Two Years of Learning

Last week I had a goodbye program at my primary school where one of the teachers graciously thanked me for teaching them so much. Even though my main job here was to teach, and to impart my knowledge onto others, I couldn’t help but stop and think that compared to how much I have learned in my past two years in Woreta, I have taught next to nothing. Now, I’m not going to get emotional and sappy here, and as sad as I am to be leaving Woreta, I am ready to move on. I am, however, going to tell you some of the small, strange, and important things that life in Ethiopia, and more importantly, Woreta, has taught me.

I have learned….
that I can adapt to almost anything
that electricity, water, and indoor plumbing are incredibly precious
that you can coexist with cockroaches (rats, not so much)
that best friends come in all different shapes and sizes
to be patient, very patient
that teaching English is really hard
how to build a garden
to eat whatever is put in front of me
to enjoy doing nothing
that I don’t always know best
how a mud house is built
to ALWAYS carry toilet paper
to be able to go to the bathroom pretty much anywhere
to stand up for myself
that holidays away from home are really lonely
that donkeys are adorable
to find humor in almost every situation
to laugh at myself
how to eat with my hands
to tolerate cold showers
that a passionate teacher can be inspiring
that you should carry an umbrella rain or shine
how to choose my battles
that hand washing all your clothes really sucks
that Ethiopian women are incredible
to enjoy my own company
to have a healthy fear of cows
just how privileged I am to have been born in America
that injera and berbere can be comfort foods
to drink lots of coffee
that the small successes are the best kind
that I can find happiness anywhere

And I’m not done learning. Which is why I’m not leaving Ethiopia. For my readers who don’t know, I have decided to extend my service for one year. Tomorrow I will be moving to Addis Ababa to start working with Catholic Relief Services as a Program Quality Officer for Natural Resource Management/Agriculture. While I know that moving from the Ethiopian countryside to Addis Ababa is going to be an adjustment, I am so excited to start my new job. I also have a new address, which I have changed on the sidebar of my blog so please take note before you send me anything!

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Rediscovering Normal

Yesterday I was at a coffee ceremony with my landlords. At one point, my landlady whipped out her boobs and asked if I had any medicine to get rid of some spots on them. My ever-enlightened 12 year-old host sister, Rut, instantly told her that in my culture it’s not appropriate to just pull out your boobs whenever you want.   When my landlady tried to apologize, I simply responded, “chigger yellem, habesha nan”or “no problem, I’m Ethiopian”. And it’s true. My reactions to the oddities of Ethiopian life have slowly gotten more and more Ethiopian, rather than my initial American shock at so many commonplace things here. Here’s a short list of all the things that have become way too normal for me.  

Animal slaughters: Can you imagine going into a restaurant and seeing the meat you are about to order hanging on the wall?   Well, I see that just about every time I go to my favorite restaurant in Woreta. While seeing a skinned ox carcass hanging on the wall used to freak me out a bit, I now am thrilled when I walk in and see it’s cow meat instead of goat.

Being Dirty (all the time): I shower maybe twice a week, and I would say that’s pretty frequent for the average PCV. In between my showers I work out, walk around my absurdly hot town, and often trek through mud and animal feces covered streets. I’m always dirty. Ten minutes after I shower, I’m sweating again. By the next day I am peeling dirt off of my skin. To top this off, I am awful at washing my clothes, and so they are never really totally clean. While I revel in watching my clothes turn back to their original color by my imperfect hand washing skills, I can almost guarantee that they are still dirty. I often hear my landlady whispering about me while I wash my clothes, “that’s it, is she really finished?”

Terrifying Public Transportation: I will start this by saying that I am a blessed volunteer who lives only an hour away from my hub city on a paved road. With that being said, an hour-long bus ride is enough time for some alarming things to happen. When I first got here I would nervously look out the window and grab the seat in front of me to brace myself for the impending crash. Now, swerving around donkeys and cows and nearly missing people doesn’t even faze me. I simply shake my head at the dumb kid who thought it would be smart to run across the street at the last second. People vomiting into plastic bags in the bus? No biggie, just a smelly inconvenience. I’ve learned to always travel with a scarf to cover up my mouth and nose in case the odor gets particularly bad. Another time, while sitting next to an incredibly sick looking man, I looked over to see he had pulled out a syringe. My gut reaction was “Oh my god, this man is going to stab me!” instead he just pulled up his Amhara short-shorts and jabbed himself in the leg.

Weird Food: Those of you who knew me in America know that I’m an eater. I would eat practically anything you put on my plate. Well, Ethiopia has taken that to a whole new level.   I am fairly frequently served plates of injera with what could only be considered “mystery meat”. Each time I dutifully eat and tell my hostess that it’s delicious.   Goat and sheep are pretty standard but I’ve also eaten camel, intestines, and raw meat (surprisingly delicious). All of this is typically washed down with a cup or two of local beer, which I have grown to love, despite its abundance of floating charcoal bits.

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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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