I’ve learned a lot living in Arjo Gudetu, Ethiopia and almost all of it I’ve had to learn the hard way. The cultural differences the language barrier and the fact that I am the only white person in town has led to countless misunderstandings, many frustrating interactions and above all endless embarrassing moments. Here is a recap of some of my favorite lessons learned to date as I am sure there will be many more to come.
Lesson #1 --> Do as the Locals do!
I arrived in Argo a stubborn, cocky American. I had been living in Ethiopia for 3 months (with my host family in Ambo during training) and I thought I knew it all. So when I was told that in order to get water I was going to have to fetch it from the river I thought no problem, I’ll go buy some buckets. Off I went to the local “suq” (shop) and picket out two 15 litter buckets (for those of you who have an understanding of the incredible weight of water you already understand my problem). I got home and looking like a proud parent showed my landlords wife my buckets and asked her where the river was. She laughed and pointed down the hill behind the house and insisted that she came along. I was of course resistant; ‘I can do it on my own’ I thought. But finally I gave in and the two of us trotted down the hill together.
The walk was not long but it wasn’t short and the last 10 meters or so was a steep descent to get tot the water spring (I realized the river was actually a fresh water spring that came out of a hill side). There was probably about 10 people waiting for the spring, none of whom were holding buckets but instead had 20 litter ‘jerry cans’, plastic jugs with a twist off cap that help cooking oil at one time. I looked down at my buckets and shrugged, surely my way of water carrying was just as good as theirs.
I waited my turn in the undefined line and when the time came I squatted down under the spring and filled my bucket despite the giggles from behind. When the bucket was full and it came time to lift it I was met with a shock; the bucket was heavy!!! Not just a little heavy but “break your back” heavy. There was no way to get it out of the river and back onto land without spilling a bit (hilarious to the girls waiting behind me) and I don’t know how much I lost on the walk back home. My landlord’s wife didn’t fair much better but was obviously use to the weight as she didn’t struggle, sway and curse at the thin metal handle cutting into her hand due to the incredible weight of the full bucket like I did.
Obviously the buckets were a poor choice but there was no way I could carry 20 litters of water back up that hill so back to the local “suq” I headed and picked out a reasonable 10 litter jug. I was in business now! But once again my cocky American attitude caught up to me as I figured I’d improve on the local way of doing things and the next evening I skipped down to the river with my 10 litter jug and two empty 1.5litter water bottles tucked neatly into my Northface backpack. Surely that would be easier than carrying them by hand and more secure than tying them to my back with old mosquito netting, as the locals do.
I waited my turn, filled up my containers, secured them n my pack and swung it onto my back with a smile thinking ‘oh yeah, I got this!’ I made it about three steps when I felt a few drops of water dripping from my pack down into my shorts. Ugh, I probably didn’t tighten the cap enough. But seeing as I didn’t want to take away from my triumphant water carrying moment I waited till I was up the first steep embankment and safely out of sight before I set my bag down to check it out. By that time my back (and rear-end) was quite damp and not at all comfortable. To my surprise though, when I opened the bag the lid of my jug was as secure as it could be. I took it out of the bag to inspect it and sure enough no leaks. As far as I was concerned it was a great unsolved mystery and my best bet was to just get home, fast! I replace the jug and started my trek home.
Because of my quick stop a few of the women who were coming up the hill behind me had caught up and it didn’t take long for them to notice my soaking (and now dripping) shorts. They began to shout, probably something along the lines of , “hey! Stupid ferengie, your leaking water!” (losing even a drop of collected water is considered a cardinal sin here). I just threw up my hands saying “nanbeeka, nanbeeka, homma meti” – I know, I know, no worries. They quickened their pace in order to reach out and gently pat my soaking bottom. Once it was established that yes, in fact my bottom is soaked there was not a woman or child walking up or down to the river who wasn’t called over to feel for her self and again express her concern for my leaking water and wet butt.
I was mortified, my rump hadn’t been felt up by so many strangers since I was 9 and my mom use to show off my freakishly strong glute muscles to dinner guests (a stunt I still continue to perform well into adulthood). Not only had I once again failed at water fetching but there was no way I was going to live this down and in fact it did take months for it not to be the topic of discussion every time I came around.
Since then I have learned my lesson and I either carry my 10 litter jog in my hand or I heave a 20 litter jerry can onto my back with a large grunt, balance it carefully and tie and long piece of fabric around to secure it. Quite a feet!
Oh and if your wondering why my jug was leaking it is not exactly the mystery I once thought…all Ethiopian jugs leak if not help up right so when I place it on my back in my pack there was just enough of a tilt for me to lose a litter or two of water. Now I have discovered the local way of preventing this, placing a plastic bag under the cap and twisting it down…genius! But never again have I dared to return to by back pack water carrier…now I just do as the locals do
Lesson #2 – “To learn a language you must be prepared to look like a fool”
I’ve never been great at languages. The only “C” I ever received in High school was in Spanish class and since then I’ve never bothered to give any other languages a real shot. But, I was excited to hear I’d be serving in a country where I’d have to learn a second language (and a third!) and was eager to become fluent based on forced immersion. After 8 weeks of Amharic training (the national language) and just 3 weeks of Oromifa (my local language) it was pretty clear that it was going to take a hell of a lot more than just ‘forced immersion’ for me to become fluent in either of these languages. When I moved out to Arjo I decided that no mater what I was going to work on my language every day… not too hard considering 99% of Arjo’s population doesn’t speak English. I’d talk to my co-workers, I’d greet people on the street, I’d bargain at the local suqs and market place but the one place that has been my greatest source of triumph and defeat has been the river!
My first few weeks living in Arjo I basically could say ‘hello’ and answer basic questions about food and my family. So down at the river I would be asked repeatedly the same question so that everyone could hear my answer.
“Nyaata Iytiopia nanjalaata?” – do you like Ethiopian food?
Eyee, nanjalaada. – Yes, I like it.
“Obolessa nanqabta?” – do you have a brother?
Eyee, tokko nanqaba - Yes, I have one.
“Oboleeti nanqabta?” – do you have a sister?
Eyee, lama nanqaba – Yes, I have two.
On and on and on, but for every question I understood they would ask 10 that I did not but slowly they figured out my limited topic range and stuck to it. The question that would get a real rise out of them was “Do you have ‘arakay’?” which is a local moonshine that tastes like only feet and burns like gasoline. I would look at them appalled and say “No, I do not have ‘arakay’. I do not like ‘arakay’!” (I am not a drinker as far as the town of Arjo is concerned for cultural reasons). The kids especially would laugh hysterically at my answer and the women would just giggle quietly. All the while I would stand there smiling, pleased that I managed to make some sort of Oromifa joke.
Turns out the joke was on me (as usual). The words ‘arakay’ and ‘haara kay’ – your mother, may sound exactly alike to a ferengie ear but are strikingly different to a local ear and obviously have very different meanings. All the while they had been asking me if I had a mother and I had been responding “I don’t have your mom. I don’t like your mom!” oooops!
I’ve also managed to repeatedly tell people I was breast feeding – ‘hossisa’ instead of that I was itchy ‘hoksisa’. I continue to call the health center pharmacist ‘maraatuu’ – crazy, instead of her name ‘Maratu’. I am forever telling kids, ‘Dhaaboo!” – bread, when I mean stop – “Dhaaba!” and if I had a BIRR for every time I’ve had to mimic a waling motion to express that I am just going for a walk ‘baashanana dema’ and not looking for water ‘baashani dema’ I would be a rich Ethiopia.
Admittedly after 7 months my language is still awful but I’m never afraid to looks like a complete fool for the safe of the cause.
Lesson #3 – Soup can not be made from water, onions and cabbage.
It’s no secret that I couldn’t cook in the states. All my meals I prepared in 5 min with a microwave and a corkscrew (oh the good ol’ days of TV dinners and two buck chuck). But it never fazed me that living in Ethiopia I would have to learn to rely on more that lean cuisine’s instructions and Trader Joes to feed myself. Needless to say I have made some horrific meals in the past 7 months and here is what I’ve found…
-tomato sauce consists of more than cutting up tomatoes, adding salt and boiling…and adding more water does not make it tomato soup.
-Popcorn can be made without a microwave! However if made by me inevitably half will be burnt
-Soup is not made from water, onions and cabbage. I have tried many different vegetable medleys and have come to the decision that I just can’t make soup.
-“Shiro Wat” is not red because it has a ton of ‘berbere’ in it – ask an Ethiopian why this is funny.
-you can’t make French fries by cutting up potatoes and placing them in a lightly oiled pan but I can’t stomach using more than a tiny bit of oil so I just can’t make fries, period!
-Experimentation is the key to success, unless your name is Gail and you’re cooking in Ethiopia, then experimentation is the key to an empty stomach!