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:

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.