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!

-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!