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Wrong Turn

Taking a wrong turn…you have done it before right? You think you know where you are going but then things start to look wrong. You can’t find any familiar land marks and the road conditions start to get bumpy. Things just don’t look right and the fuel gauge runs dangerously low. What do you do? Turn back? Keep going? Cut down a side road? This is the quandary that I have found myself in here in Ethiopia. Despite the upbeat tone of this blog, I have been unhealthy and unhappy for almost ½ year here. I have witnessed and experienced some heart wrenching things that have undoubtedly changed me as a person. Despite having a huge tool box of coping skills I have struggled on a daily basis. I know that the spirit and body are inseparable. Which is why in these past few weeks my body has given me warning signs that I need to make some changes in my life. I am now in Addis Ababa taking several types of medications for the different illnesses and infections that have taken advantage of my weakened immune system. I have made the painful and difficult decision that I will leave Ethiopia and go home to restore my health, emotionally and physically. I hope that my friends, family and coworkers do not view me as a failure. I have made this choice as a matter of self preservation. I am certainly not falling back into a safety net, I go home with nothing but a duffle bag, possibly facing unemployment. Everyone always says that you should follow your heart. It is a lot harder than it sounds. . I have met some amazing and beautiful people here that I will miss forever. What will I do next? I have no clue, but I hope I can find a path to happiness and health.

Engaged!

Not me! This weekend my host sister Ametu Selam had her engagement party. The Ethiopian Muslim customs are very conservative, so only now that they are engaged will they be free to go out for coffee or see each other in public. The ceremony was at my house. There was quite a whirlwind of activity. For days leading up to the event we had family and guests coming in and out to clean and cook and prepare the house. I think about 50 people were on the invitation list. We filled the compound and I opened up my room for the main meal so people could bring chairs in and eat. Being respectful of the culture even the Christians who came wore head scarves. The men sat in one area and the women sat in another. They slaughtered a cow for the event.(if you see the photo please take note of the hopeful look on the cats face.) The groom to be sent suitcases full of gifts for her and her family. She got a beautiful gold pendant, bracelet and ring. I took a picture but she tucked in her fingers because the morning of the party she almost chopped her finger off cutting meat. (oops!) He also bought them an entire bucket of honey which is quite expensive. During the bustle of activity the little baby in the photo came into my house every time she could toddle away from her family. She was convinced that she would read my copy of James Mitchner’s Alaska. Big goals for a small girl!

Sisay

Sisay was one of our LCF’s. For anyone who isn’t fluent in Peace Corps acronyms, an LCF is a language and cultural facilitator. They are modern day super heroes. These people leave their homes and families to come and live with us for our first 3 months in country. When we first arrive we are like lost children.  We can’t speak, read or write. We don’t know how to properly eat, bathe or socialize. I am not quite sure how the Peace Corps finds these amazing people. They put their own needs on the back burner and give us their undivided attention. They have super human reserves of patience.  They put up with our moods and frustrations as we go through culture shock. They go beyond their job descriptions and I feel that they give us unconditional love. Te biggest miracle of all is that within a few months time they teach us to speak a new language and function in a new world.

Sisay was one of these heroes. He shared a compound with me and my host family in Menegesha.. He spoke American slang better than me most of the time. He knew more American song lyrics than me by far. He was ahead of his time in breaking gender roles by being an Ethiopian man who could cook. He was a great cook actually and I even snuck in to watch him cut and peel vegetables a few times to make sure it wasn’t a hoax. Young 20’s and heartbreakingly handsome.  Dedicated to his job and a brilliant teacher. When Sarah died it was Sisay who took me aside and quietly explained that I needed to cover my head with a scarf at her funeral. He told me how to tell her family that God would comfort them, and gave me the Amharic translation.

So today when we went to pay our respects to his family, ironically I knew what to do. Sisay slipped into the water at Lake Zuwai this weekend and drowned.  The entire Peace Corps family of volunteers and staff are mourning his loss throughout the country. I wish I could pin a badge on Sisay for every Peace Corps success  or achievement that has been accomplished by his students. And I hope that his Ethiopian family understands the amazing impact that their young son had on this country.  We love you Sisay.

Running Route

Ch’abiha

So yesterday I went on a wild horse cart ride into the rural farm area of Ch’abi ha. There are some innovative hard working farmers in that area who are full of ideas but lack resources. I held a meeting to see what types of trainings they would be interested in and what environmental issues are the most challenging. I went on a tour of three farms to see their crops and projects. One guy, Mindeh has rigged up the most amazing irrigation system using old cooking oil jugs. By moving things around and changing adapters, it is also used as a shower, a hand washing station and a laundry washing area. They have to haul jugs of water to the house from the river. The day was challenging in that each farmer prepared drinks and food for me. I ate bananas, oranges, fresh bread, 2 lunches, plates of fresh honey from the bee hives, and drank 3 rounds of traditional coffee,  a Pepsi and an orange Mirinda. They laughed at me because the whole way home I apologized to the horse for us being so much heavier on the return trip. The farmers were so kind and gracious; they also sent me home with bags of eggs and honey. I was also given a funky hat to wear when the sun got hot. I’ll try to post a bunch of pictures now!

A Day in the Park

Well…what does one do when the news is loaded with political heat and chaos? Have a day in the park!! My friend Bridget came for a tour of the bio park, so we ran around with my friend Birkinish and took silly animal photos. Lovely outing. The other picture is my host family making their annual batches of cooking spices, bere bere and mit mita are used for cooking sauces and meat flavoring. I helped shred up bucket loads of spices with the girls in the afternoon. The weekend has been wild from the Ethiopian Holiday of Timkat/Epiphany and Asella was flooded with people coming to visit relatives. The schools all have exams now and will be on holiday for another week so I will be going out to visit farms NGO’s and the health centers this week. I sat in a 4th grade class as an observer last week to take notes on teaching approaches in Ethiopia. They were doing a review on health and nutrition and the class was being taught in Amharic. I became unreasonably excited when I understood the questions and raised my hand to answer. The teacher and students were so happy that I answered the question correctly that I got a wild round of applause. Are you as smart as a fourth grader?

Heart Break

(This post comes as a flash back. The event I am talking about happened in December while we were still in our training sites but I was unable to write about it at the time. Forgive my writing…my English is going down the tubes)

“Do I put the scarf on my head now or when we arrive at the church?” I asked.  I turned around to look at the Peace Corps staff in the back of the vehicle. They were all looking grim and a few had tears in their eyes. “You can put it on now” Kidija said softly. We rolled onto a bumpy dirt road and joined a procession of a few more vehicles full of people who were going to the funeral.

The whole thing seemed so surreal. Little Sarah had just kissed me on the cheek, 3 times, as always, just a few days ago. Sarah had Down’s syndrome and heart complications that came along with it. Her mother was afraid to have surgery done because many Ethiopians have a fear of anesthesia. Sarah was the kind of girl who took center stage. When you went to her house she would crank up the TV volume and lip sync whatever song was playing on the music channel using the remote control as a microphone. She would of course prefer to wear your sunglasses during the performance.

I was thinking that perhaps it was a good thing that our Peace Corps group was attending the funeral. Would anyone show up? I know that people with disabilities in Ethiopia still face superstition and social outcast at times. The road conditions got worse and I had to close the window to block out the billowing dust that was coming in. I pulled the scarf further down and put my sunglasses on to hide my eyes. I started to imagine how her family would be today. Her dad had passed away the year before, so it was a household full of girls. Her mother was the perfect hostess, always swift to whip up coffee and popcorn or some other type of snack on the spot. The two teenage daughters had full time careers of looking after Sarah. Part of the position, of course was adoring her. She was getting big but was still carried around and hugged and kissed regularly. My friend Katherine (another Peace Corps Volunteer) was living with Sara’s family during training. She had had to hide or feign sickness at times because they fed her so generously. Katherine had moved in with Bridget and her host family the day that Sarah passed away. They were making room for extended family that would arrive for the funeral.

I craned my neck to try and see into the window of the bus in front of us. Were Katherine and Bridget in there? We started to ascend the mountain of Mariam where the church was located. I began to notice groups of people draped in white Nutelas (shawls) who were traveling up the hill on foot. The further we went the thicker the crowd got. “Are they all going to the funeral?” I asked in disbelief. My friends in the back nodded their heads yes. My eyes filled with tears again. Sarah would not have a small gathering today. She was drawing a crowd that in the USA would be reserved for a rock star. She was a rock star. She was a burst of sunshine that made people smile. She was instantly your best friend and made you feel at home no matter who you were. When she talked to you she would get so close to your face that you couldn’t help but be mesmerized by her big brown eyes and long eyelashes.  My throat was getting dry. I hate funerals. I seem to always go into a state of frozen silence. If my silence is broken I over react and embarrass myself. Our procession pulled into the Church parking area. Buses, cars, and horse carts pulled into the lot… We started to walk towards the ceremony. I found my friends and gave them some stiff hugs and the boys got clammy handshakes. I could hear the women wailing before we got there… The culture here involves the immediate family sobbing and loudly wailing in front of the coffin. I joined the mass pilgrimage of people and walked up with wobbly knees. As soon as we rounded the corner I saw the coffin and I lost it. I tried to tuck under my scarf to hide my face. My host mother Tsahay appeared from nowhere and threw her arms around me and sat me down on the church steps in the shade. The hill beside the church was absolutely filled with people. Old men and women walking with canes and wrapped in blankets slowly made their entrances.  Sarah’s family was crowded around her coffin which sat on the wide stairs leading to the Church doors. When I saw how tiny her coffin was I started sobbing uncontrollably. I saw my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers sitting on the hillside. Their faces were pale and chiseled with grief. How amazing that this young girl had affected our lives so deeply in such a short time. I squeezed Tsahays hand and stood to walk up the hill. At this time a few men picked up the coffin and carried it up the hill towards the burial site. Sarah’s two sisters at this time went into frenzied fits of screaming and crying. They threw themselves onto the ground flailing around in agony until their loved ones helped to pick them up and half carry them to the coffin again. The girls who were normally dressed very fashionably with their hair neatly braided arrived at the funeral completely disheveled.  To me it symbolized that looking good had absolutely no meaning on this day.  Nothing had meaning today. Sarah was gone.

Ethiopian culture has something that they call Lexo.  TheLexo is what happens the week following a funeral.  The living room of Sarah’s house was cleared of furniture and replaced with mattresses and piles of pillows. Her mother was seated in the middle of the room and for the following week she was surrounded by friends, family and endless visitors who take shifts in order to assure that she is not alone. People came all day long bringing coffee, sugar food and small donations of money. I got to go visit in the evenings after language class. Some days we all sat silently. Some day’s people would tell stories of remembrance to honor Sarah. What a wonderful tradition. Imagine if we weren’t so busy in America that we could support each other in this way. I feel like we are lucky enough if we can get a day of work off to attend a wake. I find that Ethiopia has an unbelievably strong sense of community. Even being a foreigner I have been taken in like family here.  The hospitality and support are overwhelming. I am taking notes and hope to bring some of this home with me.

Decor

Please humor me and check out my “home improvement” photos. It was a big deal to figure out the right words in Amharic to buy paint, brushes and all of the various bags of powders, pastes etc. to repair my walls. The process was pretty bizarre actually I had to buy a brick of something called kola and boil it in a pot of water until it melted. It smelled like dead rats. But after that I mixed it up and filled in all of the holes and cracks in my walls and floor. I also brightened the place up with a paint job and laid down some floor plastic to make it easier to clean. The dangly thing on the wall is my one electric outlet that is sketchy and hopefully will be redone someday.  I’m quite comfortable and happy with my new little house. The relevance of the other photos is to show the importance of color here. One picture is me with my counterpart’s wife and daughter. And the picture of the inside of the bajaj (3 wheeled taxi) is just to show what my morning commute is like. Every bajaj has some type of faux fur from a muppet lining the dash board. Usually velvet lined ceiling and different kinds of pom poms and fringes hanging about the windows. The effect is nice and distracting enough to make you not notice the near death encounters along the way as you dodge donkeys, trucks, cattle, and whatever else is in the road. Thank you for all of your comments and posts..I read  them all but just cant afford to reply to all of them. Also Bridgets dad..if you are following this, I saw your lovely daughters smiling face today!! She is doing very well 🙂

No Cranky Pants

It just isn’t possible to be cranky here. Whatever it is that is causing you to feel sorry for yourself is most likely trivial compared to other people’s problems and they manage to keep their chins up don’t they? Besides, walking around with a sour puss on usually makes people laugh because it looks ridiculous. You are much better off to smile at people on the street and the smiles they give you in return will pull you out of the slump. Ethiopian smiles are authentic, radiant and more mood stabilizing than a bowl of chocolate ice cream. Well…maybe. This week was very busy. I visited all of the schools, municipal offices and NGO’s to invite them to my installation meeting.  I went alone and gave speeches in Amharic about who I was and why they should attend this meeting. I was pleased that about 30 people showed up today and my Program Director Heywot did an excellent job of fully describing my Peace Corps goals and assisting me with communication barriers. We held the meeting at the lovely Biopark Lake and had a bunna (coffee) ceremony to close the meeting. It is just the beginning but I feel as though I am off to a good start with supportive connections and a strong group of community members to work with. I am also happy that my house is now painted with new flooring laid out that seems to be deterring the snail invasions.  The pictures I am posting are from today’s meeting!

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