Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Final Chapter

Friday July 23, 2010

I am sitting at the airport wondering how this day came so quickly and searching for the right words to describe my time here. Words are failing me, especially in a country like Ethiopia, in a place as special as Africa. Right now, as I prepare to depart I want a word that explains that something has happened to change me. But the word needs to encompass more than change. Something much bigger has happened. From this point on my life will have a before and after, a was and a will be and I will never again be the same person. But in the end words alone mean very little, as Maya Angelou tells us, “it takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning.” And so, for perhaps the last time, I will give as much of my genuine voice to this final chapter as I can.

It’s too soon to really understand what my time here has meant, nor am I ready to try to explain. Instead I will turn to a favorite quote from a favorite book of mine, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolover, that has been a sustaining thought as I have grappled with many confusing emotions over the past few months.

“To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to acquire the words of a story, and that is the only celebration we mortals really know…One has only a life of one’s own.”

As most of you know I was never destined for a “normal” path. And while I wouldn’t expect anyone to understand why I needed to do this, all of us make choices in our lives that require us to sacrifice at least a piece of what we cling to. If nothing else explains these past months, maybe that does.

The past few weeks have not only been a whirlwind of activity, but have been deeply emotional and exhausting. I have accomplished more than I ever thought capable of myself. But my initial goals really rather simple. First, I had the hope of giving my time and talents for those who never had the same ample opportunities as I, and second, perhaps more selfishly, to open my perspective to include other cultures in the world. Mission accomplished? With time, I may know one day.

At one point I compared this adventure to falling in love, already knowing that my heart will be broken. Now I have to say that comparison isn’t entirely fair. It isn’t so much of a breaking as a constant longing. I got to know Ethiopia for its beauty and ugliness, it’s good and bad. But more importantly I discovered my beauty and ugliness, my good and bad, what I liked and disliked about me, here, as I was tested over and over again. Ethiopia and I, we experienced life together, what our life would be like together.

So as I prepare to depart, literally, they are boarding my flight, I am still completely at a loss for the right word to encompass this experience. I guess the closest I can come right now is: gratitude. Thank you for the emotional support. I have received countless wonderful e-mails and good thoughts that have helped sustain me through some of the more difficult times. I truly carry all of your love with me, and mostly likely if you are reading this, you are one of those people who has loved me and encouraged the confidence that I needed to undertake this adventure. I feel blessed to have been able to embark upon this journey, and I hope that my experiences have been a blessing to you as a result. Thank you for taking the time to be a part of my life. I hope that when I return our lives will continue to encourage one another.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Going North

Wednesday July 21, 2010

Ever since I heard there were medieval castles in northern Ethiopia, I have been pining to go on a quest to find them and therefore at the absolute last minute and completely spur of the moment I decided to throw caution to the wind and go. I found myself heading north at 4am Saturday night/Sunday morning on what can only be titled an epic adventure. To avoid exhaustive description and superfluous sentences I will limit the details of my trip to the four main attractions.

1)Spent Sunday afternoon cruising Lake Tana, on which the “city” of Bahir Dar is situated. The boat, although less than “complete” in the hippo and crocodile infested waters, made it around the lake with minimal bailing. While Lake Tana is simply a beautiful (and shockingly clean, by Ethiopian standards) vista, what is hidden on the islands and far shores is far more spectacular. Century old monasteries adorned with biblical murals and cross-wielding priests live in near isolation on self-sustainable convents. What interested me most, however, was that some of the monasteries may have been sites of pre-Christian shrines, although they were built in the 16th and 17th centuries, well after Jesus supposedly attempted to impose Christianity on the Ethiopian people. All the churches are built in the orthodox Christian style, which is quite yurt-like, with separate entrances for men and women, if women are allowed at all. I learned, after being spit on by a sister, that you must take off your shoes before entering. And because it is Ethiopia, it is customary to tip the priest, who offers a gentle reminder with his outstretched hand.

2)Monday I made my way up to Gonder (where the castles are!) by spending another 3 hours jammed into an overfilled mini-van type taxi. To be honest, aside from the biggest tree I have ever seen in the town square, the previous capital of Ethiopia looks exactly like every other place here. In the valley, tin-roof shacks line the streets and although significantly smaller, the merkato there is just as frustrating. But I was warned: “it’s not what Gonder is, but what it was” that’s truly spectacular. And it’s true. Presiding over the city are the walls of medieval style castles that predate that era in Europe. How they were built, where the architecture came from is all part of the mystery. What is clear is that each dynasty built their own castle, complete with lion cages. I think the best description is its nickname: The Camelot of Africa. Only it’s real, I promise.

3)Upon returning to Bahir Dar and after seriously catching up on sleep, I suffered serious bumps and bruises taking the rocky road out to the village of Tis Isat site of the Blue Nile Falls. Which were not blue. At all. It was a brown and mucky mess product of the rainy season, but powerful and amazing all the same, and actually more so because it was the rainy season. I have a personal affinity for waterfalls and this did not disappoint, although apparently they were even more magnificent before the hydroelectric project upstream stole most of falls energy. But really in the end, hydroelectric project and Ethiopia in the same sentence is probably the most magnificent combination in the world. The sun even came out long enough to witness a beautiful rainbow and I left damp from the mist, rising out of the gorge. At the convergence water pours over the cliffs into a chasm that cannot even be seen because the mist is so thick and overwhelming. Tis Isat, the name of the village, literally means “water that smokes” and I don’t think I could describe it any better.

4)A lot of ridiculous things happen to me. I am like a magnet for the absurd. If you don’t know me, just take this at face value. Think of the most ridiculous thing to happen to you, multiply by 10 and subtract 5, just for good measure and you get my life. But of all the ridiculous things to ever happen to me this tops the chart. This goes off the chart. The 9 hour journey back to Addis pretty much exceeded all my expectations of ridiculous, so much so that I don’t even know what the right word would be. What goes above and beyond, outlandish, preposterous, outrageous? Because that’s what this was. Ok so here goes.

Remember the furry taxis? Well I decided to take one home to Addis, only it wasn’t furry. Thinking they wouldn’t jam as many people into it for 9 hours, I thought I was scoring the deal of a lifetime. I was wrong. There are 11 legitimate seats in a mini-van taxi. Over the course of the journey we fit 16 adults, one child, one rooster and a goat (that was later removed and tied to the roof…it was pouring rain). So after the taxi gets underway, the four men squashed into the three seats behind me start passing a flask. As they get more and more inebriated one of the gentlemen takes a firm grip on my pig-tails and begins to “milk” them for lack of a better term. This goes on past hilarity and into annoyance at which point I put an end to the madness and try to sleep for a couple of hours. Oh yes, have I mentioned this taxi ride is from 7pm – 5am?

So we take our one bathroom/stretch break and the man with the goat climbs on top of the car, grabs the animal by its neck and checks to see if it is still alive, which it is, only I'm sure it's in sever shock. Then he proceeds to fight with the driver and I can just assume it’s about bringing the sopping wet animal back into the taxi. I am going to let my reaction to that one go unsaid.

Around 3am the taxi arrives at the Nile crossing, a beautiful bridge built for the Millennium, and monitored by the army. A soldier with a large gun opens the door and asks to see identification cards which he briefly considers before returning them to their owners. Finally he receives my passport and as he realizes where I am from his face lights up, I mean it really begins to glow in the yellow hue of the flashlight. With haste he passes his automatic weapon off to the child and begins to unbutton his uniform, pausing only to lift a finger in the “wait one second, don’t go anywhere gesture.” As if I could. So as the uniform looses, the soldier draws it back to reveal a tee-shirt bearing Barack Obama’s face with the slogan “Proud to be American.” Smile and nod, smile and nod.

At 5am the rooster in the taxi went off…

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

One Week To Go

Friday July 16, 2010

I do this annoying thing when I wake up in the morning that I can’t describe better than a need to situate myself in time. I compare the day to larger life events, comings and goings, holidays, due-dates, birthdays etc. I say for example, “this time last week we were leaving for Awassa” or “this time last year I was moving.” It has been a habit of mine for as long as I can remember. Something that I have always needed to do to align my thoughts with reality. So now that I have revealed just how absolutely crazy I am on this oh so public forum I will make my point, and that is that it occurred to me today that, “this time next week will be my last day in Ethiopia.” Sadly, that is the next and most significant milestone. It is no longer logical to calculate how long it has been since my arrival, I am now on the tail end, making the final countdown, playing the bottom of the ninth, you can choose your favorite cliché.

Consequently this all means that I am now thinking about “going back home.” That phrase catches in my throat. And while I am being honest, this is something else I tend to do: to make something real, when I need to convince myself of something, I say it out loud. So, for two reasons, I literally choke over the words.

The first is I hate “good-byes.” They turn me into this incredibly awkward person. And if you heard me say this before it’s because I dread good-byes so much that mull over how awkward the encounter will be days beforehand. I would much rather leave than say goodbye. I honestly think it would be beneficial to all parties if I forwent this traditional social edict and just slipped out.

The second reason is perhaps a little harder to explain.

Dickens wrote “There is nothing harder than being given your chance.” Well I feel as though I have had my chance, I have realized a major dream of mine. This is my dream. And there are days I feel a though this opportunity happened to me. As much as I would like to believe that I drove my life in this direction, it simply isn’t true. This opportunity happened upon me, it was luck, fate, what was meant to be and stuff like that simply doesn’t happen too often. So the hardest part is what will do now that I have been given my chance, going home means “what happens now?”

Going home. Moving forward, but also backward at the same time, it’s a funny contradiction that makes me understand that what I am returning to can never be the same as what I left because I am not the same. So then maybe the contradiction is not in going back home, but in myself.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

List It Out

Wednesday July 14, 2010

As my time in Ethiopia comes to a close all my lingering questions, concerns and discomfort subside and I realize, in the face of leaving how much I have fallen in love with this country. But with any great love you have to embrace the good with the bad, so here is the official list, the likes and dislikes of Ethiopia:


1)The people, so friendly, joyous. They will go way out of their way to help you. They love saying hello.
2)Coffee, Coffee, Coffee…best I’ve had anywhere in the world!
3)Taxis- it’s an experience every time. Whether I am sitting next to a bag of onions, livestock, a person just eager to demonstrate his English, or some seriously faux fur.
4)The greeting. You start by shaking hands then lean in and bump right shoulders. It’s catchy!
5)The technology is from about 1995, at first I thought this would be frustrating, but it’s actually nice to be disconnected most of the time.
6)The bread. No matter what time a day it feels like it just came from the oven. It is everything a piece of bread should be, crisp and flakey on the outside smooth and fluffy on the inside, with that insatiable smell.
7)The cultural food in general. Yup, I’m shocked too, but it’s really growing on me to the point of genuine enjoyment.
8)That is totally acceptable for 2 or more men to walk down the street hand in hand.

1.Carcasses- you would be surprised at the discarded bones and goat skulls lying in the street being consumed by bugs. Actually you may not be as surprised as disguised; I gag a little every time.
2.Being called at “Hey You” about every 20 feet of everywhere I go. Clearly I can’t blend in so people are constantly trying to get my attention.
3.The openness of bodily functions. No tissue, pick your nose. Can’t reach, hack and fling. Need a bathroom? That row of (insert anything here) looks good.
4.Tossing trash wherever it pleases. Don’t litter, Save the Earth!
5.The snapping. I know it’s totally culturally acceptable to snap your fingers to get the attention of waiters or in a person’s face to elicit a response, but I can’t get over it. It’s culturally ingrained in me that snapping is rude. Maybe it’s the fact that I was a waitress for far too long.
6.99% of the time I am terrified of the moving vehicle I am in (I guess rightfully so).


Monday July 12, 2010

I know I’m supposed to be saving the world and all, but even the greatest of superheroes needs a vacation, and so this weekend found five of us crammed into a Toyota traveling 5 hours south to the “city” of Awassa. Although I had every intention of taking an extended nap with the sun on my face and the rock of the car, I couldn’t bring myself to close my eyes to the rapidly changing scenery. After the smog of Addis cleared we traveled though farmlands, mountains and deserts past greenhouses, steel factories and mud huts. We dodged cattle, donkeys, goats, monkeys and tuck-tucks. We waved to men in fields and children finding shade in desert trees or twisted into the curves of the oversized oaks.

Then we arrived in Awassa. I would be lying if I said the city itself is worth the drive. Actually, the drive is worth the drive, Awassa is nothing more than a large strip of hotels and bars, maybe worthy of a short stroll and nothing more. However, on the outskirts of the town lay Lake Awassa, inundated with hippos and Rastafarians willing to boat you just a little too close. Note to all adrenaline junkies, like myself, being 30 feet in a glorified row boat from the most deadly animal in Africa certainly does the trick; especially when they disappear under the murky water and high grass only to bob to the surface slightly closer.

The next day was equally entertaining as we spent the morning hand-feeding wild monkeys and watching the early morning fishermen cast their nets. There is something so natural about eating the morning catch lake side and chatting with the man who brought it in. Fried in huge barrels we burn our fingers picking apart our breakfast fish and pulling the bones from our teeth.

We broke up the drive home with a stop at some hot springs for a “shower” and left again gnawing on freshly harvested sugar cane. After pulling all the sweetness from the wood we shucked it out the windows with our teeth (sorry to dentists all around the world). It was necessary to stop one more time to purchase honey comb and again, nothing went to waste, not even the waxy texture of the comb itself.

By far the highlight of the trip, however, was enjoying each other’s company duck-side. Literally, we ate nightly at this restaurant whose “fire pit” was in the shape of a giant duck, aflame all night. And that right there is the prime example of all the humor that is Ethiopia. Of all the absurdities…

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hippos and Zebras

Friday July 9, 2010

I have been seriously slacking on the blogging but that is only because I have been finding a multitude of other ways to keep busy (and once the World Cup ends on Sunday my free time will grow exponentially)!

It goes without saying that the children in foster are growing daily. With the arrival of more volunteers came more books so we have expanded into Safari animals! I am thrilled to announce they are confusing zebras with cows and hippos with fish. I view this with enthusiasm because it means that they are making they are making the connection black and white animal = cow; animal in water = fish. The differentiation will come later and for now they are really observing and crossing knowledge over between books. Simply never cease to amaze me!

The shop women are furiously crafting 1,000 bracelets to be sold state side (plug!) and arguing logos, although I am still pretty sure the point of why this is important is lost in translation. They are also knitting adorable booties in colors of choice, so while you excuse my not so subtle hints, check those out on your next trip to Ethiopia!

I went back up the mountain of Entoto to the school for the HIV children on Thursday and met some of the children’s families with Mesfia (Yemamau’s friend). At this time food money has dried up so he can no longer provide the children a meal and consequently attendance has dropped nearly 30%. The purpose of the family visits was simply to show his devotion and encourage continued attendance. My purpose was simply to take pictures so that he could have more to show potential benefactors.

We first met a group of previous students selling boiled sweet potatoes on the side of the road and another working 1 of 3 crisscrossed looms taking up the entire home. He was making these beautiful white linen scarves traditionally worn by the orthodox Christian women. The homes wore dung huts with thatched roofs. My arm span is a pretty accurate measure of their size and six is the average number of children in a family. The purpose of the home is solely for sleeping. All other activities are done in the communal cooking hut or outside.

Aside from soccer the children entertain themselves with hop-scotch etched into the dirt and jump rope, and undeterred by their bare feet and tattered clothes, race through the woods and fields. A young boy is tasked with keeping the herds for the day. He relaxes in the field practicing his whip cracking and the most trouble he encounters comes from the other children being mischievous but the bulls with gigantic horns apparently pose no threat.

Being up on the mountain again I began thinking about this completely contrary life to Addis; completely pastoral living that we might be too quick to condemn for its simplicity. But then who am I to judge what is “better.” These people may not be literate or technologically say but they know their land better than anything. They know what to do with it, how to live off it, they have a different, perhaps even more important kind of knowledge because it enables them to survive. The children might be dirty, they might be hungry or sick, but still, I can’t help but think that they are better off, living fresh from the squalor of Addis.

I often consider that Ethiopia developed too quickly for its own good. It avoided colonization, which preserved a beautiful culture, but then Ethiopia got caught in globalization, the modern world forced its self upon this nation; ready or not. The result is a half-way effect. They have modern machines but no controls on pollution, road-construction or traffic, technology but no one skilled enough to operate it, and the accessibility to information but lack of literacy. To top it off the cultural mindset would lead any typical Westerner into impatient chaos. But then again, maybe that is our own American downfall. I am finally getting around to reading a book by an Ethiopian author, Dinaw Mengestu. The other day he told me that Americans are always racing, we have this insatiable need to be the first to do something and as a result we have an antipathy toward the past. “We raced across America to get to the Pacific, and then we raced to build a railroad to connect it all. We raced to the moon. We raced to build as many bombs as was humanly possible. I wonder if now we haven’t run out of things to race against. I think the moment that happens we’ll have nothing to do but look back. Then we’ll know if it was worth it.”

So as my time here continues to rapidly wane I have decided to stop racing with it; to embody Ethiopians so to speak. Most of the time I have to check myself anyway because I am still in awe that this is my life. How did I get so lucky as to be living out this dream? It’s like when you hear sirens on the streets of any major city. They are at first faint but then growing louder with each passing second, people begin to strain to see, traffic clears the center of the street and of course there are those who feign comfort, pretend they cannot be bothered. The sound quickly takes over, burning the ears, refusing to be ignored. Then there is no other option but to watch the parade of police, fire trucks, ambulances, or possibly black SUVs or a stretch limo lead by the flags of some far off place and wonder, “what is of such great importance?” At the moment it barely registers. And maybe only later when catching a glimpse at the news is the witnessed moment connected to something greater, and maybe it is completely fleeting to be forgotten as the sounds recede in to the distance and everyone resumes their lives. But the point is, for that one moment, every ordinary person is fulfilling their role as observers and time is temporally suspended.

That is precisely how these last months have been to me and what they have meant I am only just beginning to discover. I am an observer, nothing greater. Still, as such, I bear a great responsibility that will continue to work itself out in meaning for the rest of my life. In the end I am, grasping on with white knuckles to what I can and hoping the meaning comes later.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Apologies for the delay

Saturday July 3 2010

Exhaustion doesn’t even begin to describe my current ability to function. Zombie might be a more accurate description of how I look and feel. As the Uruguay-Ghana game went into overtime and kick-offs the anxiety and excitement of Millennium hall was thick and tangible. Packed into a huge hall was several thousand Ethiopians, all hope hanging on their African counterparts playing in the quarter-finals. The dream of the first African team to go to the semi-finals and possibly play for the title piled on top of the first time Africa has hosted the World Cup. No less than ten big screens broadcasted the game in what can only be described as a stadium simulation. Then there was silence as we shuffled out of the hall, disappointment and sadness, but in true Ethiopian fashion no display of emotion.

As the city woke this morning, back to its typical Saturday morning bustle, no one wanted to talk about it. It’s just over. And World Cup excitement has almost completely diminished.

Out early, I met with one of Yemamu’s childhood friends, Mesfia, for breakfast and a trip up the mountain of Entoto. Although only about 20 minutes north of the city, the atmosphere feels like another world. The misty, cool forests are vaguely reminiscent of the jungles of Hawaii and the rolling green fields made me believe I had traveled back to pastoral Europe. Just as a reminder though, from the octagonal shaped Entoto Maryam Chuch is a beautiful view of Addis, provided the sun burns off the smog.

Past the small village and the makeshift soccer field is a small plot of land donated to Mesfia for his mission. He built a small wooden frame and a couple of benches and covered it in several tarps, establishing the village’s first school. About 50 children come daily (and more when he can afford to provide a meal) with their one notebook and pen to learn. There are no school supplies, blackboard, desks or books, just children huddled together taking in the oral lesson of the teacher and yet it is more than has ever before been offered.

An astounding 85% of the community is HIV positive and has therefore been left largely neglected. Living in even more astounding poverty than those in the city, the women carry back-breaking bundles of wood down the mountain every morning to sell in market only to return to care for their children, who never cease to amaze me with their ability to be children. After an epic game of soccer and lots of time spent touching my skin and hair, they filled me with questions about my favorite food, sport, animal, music, everything. And as I tried to come up with answers they could relate to (my favorite food is clearly shiro!) I realized how just how many worlds apart we grew up. It probably should be redundant to me at this point, obvious all the opportunities I had that they will never, but for some reason it became so much more apparent trying to answer these simple questions that all children everywhere ask, exactly the same. I think that is what baffled me the most. The questions where the same, much like children all over the world are filled with that sense of joy and wonder. Where we change, where our inherent qualities become cloudy is in our exposure and witness to nearly everything (or nothing).

Dinaw Mengestu reminisces about growing up in Ethiopia as he writes, “Our memories are like a river cut off from the ocean. With time they will slowly dry out in the sun, and so we drink and drink and drink and we can never have our fill.” The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears