Monday, October 26, 2009

Odds and Ends

After two years here, my time in Ethiopia is coming to an end. It's
hard to believe; you never picture the end of these things when you
begin them, or even during the experience. It has just snuck up on me,
and now I have less than a month left in Ethiopia. There are a lot of
difficult goodbyes looming, and certainly a tough transition back into
life in the States, but I'm also really looking forward to catching up
with friends and family, and to being back home. (I'm also terrified
that I'm going to freeze to death in Denver and Seattle in

Meanwhile life goes on here. Thesis work is coming along apace, and
I'm wrapping up my other work. And I've had a few small adventures

Last weekend, my friend Jennifer and I decided to walk from her town
(which is 80 km south of Bahir Dar) as far north toward B/Dar as
possible. It was one of the better days in Ethiopia. Some of the

We had a child named after us. I asked mom if her two-month old baby
girl had a name. Not yet, she said, then thought about it for a bit.
"Ayinaddis," she said (the name means new eyes), "because I'm so
surprised to see you here." Mom was 19, and this was her second baby
(#1 is three years old). She and two friends were walking back from
market in the small town of Durbete. They said that they had about a
two hour walk back to their village. I asked how many people lived in
the village. "Oh, it's big," says the man. "Four hundred people." It's
hard to imagine how life in this small town of 400, with no
electricity, a two-hour walk from the nearest market or health center,
would differ from my own Ethiopian life in Bahir Dar, less than an
hour's drive away. None of this group of three had ever been to Bahir
Dar; mom said it was her dream for the baby to make it to the city.

We met a group of three guys walking to market, and started chatting
with them in Amharic. During the 90 minute walk into the next town,
our group gradually grew to two Americans, 20 Ethiopians, and a sheep
on a leash. We were quite the spectacle, walking into town.

Were told "tenkara gulbet allachew" (literally "you guys have a strong knee").

We rested under a wild fig tree in the middle of a teff field, exactly
in the middle of nowhere. It was the only time during the whole day
that we didn't see other people walking. It was incredibly beautiful
and peaceful, and felt, really for the first time, like I was seeing
what most of Ethiopia is like. Eighty percent of Ethiopians live in
rural areas.

We made up stories to tell people who asked what we were doing. Best
story: we are a Swedish walking team, having come from the Sudan. I
was told by an illiterate farmer that I was a lier when I told her

After eight hours of walking (we figure probably close to 20 miles),
we took a bus back to Bahir Dar, and hobbled back to my house. I will
tell you that walking for eight hours and then sitting quietly in a
bus for an hour before stretching is probably not the best idea. We
were proud of ourselves, though, for making it as far as we did, and
for generally avoiding the ills that we had most feared: sunburn,
blisters, and roving packs of Ethiopian children throwing rocks (this
is an odd, but common, peril faced especially by walkers and bikers in
this country).

Other bits and pieces of recent life:

* I'm coming more and more to appreciate small things about Ethiopian
culture. I helped my friend Christen move some stuff from her house to
another friend's place last week. We were both loaded down, walking
down the steep hill to her house, and two Ethiopian girls just grabbed
the extra bags and insisted on walking them all the way down the hill
with us. Then they invited us to coffee at their house. We sat around
for probably 40 minutes, drinking coffee and eating homemade bread.
What hospitality! I think that when I first arrived here, I didn't
realize that this kind of invitation was real, because it seems so
different from the way that things work in America, but now, as I'm
gaining more and more awareness of the language and the culture, I'm
really coming to appreciate it.

* I was sitting at the internet cafe the other day when some kids
walked by with a "pet" vervet monkey on a leash. I petted him and
greeted the kids when they came into the cafe to say hi to me. When
the kids were ready to leave, the monkey jumped up onto my lap, ready
to stay with me. Seems somehow like the perfect contrast of the modern
and the wild: email and a monkey.

* Went to a party this weekend which felt very much like an American
barbecue. Except of course that the sheep had to be slaughtered, and
then the whole thing was roasted (wrapped in tinfoil) over an open

* When I lay down in bed the other night, something smelled funny,
kind of like the dead rat I had found a couple of months ago in my
living room. I went on a quest to find it. Turns out that it was a
small lizard had crawled between my two mattresses, and that I had
probably crushed it in my sleep. Several days earlier, apparently. Not

* Was punched in the kidney in the bus station by a man who wasn't
wearing any pants. Everyone around me just stood still, sort of
perplexed about what had just happened, and the man ran away.

* Just in time for me to leave, I finished my hand-made hammock. It's
hanging precariously between a tree and one of the columns on my front
porch. Almost a kilometer of rope went into that sucker.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

well hello there

Quick update: news in the past few weeks:

* Group three PCVs are receiving their invitations now. They'll arrive
in October. Exciting! At least two of us have acquaintances in the new
group (including another UW PCMI student!). If any of you Group Threes
are reading this, welcome! It's exciting, crazy, etc., but definitely
worth it.

* I finally, at long last, got my IRB approval from the Ethiopian
Public Health Association. Maybe I'll be able to finish my Master's
research, after all.

* Allergies in Ethiopia are bad news. I've been coughing and sniffling
like crazy. Ethiopians are worried about me. "This is beyond the
common cold," one of my coworkers told me. "It is rape." Confused, I
asked him what he meant. He told me the word in Amharic for _ripe_,
and then said that the cold had matured. Priceless.

* COS Conference in a little over three weeks. It's hard to believe
we're getting that close to the end. About four months from now, I'll
be on my way home. Scheming up some lovely travel for after finishing

* Five-year-old birthday party on my compound last weekend. Dancing
five year-old Ethiopians are really cute.

* Rainy season has worked its magic. The countryside is gorgeous and
green, the cows are slightly less skeletal, mangos are abundant, and
every puddle is filled with frogs. Except for the mud, it would be
perfect. I do miss the summer in the NW, though. I'm getting excited
about moving back.

I'll be in Addis next week for a long meeting. Need to set up some
much-needed g-mail chat dates while I'm there. Will write again from

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The World's a Small Place

Two coincidences this week. It makes the world seem like a pretty tiny
place (funny to be saying that when I'm so many thousands of miles
away from home...). Oddly, they both involve University of Washington.

It turns out that there's a former Fellow from the UW who's now [back]
living and working in Bahir Dar. It was odd to talk about the Ave,
about professors from the Department of Global Health, to reminisce
about classes. It was lovely to chat with this guy. I wish I had met
him earlier. For one, he mentioned how generous and kind people in
Seattle had been to him when he first arrived, and how he wanted to
repay the favor. I feel like I need to do the same when I get back to
Seattle--people have been so lovely to me here, as well.

And then on Friday, Kyle and I had dinner with some visiting PCVs from
Cameroon. We were sitting around chatting, and I asked where in the US
the five of them were from. And of course, one was from Seattle. And
was, like me, a Master's student. And, get this, we had been in a
class together in the winter of 2007. Who would ever have dreamed, in
a classroom in Seattle on a rainy winter evening, that two and a half
years later, this forestry Master's student would be living in
Cameroon, would be coming to Ethiopia on vacation, and would come to
visit my very site. Crazy.

I'm beginning to think that these UW connections may be pretty
important. Maybe for finding a job?

Monday, July 6, 2009

What's New?

I've been a bit MIA. Sorry for the long delay in posting. There hasn't
been much to tell, these past few weeks. Life goes on as usual in
Ethiopia. It was reassuring, somehow, to visit the US and to realize
that not that much had changed at home. It's equally reassuring (and
yet at the same time depressing) to see the sameness of the day-to-day
routine here. Not much has changed since before I left for the States.
In fact, not all that much has changed since I arrived here in 2007.

So what is new?

There has been a large military presence in town this week, apparently
because of the coincidental overlap of a huge convoy of UN trucks,
equipment, tanks, etc., making their way between Addis Ababa and
Darfur, and a country-wide meeting of generals to discuss the
Ethiopian Army's successes in the past year.

What this means for us is that there are lots of people in camouflage
meandering around town, that two of the main streets are blocked off,
and that there are a lot of scary tanks lurking around. I've been
assured that no one is going to war (at least not in the immediate
future), but it is a bit intimidating.

There is one charming side effect of all this military presence,
however. Ethiopian men are very physical with each other about showing
their affection for one another. Friends drape their arms over each
other's shoulders, even sit on each other's laps, and it means nothing
whatsoever about sexuality (homosexuality is, in fact, still illegal
here, but that's another post...). So the fact that there are a lot of
soldiers in town, and a lot of soldiers who are friends with each
other, means that there are a lot of pairs of camouflaged men walking
down the street holding hands. I'd love to get a picture. If I wasn't
scared of what the consequences of taking pictures of soldiers were...

Otherwise, the rainy season has (thankfully) finally arrived, only
about 6 weeks late. When I got back to Bahir Dar in early June, the
lack of rain was already the focus of almost every conversation.
Really only in the last week have we gotten proper soaking rainstorms.
The sound of rainfall on a tin roof is seriously one of my favorites.
It makes for great sleeping. Lake Tana is slowly beginning to refill
(it had been so low that the ferry hadn't been running), and I'm
hoping that the reservoirs are all being to fill back up. We're still
on an electricity-rationing program of one day on, one day off. This
routine is tiresome (especially for businesses!), but it's at least
predictable--I've been planning meetings around when there will be

I just started teaching a "Life Skills" and health education class for
seventh, eighth, and ninth grade girls. I think that it's going to be
great, and really useful for them, but I'm also paralyzed with fear of
teenagers. They just have the potential to be so mean. The one saving
grace is that these girls are pretty shy, and aren't likely to be
overtly obnoxious. I've decided that my strategy is going to be to
make an absolute fool of myself at every opportunity and to just allow
them to laugh at me. This is the first attempt I've made at direct
service-provision--everything else I've done here has really been
about systems, so it'll be fun (and terrifying!) to actually get to do
something with "beneficiaries." It's also an opportunity to practice
some Amharic (I'm teaching mostly in English, with an Ethiopian
co-teacher, but the girls howl with surprised laughter every time I
say anything in Amharic, so I think I'll keep pushing myself to try

I pass the 21-month mark in country this week. It's hard to believe
that I've been here that long, and that time is moving this fast. I
got my official date for "close of service" (checking out of the Peace
Corps); I think that it will be November 25th. I'm planning a few
weeks of travel (more on that soon...), and then on being back in the
States before Christmas. It's crazy that I'll be home in less than
five months.

That does mean that I have to start cracking down a bit on some of my
projects. If projects are as slow to wind-down as they were to
start-up in the first place, it means that I need to start shutting
things down, soon. I also still have all of my Master's thesis
research to complete in the next months (a minor hold-up with the
Public Health Association here aside, I'm just about ready to go on
data collection). I have a feeling that these last few months are
going to fly. Another crop of dear friends are finishing their
contracts in the next few weeks and are heading back to wherever home
is, and it reminds me of how transient this life here is (at least for
most farenjis), and also about my own departure. I'm beginning to
imagine what the process of saying goodbye will be like. It's
certainly not going to be easy.

One more thing: I'm searching for easy reading material for the 7th,
8th, and 9th graders at the after-school center where I'm teaching
life skills. The kids are at the level of reading easy chapter books
in English, but the issue is that it's difficult to find material with
subject matter that's complex or exciting enough to engage 13-16 year
olds, written in English that's simple enough that they don't get
overwhelmed. Those of you with kids or with experience teaching--I'd
love ideas!

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Oh, America

I'm in the US for a wedding and a quick visit home. Quote of the day, or perhaps even of the week:

Me: I live in Africa.
Lady shampooing my hair at the hair-cutting place: Oh really, where in Africa do you live?
Me: Ethiopia
LSMHATHCP: Oh, cool. Do you speak, um, African?
Me: I speak Amharic, which is the language where I live.
LSMHATCHP: Oooh. Okay. So how many dialects of African are there?
Me: A lot.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Reading List

I'm passing off a lot of books to Peace Corps staff to take back to
the office this week. My house has become sort of a de facto library
for volunteers passing through, which is lovely, but I was beginning
to realize that I have far more books floating around my house than I
would ever be able to carry back to Addis.

The purge got me thinking about what I've read since coming to Africa.
Thanks to many of you who have sent me books, and to an incredibly
varied collection among the PCVs and other ex-pats, I've really read
quite a lot. I've kept a list, and it's now at 90 (including,
shamefully, two textbooks and at least 8 books written for young
adults…). Here are the highlights, in no particular order.

Best books I've read in Africa (Fiction):
• Middlesex
• Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits
• Love in the Time of Cholera
• Interpreter of Maladies
• One Thousand Splendid Suns
• Unaccustomed Earth
• Say You're One of Them
• The God of Small Things
• The Sex Lives of Cannibals
• The Hours
• The Book Thief

Best books I've read in Africa (Nonfiction):
• Eat, Pray, Love
• Do They Hear You When You Cry?
• And the Band Played On
• Pathologies of Power
• A Short History of Nearly Everything
• The Devil in the White City
• When You Are Engulfed in Flames
• Dark Star Safari
• How to be Alone
• Bryson's Dictionary of Troublesome Words
• Persepolis
• There is No Me Without You
• Aid and Other Dirty Business

I still have 8 months left here, including three months of rainy
season…I'm taking recommendations :)

You've Disappeared

"Hanni, tafash." This is perhaps the most frequent sentence I hear in
Amharic. You've disappeared. It's akin to "long time, no see," but
stronger. Similar to "I've missed you," but more accusatory. And
Ethiopians use it all the time. My favorite shop owner told me I had
disappeared one afternoon, when I'd been at his shop that same
morning. A friend in Addis told me I had disappeared, despite my
having talked to her on the phone once a week over the past three
months. At the hospital, if I'm out doing something else for a half
day, every member of the staff feels the need to remind me that I have
"tafash"-ed when I come back.

I'm beginning to see the meaning of this phrase as it works in
Ethiopian culture. As I spend more time here, I'm realizing how much
of every activity in Ethiopia is directed toward preserving and
strengthening social relationships. We talked about this a little bit
in training—about Ethiopia being a collectivist society in
counterpoint to America's individualism—but it has taken more than a
year of actually living here to realize how deeply held these values
are. My Ethiopian friends actually feel like I've disappeared when
they haven't seen me in days or hours—relationships are that central
to the way of life here. Nearly everything about this culture hinges
on other people. You have to maintain relationships with people here,
because you rely on them. Particularly in smaller communities (though,
still, I think, even in a city like Bahir Dar or even Addis), you
can't get by without other people, and so relationships are sacrosanct
and conflict between individuals is rare and very quickly smoothed

I've seen time and again (despite my lingering awkwardness at showing
up uninvited at someone's doorstep) that hosting makes people happy,
and that they're pleased that I value their friendship enough to stop
by their homes. I'm beginning to understand the many (at first
perplexing) phone calls when people have nothing to say; they just
need to check in and make sure that I'm still here. Other things too:
hierarchies at work are about preserving social relationships, about
not rocking the boat. So too is the focus (obsession?) with respect
(or as it's occasionally called here, "respection"). Conflict is
avoided as best as possible. Communication is indirect…but is subtle
and constant and of paramount importance. Ethiopians have
communicatory finesse, to be sure. I still certainly miss lots of the
subtext and undercurrents of what people say.

It's enlightening and at the same time disorienting to start figuring
these things out about the society I'm living in. It's certainly
helpful to start reflecting on the way things work here, and is
incredibly interesting in the academic sense. But it's also tricky,
acknowledging how different my own culture is from the Ethiopian, and
trying to navigate how I fit in here. I'm beginning to think that I
would enjoy being an anthropologist, though it would also, obviously,
be hard work.

The more I live here, the more I realize how little I understand about
this place. It's incredible to finally get how complicated a culture
really is. Lots to think about…

By the way, I have indeed disappeared from this blog, for which I
heartily apologize, and will try to remedy in the future.