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

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!

-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

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.

-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:

Sarah and Mary Ann, thanks for the packages!