12 November 2009

lucky if you think of it as home.

It's been a few days since I've been home, and it's not as weird as I'd imagined. I think I spent so much time thinking about what would be different and challenging that I over hyped the entire "re-entry" concept.

The only truly odd thing about coming back has been the little things I've noticed. In the Frankfurt airport (while enjoying my wheat beer and pretzel!), I was enthralled watching the interactions between the twenty-something waitress and the middle-aged male customers. It wasn't flirting, per se, but more of a friendly banter that made me realize how long it's been since I've seen men and women interact without awkwardness. Now I'm seeing it everywhere and realizing how incomplete life is when you feel uncomfortable around half the population. This relates back to my desire to take salsa or hip-hop classes - after three years, I'm tired of the idea that a woman's sexuality is something to be repressed or feared. Perhaps the novelty will soon wear off and I'll experience the disillusionment with Western consumerism that most volunteers experience. But for now, I'm enjoying the ride.

Now that I've left Ethiopia, if you're craving more stories from the birthplace of humanity, I've linked to several of the more active PCV blogs to the right.

07 November 2009

home is where the heart is.

Gazing out over the scenery while riding the dawn bus from Assela to Adama, I found myself humming a vaguely familiar tune. As we rounded the curve and the full vista of shimmering gold wheat fields in front of distant mountains came into view, I recognized the opening bars of "America the Beautiful," a traditional American song.

"O beautiful, for spacious skies
O'er amber waves of grain
For purple mountains, majesties
Above the fruited plains"

In that moment, Ethiopia looked just like the vast plains of the American midwest where I was born and I realized that Ethiopia had become a second home to me. Looking back, I hardly remember my first frightened trips to the market, testing my fledgling Amharic as I bought a kilo of onions or found the grinding mill for the first time. Today, it all feels like second nature to me.

While my time here has been filled with challenges as I adjusted to living far from home in a new culture, now, just days before my departure, my mind is filled with only the joyous moments of the last two years. The young woman who stood up in an English class full of men and said she wanted to dedicate her life to campaigning for the rights of women around the world. The boy who shyly thanked me and told me that every Ethiopian he knew wanted to go to America, but I was the only American he'd ever seen in Ethiopia. The old woman who passionately taught her daughters that respect is a universal human right. The prisoners overjoyed to discover they deserved the same opportunities as anyone else. The teacher who said he can identify an American because we are always smiling and treat everyone the same. The bus passengers and cafe patrons with whom I shared countless humorous cultural exchanges. The list is endless.

My heart is torn as I alternate between excitement about going back to America and sadness for this new home that I'll be leaving behind. I believe that more unites us than divides us, and never has that been more true than after my time in Ethiopia. When I first arrived here, all I could see was how different Ethiopia was from America. But in time, I realized that deep down, we are all citizens of the world; we all want the same things - the opportunity to improve our lives and leave the world a little better for the next generation. The comfort and love of a family. I'll miss the Ethiopian family I've created here. I'll miss catching my breath every time I look up at the beauty of Chilalo Mountain silhouetted against the crystal blue sky. I'll miss being welcomed like a long lost friend in my local cafes and restaurants. I'll miss introducing dozens of Ethiopians to American chocolate cake and falling asleep to the sound of rain crashing on a tin roof.

In America, we say that "home is where the heart is." If that's true, then my home is scattered around the world, but there's now a little piece of my heart snugly nestled in the Ethiopian highlands. One day, I'll come back to find it again.

-my submission to Peace Corps/Ethiopia's program newsletter and my last post from Ethiopia.

21 October 2009

freedom hangs like heaven.

I finally read The Poisonwood Bible, and although Kingsolver is much too flowery a writer for my taste, I still couldn't put it down. Perhaps because I'm here, but it turned out to be one of those books that will probably forever stay with me. Part of me wishes the preacher had tripped coming off the plane and sustained a brain injury that would leave him forever mute, but I'm sure anyone else who's read the book could have predicted I'd react in that way. There are passages throughout the novel that I felt like were stolen from my own thoughts. About trying to make sense of your own culture, lifestyle, and beliefs in a world where they're frankly absurd. The daughters' reactions to the lives and behaviors of the villagers. Reconciling yourself to the reality that you must live under every assumption based on everyone who's ever looked like you while knowing full well you'll be lambasted for venturing any assumptions of your own. The child-like fascination with the local food, dress, culture, lifestyle - everything. The odd things you find yourself missing from home. Your tiniest, most mundane action being fascinating, every single day for months on end. Feeling like a regular in an establishment to which you've never actually been. The notion that no amount of time or language ability is enough to allow a white person to truly fit in and be accepted. It's comforting to know that you're never the only
one.

As I come down to my final weeks here, I'm starting to think about what Ethiopia will mean to me - how do I take this experience home with me? How have I changed? The five-person narrator style of the book did a lot to set me reflecting on how people allow Africa to affect them. (This will be one of the few times I willingly refer to "Africa" in the broad sense - culturally, each country is drastically different, but the overall effect on Western mores is similar, and that's the only context in which I'll ever use the term). Some people end up feeling forever guilty for the privilege in which they were raised - I don't want to be that girl. There are aspects of America that I'm sure I'll find overwhelmingly gluttonous - we probably don't need twenty varieties of canned soup, but all I can see is the other side of that equation. With rampant consumerism comes choice, and the belief that all of those choices are equally (or at least marginally) valid. I'd rather have twenty soups I don't have to eat than have to justify my job, love life, children or lack thereof, eating habits, what I do or don't do on Sunday mornings, or anything else to anyone else. I now appreciate those choices more than I ever would have if I'd never lived without them. I'll probably also forever appreciate the tiny details of my privileged life that I've historically taken for granted - running water, electricity, parents who allow me to live my own life, friends who appreciate that I form my own opinions, a government that allows me to publicly disagree with it. I'd like to fall somewhere in the middle, not renouncing my own background to become "African," but not also writing off the entire experience as a closed chapter in my life, never to be revisited.

Less than four weeks left. I just can't believe it's been this long already and I don't even know how I feel about leaving. There are reasons here for which I'd stay, not forever but for a time. But there are also reasons at home for which I'd leave tomorrow. People join the Peace Corps to "find themselves," but after life here, everything seems feasible, so how do I weigh those reasons and figure out how I'll carry Ethiopia with my for the rest of my life?

13 October 2009

photos finally posted.

The links in the last post should actually work now - I finally
finished posting photos from the trip. Hope you enjoy!

06 October 2009

victory is sweet, even deep in the cheap seats.

Photos:

Uganda: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2892561&id=2001205&l=a8e8ff8849
Rwanda: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2892547&id=2001205&l=bc92401ce9

As the photos suggest, the trip was incredible. I've never met so many ridiculously friendly people as I did in Uganda. Even the immigration officials had enormous grins on their faces. When we stumbled into the rioting in Kampala, people went out of their way to make sure we weren't involved. Our bus driver warned us about streets to avoid, and a woman ended up walking us a kilometer out of her way to show us to a bus station we were trying to find. And this wasn't limited to saving the mzungus from chaos - on Bushara Island, a stunningly beautiful camp on Lake Bunyonyi (thanks Will for the recommendation!), the staff were equally attentive (apologizing for food being late? Inday?). Bushara was a Peace Corps Volunteer's dream - sustainable, eco-friendly camp (composting toilets!) staffed by the local community and where all profits go back into the community. Scholarships for students, orphan caregiver businesses, handicraft cooperatives, vegetable garden on the premises, dance troupes, dugout canoe trips - the works. We further proved our theory that if you're willing to make a fool of yourself, people will love you forever. Ugandan dance is not beginner-friendly. Lots of spirited leaping high into the air - exhausting. But more more free and uninhibited than most Ethiopian dances, so it was refreshing to move something besides our shoulders. We definitely felt it the next day though! We stayed in a sweet little "treehouse" (although not actually in a tree) with a balcony overlooking the lake and a gorgeous outdoor shower. Glorious. I'm going back if I ever find myself in Uganda again.

Rafting the Nile is better described in photos (we successfully navigated our way down a 12 foot waterfall!), but I'm now considering abandoning all my academic plans and getting certified as a raft guide. That would be the life, for a few years at least. One of our fellow rafters was a Kiwi working for a charity that funds, among other things, an NGO in Somaliland (not Somalia!) working on education and rehabilitation for former Islamic militants. He found my excitement rather odd, to say the least, but is putting me in touch with the directors to see about possible teaching jobs. You meet the most fascinating people wandering through Africa.

And the mountain gorillas. Yes, it's worth it. A 400-pound silverback walked within a meter of me. They're such breathtaking animals, it's easy to see how Dian Fossey ended up spending her life with them. I've never felt so poor in all my life though - we were surrounded by middle age, high-end travelers decked out in all the fancy trekking gear and wearing several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment dangling off their belts, and there we were, the backpackers in ratty clothes, staying at the ten-dollar a night hostel and fretting over the cost of hiring a car to the park entrance. I think the park staff noticed and took pity on us though, because we ended up trekking the Susa family, the largest of them all (41 members when most have 10-15) and also the family that Fossey studied. After scrambling up wet undergrowth on a 45 degree incline at 2500 meters for three hours, we walked up to a sleeping silverback, the family matriarch, and her six-month-old baby. And it just gets better - we ended up seeing at least 24 members of the family, including the playful five-year-old twins who seemed to love posing for our cameras. You're so close that a telephoto lens is actually a handicap. Incredible.

Within our group, we also had a very amusing travel companion, who apparently had "the worst shower of his life" at a $500 per night resort overlooking the volcanoes. We amused our fellow trekkers with stories of Ethiopia, which was simply beyond comprehension for most. Peter frightened them all describing how excited Karen and I got when we discovered that sliced bread abounds in Uganda (seriously - people walk around the bus station selling it! I haven't seen sliced bread in two years!). Note the number of photos we took of us eating basic grocery store food. And then there were the crisp green apples on every street corner. We had a mild breakdown in a supermarket in Entebbe trying to decided between three kinds of equally priced cheese (it took us close to ten minutes to reason it out), then a similar incident when faced with six varieties of sliced bread. We won't even discuss our reactions to finding such a glorious supermarket. Just a precursor to the odd creatures we're going to be when we come home. Consider yourself warned.

We also spent a few nights in Gisenyi, on Lake Kivu, a quiet little lake town that has actually been slightly ruined for me since I learned that it served as the HQ for the interim government/genocidaires when the rebel army captured Kigali. But it boasts a quiet lakefront beach, where we had picnics and made friends with random Rwandan wanderers who asked us for, in order, a book, lotion, and to take his photo with all of us. Plus a couple of teenage boys who proved unable to speak directly to women, diverting all their questions about Karen and I through Peter ("What book is Jessica reading? How old is Karen?"). We spent our evenings at a beach front bar enjoying the local Primus (served in 720 cl bottles!) and playing with the resident dog and her seven (!) puppies. That's an impressive litter anywhere, but to have that many survive in Africa? Wow. I had to be restrained from taking one or more home with us.

All in all, an amazing trip, riots and all. Both countries are highly recommended. Peace Corps officially booked my flight and I'll be home November 15. Crazy. New VSO volunteers arrived last week and the new PCVs arrive in Assela on Saturday (can't wait to meet you all!), so I have plenty of distractions for these final months.

24 September 2009

never again.

For a lot of people, Rwanda exists as the genocide and nothing more. In a way, that's true - it's impossible to be there without thinking about it. But the country shows an incredible recovery. Kigali feels virtually like a first-world capital - paved roads, shiny glass buildings, and some of the cleanest streets I've ever seen. (Perhaps the nationwide ban on plastic bags - in favor of paper - has something to do with that). After the genocide museum and memorials, the country's development seems that much more impressive. The museum is one of the most moving places I've ever seen - the final room is filled with enormous photographs of child victims, complete with information about their lives before the war. Things like their favorite toys or foods and personalities...and then how they died. The one that made me lose it was a little six year old boy who liked helping people, wanted to be a doctor, and who's last words were "UNAMIR will save us." He was hacked to death by a machete. How? Why?

In only fifteen years, the visible signs of a violent civil war have disappeared. But I don't believe the memory ever will. Eight hundred thousand people - ten percent of the population - gone forever. Walking down the street, you can't help but look at everyone and wonder "Where were you?" Did you watch your family slaughtered in front of you? Did a stroke of luck or the generosity of a stranger save you? Did you betray a neighbor? Or worse yet, did you hack your friends and neighbors to death? With every child over the age of fifteen, you can't stop yourself from imagining what they saw. I just finished reading Romeo Dallaire's (the Canadian general who headed the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda before and during the genocide) Shake Hands with the Devil (a book everyone should read) and I've never been so horrified by anything in my life. Rivers choked with bodies, rats the size of dogs, dogs that had to be shot because they'd developed a taste for human flesh and were no longer satisfied with carrion. Trying to remove a moving person from a pile of bodies only to discover that the maggots inside created the illusion of life. The mission didn't have pens and paper, let alone troops and supplies, yet they stayed, constantly urging the Security Council that they could stop the killings with 5,000 troops. The inaction of the world was shameful, and all the more so because it seems we've learned nothing.

But what struck me more was the incongruity of it all. Rwanda is one of the most naturally beautiful places I've ever seen. Lush green hills, rust red dirt - it's the Africa a child would paint. There's nothing impressively beautiful in the way the Grand Canyon or a flawless beach is gorgeous, but more of a calm tranquility that makes what happened even more unbelievable. More shocking is how much a part of life the genocide reminders still are. In one of the most densely populated countries in the world, where even steep hills are intensely cultivated, there's simply no room to move away. We visited a genocide memorial in a church outside of Kigali. You walk down a residential road to reach it, which is difficult enough, only to find that the gates face a school. Walking through the church, with the stifling odor of death and decay and pews piled with a nauseating volume of rags that were once someone's clothes, you can hear the shouts of children in the schoolyard. In the back are underground graves with piles of skulls and bones. They look the same at first, then you notice the smaller skulls or the gashes or the shattered eye sockets. A lone man silently leads you around the grounds and all you can think about is that he has to have a reason to be there. You don't want to ask in case it's guilt, but then what kind of person are you for hoping it's "only" to remain close to the memory of those he lost?

What happened in Rwanda needs to be remembered, but it's unfortunate that the reminders haunt those who can never forget instead of those who stood by and condoned the atrocities. That church belongs in Washington, DC, in Brussels, in Paris, in London, or on the grounds of the UN building, not in the backyards of the survivors. Never again.

20 August 2009

life is what happens when you're making other plans.

"Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can't...It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood...The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith. That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods. Beyond her faith was a fanaticism to defend the altars of her god. " - Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

I think I've recovered from my Toni Morrison-induced disdain for an entire genre of literature. I've recently finished both Hurston (above) and A Raisin in the Sun, both of which were excellent. Eyes was set in Depression-era Florida, which was entertaining. I also finished the Old Testament (!). Traumatized is a rather gentle word. Read it cover to cover, not just the inspirational quotable bits you'd get in a sermon, and I think you get a better picture of why I can't believe. The indiscriminate punishments, the inconsistencies, the violence (and let's not even get into the frequent rape and gender issues), the holding of grudges and punishing the many for the sins of the few. What's the use of worshiping primarily (or solely, one might argue) out of fear? How is that a god in which anyone could find solace, his non-existence notwithstanding? On a side note, I was rather disappointed that all the allusions I was hoping to better understand turned out to be only a few verses long.

In less contentious news, I recently experienced the joy and efficiency that is the Assela police station. When my wallet was stolen earlier this summer, it seems I was right to think it was too good to be true that someone would be returning it to me. It never showed up and I can't get in touch with the guy who supposedly had it. Alas. Anyway, without an Ethiopian resident ID, I can't get discounted airfare and there are rumors that we have to return the ID in order to leave the country, so I figured I should have that replaced. Unfortunately, you need a sealed police report in order to get a new one, which strikes me a rather silly, since I highly doubt there's much of a market for a resident (not citizen) ID with a white girl's photo on it. But I digress.

I anticipated the process being torturous, so I went with our security officer when he was in town. The "chief investigator," who I sincerely hope is downsized tomorrow, refused to help us because we said it was "lost on a bus" and there was no way of knowing if it actually happened in Assela (never mind that we just wanted the piece of paper, we weren't going so far as to actually request he investigate the crime or anything crazy like that). Fikre (our security officer) happens to be friends with the chief, so he went over his head and talked the chief into forcing a report for us. Fikre was angry enough to not even shake the investigator's hand when we left, which is probably closest to the American equivalent of defecating on someone's desk. I was told to call in a week to see if it was ready. I did so. It wasn't, but would be the following week. I went back. The chief was gone and no one knew what I was talking about. I called Fikre to get the chief to share the situation with his underlings. A week later, I was assured the report and chief would be there the next day, so I showed up again. Chief was gone and no one knew what I was talking about. Three calls to the chief established that my ID had been stolen, but nothing else. While refusing to sit in protest, I managed to make it clear that the report was finished and I just wanted to pick it up. A fourth call to the chief determined this was not the case.

At this point, my standing was making people nervous (we were rapidly approaching the hour mark), so the guy in charge ordered someone to write the report for me. After verifying the name of the country (The Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia) in which he was born and has never left, he embarked upon the task. By hand writing on a piece of double-wide notebook paper, with a sheet of carbon paper in the middle so they could have a copy (I suppose I should be grateful I didn't have to wait for someone to write a second one). Three stamps were applied, someone signed it, and tore the sheet in half (not even cut). At the last moment, someone was sent across the street to buy an envelope. An hour and twenty minutes after walking in, I was solemnly presented with a torn piece of notebook paper in an airmail envelope with another symphony of stamps across the flap. How many people would you guess it takes to reach this state of affairs? I'll give you a hint. A normal person wouldn't have enough fingers to tell this story with dramatic hand gestures for emphasis. We peaked at 11 officers, plus four random people in there for their own reasons (all of whom arrived after and left before me, furthering my frustration). Remind me to never be robbed again.

I wish I wasn't such a slacker at staying in touch with old professors. I'm going to have such horribly mediocre letters of recommendation while applying for graduate school and a means of funding it that doesn't entail black market organ donation. I had also not opened my CV file since before leaving Jordan, which was an unfortunate mess to clean up and update. I haven't brought myself to start the even more excruciating process of personal statements and the like. Baby steps.

Funny how nothing ever seems to go according to plan and we always end up better for the things and people that stumble across us. You'd think we'd learn to just stop planning and live.

05 August 2009

in your world my feet are out of step.

It occurs to me that group 3 of the PC Ethiopia program has probably received all of their invitations by now and are panicking as they attempt to fit their entire life into 80lbs in the next two months. If you've stumbled across this blog googling "peace corps ethiopia," feel free to email me if you have any questions, concerns, whatever. That's what we're here for. You'll all be training in and around my lovely town of Assela, 2600-ish meters above sea level in the shadow of Mt. Chilalo (4139m), where the weather and scenery are gorgeous and there's no oxygen. A great place to start running, if you're given to such silly notions - Assela is the capital of Arsi Zone, birthplace of all of Ethiopia's marathoners. One lap around the stadium track and you'll understand why. A free word of advice - don't bother with solar anything. Your house will have power, and electricity cuts are most common in the rainy season, when there's no sun anyway (13 months of sunshine, the national tourism board slogan, is a misnomer at best).

I've been reading Huxley's Point Counter Point and find myself thoroughly entertained by that generation of literature's assumption that readers speak several languages. Latin and French references are never translated, and although I don't actually speak either language, I enjoy the nostalgia for a time when English speakers weren't necessarily monolingual. Ditto for references to classic literature - one brief line, and the reader is just expected to understand all that Morley or Proust encapsulates (if wishing made it so). Those were the days. I also love the way he talks about sex and love in a poetic, roundabout way - somehow it's sexier than the more explicit, direct descriptions of modern literature.

On that topic, I recently had a fascinating discussion with Eshetu about homosexuality (and sex in general - after all, I AM an HIV educator). Like all Ethiopians I've met, he's repulsed by the idea, although less condemning than most. For him, it's more of a lack of experience than anything else. Anyway, we've danced around this topic a few times in the past, so this time he took the plunge and asked about the mechanics and purpose of homosexuality. I made the argument that in today's world (well, in non-genitally mutilating cultures at least), sex is more about pleasure than procreation (and hence penetration). Why else would we need and have bothered to invent contraception? If it was only about babies, then there'd be no need to prevent pregnancy. Eshetu himself admitted that he and his wife have had sex more than their two children would require. From there, I think it's a small step to suggest that homosexuality isn't any less "normal" than foreplay or sex with no goal of procreation. Not to mention that it's absurd to suggest that it's a choice - even in the most liberal cultures of the world, who would honestly choose to be treated that way by parts of society? Eshetu pointed out that my explanation ignores all religious opinions, but that's hardly new for me. Religion doesn't have to account for the opinions of non-believers, so why should I?

This led into a discussion of the wrath of the God of the Old Testament (I'm into Lamentations now - I can see the light at the end of the tunnel!) and my belief (I won't say "faith," because I have evidence) in science eventually providing an explanation for all of life's little mysteries. Historically, mankind invented a god with a chariot to explain the sunrise and a few seeds of a pomegranate in the underworld to explain winter, so I think it's only a matter of time before other things follow suit. I was also halfway through Dawkins's The Selfish Gene, so maybe that explains it (highly recommended). I think hanging out with three science-loving atheists is really pushing Eshetu to question blind faith and decide if he truly believes in his religion or if he's merely following what his parents taught him.

17 July 2009

beware all enterprises which require new clothes.

Monday was t-minus four months, not that anyone's counting. Pat, one of the Assela VSO volunteers in Assela, left this week, which makes me the longest-serving volunteer in town. Time really does fly. She's been here almost two years (arrived right before I did), so we had to have quite a few farewell programs. As a result, I haven't done much actual work in the last few weeks (although, one could argue, two-thirds of Peace Corps' goals revolve around cultural exchange, so I've actually been working exceptionally hard). We'll go with that.

There are lots of photos for everyone's amusement:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2835949&id=2001205&l=504cf6317b

We started with a Fourth of July "cookout" on electric stoves (but we did at least keep the door open and eat outside). An Ethiopian friend of ours who's always amazed by our ability to discuss food (even while stuffing our faces) suggested we switch to politics, so we talked about the upcoming election. He said he rather vote for a goat, so I suggested we name one Barack Obama and try to get him on the ballot. I'm confident he'd win. I was watching BBC coverage of Obama's visit to Ghana and a woman said "he's everything we dreamed in a president," which is sweet, but sad because he's not her president. I have this sinking feeling nothing he does will ever live up to the global hype. I mean, at this point, world peace and an end to global warming would just be par for the course. On the upside, maybe he'll inspire more potential opposition leaders.

The teacher's college also threw a party, at which all of us had to explain in explicit terms several times over how white people generally prefer informal parties with no speeches or special seats. Most of our Ethiopian friends were confused, but we insisted that Pat would want it that way. As a consolation, we decorated the room with toilet paper (an Ethiopian party standard) and presented her with a bouquet of garish neon plastic flowers (another tradition). Everybody wins. We also had an entertaining photo shoot with the staff of the tea house, all of whom wanted their photos taken alone or with us, but never with each other (it's a mixed staff of young people, so maybe the boys weren't ready to be that close to pretty girls?).

Finally, we were invited to another friend's house for lunch, but Pat couldn't come, so Susie, Peter, and I ate her farewell lunch at Abebe's house. This was the first family I've ever met who could compete with an American love of animals. The cats roamed the house freely and we were encouraged to feed them bread (which worked out well, since we had massive pieces of bread as an appetizer to a lunch that could have easily fed ten people... Before the three refills.). Birtukan, his wife, actually picked up the kittens and played with them, which made us feel less awkward about talking to them after we got over the shock. The chickens are also allowed to nest in the corner when it's cold, and one of the hens laid an egg on the bed during lunch. None of us had ever seen this happen before, much to the amusement of the family. Another hen threw a fit afterwards, so they gave her the egg to play with and she shut up. As we were leaving, Abebe proudly pointed out one of the cows and explained that she had given birth to twin calves. The dogs even got their bellies scratched and have names, although they're still not allowed indoors. Still, an impressive display of affection for the weakest members of the family.

On the topic of "real" work, I visited the prison farm this week to discover that they made almost 1000 birr from the sale of the cabbage crop, which warmed my heart. Tomatoes and garlic should be ready soon as well. The staff is working on proposals to build a health center, refurbish the school, and fund other improvements to the facilities. I won't be around to see them through, but I'd like to help them find some grants.

02 July 2009

our endless numbered days.

The past two weeks, I've been busy with the Christian Horizons training for rural teachers, new and old (originally scheduled for the first week of June, but then the delay shouldn't surprise my readers any more than it does me). Although nothing started or ended on time (again, something I should have learned by now), it was a rousing success. These teachers are out in the middle of nowhere, so it was nice to reach some people who can access areas I'll never see. I helped with the HIV, family planning, and harmful traditional practices session with a guy from the zonal health bureau and the gender issues session with Zebenay, a hilarious woman who just finished her master's thesis. She was the only female presenter (besides Susie and I, who don't necessarily count because our race matters infinitely more than our gender) and I thoroughly enjoyed her because she appreciated my penchant for pointing out tiny details that most people wouldn't relate to gender.

For instance, I talked about the common feature in many languages (Amharic and Afan Oromo included) that creates one title for men regardless of marital status (Mr.. Ato, Obbo, etc) but two for women (Mrs/Miss). Shortly after I asked if the men were married and many refused to disclose, one of the non-disclosers asked how this was relevant to gender. I said he didn't have to tell anyone he was married, but he knew my and Zebenay's status before we walked in the room because our names were on the schedule. One of many inequalities present in Ethiopia. I realize I sound like a crazy feminist here, but I can't help it in a town where 85% of women believe a husband has the right to beat his wife if she refuses sex (one of many appalling facts I learned from a baseline survey done by Alliance for Development last year).

I also brought up some of the religious origins of gender bias in Ethiopia (thanks to my recent foray into the Old Testament - I just finished Numbers and am thoroughly frightened/vindicated in everything I believe), which ended in yet another passionate defense of my atheism with Genene, the program director. He'd met people without faith before, but never really had someone articulate why, so we had an entertaining discussion (including that God, if he exists, has gotten lazy since his days of unleashing plagues for worshipping idols or questioning his will). The following week, Susie and I patiently explained our belief in science but not god, indifference to marriage, and lack of desire to have children to another staff member after he suggested we just put our life in God's hands and everything will turn out fine. We realized we're pretty fascinating/confusing people to most Ethiopians, since many of our major choices and beliefs are completely foreign here (and our family's acceptance or at least tolerance of said choices, like moving halfway around the world). All in all, I've been impressed with Christian Horizons and their staff - I've never met anyone that open minded in a similar position at home. Everyone asks us questions, wanting to know more, instead of just insisting we're wrong and trying to convert us. Refreshing.

And best of all - they let me, the heathen, oversee the HIV training, which naturally (these were grown adults teaching children, after all) included a condom demonstration. CH doesn't own a penile model (their HIV program is new, but I'm not sure any of them would even be comfortable doing a demonstration if one existed), so I brought bananas, thus fulfilling a secret goal of my time as an HIV worker in Africa. Quite possibly two of the funniest experiences (I did it with both training groups) of my service here. After my demonstration (and I now believe that I am impossible to embarrass after standing in front of forty people putting a condom on a banana with a straight face), I had three or four of them do it as well, thus hopefully forever denting some of the taboos surrounding condoms and sex here. Entertainingly, two of my most eager male volunteers in the first group couldn't open their condoms. Inspired by Salam of PSI, I've added a "stretching and blowing up" segment to the demonstration, which relaxes even the most uptight participants. Honestly, the most fun I've had in a long time. They're doing another training in October and giving me a longer session, so I think I'll incorporate broader issues of diversity into HIV and gender. But the bananas are staying, even for organizations that have models. Highly recommended for anyone in a similar line of work.

Last month, a group of Americans (mostly from Texas) on an english teaching/mission trip arrived in Assela, so it's been disconcerting to see white people all over town. But kind of fun to be the knowledgeable, crazy one who actually lives here. After we all finished the CH training last night, we were at the fancy hotel (where they're all staying) in town for a celebratory dinner. Susie got up to smoke as one of the guys was leaving, and he held the door open for her. She stood in front of the door for an awkward amount of time until she realized he was being chivalrous and it made me nostalgic.

Pat, one of the VSO volunteers, leaves next week, making me the senior ex-pat in town - yikes. Time flies. We're on the every other day power schedule, and on the off days, it doesn't come back on until midnight or 6 am. Word on the street is we're switching to one on, two off, which is frustrating enough for me but really making me feel for the IT volunteers. On the upside, I'm honing my Scrabble skills by playing against myself by candlelight- I broke 500 points last week. Don't judge me.

16 June 2009

tell it like you still believe.

I will always envy those who can dance like no one's watching even when they're well aware someone is (although life here has brought me much closer to a genuine ability to overlook what others think of me). I love those who play instruments as thought they've filled a stadium, even when the stadium is a pub the size of a living room filled with friends. I wish I could sing. I like country music because it reminds me of home and the people who taught me to appreciate the South. Flaws and deep-rooted social problems aside, I wouldn't trade my origins for anything. I completely reject the notion of "out of sight, out of mind" - absence really does make the heart grow fonder. This applies to everything from people to traffic laws to fried mozzarella. I don't think race should matter. Ever. I'll never again criticize consumer culture because it means the freedom to choose, and I'd rather face seemingly absurd choices than lose the ability to control my own life. The word "firenji" (or nech or kayo, its other incarnations) invokes in me the same visceral reaction a lot of people have to the word "cunt." I'll never find it quaintly amusing. Old couples who still hold hands and dance together give me hope that maybe love really can last forever, despite all the evidence to the contrary. I believe the creation of religion has been mankind's tragic flaw.

"I want the cultures of the world to blow freely through my house, but I refuse to be swept off my feet by any." - M. Gandhi

I have exactly two photos from my Peace Corps experience in which all of the subjects are still volunteers. This, coupled with yesterday's t-minus five month countdown (!), has left me contemplative. This honestly has been "the toughest job I'll ever love," emphasis on the job aspect. A 50% attrition rate is considered acceptable (although hardly desirable) for a first year program. We're at 55% and quite possibly still falling. Ethiopia's been a valuable experience, but I couldn't live here forever. I don't want to live in the ex-pat Addis bubble, driving between enclaves of Western culture while turning a blind eye to the 80 million people in this country, but neither can I make a life of being a spectacle in a small town. I'm an American. A curiously worldly and restless one, but I know where home is. Above all else, I treasure the uncompromising American individualism that I think defines my country more than any other single trait. I miss just being Jessica, without that having to represent any greater notion of white or female or liberal or young or any other adjective I'd choose to describe myself. The people who've remembered that I'm here and taken the time to keep in touch have done more than they'll ever realize to keep me sane. I'll never be able to repay you or even make you fully understand how much that has meant to me.

On a lighter note, I've been watching Scrubs and I think I'm a little bit in love with Zach Braff. My landlord built a souk next to our compound. Now we all know where I won't be buying my household supplies. The fabled bagel shop in Addis really does exist and it's delicious. And it only took us two hours to find it (which is honestly impressive in a town with no street names or numbers).

05 June 2009

i've seen too much/i haven't seen enough.

I've officially set my COS (close of service) date for 15 November, which means I should be flying back to Orlando on or shortly after that day (in time for Thanksgiving!) - five and a half months left! Time flies... Start making party plans now. My only request is ungodly amounts of cheese and decent wine. I think I've lost interest in traveling after I finish (save perhaps a quick stopover in Europe) - it'll be the holidays, I'll have a ton of luggage, and I think I'll be pretty burnt out on traveling Africa-style - riding in 12 passenger vans with 20 other people.

In other news, we've submitted our application to fund the poultry farm, which is exciting. If all goes well, this could be up and running by late summer and wrapped up before I go home. That would make the rainy season feel more productive. On that note, the textbooks being brought in by the group of RPCVs, among others, are due to be shipped any day now and scheduled to arrive in Addis sometime in August. Also exciting!

Recently, I took the plunge and visited Christian Horizons in Assela, which already sounds like a poor match for me. They focus entirely on projects involving children (including "Christian & moral education," two adjectives which, in my experience, are often mutually exclusive), so this was definitely outside my comfort zone, but unlike the last time I volunteered my services to a faith-based organization (a Gainesville youth group that shall remain nameless), I wasn't brutally rebuffed. Christian education aside, they're also interested in HIV prevention and life skills, and having read much of the faith-based literature on the topics, I'd rather those lessons came from someone who believes in scientific, comprehensive education. Yes, I'm biased. Sue me. Abstinence is a personal choice, but I believe everyone has the right to accurate information regardless of their sexual behavior. Scare tactics only ensure that people are unsafe when they do decide to become sexually active. But I digress.

Among other things, CH runs 25 schools in the extremely rural, isolated areas of Arsi zone (an excellent project in and of itself) and are bringing in the teachers next week for a refresher training. Susie's doing English teaching methods and I'm doing HIV prevention/life skills training, using my own materials. I must say, I'm impressed thus far with the organization - I haven't been asked about my religious views and most of the staff are (Ethiopian) volunteers, which was refreshing after that girl's education project imploded last month at the prospect of teachers having to donate an hour a week of their time. I'm also working on some HIV-related English conversation materials. All in all, a positive experience with a religious organization.

On the topic of things surprisingly positive, I had my wallet stolen on the Jimma trip two weeks ago. We were some of the last people to leave the bar, so I assumed a staff member had probably picked it up at closing and wrote it off as a stupid mistake on my part. As luck would have it, one of the guys we were with is friends with the bar owner, who then spent a week tracking down my wallet. Successfully. It's in the mail on its way home! Not sure if the money's still there, but replacing a resident ID in Ethiopia requires filing a police report, so I'm just happy to avoid that probably-joyous experience. Naturally, Birhan called me shortly after I got the emails saying my credit cards were cancelled and new ones were on the way, but it's not like those were useful here anyway, so I'm just glad to get it back. A very nice, heartwarming moment for me.

While in Addis for Steph's goodbye party, we discovered Rodeo Addis, a restaurant run by an Ethiopian who lived in Texas for a few decades. They feature "The Best Frozen Margarita in Addis," (among a breathtaking six-page cocktail list) which is a bit of a misnomer since it's the only one, but it was still delicious. Took us forever to drink them since we haven't really had ice in 20 months. Apparently tooth resistance to cold is NOT like riding a bike. Later that week, I was at the in-service training for group 2 for a "permaculture/bio-intensive gardening" training. Our trainer was so excited about composting and double digging that now we are all too. Who'dve thought that a profound love for rotting leaves was contagious? Not sure if I'll be able to actually get a garden started, but I'm hoping Christian Horizons will be interested and Susie and Peter can see it through for me. Maybe I'll actually attempt to compost and grow things at home. He made it seem so easy! I suppose Peace Corps Volunteers can generally be expected to be saps for eco-friendly initiatives. Don't judge me.

Wishlist:
See 14 April Post
-Burned/bootleg AVI files of the following TV shows:
+Weeds - Season 4 & 5
+The Office (US) - Season 5, episodes 16-end (or any part of the UK Office)
+30 Rock - Season 3 & 4
-Man deodorant (sheer roll-on)
-Cheese in any form

13 May 2009

so much for the showdown.

Sorry for the long delay - with my computer in a coma, I didn't have the opportunity to ramble on in my usual fashion. But I'm back and promise to make up for lost time. It's been an interesting month. Peter, Susie (the Assela VSOs), and I all have birthdays within a two week span, so there was a lot of cake, much to the delight of some of our Ethiopian comrades. FYI, if you forget the baking soda in a chocolate cake, you end up with a fudge-esque brick, which is less tasty than one might hope.

We threw a party for the staff of the teacher's college and crammed 50 Ethiopians into Pat's house (which is
larger than the three of ours combined, features a water heater, and costs the same as mine. But that's neither here nor there). In keeping with the slightly-absurd features that have become normal toany gathering here, one of the guests ran down the street to get his TV and VCD player so we could continue the dancing when our speakers died. The dancing went until 10 PM, which in US terms is probably comparable to the 4-5 AM range. I'll put some pictures up soon. I then watched one of the funniest films I've seen in a long time - The Incredible Zohan (maybe not the precise title, but it's an Adam Sandler movie and Zohan is definitely in the title). It features Adam Sandler as an ex-Mossad agent who moves to New York to become a hairdresser and gets caught up in Israeli-Palestinian rivalries in the US with a former terrorist who wants to sell shoes. Hummus plays a prominent role as a very versatile substance. A cameo by Mariah Carey and a Hezbollah terrorist hotline further add to the comedic genius. I almost soiled myself. Highly recommended.

Sarah and I also had the last of our HIV seminars at Rift Valley College in Adama, plus a final "health fair" to squeeze in a bit more prevention education. We brought in Salam, a woman from PSI (an international NGO), to do an HIV discussion in Amharic and are now convinced we'll forever be useless at this language. She had students volunteering to demonstrate condom use in front of a classroom full of people - we have to battle to get people to name the four fluids that transmit HIV. In a brilliant refutation of most anti-condom arguments, she also had the students stretch and blow up the condoms to demonstrate how strong they actually are (photos of that also coming soon - hilarious). Fun (well, perhaps not if you're an American or Asian man) fact: condoms produced for Africa are two mm wider (in diameter) than those for the US and Europe, and those are in turn two mm wider than their Asian counterparts. I'll leave you to some silent reflection on cultural stereotypes.

I found a possible grant to fund my disabled poultry farm, which is exciting, and am still searching for one to fund the rehab center's vocational training program (thanks Jennifer for all your help!). Karen, the PCV in Agaro (or Sudan, as we affectionately call the region), and I are working on a partnership between health workers in her zone (approximately two days by bus from Assela) and the ARC. We're going to train people in her area to identify and refer patients to Assela since the ARC staff doesn't have a budget to travel out there for recruitment. I'm making the journey tomorrow, which will mark my first multi-day bus journey. On unpaved roads. I'm spoiled living four hours from Addis down a newly paved road, I know.

Peace Corps staff came to Assela for the initial pre-service training visit and met with all the zonal administrators. It was a wild success - Girma, our beloved training manager (who once told us that he wished he could write to everyone so we'd all have mail every day in training), is a few more positive experiences from just up and moving to Assela, I think. But the town is excited and there are lots of possible training sites and villages, plus cafes and things to do, so I'm looking forward to it. Sarcasm and rough days aside, I really do love my town. Seven volunteers have left since my last post, plus our medical officer (who is basically the reason those of us who are left are still here). Two of the volunteers are going to China to serve in the new English teaching program, which is exciting, but not doing much for morale.

In non-work news, I've recently emerged victorious (well, almost) from my month-long battle with the mouse who moved into my home. She could sense my inability to harm anything cute and furry and repaid my generosity by giving birth to two garlic clove-sized furballs. Sensing that this could easily spiral out of control, I started hunting for a cruelty-free way to evict them. While obviously waiting for the babies to grow up a bit so they'd have a fighting chance in the big cruel world, naturally. After I balked at the suggestion of a mousetrap, my landlord's back-up plan entailed luring a cat into the compound, a notion that, after the turd-in-my-sheets incident last year, I wasn't eager to repeat. So, I baited the bottom of a cardboard box with peanut butter and sat there while I waited for a mouse to crawl in, then stood the box up and released the mouse outside. Time consuming, but lower-risk than chasing them around my not-spacious house. I caught both babies and am now waiting for the mother to either leave to look for them or smell them in the box so I can take her to where I released her babies, thus reuniting the family. Everybody wins

14 April 2009

you're a skylark with your head up in the clouds.

I recently read Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead. Call me heartless, but I
really liked it. Maybe it's because I've spent the last 18 months as
a spectacle, but I really identified with the notion that "not a
single second of my life belongs to anyone else." And I don't think
she's arguing for "selfishness" in the sense of overtly hurting others
in the pursuit of your own happiness. Her point isn't that you
shouldn't care about or help others. It's that you should do
something because it make you happy, because you're good at it,
because you want to - not because others will be impressed with the
selflessness or nobility of the act (and honestly, isn't that more
selfish than not caring what others think of you?). If others are
helped along the way, that's great. But live for yourself.
"Selfishness" in the sense that you shouldn't sacrifice your own
happiness for the admiration of others. I also read David Sedaris' Me
Talk Pretty One Day and almost soiled myself, especially during the
story mentioning the town of Mojo, Ethiopia. Small world.

On that note, it's been a rough week. My CSW herb garden imploded on
Friday when the women realized that the grant would be used to start
the business, not distributed as cash to the group. They're not
interested in starting a new business, they just wanted money. I'm
trying to recruit a group of people with HIV so it doesn't have to be
a complete wash, especially since Bekelech, the woman who initially
proposed the idea, is doing this for free and I want to encourage
volunteerism in all forms here. Ran into a similar problem with a
group of high school teachers who want to start a program to help
female students with extra tutoring (75% of female university students
flunk out in their first year), but only if they can be paid. The
program entails an extra hour or two per week of specialized classes,
meaning each teacher would have to donate an hour of their time. No
one's interested without payment. That night, a power surge fried my
computer power cord. All in all, not my best 24 hours.

But life is looking up - Easter was a delicious feast of lasagna,
hummus, and apple crisp (perhaps not Easter-y, but American/British,
and that was the point), where I tried eggnog for the first time
(without contracting salmonella, which is impressive). I'm now
wondering where it's been all my life. The HS teachers are
developing a way to make the tutorial program sustainable - some sort
of income generation done by the students to pay the teachers since
volunteering is so distasteful to everyone. They do have a point - if
it's not free, students are more likely to take it seriously. Trying
to look on the sunny side...

Photos of Zecharias, my newest family member!
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2762214&id=2001205&l=9a32263860

Wishlist:
(see last post)
-Man deodorant (sheer roll-on)

01 April 2009

you're only wet because of the rain.

Since my last post, I've been on safari and gained a new habesha
family member. It's been a exciting couple of weeks. My aunt and
uncle adopted a three-year-old Ethiopian boy named Zecharias,
which meant I got to visit with them in Addis (and take hot
showers!) and now have no need for souvenir shopping since I have
a cousin from Ethiopia. I also liked an infant. Not enough to
have one of my own, but still, a big victory for those hoping I'll
one day have some semblance of maternal instinct. Photos coming
soon...

Afterwards, my mother and I went to Kenya for a safari. We had
some difficulties with the travel company (under no circumstances
would I ever recommend Planet Safari Adventures), but the actual
trip was incredible. Masaai Mara, Nokuru, and Amboseli national
parks. The photos speak for themselves, but some fun facts in the
meantime. A 3-month old rhino is the size of a large golden
retriever. Kissing a giraffe is like kissing an unshaven man.
Lions won't interrupt their siesta for something as incidental as
a car, so you can get within a few meters. 6-month old elephants
are only waist high on an average adult. Camping includes tents
(some members of our travel group weren't aware of this shocking
fact). Impalas and gazelles live in groups of 20-30 females to
one male. Monkeys don't fear humans and really do like bananas.
A 200 mm telephoto lenses is invaluable (I seriously regret not
buying one before this trip). Warthog sex is one of the most
awkwardly funny sights on earth.

Safari photos:
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2755922&id=2001205&l=906a664c73

I'm back in Assela now, trying to get back into the swing of work
(and ration the cheese carried over by my visiting family). The
new supermarket in Assela is selling strawberries. While I was
gone, Abebe, the town crazy, was apparently attacked and killed by
hyenas while sleeping outside the hospital one night. I'm not
really sure how to feel about that.

An interesting (read: non-Ethiopian government sanctioned) look at
the food crisis in Ethiopia:
http://www.ethiomedia.com/adroit/2052.html

Wishlist:
I'm planning to go to Rwanda this summer to see the mountain
gorillas, so if you were going to send me a birthday package, I'd
love for you to consider donating the money you would have spent
to my travel fund instead. Just a thought, I'm not actually
begging for money here, just proposing an alternative use of it.
Email me if you're interested.

But if you wanted to send a smaller gift...
-Burned/bootleg AVI files of the following TV shows:
+Weeds - Season 4 & 5
+The Office (US) - last 6 episodes of Season 3, Seasons 4 & 5
+30 Rock - Season 2 & 3
-cheese in any form

12 March 2009

strange little girl.

I spent the last two weeks not-so-subtly encouraging my colleagues to get moving on our new projects (herb garden, poultry farm, dairy production, and vocational training) while I'm in Kenya (on safari!). It's one of those things I should (and did) see coming, but somehow still bothers me when I explain that I have eight months left and we all saw how long the prison took. I'm trying to step back this time and take more of a consulting role so that my presence is a bonus, not a necessity. It's going to take longer, but then the point of Peace Corps is to build local capacity, not for volunteers to take over their towns. I'm trying to ensure that I'm only actively involved with the steps that require my help (hence pushing for progress while I'm away), despite my almost-insatiable desire to run the whole project and get it done faster. The thing is, there's not a lot even I can do to influence speed. Sure, I can write or send a proposal faster, but I can't make the local government be less inefficient (oh, but if wishing made it so!), so it's still going to take weeks to get a land grant (but the disabled cooperative just got theirs and the CSWs submitted their request this week, so things are moving). I'm not sure I'll ever again be able to muster up any frustration with American "bureaucracy." Even the lines at the DMV don't take more than a day and you can be reasonably sure the post office will keep to its posted hours. Hell, it posts hours.

But I digress. Staff has decided to hold next year's pre-service training (PST) in Assela (if anyone has an invitation for group 3 already, start preparing now for oxygen deprivation!), which is exciting. They're shifting to a true "community-based" model, where the trainees will live in small groups in satellite villages around Assela and do most of their training there, only coming to the hub site once a week for big meetings, medical things, etc. I think I'll get the best of both worlds - a chance to meet them all and make myself useful while my town isn't overwhelmed with forty new firenji. Although, I suppose since I'll be leaving at some point during training, the effect on Assela is sort of a moot point for me. On the upside, I'll be able to meet the volunteer replacing me and introduce them around town, help them get settled - anything for a smoother transition. At least I'll have a lot of distractions in those last months while I'm wrapping up my life here.

Last week, Assela had the equivalent of a county fair. They took over the bus station for a "bazaar" with a handful of cultural products and a lot of miscellaneous household supplies also available in the market, plus beer tents from all the major Ethiopian brands. No rides or kettle corn, but the Ethiopian Seed Enterprise had a large booth, bringing back memories of the 4-H tents at American fairs. Gizaw's cousin ran the St. Georges beer tent ("gore-geez" - the most common, but also crappiest variety of beer in Ethiopia), so we got preferred seating and cheap drafts (that were shockingly icy, which does a lot for Georges' flavor) all week. The moment I sat down, business tripled. I think the other tents were jealous. To my great joy, Hiwot Trust, the national condom brand, also had a little tent and was distributing free condoms. I think the health center may have been in and out during the day doing HIV testing, too. All in all, an cute little event that left me nostalgic for art shows and festivals and fairs back home.

I've mastered homemade mozzarella cheese (even debuted an herb variety last week) and I think the milk woman thinks I'm nuts since she knows I live alone but keep buying several liters at a time. She's getting plenty of business though and everyone on chicken street gets to be amused, so I suppose everybody wins. She dropped a liter last time I was there and shouted "Allahu Akbar" (god is great), which struck me as an odd choice of expletive. I watched the milk meander its way through the rust-colored dirt floor and felt a sudden urge to take a trip via river boat. Alas, I'm off to Kenya next week for a safari, so look out for photos soon.

In the meantime, Bale photos: http://s251.photobucket.com/albums/gg296/jessinethiopia/07%20Bale%20Mountains/

Wishlist:
-Cheese products of any kind (Velveeta, processed slices, squeezable, etc)
-Saltine crackers
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-big sugary easter egg candies

26 February 2009

the history books forgot about us.

Apples are now available in Assela! And cheese is in Adama!

Really, what could top that news? I chased a cute little brown mouse out of my house last week. When I heard the little footsteps, I was terrified it was a giant spider, so I really couldn't muster up any emotion besides relief when it turned out to have fur. Plus, it didn't leave any smelly surprises like the cat did, so in the grand scheme of things, a minor nuisance.

I spent last weekend horse trekking in the Bale Mountains - gorgeous! Photos coming in the near future. It was the first time the gloves I brought here came out of the dresser, which made me feel vindicated in packing them. GTZ (the German aid organization) organized the community and built a series of campsites/cabins around the area that are outfitted with beds, blankets, cooking supplies, etc. The families who live in the forest and mountains supply the horses and staff the sites, so the profits are divided amongst the entire community, not just those who happen to speak enough English to work as guides. Everyone was amused by our insistence on personifying the horses. The first thing we did each day was ask our horse's name. They're named for their color, which gets confusing when there are three chestnuts. So we renamed them and spoke to them frequently throughout the trip, much to the amusement of our guide and porters. We tried to give them apples and carrots afterwards, but they've lived their whole lives scrounging for grass and didn't know what to make of treats. Cute, in a sad kind of way. We've made plans to go back in the future, this time equipped with s'more ingredients. I've decided that making horse-riding a regular part of my life is an incentive to eventually have a real job and actual salary. Pity horses aren't a cheaper hobby.

On the downside, the government has put a cap on bus fares that the drivers feel doesn't allow for fuel cost increases. In response, massive numbers of drivers went on strike last Friday. Hence, by the time we tried to get out of Doldola, a tiny little dust bowl of a town that has one bus per day to Assela, there were four days of people try to get on the same bus. Complete and utter chaos. Our trekking guide, Yousef, was a great guy and stuck around to help us fight for seats, so we ended up only spending an extra night in Doldola. He made an interesting observation - he said it's sometimes hard to work with tourists because they're accustomed to logic, which just doesn't apply here. Case in point - there are no tickets for busses, no departure times, no lines. I just like that he understands what it looks like from our point of view.

Work is going well - stumbled across not one, but three (!!) new potential partners last week. A woman named Bekelech called who wanted to train poor women in herb gardening. High-value, low-maintenance, and small land requirements. Over the course of our discussion, we decided to recruit a group of commercial sex workers who are interested in getting out of the trade. Alliance is recruiting the group from the pool they've trained in the past, Bekelech will help them establish themselves as a legal entity, and they'll ask the municipality for land. In the meantime, I'll request money from the same PC fund we used for the prison farm. I'm excited.

On my way to meet Bekelech, I ran into the representative from Land O'Lakes (of butter spread fame), who I tried to contact months ago but who hadn't called me back yet. He'd turned up at the office looking for me. The organization does dairy production with poor people and wants to expand into helping people living with HIV/AIDS. I get to recruit and organize the first group of beneficiaries. I'm hoping for cheese and yogurt as part of the "value-added" chain of dairy production, but I suppose I shouldn't get my hopes up. At least I can find a regular milk dealer to support my cheese-making habit.

Last Wednesday, two Jewish groups came to Assela to meet with Alliance for Development. One is an Israeli group currently working in Nepal and looking to expand to Ethiopia, which is possibly exciting for the future but unlikely to come to fruition during my tenure. The other group, however, is a secular US-based volunteer organization that also funds grassroots projects (their major interest is in human rights advocacy, which warmed my heart, but left them uneasy about working here because of the new law that forbids foreign organizations from addressing human rights issues). They're interested in possibly placing a volunteer with Alliance, which again, might not happen while I'm here, but is still exciting. I'm more excited about discovering another possible donor agency. The representative we met was an RPCV (health in Uzbekistan), so it was nice to talk to someone with a similar outlook on development. All in all, an incredibly productive week (and it even included a vacation!).

Eshetu, my old language tutor, suggested I come back to Ethiopia in 2010 as an election monitor since I won't be around as a PCV anymore. He knows how I feel about democracy. If a monitor position includes a plane ticket, I'd definitely come back for a few weeks to watch ballot boxes. On a related note, I've also recently learned that approximately half the faculty at the teacher's college have served time in prison for being on the wrong side of a political debate at one time or another. Susie, the new (ish - she arrived in October) VSO volunteer, has been briefing me on some of the political drama at the college - apparently, there have been quite a few suspicious firings of opposition sympathizers and questionable promotions of unqualified party members. I'm confident we're not actually supposed to discuss these issues (in print here or over beers in Ethiopia) as government-affiliated volunteers, but we've elected to view the law as a restriction on our actions, not our thoughts. We're both of the opinion that a government that bans human rights advocacy is probably most in need of it. But I digress.

Candace and Mom, I got your mail - thanks!

Wishlist:
-Cheese products of any kind (Velveeta, processed slices, squeezable, etc)
-Saltine crackers
-Sourdough pretzel nuggets
-big sugary easter egg candies

13 February 2009

remember to remember me.

Happy National Condom Day! Wrap it up every time!

It's also Valentine's Day, for my more prudish readers. Our new trainees swore in yesterday and are moving to site today (so now our program officially has 67 volunteers, which means additional computers at the PC office!). I'd feel bad for them, except they get to spend the holiday road-tripping with each other and we moved to site just in time to spend Christmas alone in our houses (if we were lucky - some of us were still in hotels or squatting with other volunteers).

Last week, Steph and I went to Ambo for the much-anticpated cooking lesson. Ethiopian food not being renowned for its diversity, they were looking forward to new flavors. The "real food" lesson was fun, but I wish I had video of the dessert session. Steph and I made three cakes and a banana bread the night before (because what kind of heartless, cruel people would we be if we expected 40 people to share one cake and one banana bread?), so these were sitting on our demonstration table during the entire lesson. I'd estimate that half the trainees spent the session staring at the cakes and scheming ways to innocently be standing next to the table when we actually let them eat. It was like lions on a wounded antelope. I found it very heartwarming - I liked this group already, but now they've endeared themselves to me. Absolutely no shame in smearing chocolate across their faces as they licked clean a piece of aluminum foil. The last cake was finishing cooling as they devoured the first ones, so a few enterprising trainees circled the table, picking up trash and bringing it to the trash box one piece at a time so as to stay within striking distance. The more creative stood directly in front of the dutch oven, asking me inane questions about topics we'd already covered. "Where can I buy baking powder?" "Can I lick the frosting bowl?" "So you've brewed your own beer? How do I do that?" "Can I have a piece of warm, gooey cake?" Fortunately for them, a handful of these guys are quite adorable and charming, so I couldn't resist sharing. I'm a sucker for a cute smile, I know.

Steph (the former dental hygienist) also gave a hilarious lesson on dental hygiene and proper flossing technique. "Not flossing is like taking a shower but never washing your armpits, butt crack, crotch, or feet." 'Nuf said.

Regarding my actual job (as opposed to overtly buying the affection of the new group), I met with GTZ (the German aid organization), who's running a program to improve the vocational training school network in Ethiopia. I want to start a vocational training program at the Assela Rehabilitation Center, so that might work out splendidly. The program director is also going to set me up with GTZ's HIV officer, so there's another potential project (mainstreaming HIV education is becoming part of virtually every development project, but it generally falls to people who already didn't have enough time on their hands, so maybe I can help fill that gap). And my love of Germany (its efficiency, beer, pretzels, and cleanliness) is no big secret, so maybe these contacts can help me find a way to spend some time in Berlin actually earning money, not just spending it.

The Chilalo HS improvement project is also moving forward - making contacts with groups in Addis who might help us out with funding (particularly for a computer lab) and we're anticipating delivery of a bunch of textbooks in March. We've officially formed the Assela committee of education and government leaders (plus me!) to oversee the fundraising for the "community contribution" and we'll be having our first meeting next week. It'll be my first time participating in a bureaucratic meeting, not just keeping a chair warm and being eye candy - should be interesting. I have exactly nine months left here, a fact about which I have increasingly not-mixed feelings. It's been (and continues to be) a valuable experience, but I'm looking forward to being home for the holidays!

To illustrate how much more emotional I've become in this country, I offer the following anecdote. After lending out much of my collection, the early disks of The West Wing recently came back to me, so I embarked on a nostalgic reunion. I'm sure most of my readers aren't as well-versed in the series as I am (you should be - start renting/downloading it), but I was watching the season 1 Christmas episode, where a homeless veteran wearing Toby's coat is found dead by the Korean War monument (and then he uses his influence to get him a proper funeral and a burial at Arlington) and Mrs. Landingham reminisces about her twin sons killed in Vietnam, and I cried like a baby. Granted, I was finishing off some of my homemade moonshine, but the point remains that I cried during a television program. That I've seen before, many times. I also sometimes get misty-eyed when my mailbox is full of mail that's not from Peace Corps.

Aly, Stephanie, Dad, Nick, and Erin, I got your mail - I love you guys!

31 January 2009

i would stand in line for this.

I'm completely in love with Zanzibar. Impressively, it lives up to all its hype - beautiful beaches, charming town, delicious food, and warm, friendly people (including the children!). I actually enjoyed the smell of the fish market on the first day until I remembered that raw fish is, in fact, NOT an appealing odor. Whoops. None of the shouting and pointing at white people, which may be related to the fact that Zanzibar sees a lot of tourists. Although, by that logic, Lalibela and Addis should also ignore white people, which is decidedly not the case. Even when I wondered into a residential neighborhood, people just looked at me briefly to decide if I looked lost and wanted/needed help, and a couple of people asked if I was. Children walked by me without so much as a second glance. Even the local beach boys who latch onto tourists are more entertaining than their Ethiopian counterparts - their English is much better, so you can crack jokes and talk about more than the weather (I debated the existence of god with one) and they tend to take the hint if you turn down their offers of tours or trips. Only downside - when people asked what I was doing in Africa, I got more than a few lectures about how condoms don't stop the transmission of HIV. Crazy children aside, I'm glad I'm doing HIV work in Ethiopia - I don't think I'd be able to cope with constantly battling myths like that.

Stonetown, the capital, is a quaint little colonial town with classic whitewashed buildings, enormous terraces, and narrow alleys winding throughout the old city (much like Harar or other Arab-esque cities). Say what you want about the British colonial legacy, it at least left behind some charming architecture. Unfortunately, it also left behind a system of driving on the wrong side of the road, which confuses me to no end. However, the country DOES labels its busses so you know where they're going, which was both shocking and gloriously convenient. Sure, I tried to board them through the driver's side panel a few times, but at least I knew I was at the right bus. And they open windows on busses, a vitally necessary social practice in a country with both heat and humidity (I'd forgotten what that felt like!).

And the food - seafood everywhere! Every night in Stonetown, vendors sell skewers of fresh seafood for a couple bucks - shrimp, giant crab claws, lobsters, fish, squid, the works. And it only gets better in the restaurants (although sadly, not cheaper!). The only thing I couldn't find was coconut fried shrimp, which was an unexpected disappointment since the island is covered with coconuts. The fruit was a welcome respite from gorging myself on seafood. Enormous pineapples, passion fruits, and fat, juicy mangos. Plus more fruits that I'd never seen before than are available in the whole of Ethiopia. I've long suspected, but am now certain, that we got the short end of the culinary stick when the Peace Corps sent us to Ethiopia.

Traveling alone is a bit strange (especially around those romantic beach resorts!), but I met some fascinating people from all over, including, of course, a member of the Gator Nation. I ran into an older couple from Vermont on my last night, and in the course of our conversation about the election and safaris, we ventured on to the topic of butterflies and how they're un-appreciated in Africa. I told them about how I'd gained an (admittedly amateurish) appreciation thanks to UF's McGuire center, and it turns out the husband donated a lot of his specimens to the museum there and has willed the rest of his collection to UF. They'd also spent some time in Oklahoma, and ordered me not to tell them about the BCS game since they'd taped it and wanted to watch it when they got home. This discussion was not prefaced with questions about my interest in or knowledge about college football, because all loyal Gators know that such pesky things as an ocean, a sizable continent, and a painfully inadequate communications infrastructure wouldn't squelch our ability to follow our team. The Gator Nation is everywhere.

As for those beaches, a picture is worth a thousand words: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=2711847&l=b2ad0&id=2001205.
In Ethiopia news, the short rains came early (being greeted by cold rain as I left the plane was NOT the best transition from Zanzibar), which is further wreaking havoc on the agriculture here. The new trainees have two weeks left until swearing in, then we officially get new neighbors. We're already planning a massive feast for the new arrivals to our little corner of Ethiopia - it's more of an excuse for us to binge, but we're marketing it as a welcome party.

Candace, Jason & Julie, Gil, Nick, and Kimberly, I got your mail - thanks!

23 January 2009

like somebody's shadow.

"Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to
believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too? - Douglas
Adams

There are aspects of life here to which I'll never adapt (that
independent streak just isn't going anywhere), but (not to stereotype
or anything) life in Africa does give you an appreciation of the
little things. Maybe something about seeing kids kick a ball of rags
around the street for hours on end (and never mind their ability to
run for hours on end at this altitude), but I've reached a point where
a particular email or letter can put me in the sort of good mood that
makes people steer clear of the mildly deranged-looking grin on my
face. And given the children here, that's precisely the mood I'm
aiming for - happy enough to not be affected by the staring. Knowing
that people back home remember that I'm here and actually enjoy
reading my rambling letters makes it so much easier to stick it out.
Moral of the story - I love and miss you all. And I'm probably going
to be uncharacteristically affectionate and painfully socially awkward
when I get home. I hope you'll still love me. I'll bake you cookies
to ease the transition.

I was meeting with Belihu, a biology teacher at Chilalo HS, about
improving the school's library, and while we were waiting for the
librarian to come back from lunch, he launched into a discussion of
how much he just loves praising Jesus and how much he admires the
faith of such brilliant American "men of God" like George Bush and
Billy Graham. Shockingly, I managed to just smile and nod.
Fortunately, he wasn't interested in what I thought, he just wanted to
extol their virtues.

We finished the water reservoir and have started planting at the
prison. Apparently, certain vegetables have to be sprouted in the
shade and then transplanted to their growing field. Learn something
new everyday. I was just excited to see tangible results of my
efforts.

My tortoise friend came back - I was afraid he'd died. I saw a kid
carrying a chicken in his arms the way you'd carry a pet (as opposed
to the "upside down by the feet" technique that's the norm here) and
it warmed my heart. Later, I saw a man beating a crying boy with a
stick and felt nothing. I guess I have adapted to some things.

Zanzibar was breathtaking - photos and update coming next weekend!

Caitlin, Mom, Will, Gordon, Cassie, Pedro, Leah, and Grandma, I got
your mail. Thanks!