On Waiting

Waiting.  That’s exactly what I was doing last Thursday morning.  Only two teachers had shown up to my first training of the semester, so I was waiting and hoping that more would come.  As I waited I started to ponder all the time I’ve spent waiting in Ethiopia.

How many hours have I spent here, sitting, and waiting for something to happen?  Countless.  There were the times like Thursday where I patiently and eagerly waited for participants to show up to a training I so thoughtfully and meticulously planned.  Or days I’ve waited for my consistently late students to run through the door ready for English Club.  I’ve read entire books while waiting for hours in offices to have meetings with town officials that simply can’t keep an appointment.  I’ve spent sweaty and claustrophobic hours trying to shove my way to the front of the line at the bank so I could get enough money out to buy myself food.  I’ve sat idly on the side of the road waiting for a car to bring fuel to my unprepared driver.  I’ve waited through daylong bus-rides from hell to visit friends.

I think a year and half ago I would have considered all of this time spent waiting as wasted time.  It would have been time I could have spent doing something else, something more important or productive.  But, as my life in Ethiopia has chugged along, I’ve found that wonderful, albeit, small things can happen while you’re waiting.  I explained the concept of my model classroom to a fellow English teacher while waiting for my training to start.  I’ve bonded with the few students who do show up on time, reading books to them or learning about their families.  I’ve read more books than I ever thought possible while here in Ethiopia.  I’ve watched mountains and gorges pass by my bus windows.  I’ve spent afternoons socializing and waiting for the coffee to roast.

And then there are all the things that happened not after minutes or hours of waiting, but after weeks and months.  People in town learned my name and started to understand that I was not just some foreigner passing through.  I gained respect and created friendships with my co-workers at the schools.  My landlords became my family.  Ethiopia, and more importantly Woreta, became my home.  It has all been worth the wait.

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Sunday Funday

Sunday’s in America were always a good day for me.  It usually involved brunch, and retelling stories from the weekend.  It was one more day to relax and get ready for the week ahead.  Seeing as I typically go to bed at 9:30pm here, even on the weekends, the only stories I have to reiterate are the plots of the chick flicks that I probably fell asleep watching.  But, I have found that “Sunday Funday” is actually a universal phenomenon, albeit a bit different in Ethiopia.

Every Sunday, after church, my landlords invite their friends over to drink tela, a local beer made of barley.  These friends mainly consist of my landlady’s fellow elderly lady friends, who I must say, are awesome.  For me, real friends here in Ethiopia come in many different shapes and sizes, none of which actually include my peers.  A 24-year-old female friend is remarkably hard to come by, seeing as most women are married with children and bound to the home by that age.  I can always rely on the hoards of children at my school to hang out with me, but its no secret that I’m not a huge kid person.

This is why I love Sunday’s so much – I get to hang out with the coolest ladies in Ethiopia.  Each weekend one woman is the designated “server”.  Essentially this means that she brings her servant from home to serve her tela that she brewed and some injera and berbere sauce to eat.  It’s certainly not the best meal I’ve eaten here, but it’s good snacking.  And when there’s no tela? They don’t show up.  In my opinion, these old divas have their priorities straight.

Whenever they are at my compound, one of them, usually Yeshi, a retired soldier who salutes me instead of shaking my hand, bangs on my door or simply barges into my room.  “Come, play, drink, eat”.  I always emerge from my room, usually in some sort of pajama ensemble, and greet them all with handshakes and the traditional three kisses on the cheeks.  Even though I probably haven’t showered in days and am still in my pajamas, they never neglect to tell me how “konjo” or beautiful I am.  We all sit around, usually outside, drinking and socializing.  When more than a quarter of your cup is gone, someone stealthily refills it, so you never know how much you are actually drinking.  Our conversations are basic, but they never fail to tell me how “gobez” I am at Amharic, which I know is an outright exaggeration.  They question me about America, asking what kinds of food we have, or if I have a boyfriend.  When I tell them no, they start naming their numerous sons or nephews who would make great husbands for me.  I may not understand the majority of their conversations, but everyone there always makes me feel like a welcome part of the circle.  Some Sundays I sit for hours just listening and trying to pick up the bits of their conversations that I can decipher. 

I expected to find many differences between America and Ethiopia, so it’s the similarities that I usually find most striking.  People are people no matter where you go, and a gathering of family and friends is always a warming thing to be a part of.  I am constantly thanking the stars for all the people in my community who have taken me in as a daughter and a friend. And who would have thought that Sunday Funday would have made it all the way to Ethiopia?       

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The Long Walk

I cautiously peek my head out of the front gate of my compound.  I step out, waiting for the affront of stares in my direction.  While I love my house, I’m unfortunate enough to live on the main road, meaning there are constantly people I don’t know walking outside.  As I step up to the road, I have to make a decision.  Main road, or back roads.  The main road is sure to get me far more attention, but the back roads are drowning in mud.  So, I go for the main road.  I turn right, putting my “game face” on.  I’m ready for this walk into town.

As I start walking I pass students on their way to school.  They greet me with my name and some random English phrases they like to practice on me.  “Courtney! What is your name?” or simply screaming “My name is!” not realizing these don’t really make sense.  I pass my suks that I am a constant customer at and wave hello.  I pass the houses of children who always insist on running to me and shaking my hand.  I don’t, and probably never will, remember these children’s’ names, but they have never forgotten mine. 

As I continue down the road I pass carpenter shops, cafes, and hang outs of out-of-work young men.  Some days it is like they are waiting for me.  They scream at me “my honey, my beautiful!” “she is white!”, “foreigner!”.  Occasionally I yell back, usually I simply ignore.  I know I don’t look beautiful.  My hair is a rat’s nest because I haven’t washed it for two weeks, I’m sweating profusely from the heat, and my clothes are dirty.  I don’t even look remotely nice.  The unwanted attention, while once funny, has lost its hilarity. They know I can speak their language, they know I understand what they are saying.  For some reason, they can’t recognize how rude they are.  Most days I can brush it off, but sometimes it ruins my mood and my day. 

 I almost always pass a teacher from my school, on their way to work.  We stop and have the typical conversation, “are you fine? How is your family? How is the air condition? How was summer?”  We depart and I continue on my way.   

I pass farmers and their livestock.  Since the farmers live in the rural areas, they are typically not expecting to see a random foreigner walking around Woreta.  They stare, but are usually stunned into speechlessness.  I am more preoccupied with their animals, spotting different types of adorable donkeys has become a habit of mine.  I dodge sheep and horses; my heart starts to race as a giant ox approaches down the road.   The cows are terrifying to me; I try to keep my distance. 

Occasionally I pass one of the town crazies.  There’s one woman who simply sits by the side of the road and plays the drums with jerry cans.  She’s one of the harmless ones.  I’ve learned the not-so-harmless ones by face and have learned to cross the street if I see them approaching, as some are sure to grab at me if I walk by.     

As I near town I start to see more familiar faces.  I walk by the suk of a kind, yet slightly crazy woman.  If she catches me I am drawn into an at least 10 minute Amharic conversation in which I catch about five words.  As she talks to me she yells to people on the street “she speaks Amharic you know! She is clever!”   She inevitably invites me in to drink tea or coffee, though I usually politely decline. 

I pass the fruit stand where I buy bananas.  There is a hoard of street kids around it, and they yell out “Corky! Corky”.  I don’t have the heart to tell them that’s not my name.  One of the workers at the banana stand once used one of these kids to deliver me a handwritten love note; although he is so shy he barely speaks to me.  Some come up and ask me for bread or shoes.  They break my heart, but I know that if I buy something for one, I have to buy it for all, so I say no. 

By now I am in the center of town.  It’s busy, with people heading to the market and going about their daily business.  I’m shocked at how many people are out, it’s a weekday and no one seems to be working.  People yell at me, they stare.  I dodge horse carts and bajaj’s as I cross the street.  Mini buses drive by and yell “Bahir Dar” or “Gondar” out the window.  I’m foreign, so why wouldn’t I be going to a big tourist city? 

By this point I am close to my destination anyways.  Even though Woreta is a fairly large town, almost everything I need is within five minutes of the center.  The walk to town, while only ten minutes, can be a rollercoaster ride.  I never know exactly what to expect.  I’ve learned to tune out the side noises because tuning in often makes me angry.  But by doing this, by not being present, I miss out on things.  Friends tell me they yelled my name and I ignored them, or I don’t see or hear children chasing after me just wanting to shake my hand.  I suppose it’s a survival skill, but I sometimes wonder what else I have missed.  Because on the days that I do pay attention and am alert as I walk to town, despite the negative attention, I always find something that makes smile.  

 

 

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Getting Started

The new school year has finally started.  And since this is my last year here, I really want to make it count.  In so many ways, starting again at my school feels totally different from last year.  I can see how I’ve changed and grown and become more comfortable at work.  I know what teachers to approach for help, and who to ask if I really need to get something done.  Despite the fact that a good chunk of the teachers switched to the local high school, I know a large portion of the staff.  Instead of introducing myself and explaining why I’m here, I’ve been reuniting with my teacher friends who I did not see during the summer season. 

 All summer I was getting more and more excited about the new school year.  I have a good idea of what is and isn’t possible, so I planned my programs around that.  I am going to have two English Clubs at my primary school.  I am also starting a Grassroots Soccer intervention at my school as well because the program was so successful at the high school last year.  I am planning on getting more involved at the high school as well, with English Clubs, and Life Skills Clubs.  While I am guilty of enjoying spending hours in my house reading, I feel much more fulfilled when my days are busy. 

 With all that being said, I thought getting started would be easier.  Yes, I know how to navigate my school and community, but man, starting programs can be difficult.  Simple tasks that I thought could be done in a day, like registering students for English Club, turn into a two-week process.  Even though school started a few weeks ago, many parents had neglected to actually register their children for school.  This meant that the first two weeks of school was spent registering the kids instead of teaching them.  I was told to wait to start my programs.

 We have had uncharacteristic rains the past few days, so the school compound is essentially a swamp.  Since the classrooms are made of mud, it doesn’t matter if you are in or outside.  Teachers and students are slipping around in less than ideal conditions.  Because of this, registration has been delayed even more.  Who knew mud could affect school?

 My classroom has been used for a series of staff meetings.  While I was planning on getting in there early and painting visual aids onto the walls, I found my plans were not feasible.  I showed up to school one day only to be told that I was not allowed inside of my own classroom. 

 We also have an entirely new school leadership staff.  The Director was new at the end of the last school year, and they have since replaced the Vice Director and the Supervisor.  While I hope these are changes for the better, it is difficult to explain why there is a random foreigner working in their school and they don’t really know what my role is. 

 The past few weeks have been a reminder that nothing goes as planned in Ethiopia.  I can push for things to happen as much as I want, but at some point I know I just need to sit back and let it be.  While I’m anxious for all of my programs to get going, I am constantly reminding myself that I have to work in Ethiopia time.  Challenges I would never fathom come up and I find myself out of my element.  When this happens, I know I just have to trust the Ethiopians around me because even though I have been here for over a year, they usually know better.  Deferring my control, and often my planned schedule, can be frustrating, but it is often the only way to get things done.  “Kas ba kas” is a common Amharic phrase, which means “little by little”.  If any words have defined my time here in Ethiopia, I would say it is those.    

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Google-ing in Ethiopia

I’ve recently realized how strange my Google search history would look to the regular American.  The quandaries that I have here are markedly different than anything I would have to Google in America.  Here’s a small sampling of some things found on my Google search history:

 “Can cockroaches eat through plastic?”

I have a cockroach problem.  Previously I was totally fine coexisting with these little guys because they only came out at night when I was not in my kitchen.  However, when I returned home from two weeks in Addis Ababa I found holes in a bag of pistachios and some chocolate from a care package.  It may sound extreme, but I would fight to the death for my care package goodies if necessary.  Needless to say, I am now in full on war with the roach family occupying my kitchen cabinet. 

 “Rat poop”

I think I have a rat in my ceiling.  And by think, I know, because Google graciously provided me photos of rat turds.  Luckily my rat friend does not come down; he just poops through the holes in my tarp ceiling.    

 “How to kill a chicken”

I want to kill a chicken before I leave Ethiopia.  Enough said.

 “Help! I think I have [enter any strange disease here]”

Giardia, worms, amoebas, parasites.  I have not actually tested positively for any of these, but I have been convinced at various times that I had them.  The worst thing a PCV can do when they are sick is going on WebMD (luckily, it rarely loads on my slow internet).  In my head, the common cold turns into Tuberculosis, an upset stomach becomes worms eating my intestines, and an infected cut is definitely leprosy.  

 “How to block phone numbers”

I never had the issue of getting called incessantly at inappropriate hours in America.  Here, it is constant.  I have many numbers in my phone saved as “DON’T PICK UP”.  Somehow my phone number has become public knowledge in Woreta.  Recently, someone called me who I had never met.  When I asked him where he got my phone number, he informed me that I also did not know the person he got my phone number from.  Another unknown caller liked to whisper “I miss you” into the phone whenever I answered.  Creepy.

 “Why is my hair falling out?”

I thought I was losing my hair.  Every time I showered or brushed it, absurd amounts of hair fell off of my head.  I guess I forgot that if you only shower once or twice a week, it would seem like more hair is coming out of your head.

 “Types of flies”

I didn’t know so many different flies existed until I came to Ethiopia.  There are the regular black flies.  Then there are the mini flies and the giant ones.  I also can’t forget the shiny iridescent ones that I like to call poop flies because of their apparent love of animal feces.  Who knew?!

“Bad engagement photos”

Let’s be honest, I would Google that in America too.  Extreme boredom, clearly.

 

 

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My Favorite Things

I know I’ve been a little negative in my past few posts.  That wasn’t my intention; I was just trying to give a realistic picture of life here.  Peace Corps isn’t all sunshine, butterflies, and puppies (more like sunshine, hoards of flies, and rabid dogs).  But, to bring my blog back up here’s a list of some of my favorite things about my life here in Ethiopia (in no specific order):

The Food: I’m an eater, and all I have to say is, thank god I’m doing Peace Corps in Ethiopia.  I’ve talked to PCVs from other countries where the food is just awful.  And don’t get me wrong, there are some foods eaten here than no one should be subjected to eat.  Take dulet, sheep/goat intestines, a dish that my landlords have a penchant for.  I can’t tell you how many dulet meals I have gagged down because I just don’t have the heart to tell them that I think that this might literally be the worst food in the world.  But, for every bad dish there are more good ones.  Bayanat, a vegan variety plate of vegetables and lentils is my favorite (unfortuantly you can only get it on fasting days – Wednesday and Friday).  When I first came to Ethiopia, I could barely stomach injera.  Now, I crave it.  I couldn’t even eat a whole piece of it and I now can destroy meals that seemed impossibly large (even for me).  

Bunna: The coffee.  Oh my god.  I already know I’m going to be a coffee snob when I get back to America because there’s nothing like the coffee here made in the traditional way.  On top of that, coffee ceremonies have become one of my favorite things about Ethiopia.  Sitting for 1-3 hours while fresh coffee is roasted, pounded, roasted, and then made used to seem interminable.  Now, I can’t think of many better ways to spend my afternoon.  On occasion, I have endured some horribly awkward bunna ceremonies.  In one of them, the person that invited me actually left in the middle but informed me I should “stay, and play” with a bunch of people I’ve never met and who don’t speak a work of English.  My landlord recently got injured in what was described to be as a rock-throwing incident.  From the amount of pain this man was in, someone must have thrown a boulder at his leg.  He was bedridden, and screaming/moaning in pain.  However, this did not prevent my landlady from inviting me into his bedroom to have a coffee ceremony with him. 

My students: Now, when I say this I do not mean ALL students.  If we were in America, I think I would be the most bullied kid in the school, even though I’m a teacher.  Some of them chase me around the compound, swarm me in my classroom, and when I lock them out, throw rocks through my window.  But, my students, the ones that come to my English clubs and spend time with me on their off periods, are wonderful kids.  I mean, how many kids email you an audio file of a poem they wrote asking for corrections?  Or show up at your house just to tell you about a dream they had that you were in?

Other PCVs:  I’ve met some wonderful people here in Ethiopia.  We never have to explain ourselves to each other.  We may not all be here for the same reasons, but we all understand why we’re here.  We’re all in the same boat.  No matter how much I tell people at home about my life here, you can’t fully understand unless you actually live it.  There are not many people I can text about a horrible pants shitting incident I had and they respond, “yeah, I shit my pants today too”.   Peace Corps dissolves all normal friendship boundaries you thought existed.  We may be a freakshow when we get together, but we all love each other.

My school: I know I complain about the teachers at my school a lot.  Do they want to go to my trainings? No.  Do I enjoy their company? Yes.  I try to go to school for a little bit each day.  Most of the time I just sit in the teachers’ café, drink tea, and talk with them.  I have never paid for my own tea, they always invite me.  They make me laugh.  Upon returning from Italy, feeling a little hefty after 2 weeks of eating like I was a hibernating bear, they immediately asked me “Courtney, why have you gotten so much fatter!”   Most of you would consider this horribly offensive; I have learned to laugh at these well-intentioned offenses from Ethiopians.  They are also remarkably inquisitive.  While they don’t really accept much teaching methodology information I give them, we often have discussions about American politics and culture.  

My free time: Even on my rare busy week, I still have what seems like endless free time.  I used to wonder if I would survive the boredom.  I would fill my days with activities like feeding gummy bears to monkeys or following ants around my house.  Now, I have grown to love having nothing to do.  I have read more books than I think I had in the 5 years previous to joining the Peace Corps.  I take no shame in watching half a season of a TV show in an afternoon.  If I’m feeling more social I sit in my compound with my landlords “servant” Kasanesh, and watch her do work and practice my Amharic.  Or I go into town a sit at a café, drink coffee, and read.  Usually someone I know strolls in and we talk for a little while.  Even in America I’m slower paced than most people, but I have definitely slowed down even more, and I love it. 

My compound: First of all, I love my house.  Well, my bedroom really.  I have tile floors, a legit ceiling and nice windows, which are all luxuries for PCVs. I live 30 seconds from my school, making my work commute nonexistent.  My landlords are awesome.  I can’t actually speak to them.  They don’t speak a work of English, I don’t even think they know “Hello”.  They also speak way to fast in Amharic for me to understand most things they say.  However, I know they treat me like a daughter.  They feed me, they give me coffee every day, and they invite me to family holidays.  When my town inevitably does not pay my rent on time every three months, they don’t kick me out, they just let me know so I can deal with it.  They are wonderful people. 

The street kids:  I think street kids can haunt a lot of people.  These poor, seemingly (and most likely actually) parentless kids that wander the streets trying to get you to buy their tissues or gum.  They’re dirty, barely clothed, shoeless, and usually can be horribly mean to each other.  In other towns, like Bahir Dar, they drive me nuts.  However, in Woreta, I’ve somehow managed to form a gang of my biggest admirers in the street kids.  When I walk to the center of town I hear my name “Corky, Corky” (my favorite Ethiopian variation of my name) being yelled out.  They greet me; they give me their valuable products for free.  Most importantly, they help me out.  If someone is calling me farenj they tell them, no her name is Corky, don’t call her faranj.   One time I was walking home when it was dark, something I know I shouldn’t be doing alone.  So, two of them held my hands and walked me all the way to my house.   The only qualm I have with these kids is that they have also become a love note delivery system for random strangers.  On two or three occasions one of them has run up to me with a piece of paper saying “I love you” blah blah blah and giving me someone’s phone number.  Funny the first time, after the third, not so much. 

So there you go…some of my favorite things! 

 

 

 

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How do you get Ethiopia?

It has almost been one year since I left home and moved to Ethiopia with 70 other volunteers.  With school being on break and me having absolutely no work to do until my vacation with my family in 13 days, I’ve had a lot of time to sit and reflect on the past year of my life.  How can I possibly sum up a year in Ethiopia? They tell us at the beginning that in Peace Corps you will experience some of the highest highs, but also the lowest of your lows.  I can’t begin to tell you how true that is. 

 When I joined the Peace Corps I thought I would go to whatever country I was assigned to and make a difference.  I mean, that’s the whole point right? But one year into my service in Ethiopia and I can’t help but feel like I’ve done absolutely nothing.  I’ve tried, relentlessly, to make projects work with teachers who just aren’t willing to receive the information I have to give them.  I’ve sat for hours upon hours, week after week, waiting for one, maybe two, teachers to show up to trainings that I have spent days preparing.  I’ve walked through the streets of my town angrier than I have ever been in my entire life.  Just waiting for someone to hurl an insult at me, or call me “nach” (white), or “mariye” (my honey), so I can yell something back at them.  I’ve been spit on, punched, and grabbed.  It still shocks me that after a year in Woreta, people can still act so ignorantly, and treat me as less than a person.

 In those ways, I guess I have failed. If being in Peace Corps has taught me anything, it is how to fail and still be okay with yourself. I recently gave up on training my teachers.  And most days, I simply don’t have the spirit to address every uneducated soul on the street that just needs to point out that I am not the same as them.  And on days when I let this get to me, I hide in my house and think, why am I here?  What would I be doing if I was in America right now?

 But when that happens, I just have to think about my students.  My English clubs have been the only successful things I have done in Woreta so far.  Even though it is small, I have to take my successes where I can get them.  While the change I have made is probably negligible, I know that some kids are speaking English one day a week, when they usually would be going home and speaking Amharic with their parents.  I like to think I’ve shown my students a new way to learn, and that school can be fun.  I’ve shared the wonder of books with my students.  While they used to sit unused on the shelves in my classroom, I now have students constantly asking if they can borrow them.  I have created a classroom where laughing at mistakes is not tolerated, a habit that is sadly the norm in Ethiopia.  I let the kids play with chalk and draw on the board during their breaks in school.  I simply let them sit and look at the pictures and posters on the wall.  I’ve seen kids come completely out of their shells in the course of a few months.  Girls who once came and sat silently in my classes are now regular participators.

 If I’m ever feeling like I haven’t done anything here in Woreta, I head over to my classroom, unlock the door, and wait.  Within five minutes I will have a group of children in there.  And even though I know they come because I am the ferenj, I can still teach them something.  Sometimes it’s not English.  We draw, we read, and we dance.  Sometimes I’m the student, with them teaching me new words in Amharic.

 The other day I was walking with a coworker and he asked me a question that I have literally been asked hundreds of times since coming here, “So, how do you get Ethiopia?”  While I usually respond, “it is beautiful, it is good,” I instead told him that, like America, there are things I like here and things I don’t like.  And he questioned, “but there is more good than bad, right?”  I didn’t even hesitate to answer, yes.  Life in Ethiopia hasn’t been easy for a moment, but I always find more good than bad here.  That is what keeps me here. 

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