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

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

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.

-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

21 August 2008

in defense of youth.

A while back, Yahoo! published an article
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

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

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!

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

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:

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