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

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

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

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

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.

-freeze dried mangoes
-original cheddar goldfish crackers
-non-refrigerated cheese products
-sourdough pretzel nuggets
-sour jelly bellys

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!

-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
-sour jelly bellys