A Travellerspoint blog

Just a moment in time

April 11th, 2010

I’m caught between joy and disappointment as I see the white sticker adorned mini-bus arrive in the distance. It’s 5 pm in Nekemte and logically I should be scrambling for any vehicle traveling in the western direction but seeing as I just taken a sip my first beer in two weeks I can’t quite bring myself to stand up and yell “ARJO?!” at this approaching vehicle. But if I miss this one it could mean spending a night in town and all I have on me is 30 birr. That should buy me a noisy ‘prosty’ room in the back of an STD den. I take a long pull off my luke warm beer and throw my hand in the air “ARJO?! ARJO GUDDETTU??!!”
The mini-bus slows to a stop and I throw myself into it against the building crowd. I wedge myself into a back seat (near the window thank god) and assume the ‘don’t talk to me’ posture; shoulders towards the window, sunglasses on, head phones - even though my MP3 battery is dead, making enough room for the fourth passenger in the three person back seat but not inviting casual conversation.
After we’ve loaded on enough passengers to pass for a Barnum and Bailey clown car we take off. 10 minutes into the journey the money collector yells back at me “FERENGIE!...” As usual, I ignore. I wouldn’t respond if someone yelled “Fuck face!” or “Pony hooves” so why would I respond to a call that only means ‘non-Ethiopian person’. He pushes his way to the back of the bus and gets 5 inches from my face “FERENGIE!...” I can smell the chat on his breath, it smells like wheat grass and for a moment I’m taken back to the days in high school when my best friends worked at ‘Juice
Shack’ and I would take my lunch breaks from greeting at Hansel Ford there…. Abruptly I’m brought back by the driver slamming on the breaks, a donkey in the road. Why don’t they ever move?
The money collector yells… “FERENGIE!...Arjo Guddetuu deemta?” (WHITEY!...you going to Arjo?)… Innocent question but oh so loaded. I look at him with my perfected, ‘what do you think, buster’ gaze and immediately he breaks out in laughter. The next 5 minutes of conversation in the bus revolves around me and my ‘ways’. I’m talked about as if I’m not even there so that’s what I act like. An object of entertainment, unfeeling and unworthy of human emotion. 30 minutes into the drive I look to my left. Next to me is a young girl, no more that 13 years old. She is beautiful; cross tattoos on her cheeks, traditional Harar braids, and colorful dress. She is holding a water jug in her lap and I notice that the top has been repaired, probably from an ill-timed leak. I rub the fixed plastic and say ‘amma, rakkota hinjiru” (now, there is no problems)…She looks at me so sincerely, so genuine, so clearly and points to her ear. She is deaf.
I’ve never met a deaf Ethiopian. I am so overwhelmed by people wanting to look at me, yell at me, talk to me, just be with me every second of every day that I was unsure what to do with a person who is wholly uninterested in me. And that is what this girl was, wholly uninterested in me. I looked out the window, she looked at her mother. . I looked at her, she stared ahead blissfully unaware. I spoke, she looked out the window.
I wanted to talk to her, to know about her, to be connected to her. I grabbed my ‘too much for one person’ bag and searched for something to unite us. Lip gloss! Lavender vanilla flavor sent by my step-sister. Perfect. I put my finger into the silver disc then offered it to my deaf partner. Cautiously she slid her finger into the gloss container. A smile briefly surfaced but just as quickly she took her finger back applying the gloss to her ever silent lips.
30 more minutes we road with no more that an nod of acknowledgment between us. Her in her own world and me in mine. “FERENGIE!..” I looked at the money collector for that last time. My face read— call me ‘ferengie’, call me moron, call me fuck face, call me whatever you like, I don’t care. I’m a woman, a woman with a purpose, desires, goals and dreams so call me whatever you like, it doesn’t phase me. As I stared him down I felt my neighbors eyes on me, she was watching me, studying me. No words need to be said, I could tell she got it.
A few minutes later she got off. I caught her eyes for a moment and smiled. She smiled back and gave a little wave as the bus took off. It was just a moment, one of thousands I’ve had here. but it’s one I know I’ll have with me for a life time.

Posted by Gail B 01:15 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

It's only two years...

March 6th, 2010


Sometime in the first few months I was living in Arjo I programmed my cell phone to display ‘It’s only two years…’ when I turned it on. I am constantly having to turn the phone on an off, either to save the battery when the electrics out, to re-set the network or just to avoid a string of calls from local men I’d rather not talk to after work hours. So I set this message to remind me, it’s only two years, I could make it. Then sometime in the last few months I changed the message to ‘It’s only one more year!’ This served two purposes; it celebrated the time I had spent here and encouraged me to keep going because hey, it’s only one more year! Tonight though I changed the message again and I think it sums up my feelings towards the time I have left. I changed it to ‘Less than a year… make it count!’ I want to remind myself of that everyday if possible. It has been a hard road to get where I am now but now that I’m here I need to make the most of it.

It’s a difficult place to describe, this place that I’m at now. I have lived in Arjo Guddettu for exactly one year and three weeks. I’ve seen all the seasons; experienced all the planting and harvest times, lived through the dry times and embraced the rains, I’ve worked through the school terms and witnessed the influx of patients at the health center during malaria season.

I’ve lived it. I’ve tramped down to the river during the hottest months when everyone waits till 6pm to fill their cans leaving a 2 hour wait down at the spring. I’ve collected rain water to drink during the big rainy season because the path to the river was too muddy to travel down. I’ve honored fasting days. I’ve attended church on religious holidays and Sundays I was able to. I’ve celebrated birthdays, weddings and funerals.

I’ve become a part of the town. I’ve had countless coffees and meals with the mayor and administrators of the Kebele and Woreda. I’ve become a staff member of the health center; counted on, referred to and worked with. I’ve bonded with the cooks, waiters and owners of the two restaurants in town and few homes that serve food. I’ve played with my neighbors and taught them the benefits of caring for their animals instead of abusing them. I’ve walked the town roads so many times that I’m no longer just a spectacle to be stared at but a respected member of the community.

And Arjo’s become part of me. When I walk to work I say good morning to at least 20 people who I respect and respect me, I like that, who does that in America? When I go ‘shopping’ it’s in an open air market and I buy from my neighbors, the people I see everyday. When I get water for dinner I don’t just turn on a faucet, I spend time down at a river with the women (and some men) of my town making stupid jokes and playing with the kids. When I walk home I call out ‘Henrietta! Henrietta!’ and within seconds I hear my baby goat cry out in recognition and by the time I’m at my gate she is by my side.

There are a lot of hard days still, struggles and frustrations, but I’m here now and I’m a part of something that not many people get to experience. And I’ve earned every moment of it. So now it’s time for me to put my experience to work. I’ve got less than a year to make a difference in Arjo, in my community. All the work I’ve done up until this point is just the foundation, now it’s time to build the building.

I’ve got less than a year; I’ve got to make it count.
*girls dancing by the river

*girls dancing by the river

Posted by Gail B 01:08 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

WARNING: I am going to be dysfunctional when I get home

FEB 5, 2010

Okay some of you (aka my sister) may believe I was dysfunctional before I left for this crazy adventure but it has only recently become apparent to me that I am in fact going to be a very odd person when I get back to the states…and I have possibly become an odd person even for Ethiopian standards.
See the thing is that I live a very isolationist lifestyle right now; that is due to a combination of a lack of resources and a lack of desire to change my situation; with a greater emphasis on the former. I wake up, feed my goat, maybe brush my hair (depends on if I brushed it the night before), possibly brush my teeth (or just be satisfied with the stick scrub on the way to work). Then I hit up my breakfast joint where I pay 2.50 birr ($0.18) for a bread roll, spicy bean mush and tea, go to work and work or not work till 12:00-ish. At lunch I feed my goat lunch, eat a banana or just chug a lot of water (too hot to cook during the day) and read a book or take a nap till 2-ish when I head back to the office to work or not work till 5-ish. At that point I head home to cook a typically sad meal or I go out for greasy meat with injera dish or more bean mush with injera… amazingly enough I actually choose to eat out about 4 nights a week; I am that bad of a cook.
I wash my own clothes with water that I have delivered to my house by a donkey. If I want drinking water I have to walk down a 0.5 Km path which can be a bit steep and unpredictable only to wait in a 30 min to 2 hour line for ‘clean’ access to fill up my cans. I buy my groceries twice a week at an open market where there are hundreds of vendors but unfortunately they are all selling the same three items, quite the debacle. I go to work everyday but don’t expect to necessarily have to work yet I’m ready to do things above and beyond what I ever thought of as my job description. And I leave my home everyday thinking I’m just a normal person only to be pointed at, whispered about, laughed at, and yelled at by just about everyone I pass on the road. It’s quite a life.
So why will I be horribly dysfunctional when I get back? Well other than having to adjust to not being the center of attention 24/7 I will also have to adjust to the American lifestyle: constant electricity, internet access, grocery stores, personal cars, washing machines, dryers, sinks, toilets, mirrors… I could go on and on. I really hope I won’t be the type to say “You know what people live like in Ethiopia…” because at this point I understand there is no comparison between life in the 1st world and life here but even if I don’t express it out loud I don’t know if I’m going to be able to hide the look on my face… a look that says “What the Fuck!”.
A lot of the times I lie in bed or sit in my chair outside and think about life back home and mostly all that comes to mind now is just images. The high ceilings at my mom’s house – what do you do with all that space? The large mirror in my old bathroom at my dad’s house – do I really want to look at that much of myself? My motorcycle – has that woman crashed it or is it just sitting in her garage? My friend’s dog – would he still want to cuddle with me in the morning? A hospital ward – is that where my sister works now? A police station – does he drink coffee and have a mustache? Little Russlekins – will he bite me when I get back? The Berkeley clock tower – does she feel like she’s graduating and moving on?
So when I get back… and even though it is still 12 months away I still think about it all the time… I am going to be horribly dysfunctional and I apologize. I may just sit quietly most because I can’t form the correct English phrase which expresses my opinion or I may talk incessantly because I am so afraid that at any moment I will be alone again, unable to talk to anyone.
Regardless I am going to be weird and I know this because I am weird now! There are a few VSOs (Voluntary Services Overseas) who live in Nekemte (the major town nearest to me) who I occasionally have lunch or dinner with and it is almost comical sometimes to see their reaction to my erratic behavior. One of the VSOs, Kevin, has spent long periods of time in social/cultural isolation so he understands my…oddities but even though he understands it doesn’t help my turrets like actions. Most of the time I talk as if no one is listening and more than often I can’t look at people genuinely for too long or else I might just tear up. He is a great listener and an awesome backboard for my newly acquired strangeness but I can’ help but feel guilty every time I see him. As if I’m a sinking ship he is just trying to bail the water out of me. The other VSOs are newly arrived in country and knowing how long it takes to find yourself here I don’t hold them to anything yet. They are all great for conversation though and I hope don’t write me off as the crazy ‘rural’ girl who comes into the big city for a laugh every now and again.
*SIGH* I don’t even think I can finish this blog in a normal way. My mind is running a million miles a minute with thoughts yet if I could display them on a screen it would just be a slow motion blur of photos of friends and family from home… A montage to my former life. But I don’t feel sad, as I look blankly at my tin front door I just feel … well, as if I got a long life ahead of me and I might as well spend some more of it here.

Posted by Gail B 00:51 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

Rollercoaster of Emotion

JAN 26, 2010

When I was in training, Peace Corps gave out this chart that depicted the emotional state of a PC volunteer over their 27 month service. The first couple of months were spastic up and downs; happiness due to shock and denial, sadness due to homesickness and culture shock. This pattern then repeats in an elongated form over the next two years with terrible lows occurring around the 3 month, 1 year and 2 year points and extreme highs usually following a few months later. Like everyone else I looked at this chart and scoffed. As if everyone reacted to this crazy ride in the same predictable way.

Then around the 3rd month of being out at site I started feeling down. I rationalized it with all sorts of excuses and reasons; I missed my family, it was stupidly hot all day and night in my town, my language wasn’t improving, on and on. As I tend to do when I get depressed I called some of my PC buddies. Guess what? Sadness, anger, depression… everyone was predictably low just like me. We all told ourselves that we were just anxious to get to IST (in-service training, a week long training where once again we would all be together to laugh and have fun). Went to IST, had some fun, but still got back to site feeling kind of down. Then one day I was just sitting out in my front yard making a cup of tea for breakfast and it was like it just clicked… “I’m happy right now”. Nothing had happened, nothing had changed, I was just happy.

The next 9 months passed by with little ups and downs, some really low moments but nothing long lasting. Then the one year point hit. Predictably I went down…and down… and down. I called my friends; most were on their way down too. We laughed it off, “isn’t it frustrating to be so predictable!” we yelled. Some people took a trip back home, some hid from the world, some people met up for the holidays. I buried myself in work. Started new projects, fixed up my house, met with everyone and anyone who could possibly use my help.

The one year point passed. I still felt down, so I came up with new excuses. My projects were hitting a brick wall, I had been alone for the holidays, I was sick, on and on. In the last few weeks I started to wonder though, what if this isn’t a phase? What if this is just the way I feel because I don’t want to be here anymore? What if it was time to go home? Called my friends, some were still down, some were questioning leaving, and a few were happy-ish. We laughed it off, “were still so predictable!” but I didn’t feel better.

Then yesterday I was getting some donkey water to do my laundry. Just like I always do I waited down by the big river, hollered “hey donkey, what up? Got time to bring me some water” he checked with his human and said “no worries, we’ll follow you home”. Got home, set up my laundry room outside and got to washing. Now there is nothing fun about doing laundry here. My clothes are always beyond dirty because I wear them for weeks at a time, I’ve got to be bent over for hours, and I had to wash jeans in this load which is beyond hard to do by hand. But somewhere between pair of jeans one and pair of jeans two I started to feel…good?

After the laundry I decided I should get some clean drinking water since I hadn’t had anything to drink all day. This means walking down to the river in the hot sun which is at the bottom of a steep hill making the truck back home a sweaty, frustrating endeavor. On the walk down I smiled, for no reason, I just smiled. It was a clear day, the coffee trees look pruned and healthy, a kid ran by and just said ‘hello’ with no further annoying conversation. I smiled again. I got down to the river, a ton of people were there but no one yelled “Jaaili duufe! Jaaili duufe!” (Gail’s coming! Gail’s coming!) as I made my final decent down to the water spring. They just waved and said hello and went back to their business. I played with some kids, tickle games and tag while I waited and smiled some more. Got my water, walked home, sweaty and tired but feeling…good?

Since I didn’t have any charcoal to make dinner I decided to take a quick shower then go out for dinner. Cold bucket bath felt good since I was so hot and I put on a clean shirt just for fun. Walking to dinner I got the typical “Akkam Jaaili? Faayadha?” (How’s it going?) but instead of getting annoyed with the repetitive catcalls I just smiled and nodded in recognition, answering to every few people. All of a sudden in clicked… “I’m happy right now.” I actually stopped walking and just looked around for a second, nothing had changed, I didn’t have a great day at work, I didn’t find an extra couple of birr in my pocket; I just feel happy.

From there I had the best dinner in months, a little ‘bayeenet’ with a coke. Came back home, finished a good book and went to bed. For the first time in weeks I fell asleep without the help of Gouder or Tylenol PM.

Now it’s morning and guess what? I still feel happy. What a crazy ride this is.



Posted by Gail B 00:45 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

'Tebs bet' saves the day

JAN 31, 2010

Tebs bet staff

Tebs bet staff

There is this place in town that I like to have ‘tebs’ (boiled meat with injera). It is just on the outskirts of the main drag and has a nice tented patio out in back which is my spot. From here I can sit at a lopsided table and an uncomfortable metal chair and for the most part eat in peace so long as I don’t go during any of the typical Ethiopian meal times.

So there I was today, I had just finished a meeting with my HIV/AIDS group which is as always a surge of anger, frustration, joy and sadness rolled into one; I needed a big order of ‘tebs’! I started this group approximately 11 months ago when I arrived in Arjo and found it appalling that a town wouldn’t have a PLWHA (People Living with HIV/AIDS) association – thanks to my training I assumed this was suppose to be a given for all towns. The group began basically with an inexperienced but over enthusiastic volunteer (me) and the most desperate HIV+ people in town (those who would come to a meeting with only the glimmer of material benefits to be offered in an undefined later date). Cut to 11 months later and I am looking these HIV victims straight in the eye and saying “Sorry…Really I’m sorry but either suck it up or get out!” Feel free to feel appalled, a year ago I would have as well.

Today’s meeting lasted about 2 hours: the first hour and forty minutes was spent arguing about the failure/on going development of our chicken house, 5 min of me explaining that with or without chickens their rules still stand and they need to take roll and collect group dues, and then 20 more minutes for them to complain about that and finally 15 min for everyone to fork over their dues and grumble quietly away. Now I completely understand that we are in a frustrating situation. Four months ago we received funding from a PC grant as well as aid from the local government HIV/AIDS office (HAPCO) to start this chicken farm. It took two weeks to get the basic structure of the house up, four weeks to fix all the things the contractors missed in the design plans, 6 weeks to get all the necessary pieces for the house (laying boxes, feeders, waters, etc), 2 weeks to get the feed organized and now a painstaking 3 weeks to discover that it will be one more month before we can even buy the chickens! *SIGH*

I have put so much time, energy and emotion into this project and would like nothing more than for it to be operational and out of my hands… I believe with all my heart that once the chickens are in the house that the PLWHAs will take over and start to work with an equal eagerness as they show during ‘plumpy nut’ handouts but their work up to this point has been in one word, disheartening. I’ve gotten all the quotes, made all the contacts, purchased 90% of the materials, built chicken roosts from scratch, and have babysat them step by step to make sure everyone felt included and a part of their project. But now I’m at the end of the rope. They are mad at me because I won’t give them the rest of the grant money (11,000 birr) to just divide amongst themselves and thus scrapping the project entirely. Never mind the fact that we have already invested 19,000 birr into this chicken house and it will only be on more month till we can purchase our chickens and make our project a reality… no, no, no… they want their money and they want it now. That’s where I come in with my “suck it up or get out”.

See the thing is I’ve lived here long enough to understand the “aid game”. Locals, especially those with a highly fashionable disease such as HIV/AIDS, complain and complain to NGOs and eventually the squeaky wheel gets the grease. But I don’t work that way anymore. I am so accustomed to the sound of a squeaky wheel that it barley even registers on my sub-conscious. Everyday people ask me for money, ‘chocolati’, to take their child to America, to pay for their books or biscuit or soda. It is never ending. So with this group of people, who I see at least 3 times a week on an individual basis and every two weeks as a group I just don’t have the energy to coddle them anymore. I’m doing what I can and either they can accept that, find a different way for us to finish this project, or leave the group. I’m sick of being a punching bag. They are fully aware of the stipulations of our grants and knew going into this project that no one was going to get a simple pay out but since most of them have received IGA (income generating money) funds from HAPCO before and were never held accountable to produce any actual IGA project they figure if they just bug me enough I will give them ‘their’ money to go spend as they will. Not going to happen, and after saying this for the 100th time a month ago today all I had to do was give them the look… they coyly smiled and kept their mouths shut. I was pretty proud of myself for standing my ground and by the end of the meeting they were all handing over their weekly dues, as stated in their rules and signing in on the attendance sheet. Seeing this I realize that we have made tremendous progress whether they see it or not and I can’t wait to see where they are at after this chicken project gets off the ground.

So there I am at my ‘tebs’ place I’ve got my book out and a cold ‘Ambo wuha’ (local sparkling water) open. This particular spot is located on a slight hill so that I can see the landscape beyond the singular layer of homes located opposite the road. The landscape is nothing special this time of year. A bit dry since rainy season is 5 months away, the mango trees are spotty out this direction and there is only a distant hill or two to give the view dimension. But as I looked out I thought ‘I’m in Ethiopia, and I’m doing it.’ These moments are so few and far between lately that I can’t even recall the last one I had. So even though today was about a 4 out of 10 on the ‘successful’ scale that moment… that moment when I could look out over the unadulterated hills, brown and speckled with green flat top trees and only one row of colorfully painted mud huts between us I felt like, yeah, I’m doing this and I’m going to keep doing it because ‘kes’b be kes’b’ I’m making a difference.

My cook!

My cook!

Posted by Gail B 00:33 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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