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

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Little of This, A Little of That...

Friday July 2, 2010

I have spent the last 48 hours mentally preparing myself to go to Merkato for the umpteenth time and no amount of preparation can ready oneself for Merkato during a down pour. The mission: a cabinet or shelving unit and some comfortable floor pillows for the play room behind the third foster care home.

To back up for a moment, Kate, another summer volunteer, and I have spent the past week compiling all the donated toys, games, books and crafts not yet divided amongst the houses. After divining up the goods to the appropriate ages, we brought the surplus to a closet-room, out-housed behind the foster care of the oldest kids. The plan for the future (which is a common phrase here, whenever you see a half-built building) is to have a space available for one-on-one play, counseling and therapy.

While the space now looks great and the cabinet was a shockingly easy purchase, the rain and quest for big floor pillows coincided creating mayhem. No less than four gentlemen took it upon themselves to “help” us. Lack of success diverted our attention to a man selling alphabet posters, but the pillow guys were determined, still stuffing them in our faces trying to make a deal, all the while we are getting soaked.

Yemamu and I followed this expedition up with a second trip to Merkato today and the downpour did not cease. We went back to our string dealer for enough to make 1,000 braided bracelets for On Their Own. The vender wasn’t their when we got to his stall, and so the ink guy across the way called him. Five minutes he said. Nearly forty-five minutes later he comes strolling back in. My desperation to wait was only outweighed by my desired to avoid coming back a third day. And while you might think there are several other people who sell embroidery sting, shockingly he is the only one, although there is a surplus of knitting yarn. The first time the string was B15 a spool, the second B12, and today only 9 birr. That’s what a “relationship,” a long wait and a bulk purchase will get you!

I have also been spending a lot more time with the three oldest girls at Foster Care now that school is out for the summer. At ten and eleven, they are significantly older than the other children there and so they come and eat lunch with me, in our newly furnished room, and we do manicures or play games like jenga, uno and of course jump rope. I have been teaching them chants: “Strawberry-shortcake with cream on top…” My highly skilled jump roping days of elementary school are finally paying off.

Childhood and adolescents as we know it are completely by-passed here. Culturally children go from being babies to adults. As young as seven, they become responsible for their younger siblings and go to work as shoe-shiners or gum and cigarette sellers to help the family. Only the very lucky ones get to go to school, and even that is tentative on the family’s situation. I love playing with the girls at foster because in some ways, they get to be the adolescent that I was. They get to come home from school to a snack and play time and they are forever coming up with creative games and acting the older sisters to all the other children.

They are at that awful, awkward, tough middle school age that I look back on and still dread. Not the fondest memories. However, so much is learned at this time. It is the beginning of a lifetime of personal discovery, who you are and more importantly who you never want to be. It is a time of “emerging from innocents” and therefore crucially important to expose them to positive influences. Our language connection is strained and the differences of our personal histories make total connection difficult but there is something so simple and empowering about spending time with these girls. It makes a difference to them. Makes them feel special to not just be lumped with all the other children, whose thoughts, emotions, feelings, worries and excitements , while just as valid, are not the same. The reward is the smile on their face when you arrive, how excited they get when you want to take a picture with them or even simply that you asked how their week is going and then how genuinely interested you are in their answer.

Friday, July 2, 2010

The setting: An Ethiopian Spin Class

Wednesday June 30, 2010

Yes I found one and it is unique to say the least. Any trainer in the US would go crazy with anxiety watching these guys doing a Harlem shake and bouncing back and forth to the music as their knees waver in and out. Most even take off their seat to get a broader range of body-flinging motion. The music is so loud (like everything else in Ethiopia) that the instructor whistles commands at us, while he dances around the room drinking orange soda. If I paid attention for the whole hour I wouldn’t be able to tolerate it very long, but I am grateful for the bike and so I just tune it out and do my own thing. However, if ever in Ethiopia I highly recommend as a cultural adventure.

It’s been a long time since I have committed myself to writing because I have been that really great kind of busy where stuff actually gets accomplished. I am fairly certain that the increase in the quality of my morning coffee has had a direct effect on my productivity level. With the arrival of Joan and Neeah, two Occupational Therapists, came a French press…NO MORE INSTANT! So as I sit here with my fabulously bohemian clay mug, purchased from the foreigner haven NGO bazaar, I feel clear headed in a way that only rich caffeine can provide.

But the NGO bazaar got me thinking. What is so fabulous there that foreigners flock? Literally we line up outside at 8:30 on a Saturday morning to get the prime pick. Why doesn’t this happen at the bazaars the Kechene women attend? Well the answer is simple. The NGO venders all offer completely unique wares that beautifully interweave Ethiopian culture with foreigner appeal and wear-ability, while the Kechene women offer much the same as every other typical Ethiopian tourist shop. So now the question becomes: how do we get Kechene products up to NGO bazaar standards so they can hold a monthly spot their too?

The shop women have maintained a stand at a bazaar all last week and are attending a new one this week. I am not sure how successful these bazaar stands are, but based on my observations from the NGO fair, my intuition tells me that they do not do so well. I went to visit them last Wednesday and while they are proud, they are not selling. This is not to say they don’t have exceptional crafting talent, it’s just the variety and uniqueness of execution gets lost. However, it is still really great for the women to be able to get their wares “out there” a little more.

Ideas. They need fresh ideas. And so I have been working on differentiation techniques with some of the Gladney staff who help support the shop. Some suggestions have to do with product, what do American families (bringing home a new child or two) want to buy? Because certainly the last thing they want to occupy their mind is how to pack a coffee ceremony or tribal drum set, which both are currently occupying places of honor in the shop. Families are not your typical tourists and frankly, if you want to be a typical tourist I would not recommend Ethiopia.

What I want to work on is marketing the Kechene shop based on the women themselves. They have such incredible stories and in my completely unbiased opinion, are deserving of business over any competing shop. They need a support system, a way to get their stories even further and this would lead to greater success in the shop. Right now I am helping them devise a “logo” (thanks mom) a depiction of who these women are, that can be embroidered or imprinted on all their handcrafted pieces. Having a “look” is an important first step. And I think from creating a unique insignia follows more creativity of product, focus of demography and awareness of quality.

So why this arduous explanation? Because we need help! It is obvious based on my experience thus far that buying chackies unique to Ethiopia is important, but there is a balance between being “culturally Ethiopian” and “glaringly Ethiopian.” Which if you don’t know what I mean picture Rastafarian with some extra flare. Now that’s a hard sell to your average American. Working through some new product ideas I can handle, though suggestions are always welcome. Where I am struggling is how else can we let the world know about these women? How can we get tourists to choose the Kechene shop over the Leper shop or some random tourist trap at Piazza? It might be hard to picture never having been here, but we are in a great bustling location and trust me, in Ethiopia, customer service is not a problem.

So in the end, I wrote this blog to ask for help. To plead for suggestions. E-mail me! ( Thoughts, ideas, questions, concerns, wishes, hopes and dreams, all is welcome.