a native
speaker, but you could see how excited they were that I was there.
One guy thanked me for being there, saying that there are big
populations of Ethiopians in America and everyone he knows wants to
go there, but I'm the only American in Ethiopia. I felt loved, and in
the good way, not the sex object way that is the norm here. I'm
starting them on a weekly debate club, which should provide fodder for
an endless supply of amusing anecdotes.

Week 1: "Is it easier to be a man or a woman in Ethiopia?" One girl
got riled up and passionately explained how even if women are going to
school and wearing pants these days, she's still expected to come home
and do all the chores while her brother keeps the couch warm in front
of the television. Then one of the guys used the word 'revolution'
unprovoked, and I was smitten. This is going to be great.

A Swiss organization toured the Assela Biofarm last week, and I met
this amazing American woman who's on their board but also runs an
educational exchange in Mongolia. Perhaps something to do in that
lull between my close of service here and grad school eight months
later... She also spoke German and is basically my hero, thus
bringing me closer to committing to applying for a year-long
fellowship in Germany at some point in the near future.

Wednesday through Friday last week, I went to Welenchiti to
theoretically break ground on Sinead's vegetable farm for reformed
commercial sex workers. TIA. Like Eeyore, I managed to bring the
grey cloud that perpetually hangs over Assela to a desert town that's
seen three days of rain in the last month. It rained all three days I
was there, someone attempted to steal our land, no one told us to
plough, and the trainers showed up late for the program. Needless to
say, we weren't as productive as we'd hoped. For some reason, after 9
months in Ethiopia, that still frustrates us. But the land is
ploughed and ownership is clear now, so hopefully we'll plant later
this week. We also watched the movie North Country, which was great,
but not such a good idea for Ethiopia because it puts you in a sort of
zero tolerance for harassment mood.

Edit: Tuesday we were scheduled to plant, but it seems in desert
towns, you have to plant the day after it rains. It didn't rain all
weekend in Welenchiti and the phone network was down, so SInead
couldn't call to tell me not to come, so I showed up in Welenchiti
only to find no one at the land. Fortunately, the town is tiny and
Sinead's the only white person to have ever lived there, so everyone
(when they weren't confusing me with her) could tell me she was back
at her house.

I read David Sedaris's Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and had
to restrain myself from laughing hysterically in public. I was a mess
reading "Nuit of the Living Dead" in my house - "I was on the front
porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was
strange." Anyone wanted to send some more Sedaris my way, I'd be
eternally grateful.

Perhaps the most awkward moment of my life: Gizaw, my 50-something
counterpart at Alliance for Development, after the lengthy Amharic
greeting process, asked, "What are sex toys?" Somehow, he'd gotten
his hands on an HIV prevention brochure printed in the US that, among
other things, urged you not to share your sex toys, and if you do, use
a fresh condom each time (good advice, in case you were concerned).
These things aren't available in Ethiopia (at least not as far as I
know), so he was utterly baffled even after I explained the general
notion. He didn't get why people would have them, which led us into
the touchy subject of female masturbation. I decided that was
probably traumatizing enough and he wasn't ready for discussions of
homosexuality. He's already appalled that I don't go to church, have
divorced parents, and have no immediate plans for marriage, so one
step at a time. On the upside, I now feel confident in my ability to
discuss any aspect of HIV and sex with any person - bring on the
priests.

Thanks to the wonders of rental VCDs (a technology that completely
bypassed the United States in our transition from VHS to DVD), I've
started watching 24. I don't understand how people handled watching
it with a week delay between episodes. But rentals are 1 birr each
(about ten cents), so at least I'll stay more or less up to date on
film and television while I'm here.

I went to Addis and now have two balls of mozzarella cheese and black
olives to my name. Life is good.

Pouya, Gordon, Krzysztof, Kimberly, Nick, WIll, Claire, Mom, and
Grandma, got your mail - thanks!

Wishlist:
-Vanilla frosting
-Gummi LIfesavers
-Non-refrigerated cheese products
-Original cheddar goldfish crackers
-Kraft mac and cheese
-Dried fruit
-Low rise athletic socks!
-Right Guard extreme stick deodorant
-Yarn
-Books

06 June 2008

an open letter to departing PCVs.

Summer is upon us, which means a large number of people are packing their bags for the Peace Corps. If you're anything like me, you've been googling Peace Corps blogs for a while now, so I figured I'd offer my thoughts (and a few packing ideas). Granted, I'm in Ethiopia, so your experience will probably differ drastically, but it's the spirit that counts.

Training sucks. It's hard, it moves excruciatingly slowly, and you'll find yourself wondering why on earth you signed up for this torture. Living with a host family is the hardest part. If you're a recent college grad, you're at least a few years removed from your mother force-feeding you at every meal and imposing an early curfew. If you're older, it's been even longer since you didn't have control of your daily activities. Write yourself a letter about why you joined the Peace Corps and mail it with your favorite candy right before you leave - depending on the quality of your country's postal service, it'll arrive sometime during training and will remind you what you're doing there (and give you a chance to eat some feelings). Push through - it's only three months of a 27-month commitment and it'll be over before you know it. You'll eventually even find yourself nostalgic for the fun you had in training and the relationship you formed with your family.

Prepare yourself for massive amounts of solitude. You'll soon learn (if you haven't already) that being alone is not the same as being lonely. In time, you'll probably come to crave that solitude - you'll be on display every moment of every day you leave your house. Say goodbye to the ability to be invisible. Every move you make will fascinate those around you - buying groceries, speaking the language, riding local transport - it's okay to not always find that quaintly amusing. It is, in fact, annoying sometimes. You're only human. Take time for yourself.

On the topic of solitude, bring hobbies. With that much alone time comes serious introspection - when you have enough time to analyze every word of a letter from home, you better have something with which to distract yourself or you'll go 'round the bend the first month at site. Pick at least one or two that can be done by candlelight - even if you have electricity, it probably won't be that reliable. Knitting is becoming increasingly hip and results in nifty hand-made gifts for everyone you know - I'd highly recommend it.

"Integration" means fitting the person you are into the context of your host country, not becoming that culture. You hold certain values that are probably foreign to your host country - don't feel you have to sacrifice those to fully integrate. You wouldn't change yourself to make someone like you back home, so don't feel you should in order to better "fit in" at your site. Think of it as a blind date - what would you willingly gloss over to make a good impression, and what's a deal-breaker for you? It's okay not to love all the food or to be annoyed by the children sometimes or to just want to spend the day curled up writing letters home. That doesn't make you a bad volunteer - in fact, it probably makes you a more emotionally stable one. I'm sure you could make a list of dozens of things you don't like about America - why would another country suddenly be perfect? On the other hand, some of your thoughts may be better kept silent or at least artfully vague (sex and religion?) until you've formed relationships with people.

In much of the world, it's incredibly difficult to be a woman (especially a young one). Sexual harassment, endless discussions of your marital status, and general fascination at your independence will quickly get old for you, but not for your community. Chance are, in your country, women your age do not live alone, are not accepted in society unless married, and rarely have the kind of independence you take for granted. Male coworkers will probably find you intimidating or have a hard time treating you as an equal. Stand up for yourself, but be patient with them. On the bright side, women with whom you work will find you inspirational.

If you don't already find poop funny or feel comfortable talking about your bowel movements in detail, rent a few toilet comedies now or hang around a preschool and get over it. Poop will dominate much of your conversations with other volunteers (along with sex and foods you're craving). If you can't describe your excrement in vivid detail, how will the medical officer ever know what's wrong with you?

If, like most volunteers, you write letters home, you'll quickly learn some valuable lessons about your friendships. People will surprise you, both with their commitment to write and their lack thereof. It's okay to be angry, but try to focus on the positives and let people go when their silence demands it.

Be patient. The American work ethic is unlike anywhere else in the world. In your eyes, you only have two years to achieve as much as possible, but for the people with whom you work, other issues will often take priority. Keep at it and don't let false starts get you down. Pursue multiple projects so you always have a fallback when one inevitably stagnates for a time. In Africa, at least, nothing starts on time, so carry a book and it'll make the wait more bearable.

Don't be afraid to cry. Peace Corps is emotionally draining - let it out. Talk to other volunteers. Bake cookies together (or just eat the dough). You're all in the same boat, so find comfort in each other. Two years is a long time. It's overwhelming sometimes, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, right?

People often ask if I'm having "fun" in Ethiopia. Most days, the experience is stressful and frustrating. It's not "fun" in a day-at-Disneyworld sense of the word, but in the "this is the most challenging thing I've ever done and I can see myself growing every day" sense. Life here is more extreme than anything I've known. The mountain is bigger, the rains more dramatic, the colors brighter, the sun hotter, and yes, the bugs are bigger and creepier. The disappointments hurt more, but the good moments take my breath away. Life is rarely neutral or 'okay,' and it can switch from heartbreaking to soaring in a second. I don't think you ever really get used to it, but you do come to enjoy the ride.

And for the practical...

1. Don't eat all the chocolate in your first care package in one sitting. You're going to anyway, but don't say I didn't warn you. Eventually you'll learn to savor.

2. Resist the urge to compare yourself to other volunteers. Someone will always be better at the language or bubblier and more loved by their host family or will be assigned a more motivated counterpart or prettier site. Someone's also jealous of you. Share things - ideas, advice, lessons, care packages. These people will be your strongest support network.

3. The need to refrigerate cheese is a purely Western fantasy. Sealed packages of cheese (like grocery store bricks of cheddar, mozzarella, etc), dried Parmesan, Baby Bell, Laughing Cow, Kraft singles, spray cheese, etc will all survive a trip through the mail. Some look a bit worse for the wear, but I promise, it's still edible.

4. If you don't look like your local community, the novelty will never wear off. Try to keep a sense of humor - it helps a lot.

5. Always carry toilet paper and a book. Duct tape is optional, but often helpful. A mountaineering friend taught me to wrap a foot or so around a pen so you always have a bit without having to carry an entire roll.

6. Give the local food some time to grow on you. It took me nine months to tolerate it, a year and a half to truly like it. I've been back a year and I still crave it now.

7. Two-thirds of your job is sharing cultures. Try to remember that when your projects are stalled or something falls apart.

8. Save the 'Cultural Adjustment Curve' handout you get in training. We all think we're going to be special and different, but no one ever is. Just as the low points are predictable, so are the highs. You'll bounce back.

Packing:
-Teflon fry pan - you'll probably have one burner to cook on, and it's convenient to be able to cook multiple things without having to stop and soak a crusty pan.
-A good pillow
-Sharp knife and vegetable peeler
-Music (with speakers! Nothing cures a rough day like a karaoke dance party in your living room)
-Measuring cups and spoons - even if you don't bake yet, this is a great time to learn
-Board games/sporting equipment - you'll develop a lot of pent-up energy during training, so it's nice to have a release, something to do on the weekends, and something to eventually teach the neighborhood children
-Headlamp with rechargeable batteries (and rechargeable batteries for everything - local ones will probably be weak, and it's unlikely your community has a safe way to dispose of them)
-DVDs or an external HD of movies and TV shows (with or without a laptop - if you don't have one, someone around you will, and movie sleepovers will bring you much joy)
-Half the clothes you think you'll need. Handwashing is a drag. You're going to wear the same outfit for days on end. Save the luggage space for books.

Survive this, and you're ready for anything. Good luck!

02 June 2008

i guess it rains down in africa.

Pardon the almost-certainly nauseatingly bubbly idealism...it's been a
good (couple of) weeks. I even had broccoli and a vegetable woman in
the market is now bringing cauliflower and lettuce to Assela, saving
us trips to Adama. On the downside, we seem to alternate days with
and without electricity, hence the long delay in posts.

Our current record-longest dry spell is approximately 12 hours. Two
hours away, in Welenchiti, is a desert that's seen two days of rain in
the last two weeks. A few thousand feet of altitude makes all the
difference. Speaking of altitude, I had my first "I live here and am
used to the lack of oxygen" moment during a tour of the Assela Biofarm
with a group of NGO and AU representatives. As we were hiking up a
steep hill of terraced gardens, a breathless American asked about the
altitude and I realized I'd stopped noticing. Well, only while
walking - I still can't run to save my life.

On the topic of that tour, Biofarm is an Ethiopian NGO that does
research in sustainable agriculture and trains farmers in low-cost,
eco-friendly, organic techniques. They have eight sites around
Ethiopia, including a massive one in Assela, all of which are powered
by biogas (derived from the fermenting excrement of a dozen cows or
so). I'm just bursting with excitement about working with them - they
espouse a well-rounded approach, adding some conservation, health
education, and family planning into farm training (because what's the
point of growing extra food for profit if you still have too many
mouths to feed?). They run a kindergarten and college (degrees in
natural resource management and environmental science) in Addis and
are basically my dream work partner. The director is a jolly
energetic man who is almost as excited as we are to work with Peace
Corps volunteers and is incredibly supportive of even our most
outlandish pipe dream proposals. It's so nice to feel productive and
useful at last!

I'm working with Biofarm Addis to develop a partnership with UF (the
Gator Nation is everywhere...) and create a eco-tourism branch of the
organization to increase publicity and provide some income to fund
start-up grants for farmers and other groups. In Assela, I'll be
working on a resource library and establishing an information-sharing
network with the other sites. Since their primary purpose in life is
training people in sustainable farming, I'll be trying to partner them
with a variety of groups for income generation - PLWHAs (see below),
commercial sex workers, and prisoners, for starters. So excited I
could soil myself.

When it rains, it pours (literally and metaphorically). The PLWHA
group I met with months ago about income generation has woken back up
and things are suddenly moving forward again. A group of commercial
sex workers has joined, but since giving up that work is a
prerequisite for membership, starting IG projects has become more
urgent. They were recently evicted from their office (since these
groups rarely have money, any land or facility they use is usually
gifted to them by the municipality, who can reclaim it at their
pleasure), so while a VSO volunteer and I attempt to guilt the local
government into donating some new, more permanent land, the members
are preparing budgets for start up costs so we can apply for grants.
I think we'll start with chicken-raising (eggs mainly, but also meat)
since it's low-risk and has been extremely successful with other
groups. If we can get the money and/or land, we want to expand to
cows and vegetable gardening (with help from Biofarm, naturally) for
both nutritional support and profit.

I just stumbled across a new English Language school in Assela that's
looking to start interactive teaching (as opposed to the strictly
lecture-based style prevalent in Ethiopia), so that'll be a fun
project too.

It's such a refreshing feeling to have enough going on in my work to
warrant scheduling in advance. I'd almost forgotten how to say, "No,
I can't, I already have something that day."

At long last, photos:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2480158&l=25661&id=2001205

Sarah and Mary Ann, thanks for the packages!