A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: Gail B

The Elevator

March 20th, 2011

sunny 20 °C

I remember a few years back there was a social experiment, or maybe it was a comedy sketch, about elevator behavior. A person got into an elevator and faced the back of the elevator instead of towards the door. Essentially it doesn’t matter what direction you face when riding an elevator but the fact that this person was riding it “backwards” shocked and worried other riders.

At my six story office in the Oromia Health Bureau we have two elevators, one that goes to even floors and one that goes to odd. The even floor elevator is broken a good 75% of the time (I’m on the 4th floor) which means everyone is forced to ride one elevator that maxes out at 6 thin people; I am often reminded that I count as two. At first I avoided the elevator as it seemed crowded and unreliable but one morning I was incredibly sore from running the day before and thought I’d give it a shot. The result was an remarkable observational experience into the elevator culture that exists here in Ethiopia.

First off, there is no orderly way to get on the elevator. If there are 20 people waiting and you are near to the elevator that does not mean that you get to get on the elevator. Maybe there is someone in front of you who doesn’t intend on getting on (seemingly ever) but is simply chatting up others who are also seemingly waiting; maybe someone’s friend is already in the elevator in which case they obviously need to be in there too; maybe it’s just not your turn based on some inexplicable rule. Once on the elevator you must not face the door, which would be just plain odd as everyone knows the acceptable direction to face is in a circular like pattern very close together. This allows for chatting and well wishing at a joyously close distance with your fellow co-workers. You can imagine how awkward I was on my first ride, desperately trying to face the door as everyone else shouldered me into the ‘correct’ position. It is also acceptable to push a different number floor than the one you intend to get off on as this gives you a chance to see who is on that floor and wish them a good morning.

Getting off the elevator follows the same pattern as getting off public transportation here so at least I caught on to that pretty quickly. Depending on where you are placed in the elevator or on a public bus exiting can be as simple as a quick step off or similar to childbirth (you being the child). If you are unlucky enough to get the back seat on a minibus or the back corner of the elevator you must unearth yourself, through a sea of unmoving sweaty bodies, till you gloriously find the light. Inevitably this less than graceful endeavor results in a caught up bag or slight trip which is quickly followed by a chorus of “Izoysh” (Be strong), as if strength had anything to do with it.

I think tomorrow I’ll take the stairs.

Posted by Gail B 05:19 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged addis ababa Comments (0)

Life as it stands today

October 4th, 2010


For the first year I was working in Ethiopia I got nothing but positive feedback from friends and family back home. “That is such an amazing thing your doing, I could never do that…” “We are so proud of you, keep up the good work”. “We miss you but know you are doing something great out there”. Every time I heard this I felt a little guilty, because I didn’t think I was doing something so great and I didn’t feel like I was helping. For the first year I felt like I was working hard just to keep a float in a world I did not, and most of the time didn’t care to understand.

Then something changed, but not only for me. Projects I had going hit rough spots, but I adapted and trudged on. Harassment that I thought would subside after time didn’t, but I learned to deal with it. I developed a deep level of patience and love for a culture that I never thought I could understand.

What was odd is the more I became comfortable with my life and work here the more people back at home did not. I started getting letters that said “Why don’t you just come home”? “How can you keep helping them when they don’t want to work themselves”? “How can they treat you like that”! It seemed like the more accepting I got of life here the more unacceptable it became to others.

I realize this is mostly my fault. In my letters, blogs and phone conversations I often blow off steam about failing projects or difficult people. It’s a coping mechanism for me, a way to get through it and move on but I know the effect is not the same for my audience.

The truth is that there are good people and bad people all over the world. There are helpful people and people who are jumping at the chance to take advantage of any situation. In rich countries and poor countries there are these people so despite the challenges I’ve faced here, despite the projects that have failed and the people who have wronged me I don’t regret any of my actions. Because every action has a re-action and it is the sum of those re-actions that are going to make a difference in the future, long after I am gone. That is what keeps me going, the thought that everything I do here, even if it’s not wildly (or even mildly) successful, creates a ripple effect; a difference in my life and the lives around me.

And when it seems crazy to stay, when I feel like I can’t take one more “FERENGIE”, when I hit yet another wall in a project, I remember that ripple effect and I push through to the next day.

Posted by Gail B 03:11 Comments (0)

When you don't own a mirror things can go terribly wrong!

September 10th, 2010

When you don’t own a mirror many things can happen. You might accidentally walk out of the house with toothpaste in the corner of your mouth. You may be unaware that your skirt is tucked into the back of your underwear. You may let your hair go unwashed for one too many days or forget that plucking your eyebrows is a necessary evil. All of these things may happen, and truth be told have happened to me over the last 21 months, but today I discovered the worst part of not having a mirror…YOU DO NOT NOTICE YOU HAVE GROWN A KWASHIORKOR SIZE BELLY!

For those of you who know me from the States you know I am not at all a thin person. I have been ‘voluptuous’ pretty much since the 3rd grade; a fact which was pointed out to me when I was 11 years old and trying on swim suits with my Mom. When I came to Ethiopia I thought this would be the true test. If I don’t lose weight in the land of “famine and drought” then my body is just as God intended it, for better or worse.

After PST (pre-service training), where I lived full-time with an Ethiopian family I had gained 8 lbs. As it turns out my “famine” theory was very wrong when it comes to people of wealth in Ethiopia, and my host family was one of the wealthiest in town. We ate huge meals, full of fatty meats and oils, none of which I felt I could politely refuse. I figured once I got to site and was in control of my own diet I’d shed the extra lbs and settle into a work-out regimen.

Once in Arjo Guddettu I did drop my ‘host family lbs’ but that is where it ended. I was barely eating because truth be told I couldn’t cook and with no frozen dinners in sight I was at a loss. I was walking a good five miles a day during the week and more on the weekend basically because I was bored and had nothing else to do. Considering it was over 100 °F I was also sweating like a boxer in their 12th round, but still I stayed at my pre-host family weight and never went any lower.

Over the years I’ve sort of lost interest. I still walk for enjoyment but realized any outside exercise only draws unwanted attention from the locals. I still don’t eat much (because I still can’t cook) and despite the cooler rainy season still sweat like it’s no ones business. So I wasn’t going to come back from Ethiopia with a Supermodel body but I figured as long as my clothes still fit I was good.

That was until I saw videos taken of me at a recent Peace Corp summer camp program. The video was of campers and PCVs in a shallow pool, which only came up to the knees. When the camera paned over to me my jaw dropped…no way is that my stomach! I was rocking an old stretched out Speedo swim suit and had obviously not bothered to check myself in the mirror before stepping out in public. Not only did I appear to have quite a belly but I also did not seem to have a care in the world about letting it all hang out.

I paused the video and stared at this strange version of myself in disgust. How did I let it get so bad! The answer is all to obvious. I hand wash and line dry all my clothes, no wonder they continue to fit, they are growing with me! I have also been told every day for the last 21 months that I am fat (it’s a cultural thing…) so when someone says “Oh Jaaili, you are so fat” while patting my belly I just shrug and go about my business instead of taking that comment to heart. But, above all I blame the fact that I have no mirror… no way of standing and scrutinizing my body in the nude, no way to check if a shirt has started to cling in a bad way or if a love handle is hanging over a waist band. When you don’t own a mirror things can get ugly! … Today starts my jump rope program; Kwashiorkor belly you’re going down!

Posted by Gail B 03:03 Comments (0)

Just call me Milton...

September 3rd, 2010

Have you ever seen the movie ‘Office Space’? If you haven’t please take the time to borrow/rent it and watch it before reading this blog…don’t worry I’ll wait…I’ve got plenty of time.

So, I was talking with a friend the other day, telling him about my most recent blow to the gut – my counterpart asked to take my office –he laughed and said I was like that guy from ‘Office Space’, Milton. Obviously this is not a kind reference but after getting off the phone, I re-watched the movie and found an un-canny similarity between me and this character.

First let’s assume that Ethiopia is INITECH and the movie’s boss, Lumbergh, is my community, Arjo Guddettu. Now for those of who have seen the movie you may be saying “whoa, hold on, you’re a Peace Corps Volunteer how are you not that laid back guy, that just does what ever he wants and wins in the end”? Oh, how I wish I was. I’m not saying this is the case for all PCVs ; there are many PCVs that are total Peters. I’m just not one of them. With that being said, the reason I am Milton is because no matter what Arjo does to me I just take it, complain about it, but then ultimately just go about my work.

OH, you decided to remove the fencing around my garden for HIV+ people and the cows ate our vegetables…I guess you had a good reason, I will replant.

OH, you sold the chickens for the poultry IGA that I spent 1 ½ years creating so now all I have is a very expensive four room house…right, I will figure out how to salvage what we can from the project.

OH, there aren’t enough testing kits for the market VCT center that I built with my Christmas money…no worries I will find some more…oh, you don’t care that I found more you have ANOTHER excuse not to do it…no worries, I’ll get you per-diem so you will be paid extra….oh, you still would rather sit on your ass, FINE!

OH, you aren’t following my trash burn protocol and kids are STILL taking used syringes out of the health center trash pit…no worries, I will spend my own money and labor to build a lock box for the trash pit, no please, it’s my pleasure.

No matter what Arjo has thrown at me I’ve simply taken it in, digested it and figured out a way to make it work. But this week they have dealt their final blow. They asked for my office. Now, if you are a RPCV or a current PCV your probably thinking what’s the big deal, ‘the community is you office’ or ‘now you don’t have to be responsible to show up anywhere…sweet’ but as I explained earlier I am not a normal PCV. The only thing that has provided me with solace and kept me going the last 21 months is this office…it’s my space…it’s my thank you… it’s my recognition…it’s my validation. And at this point it’s all I got.

I was approached by the VCT (voluntary counseling and testing) guy, Gamichis, yesterday and after a few minutes of friendly chat this is the conversation that ensued:

Gamichis: Jaaili, they want to move my office to the old storage unit. I think this is not good. It is old and dark and it will not provide me comfort.
Jaaili (me): Oh Gamichis, I am sorry, but I am trying working on a grant to re-mud and re-paint that house so it will be very comfort. But, if you would like I will be leaving in December and perhaps you can use my office after that.
Gamichis: Yes, Mekonen (the head of the health center) was afraid to ask you but I would like to take your office.
Jaaili: In December….?
Gamichis: No, now, I think it is best.
Jaaili: Uhhhh…
Gamichis: you will move to the old storage unit if you still would like an office.
Jaaili: Uhhhh… but I share the office with two other people what will they do?
Gamichis: Okay, we will tell him when he returns from his training in Nekemte.
Jaaili: Uhhhh…

Now maybe I seem selfish is this conversation. I’m a volunteer, I should be doing everything I can to help. But Gamichis spends 90% of his time outside his office going for walks, and has refused to participate in any of my VCT campaigns in the last 5 months PLUS still owes me 300 birr from the training he did not attend in which I spotted him travel money, (being stood up at a training where a ton of per-diem is offered is more than embarrassing). I however use my office to write grants, hold meeting with the PLWHA association I created, organize on-going projects, and write letters to America (very important cross-cultural work). I couldn’t explain to him what this little space in the health center meant to me…I probably can’t explain it to anyone, but having it taken away is like the final “Fuck You” from Arjo.

And you know what they DID take my stapler… 2 to be exact! I guess there’s only one solution…burn the place down!

SIDE NOTE: Since writing this I found out that Gamachis is a big fat fibber and the head of the health center never had any intention of taking my office, if fact he was very embarrassed when I brought it up to him and said it was only Gamachis trying to make me feel bad. So I am in fact, not Milton! Arjo, I guess I owe you an apology...sorry!

Posted by Gail B 02:58 Archived in Ethiopia Comments (0)

Redefining the F word

July 30th, 2010

Fail n 1 : a fall short of performing a duty or expected action 2: a state of inability to perform a normal function 3: lack of success 4: Omission; nonperformance
Failure n 1 the act of failing 2 one that fails

These definitions may work for Mr. Webster but after a year and a half in Ethiopia I’ve found they don’t work for me. As a self proclaimed ‘goal 1er’*, I don’t take project failure well. I take it personally; I put all the blame on myself and let all others off the hook. I understand this is a very destructive habit to have when working in a country with so many unpredictable happenings, but I guess that’s just how I’m built.
These last couple of weeks however, have really put me to the test. After being away from site for an extended period of time on Peace Corps work I got back to find not just one, but three of my projects in a state of ‘failure’. Resisting the urge crawl into my bed and ignore the world I went to every office in my town and the Woreda capital to find out what had happened. And what did I find? A whole lot of ‘sorry’s and shoulder shrugs.
I felt like a complete failure. The whole aim of my projects was that they would be sustainable; that they would be able to carry on after I left. But when put to the test, they failed. Failed, failed, failed. I wasn’t mad…well I guess I was a little mad, but mostly I was hurt. Everything I have done in Arjo has been for the benefits of others. Every day I fight and work for others. I never ask for anything in return and have learned not to even expect anything. Then when left to their own devices those ‘others’, those people that I have been thinking of every second of every day, don’t even give a thought to the undoing all of my work.
Now, I know what your probably thinking. Obviously I am not doing projects people want. If only it was that simple. I’ve never started a project without buy in from the community. Before every project I hold countless meetings, draw picture diagrams and sometimes even physically act out what is about it happen. And at every turn I get encouragement, “great idea, Jaaili!”… “Yes, we will do Jaaili!”… “of course Jaaili, we will support you.” On paper the projects seem flawless. But written descriptions and project proposals can not forecast the inevitable ‘topsy turvy’ way in which life works here in Ethiopia.
That is why I’ve decided to redefine the F word. To me failure means forgetting what you are trying to accomplish; it means loosing faith in yourself and those around you; it means giving in when things get tough. I have not failed, nor do I intended to.


  • Peace Corps Mission (the three goals) = 1) to help the people of the interested countries in meeting their needs for trained men and women 2) to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served 3) to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.

Posted by Gail B 01:29 Archived in Ethiopia Tagged living_abroad Comments (0)

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