I quit reading and theirfore I am not able too right good. I promise to correct this. Read children.
I’ve been back in the country for a month. The wait to come back, while tedious, was worth it. I barely feel like a Peace Corps volunteer anymore. At least, not in the sense that I felt like I was a Peace Corps volunteer when I stepped into a foreign country 33 months ago. This time everything is familiar – the city is not overwhelming. Traveling, while stressful, does not drain me physically and mentally like it did before. The other foreigners I see on the streets look like freshmen on their first day of high school walking around with overstuffed backpacks and confusion written on their face. I feel bad when I see them because I can’t help but feel a certain amount of disdain for them. I should want to help them, but all I can think is that I am always perceived as one of them. And as long as I stay here, as much as I integrate, in the end I am still just a tourist. A non-Ethiopian living in Ethiopia
Living in the city, I will undoubtedly have more interactions with the Addis Ababa ex-pat community. Most of these people are NGO workers, embassy employees, different types of investors, and volunteers. I’ve also ran into a surprising amount of Ethiopian-Americans that have repatriated to open up businesses in Ethiopia. I’m wary about trying to seek out these groups. It seems like an escape from actually being in Ethiopia, and the entire point of the last four months was to come back to Ethiopia. So, while familiarity might be comforting, it’s not why I am here.
I’m not sure how other countries work, but there has never been much interaction between the ex-pat community and Peace Corps community in Ethiopia, as far as I know. My theory is that it takes so much effort to truly integrate and understand the Ethiopian culture that it creates a divide between Peace Corps volunteers who are putting in that effort and ex-pats who usually are not. I can speak the language, identify a scammer, manage the transportation system, and it took time to get to that point. I’d rather spend time with those that have shared that struggle with me and my Ethiopian friends that have helped me get there.
My disdain (probably too harsh a word) is almost certainly misplaced, and a good number of foreigners here are doing good work and will be good partners to have as I continue my work. Additionally, the perks of living in a metropolitan world city are pretty good. I go to a gym regularly, I can find almost any type of food I want, I can get my haircut by someone who knows what they are doing, and I can check my email on the 3G network. It’s not exactly living in a one room house with no water and a hole for a toilet, but this is Peace Corps round two. I cannot complain about the new gig.
Right now, I believe I am in the midst of one of the most exciting six month stretches of my life. In the past two months I’ve visited Europe for the first time, seen Olympians performing on their stage, directed a camp for Ethiopian high school students, implemented a trash collection service, and continued to live my surprise-around-every-corner life in Ethiopia. Last week, the group of volunteers that I came to Ethiopia with had our “Continuation of Service” conference, which gave me the opportunity to reflect on what we have done and helped prepare us for the next step – whatever that may be. While the conference was anxiety inducing, I left feeling more excited for my future and thankful for the opportunity that I have had here.
After three months, on November 30, 2012, I will be leaving Ethiopia and coming to America – hopefully not for very long, though. I say that because right now I am looking into extending a third year in country. There’s one position that I have my eye on, but in an effort not to jinx it, I don’t want to talk too much about it. However, I am excited about it, and I will probably spend much of my time in the next three months making sure that it happens. Regardless, I’ll be home in December to watch my sister get married, see friends, and celebrate Christmas with my family. Having December on the horizon puts a smile on my face. After December though, I hope to be back to my second home for a little while at least – maybe a year.
It’s funny; I just read my last blog post, and laughed that my prediction of one more blog post in the coming year was so accurate. The work, my way of life described in that blog post seems somewhat foreign, but surprisingly similar to my life now. My comfort zone that I described in that post has just expanded with new friends, experiences, and struggles. My work with ASDA has slowed somewhat, but, in the mean time, my work and productivity in the community has blossomed. But every day is different. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to yell and sometimes you have to suck it up, smile, and nod no matter how much you disagree with something. Some battles you can win, some you can’t, but you can usually find another way. Learning to pick your spot is difficult. Essentially, Peace Corps has taught me to be a politician. After a successful camp and a trash collection project that is off to a great start, I may be able to look into a career in politics.
Projects and the extension opportunity are going to occupying a large portion of my thoughts over the next few months, but I’m most anxious about leaving the people that I’ve spent the last 21 months building relationships with. I’ve been lucky to live on a compound with some amazing people that brought me in like family. My friends like Kirubel and Mesay will be friends for life. I am sure that I will keep in contact with a few close friends; however, I know that when I leave Dera in three months my relationship with Dera and the people will never be as intimate as it is now. I won’t forget them and I don’t think Dera will forget me. I just want them to remember me in a good way.
 I say “Continuation of Service” because one of Peace Corps’ three goals is to educate Americans about the culture of Ethiopia on behalf of Ethiopians, therefore, we are all still serving when we get back to America.
 I have been basically been working on three projects the past six months: 1. I was camp director at a summer camp for high school students – completed, 2. I am using a VAST grant (Peace Corps grant) to implement a town trash collection service with a composting emphasis – in progress, 3. I designed a small scale drip irrigation project for 100 people living with HIV/AIDS in Dera – approved and waiting for the funds to be deposited.
When I began this blog I noted that the frequency with which I post entries would be on a “regularly sporadic basis”. Now having ten months to evaluate that statement, a more accurate statement would have been “my blog posting frequency will have a inverse log-normal distribution”, which, if the distribution holds, means I have one, maybe two, blog entries left for the coming year. Luckily, with only a few blog entries as sample points, there’s far too little data to say with confidence that this trend will continue. Additionally, I promise to buck the trend in the coming year, if only for the reason that nothing I do here is normal, including the distribution of my blog posts.
Last week marked one year in Ethiopia, and, originally, I wanted to write about how normal it felt to live here. But that did not quite fully encompass my current state of mind or status of my experience. Things are different here. If I had the motivation, I could write a very interesting blog by simply posting a list of my daily activities. While most of the things would be mundane, almost every day there would be a few gems that stood out. For example, last week would have included, “Was hand fed raw meat and injera by a middle age lady I didn’t know; returned the favor about an hour later” . At the time of that encounter, I realized it was a little unusual to be hand fed by a complete stranger, but I felt no reservation or embarrassment from participating in the feeding (each other) frenzy.
Basically, I’ve grown comfortable living outside my comfort zone, or, in other words, my comfort zone has grown. A lot.
I’m guessing some readers of this blog are thinking, “Well great, I’m glad you’re comfortable, but what are you actually doing over there???” – a valid question. As it happens, comfort and doing things actually go hand in hand. If you were to ask that question to me 8 months ago an honest answer would have been reading… voraciously, eating poorly prepared food, communicating to people at a 2 year old level, thinking about… deep stuff or something – I think you get the idea. My honest answer now is that I still do all that stuff except the reading has slowed down, the food has gotten better, my conversations are longer, and my inclination to decipher the meaning of life has waned (although I think I’ve almost got it). The biggest thing that has changed since 8 months ago is that I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing as a Peace Corps volunteer, working and living with the community, with much greater frequency and efficacy.
Several factors have led to this, and, they all are interconnected in that they have motivated me to get out in the community and expand my comfort zone. For one, I have had plenty of work over the past several months. In August, myself and six other Peace Corps volunteers, with a lot of help from Ethiopian friends and the Peace Corps Ethiopia office, planned and conducted a summer camp for 10th and 11th graders. The camp itself was amazing. It was held over five days covering topics from HIV prevention to environmental protection. The kids who participated were chosen by volunteers, on the general basis that they showed interested in the topics, had adequate English skills, and showed potential leadership skills. From Dera, we (my site mate Kelly and I) were lucky enough to bring nine kids, which, for me means that I get nine little leaders who have gone through what essentially amounts to a leadership camp to help me with projects. Currently, we are in the process of establishing the first ever Volunteer Club at the high school. Hopefully, we’ll have the club call out this week as school slowly starts up, and we can increase our little army of volunteers. At my actual office, ASDA, work has picked up, as well. For months my biggest apparent asset for the organization has been my ability to use a computer. Therefore, I’ve taken up the task of writing many of the proposals and reports for my organization, which turns out to be a huge boon, because when you write a proposal, you can add in whatever crazy idea you want. In turn, the biggest proposal that I helped write was recently approved, and, now, my small NGO has an operating budget for the next 3 years. Finding out about the proposals approval was both exhilarating and terrifying. Obviously, I helped secure these funds so I’m happy about that, but the fact that my small NGO has to implement all my ideas is incredibly daunting. I’m sure that after January 1, 2012 (when the budget goes into effect) I will have no problems staying busy in Dera.
Besides work related activities, the recent decision to ask one of my friends in town to be my language tutor has greatly boosted my integration and comfort in the community (even a year into service). Peace Corps offers a stipend to all volunteers to hire a language tutor in our respective sites. I never did because I naively thought that with all my free time, I’d have no problem making myself study – of course this didn’t happen. Now I sit down multiple times a week to analyze and practice the language that I should be primarily communicating with, Amharic. In addition to the obvious effect of learning the language, my tutor, Kirubel, has taken me under his wing and introduced me to some of his friends around town. So now, in the short month since we’ve started language lessons, I can understand/speak the language surprisingly better, have more friends in Dera, and I can keep up on the town’s gossip. Although, outside of Ethiopia, Amharic doesn’t have much value as languages go, it will be nice to know another language.
The last factor that I can identify as contributing to my increasing comfort zone is simply the fact that I’ve been here a year. Things that made me feel awkward or angry before, I either shrug it off or deal with it in my own way. If a little kid taunts me by yelling “money, money, money”, I have two go-to options: 1. If I’m feeling energetic I will chase them down and make them cry, 2. If I’m tired, eh, I’ll get them later. If a grown man wants to rest his elbow on my thigh, I don’t miss a beat. It’s a very idiosyncratic culture that takes some time to get used to. Once you get past that you’ll find people that you can relate to, some bad, but mostly good. I’m most excited to spend my second year in this country because I believe that my comfort level is at a point that I’ll be able to enjoy it better – be less ignorant of the world around me. I feel like a tennis player that just completed his first year on the tour (my comfort zone represents my 56 week ranking). When I arrived here I had no matches under my belt, so everything was new and uncomfortable. Now that I’ve been here a year, I’ve filled out my 56 week portfolio and my comfort zone is on par with my more experienced peers. With a year of experience under my belt, I am expecting to enter my prime.
Now Reading: Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace; Watership Down by Richard Adams
Recently Finished: A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
 The act of feeding someone by hand is a common cultural practice in Ethiopia. The Amharic name is “gursha”, which can translate to mouthful, morsel, bonus, gratuity, or tip for services (mouthful would be most appropriate in this case). As for “gursha” etiquette, giving only one “gursha” is kind of rude, giving two “gursha”’s is generally appropriate and implies friendship, however, three “gursha”’s (and beyond I presume) shows that your intentions are… less than pious.
 The reason for the footnotes is likely because I’ve been reading a lot of articles on www.grantland.com. You should check it out if you haven’t already – a few really good writers (and a few bad ones) writing about sports and pop culture.
 My cooking secret for Ethiopian food is to take the amount of oil, salt, and time you think is appropriate and double it, at least.
 The camp was conducted mostly by PCV’s, and our Amharic skills aren’t quite up to par.
 Technically school started on September 14, but, including teachers, no one really shows up that day. Apparently, school really starts like a old fashioned steam engine getting up to speed, as students and teachers, alike, shuffle in on their own time throughout the first two or three weeks of class.
 The Association for Sustainable Development (ASDA), is my counterpart NGO that I’m working with.
 Afan Oromo is also spoken in my town but mostly in the countryside. Since I’m living in the town it’s more practical to learn Amharic, but I’m also learning a little Afan Oromo.
 It’s common to see male friends be physically affectionate with each other (e.g. holding hands on the street). Despite this, Ethiopia is a very anti-gay country.
The other week I was in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa, when I had the following half drunken conversation (paraphrased) with a Peace Corps buddy of mine:
Me: What do you have going on tomorrow?
Friend: I’ll be going to a craft fair. We’re selling the scarves we make down at my site.
Me: Oh, that’s awesome! Do you know if they do any silk weaving?
I ended up going to that craft fair and I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I cannot remember a single conversation in my life, sober or not, that involved craft fairs and/or silk weaving. I know a lot of people must be thinking that I’ve changed; saying to themselves, “Drew has never been a craft fair person – I just don’t know if I can relate to him anymore”.
Well, don’t fret too much – the point I’m attempting to illustrate with the abovementioned conversation is that, in order to be successful at site, every Peace Corps volunteer should have a whole lot of entrepreneurial spirit and maybe an inkling of entrepreneurial skill. Two very different things. Let me explain.
The only advice I got from people before I decided to go to Ethiopia was to be flexible. When you’re assigned to a position in Peace Corps, it is not guaranteed that you will have any work. Knowing that, when asked what kind of work environment I preferred, structured or unstructured, I said, with certainty, “structured”, assuming this would more likely lead to a placement with an organization that had work ready for me to do and the structure in place to do it.
I then spent the first two months at site going to an empty office, talking to the strange people who would stop by, and setting ridiculously high scores playing Snake. Things quickly got better when someone was finally hired to fill the position as my counterpart in Dera. While he was there, I got a lot done in terms of my community needs assessment, something every volunteer does to get their face out in the community and generate project ideas.
However, as soon as my needs assessment was complete he left Dera, and I was back at site alone. I handled this down time much better as I grasped the concept that I’m trying to express in this blog entry – entrepreneurship. In between the time I’ve spent attending trainings and planning a summer camp for high school kids (this is my current big project I’m doing with several other volunteers, which is backed by Peace Corps so it’s hard to claim as an entrepreneurial project) I’ve been coming up with project ideas, writing proposals, and searching for contacts as I become an entrepreneur.
I mentiond earlier that you need a whole lot of spirit and an inkling of skill to be an entrepreneur here (and probably anywhere). I think right now my spirit is coming from the fear of spending the next 16 or 17 months sitting on my bed perpetually reading the L.O.T.R.
But sometimes it’s hard to work up the courage to tell the agriculture expert the idea you have. “I mean, yeah, my agriculture experience is zero, but I did spend 10 days learning how to garden (kind of).”
It’s intimidating standing in front of a room of 50 kids expecting you to teach them English. My favorite part about my English class is making up terminology to describe different parts of English speech – my grandma Teddy must be proud right now.
But the entrepreneurial spirit at least gets you in front of the class. You can build off that tiny bit of skill you might have. Right now my spirit is fueled by fear. Hopefully, that is soon replaced by tangible results.
My big entrepreneurial idea right now is to start a small silk production business for women in my woreda (woreda~county). Silk is mostly produced from one of two plants, the mulberry tree and castor-oil plant. In my area, which is very dry, people would plant mulberry trees on their farms, feed the leaves to silk worms, and harvest the silk. However, I want to get them to weave and dye the silk as well, and, therefore, add a lot of value to the final product.
Even in the idea phase this project feels like it could become very complicated, very fast. I know my spirit will be tested with this project, and my entrepreneurial and silk making skills will undoubtedly grow exponentially. And that’s one of my favorite parts about the Peace Corps – it allows you the freedom to work as creatively as you could ever want but also challenges you in ways that are beyond most people’s creative capacity.
I often hear people say that in order to get out of our economic crisis, America needs entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to “create more jobs”. If that’s true, I don’t believe there is any better entrepreneurial training ground than a term of service in the Peace Corps.
Now Reading: “The Clan of the Cave Bear” – Jean M. Auel; “L.O.T.R. The Two Towers” – J.R.R. Tolkien; “The Grapes of Wrath” – John Steinbeck
Recently Finished: “The Average American Male” – Chad Kultgen
Ethiopia has a lot to offer. Among these things are very cozily crammed death-defying bus rides, a fear of fresh air on those bus rides, a distinct array of unpleasant aromas, a distinct array of unnecessarily difficult languages not spoken outside of Ethiopia, spiced butter, chat and those who partake in the daily routine of chewing chat, firenge price, etc. This list leaves a lot to be explained, of which, all can be found in my frustrated diary entries. These are some of my least favorite things about living in Ethiopia, but, once you learn to deal with them, aren’t really bad at all. Moreover, they often produce funny stories – sometimes not so funny, but stories nonetheless. Better yet are the things that Ethiopia, specifically my site, has to offer that make me miss being away when I’m off gallivanting in Addis Ababa or Hawassa with my Ameican friends, doing American things at American-style establishments. So here is a list of a few of my favorite things:
Hot fresh milk and sugar where have you been all my life? I love finishing a day in Dera with a good long run followed up with a short walk to the small neighborhood shop to fill my empty peanut butter jar with 2 birr (12 cents) worth of milk that was inside a cow less than an hour prior to purchase. Of course, this milk is unpasteurized and must be boiled before consumption. Oh well, hot milk just helps the three heaping spoons of sugar I put in it dissolve. The only thing that could possibly be better might be some Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup. If only there was a way for Hershey’s Chocolate Syrup to magically find its way from America to Dera, such as in a box or padded envelope with PO Box 110 Dera, Arsi-Zone, Ethiopia written on it. If only…
Being Unique and Beautiful
I am unique and beautiful. Narcissistic – yes, confidence boosting – extremely, shocking – is Hell supposed to be cold? From my first week in Ethiopia, I knew that I may have found my niche when Negist, a small shopkeeper from Wolmera (my training site) in the Shewa zone of Ethiopia was love struck at the site of a young man from Monticello, IN. Being new to Ethiopia and love (or lust) at first site, I
let my Amharic teacher, Abera, handle the situation for me. Since then I’ve had a few more similar situations occur where I find myself being lustily stared at or having strangers randomly stroke my body (usually hair), and I must find a way to politely get through the situation. handled this situation awkwardly
The other day I finished a run and was talking with some of the neighbor kids, and one of the kids grabbed my arm and started stroking my plentiful bounty of arm hair. I asked if they liked my hair and they proceeded to tell me that they liked it very much, and, not only that, they liked my eyes, my ears, my legs, everything. Well, thank you children! While being incredibly good looking can have its drawbacks (e.g. grown men stroking arm hair), for the most part it just makes me feel good about myself.
In elementary school I was an avid reader. Back then I was into Box Car Children and Goosebumps, and I was motivated by a free monthly personal pan pizza provided I fulfilled my Book-It reading requirement. Unfortunately, Book-It no longer provides me the opportunity to cash in my reading prowess for free pizza, although I still feel entitled to it. However, a new motivation has arisen in the form of hours of free time with limited viable entertainment options – reading being one of them. Therefore, I have dived head first back into reading and have rediscovered a long lost love. I read a little before Peace Corps but at a snail’s pace. These days I voraciously tear through books – two or three at a time. It’s been a great personal reading renaissance, and I am thinking about trying to write some short stories shortly – get excited!
I eat a ton of fruit – it’s fresh and it’s super cheap. Today (Tuesday) I bought 3 kilos (~6 pounds) of fruit (2 kilo banana and 1 kilo mango). It cost me 18 birr (~$1.10) and I can guarantee that it will be gone by Friday. Some volunteers are at a too high elevation to get fruit, so I feel pretty lucky here in Dera. I just wish we had pineapple…
Using a Bedpan
So, in conclusion, when the dog bites, when the bee stings, or I’m feeling bad – I simply remember my favorite things and then I don’t feel so bad.
Now Reading: The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien; On the Road – Jack Kerouac
Recently Finished: The Art of Fiction – Ayn Rand; All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy; Dune – Frank Herbert
It’s been a long time since my last blog entry – I apologize. The past month has been filled with trainings, which have made it hard for me to find time alone to type up a blog entry. Another reason for the delay was that I refused to include “War and Peace” in the “Now Reading” section at the end of this blog. What a chore that was.
Being busy is not something I’m used to here in Dera, where the rest of the world speeds by like the fake landscape from a car scene in an old movie, so this past month has been a shock to my system. First, my Peace Corps (PC) group had our 4 month in-service training (IST) in Addis Ababa. This was a ten day training where every second was scheduled with programs. We learned everything from making healing salves out of beeswax to turning cow poo into gas for cooking and lighting in rural homes. We even managed to squeeze in a 90’s dance party (kind of weird – it really seemed too soon for a 90’s party plus “dance” music from the 90’s is not very good). Our training center was in a tucked away spot in Addis, so it was hard to go out at night. Most of the time, we either stayed at the training center or went out to one of two bars around the corner from the training center. Anyway, for that 10 day stretch I didn’t have to think, rather, I just did exactly what my schedule said.
Upon my return to Dera, on a Tuesday at about noon, I greeted my neighbors, went into my room and proceeded to sleep for the next 5 hours. Apparently, my body was not ready for 10 days of programming plus late nights spent with fellow PC Volunteers (PCV). However, the next day I was pleased to find that Dera was much the same. People even seemed more friendly after spending so much time in Addis and I was greeted with a series of “Tafa”’s (you disappeared) on my walks through the streets. However, during IST I signed on for a training of trainers for a summer camp that PC will put on this summer, which started the week after IST. So my time in Dera was short lived, as I returned to Addis the following Sunday.
The training was actually really good – we spent our time playing/coming up with fun camp activities and basically came up with a plan for our camp this summer. The hotel we stayed at this time was a lot closer to the trendy Addis neighborhoods than the IST training center and Peace Corps did not provide us meals, so this time we got to explore the city a little bit more. The hotel also happened to be the place we stayed at upon our arrival to Ethiopia, so contrasting my initial experience with this training was stark. It was terrifying to just leave the hotel those first few days.
To simply say that Addis Ababa is the capital city of Ethiopia is a vast understatement. I’ve heard it called the Washington D.C. of Ethiopia because of its transient community, large number of ex-pats, and it being the headquarters of important entities like the African Union. This comparison is probably valid, but I have not spent enough time in D.C. or Africa to confirm that. I know my individual experiences in Addis have been radically varied. During my time spent in Addis over the past two trainings I have been crammed into more line taxis (minivans that provide public transport) than I wish to remember, been bowling in a bowling alley that looked like the door was shut in 1988 and not opened again until PCVs showed up in 2011 (the lanes were unwaxed, the ceilings were collapsing, there was a poster of the 1988 Korean world champion on the wall, and people stood behind the lanes to reset the pins!), smoked hooka in a “sexy” nightclub, walked past herds of goats, and ate lunch with a guy from the US Navy serving in Addis (yes, Ethiopia is a landlocked country). And this is just a sampling of the events that took place during my time in Addis.
Needless to say, Addis was an awesome time! However, I do have a love-hate relationship with the city – it offers so much (mainly good food!), but it does not offer peace or relaxation. To go outside my hotel requires me to place my head on a swivel. Violent crime is rare in the capital, but, like most major cities, petty theft is rampant. And, as a “firengi”, I instantly become a target. Therefore, during my time spent in the city my stress levels increase, blood pressure rises a little bit, and I quickly begin to miss my small town. Some people are built for city life – I think Indianapolis is about my city size limit. Now I’m back in Dera and settling back into small town life. My pulse rate’s at about 65 bpm right now. I expect that to be down to about 55 bpm after about a week in Dera, as I sit back and watch the world fly by.
Now Reading: “The Art of Fiction” – Ayn Rand; “Dune” – Frank Herbert
Recently Finished: “War and Peace”! – Leo Tolstoy
Today (Monday, February 28) marks the beginning of the fasting season for the two major Christian religions in Ethiopia (Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestant). In America, this season is known as Lent, and people, many times not even religious, give up a certain vice or indulgence for the 40 day season. Additionally, all Catholics (or 30%) in the US make the great sacrifice during the Lenten season of not eating meat… on Fridays… unless of course it’s fish… and maybe for the occasional Big Mac when God’s not watching. I’m mostly kidding, but the Ethiopian devotion to its religious traditions makes all but the most devout American look blasphemous. The Lenten season for the major Christian religions in Ethiopia has a distinctly Ethiopian gentle and intense single-mindedness that is reminiscent of Randy Quaid’s portrayal of Ishmael in the American cinema classic KingpIn.
First of all, since the fasting season is starting today and Easter will be the same day here as it is in the US, Ethiopians have more than two extra weeks of fasting. Secondly, the fasting rules of the Ethiopian Orthodox and Protestant religions to eat a vegan diet everyday from today until Easter. This means no meat, egg, milk, and even no beer. I am guessing that cigarettes and chat (the local drug of choice) are included in the fasting list but I have yet to confirm this. This would no doubt suck, but the Orthodox and Protestant Ethiopians acclimate themselves to this fasting period by eating a vegan diet on Wednesday and Friday for the rest of the year. Thankfully, there’s a vibrant Muslim population in my town so things like eggs and milk will still be available to the shops and restaurants. (Ramadan is a whole other even more intense fasting story) Anyway, the start of the fasting season was kicked off by Ethiopian Mardi Gras and a sort of carnivorous epiphany.
Before I go into detail about Mardi Gras or the epiphany, I will discuss a little bit about where I am coming from as a carnivore. First, the summer before I left I decided to dabble in vegetarianism. I wanted to dabble in something, and since I am in my mid-20s and dabbling in drugs is passé, I sought a healthy alternative in vegetarianism. I didn’t really have any moral convictions for vegetarianism – I just wanted to if I could do it and what it was like. As a vegetarian I usually ate meat once a week. I was a pretty bad vegetarian, but I think I was on to a good idea with reducing my meat intake – it just wasn’t supported yet. My first blog post touched on the issue of organic food and how it is the standard here rather than the expensive alternative. Since that post I’ve done some reading on organic gardening/farming, for my own interest and as part of research for the work I will be doing here (The Omnivore’s Dilemma, The New Organic Gardener, and other more technical, less interesting readings). From the reading I’ve done I feel more enlightened about how detached I have been from the food I eat… especially with regards to the meat we eat.
Back to the Mardi Gras/epiphany story – since fasting season is starting my coworker, Addisu, and I decided that on Sunday we would go to the butcher eat meat and drink beer. (I love that I just typed that sentence) I called this Ethiopian Mardi Gras and tried to explain a little bit about Mardi Gras in the US. Although, I think I failed to convey the essence of Mardi Gras, and our Ethiopian Mardi Gras hardly lived up to the American standard, we had a lovely Sunday mid-morning brunch. We first ordered a half kilo of tibs, which was served with an injera roll, mitmitta (burberre), and a spicy horseradish sauce called sanafitch. Tibs is just fried meat – most people here were eating raw meat (kitfo) since this is the butcher shop and the meat is most fresh (I can’t imagine what the raw meat does to there stomachs). After inhaling a half kilo of tibs we decided that since this was Ethiopian Mardi Gras, we should splurge and order a second half kilo of meat. It was during that second half kilo that I had my carnivorous epiphany. Through the backdoor of the butcher shop and about 15 feet away from our table an ox came strolling by while we were waiting for the second round. 10 minutes later as we are halfway through the second round of tibs the left flank of that ox was carried 2 feet away from our table. We were no doubt getting the freshest meat available. But after seeing the ox reluctantly walk into the slaughter room and minutes later watching the butcher carry half of that animal into the shop, I had no problem continuing eating my meal. In fact, I felt better since I knew exactly how that meat got on my plate. The fact that slaughtering an ox is so outwardly executed and the fact that vegetarianism is, for the most part, unheard of in this country is counterintuitive but not surprising. When you eat a meat dish here there’s a good chance that you have looked that animal in the eye while walking on the street. There is no disconnect between people and the meat they eat. Even in Addis Ababa, there are herds of free range goats, sheep, and oxen walking through the streets – no doubt, an odd site to see in such a large city.
On the other hand, in the land of vegetarianism and animal rights activists the gap between people and the animals they eat could not be wider. Most of the animals consumed in the US spend their lives eating cheap corn on confined feeding operations (pretty miserable places from an environmental and animal rights perspective) before they’re shipped off to the slaughterhouse with the number of human-animal encounters being kept at a minimum. People then buy those animals at a super market or fast food joint at incredibly cheap prices. However, at the point of sale they are no longer animals – they’re now some sort loin, filet, or Number 2 with fries and a Coke. My epiphany as a meat eater is that I would much rather know exactly what I am eating – to understand where my food is coming from and have no objections with it. Therefore, if an animal is kept in an enclosed operation, far away from public view, I will go ahead and pass.
Now Reading: War and Peace - Tolstoy, The Stand - Stephen King
Recently Finished: A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again - David Foster Wallace
The first three months at site for a Peace Corps volunteer are designated to be the time a volunteer immerses him/herself into the community. Little is expected, as far as projects, to be done during this time. In fact, the Peace Corps assigns a project for each volunteer during the first three months. It is called the community needs assessment (CNA). Essentially, volunteers are supposed to talk to community officials and community members in order to collect data that will be used to determine areas where the volunteer can help. This is a fantastic way to begin volunteers’ service since it allows volunteers to gain trust within the community. The last thing Peace Corps or Ethiopia wants is a bunch of American, 20 something, tree-hugging hippies going out into rural Ethiopia and telling farmers that their techniques are wrong and I am right. But that is not what this blog is about, so I digress (a more thorough blog on my CNA will be posted in a couple months when I finish it).
This blog is about the other goals I have set for myself to complete during the infinite free time that the Peace Corps experience allows its volunteers, especially during these first three CNA months. Many volunteers use this free time to master a skill that would be impossible to master in the US due to time constraints, such as playing the ukulele. I am no different in that aspect, and I chose my skills to be Ethiopia specific. 1. I would like to become, as my language manual designates, a Distinguished Amharic speaker; 2. I would like to get Ethiopian good at running.
Right now, for both of these goals, there is no light at the end of the tunnel – I have yet to even turn a corner. These two pursuits parallel each other so well, because each is such a grind. On Monday I feel great and fly through a five mile run – on Tuesday I’m sucking air and stopping to rest multiple times. On Wednesday, I have a full conversation with my landlord applying new words and communicating without a problem – on Thursday I’m stumbling over the Amharic greetings I learned on my first day in Ethiopia. What I want, even more than an Arni’s pizza, is a breakthrough – where all the language that I’ve learned is clear in my head and a five mile run is always an easy run. As the grind wears on this Eureka! moment is looking more and more like a pipe dream.
I will admit now that I did not join the Peace Corps for completely altruistic reasons. The merit of volunteer programs, such a Peace Corps and Americorps, is immeasurable, but my belief is that the bulk of their value comes from the volunteers that graduate from their programs. Self growth is one of the main reasons that I joined the Peace Corps. My life in Dera forces me to live, work, and play outside of my comfort zone. Don’t get me wrong I love living here – the things I see and experiences are things that I never thought I would experience in my life. But sometimes, when I just want to drink a beer and watch the Boilers, going to the store to buy groceries becomes a chore. And doing this everyday can easily turn into a grind. My greatest challenge here is to not wait for the Eureka! moment but to be happy with the slight improvements that the grind gives me – as corny as it sounds: small victories.
In the meantime, I’ve listed short term tangible goals in my journal to help me overcome my desire for the Eureka! moment. For my running goals, I want to be running 40 miles/week by March 11, the date of our first in-service training (IST). Fueled by the three Ethiopian food groups, injera, burbere, and buna, I am moving closer and closer to that goal. Also, by IST I would like my language skills to be rated Intermediate Mid. After training (2 months ago) I was rated as a Novice High speaker, so Intermediate Mid is two levels higher. As I mentioned before, my long term language goal is to be rated a Distinguished Amharic speaker. This is 5 levels above Intermediate Mid and is defined as follows: “Can use the language fluently and accurately on all levels of professional need. Can tailor language to fit the audience; counsel, persuade, negotiate, represent a point of view, and interpret for dignitaries”. Although most people reading haven’t heard my Amharic skills, if the Distinguished description represents the light, it’s a hell of a long way down the proverbial tunnel. My long term goal for running… well, I’m not planning on paying for my ticket to the 2012 olympics. Yup, just darkness in that tunnel – I think I may reassess that second long term goal. Oh, by the way, the comment earlier about the Arni’s pizza was completely false.
Now Reading: War and Peace; Slaughter House Five
Recently Finished: The Lord of the Rings I
It’s been a few weeks since I’ve posted anything, and mostly that is because I really haven’t been doing much of anything besides reading. I’ve had plenty of ideas about things to write about, but they mostly revolved around the one of the books that I have been reading. And since most people that read this blog want to hear about things relative to living in Ethiopia, I decided to not write my opinions on War and Peace. But I’ve realized that nothing that I do here would really be considered normal in an American context, so I today I’m writing about how I spend a typical night here in Dera town.
First, I should paint a picture of my living situation: I live on a small compound, which is the basic setup of most Ethiopian households. All compounds are enclosures (usually with concrete walls and one main gate), and they have one to several families living in them. In my compound there is married couple living in their own separate house, the owners of the compound (my landlords) – an older couple, their four grandchildren, and me. The older couple and the grandchildren live in the main house, and my “house” is a room that is connected to the main house.
On a typical night one or all of the grandchildren (the grandchildren are all girls ranging in age from 5-17 and all pretty adorable) will come into my room to see what I am doing, which 95% of the time is reading. We’ll make as much small talk as possible until our language skills are exhausted (usually after 30 seconds), then they will tell me to “come on”, to which I will reply “imatalahu” (I will come). Then I will usually finish up reading whatever chapter I am on and walk the 15 feet over to my neighbors’ door.
The first thing I do is greet the grandfather and ask him how work is – he is not a very talkative man, so this is usually the extent of his communication with anyone for the night. Like any good marriage, his wife balances his reserved nature with non-stop talking. Unfortunately, she does not quite grasp the notion that, as a beginning Amharic speaker, no matter how loud or how many times she repeats a sentence, I probably won’t understand it. Fortunately, the granddaughters understand how to dumb down the language (slow and simple vocab). In the long run, I think that having a landlord that loves to talk to me as if I were a native speaker will be a good thing.
So after greeting the family, I settle in to my usual seat and wait for the two constants in Ethiopia: buna (coffee) and ETV (Ethiopian Television). I believe some of you are aware that coffee is kind of a big deal in Ethiopia, but before I came over here I did not realize how ingrained in the culture it was. Like most things in Ethiopia, performing a simple task like making coffee, is much more labor intensive than in the states. However, the nightly coffee ceremony is a process and one that I have come to love (mainly because I never have to do any of the actual work). And, yes, coffee is drunk at night here.
First, the coffee beans are bought in raw form, so before the coffee is prepared it must be roasted and ground – mortar and pestle style. A lot of times they roast coffee for multiple nights, so it is not done every night, but the smell is absolutely delightful when it is done. On nights when the beans are not roasted there’s usually some incense burning – something to keep the room fragrant and smoky. The coffee itself is made in a traditional pot called a “jamana” and served in tiny cups called “sini’s”. The coffee itself is delicious, and not at all like American coffee. I was a black coffee drinker in the states but not here. Ethiopian coffee is super strong and they always load it with sugar. I think the freshness of the roast really adds to the flavor – it really tastes like dessert.
The second essential element of the night is the ever popular ETV news broadcast. ETV is the tv station in Ethiopia (unless you are fortunate enough to have satellite), and features several music videos, some soccer games (English Premier League), the occasional American movie, and of course the news. Someday I will write a blog just on the music videos, which are pure art. However, the news is the constant of my nightly ritual so I will discuss that.
The news is a half hour program and like American news it has its segments for sports, business, weather, and some weird human interest story (like people setting world records for sitting in a bin of ice). My highlight of the broadcast is the business report when they show the fluctuation of the birr relative to the dollar, and I actually know for sure what I’m watching. However, I’ve observed a major cultural difference between American and Ethiopian news broadcast – the lead story is usually a positive story about the country’s major industry: agriculture. Rather than telling a story about a failing farm, the ETV news crew will travel to different places in the country and report on different techniques, developments, etc. in agriculture. This cheerier news broadcast is probably a combination of several factors i.e. cultural values, the nature of agriculture, government, etc, and, in the end, is probably more beneficial to the viewer.
After the news is over, I get up and head back to my room, where I can still listen to the tv and conversation through my paper thin walls. (I’m always afraid to stay longer in case they want to go to bed, and I’m just hanging around. This did happen once, and it was really awkward for everyone but the 5 year old granddaughter who told me to come over.)
Now Reading: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy; Wake Up! – Jack Kerouac; The New Organic Gardner – Elliot Coleman
Recently Finished: A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Hammer; The Omnivore’s Dilemma – Michael Pollan; The Black Swan – Nassim Nicholas Taleb