The Programs of Menna

3 Jul

Over the past few months I have helped a fledgling NGO set up some communications (website, brochure etc.) Their main program is a daily meal that is really one of the first soup kitchens in Africa. The group started as a bunch of university friends who wanted to make a difference in their community. While they are still quite small, their passion has really made an impact.

Here is the video I put together highlighting their programs, their beneficiaries and some of their info. Check it out to see the type of work I’ve been doing, and some interviews with people in my city.

Sorry for the crappy quality – not much I can do with a flipcam and 5 hours of uploading.

Soap Bubbles and Birr – Income Generation for HIV+ Women

23 Jun

There is a group of women that get together every two weeks to sit, talk, make toys for sick children in the hospital, learn about health issues, and create beautiful scarves, baskets, and other items for sale. These women are all HIV positive.

The handicrafts they make either go to a local NGO store as income for their family, or as donations to orphans living within the hospital compound. While they are making these items, they catch up on each other’s lives, talk about health issues, and about living and coping with HIV.

I have worked with this group off and on over the past year, and they finally asked if there were any other products they could make for the store. What could I teach them that would diversify their products and make them unique? I thought back to our Environment day at Camp Glow last year and remember the girls loved learning to make soap!

So after talking with the NGO, the women, and some tourists, artisinal soaps sounded like it would fit for both the women (easy to make) and their customers (who doesn’t want herbal soaps?). I am lucky to be in a town with a tourist economy. Honestly, locals would not buy cute, herbal soap. But foreigners do!

So I brought in my resident experts: Ag/Environment volunteers Ronny and Kirsten, who had lead the soap making activity last summer. With my organization/logistical work, and their knowledge we put together a 2 hour soap enhancement for income generation training.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

Kirsten talking about how the different herbs affect the body.

While we can’t actually produce soap here (lye is incredibly difficult to find), we can do “soap enhancement.” Taking basic soap, melting it down, and adding different herbs for different features. Bad circulation? Try cinnamon or black pepper. Want to exfoliate? Add salt, sugar, or something very available here – coffee grinds!

After explaining the purpose of different herbs, we went through the process of how to cut, melt, and then add the ingredients to be set in a mold. The women were able to choose their own “recipes.”

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

Ronny helping with grinding the herbs

shaving down the soap for easy melting

shaving down the soap for easy melting

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Using the Kindu Trust stove to melt the soap and add ingredients

Getting the temperature juuuuust right, or knowing when to stop adding water simply takes practice. We left all the equipment, herbs, and extra soap for the women to try over the month. We also went in to packaging and labeling techniques for the store. The women were already trained on basic financial planning – to sell their baskets and scarves they have to make a item list of individual cost. Here’s what came out of the molds the the first time (to be carved and packaged later):

different mold techniques and sizes - this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

different mold techniques and sizes – this batch was a cinnamon, black pepper mix

Income generation does not have to be starting a company. One person, learning a skill, and marketing that skill is enough to generate basic income. Here we diversified a product base, but income generation schemes can be as simple as jewelry making to as complex as setting up a mill or breeding goats for sale. For many HIV positive people, especially women, they must be able to support themselves or make their own money since after diagnosis the availability of work drastically decreases. Basic IGAs (income generating activities) improve the livelihoods of people who want to more than simply survive their illness.

The Group

The Group

The training/planning team

The training/planning team

 

When It’s Hard

19 Jun

The past few weeks have been hard. Yes, no water and electricity hard. Yes, harassment hard. Yes, procrastinating on my thesis hard. But those are normal. I’m talking one of my best friends going home hard. Two of my other best friends encountering one of the scariest moments of their service hard. And having moments where all you do is count the months, days, and even minutes down hard.

It’s hard because these things aren’t happening to me. If I actually sit and think about my past few months, some amazing things have happened: friends from America visited, my sitemate got engaged!, I was in India for chrissakes. But coming home to a lot of uncertainty, melancholy, and old fashioned frustration brought me down fast. And now I feel guilty for feeling blue, which also makes it hard.

It’s hard because I can’t talk about it here. Events that have unfolded that caused some of our best volunteers to choose to go home were out of their control. They were political, and violent, and scary. And because they are political, and violent, and scary they are secret and we are told to keep it so. I had grown used to daily life, and I forgot how close to the edge this country can be. And then we go back to daily life- so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

My town was “unaffected” by some of the larger issues. That’s why I’m still here. But protests still happened, bullets still flew, and people still died. Over a housing issue. Had those other events not happened, would the police in my town have been so quick to pull triggers? Had a student not been killed last winter, would our town’s university joined in? Is there a point to asking hypothetical questions? Not really, so we go back to daily life – so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

When I lived in Jordan, I worked at the Center for Defending the Freedoms of Journalists. A mouthful, I know. But it was about giving people the right to mouthfuls. We worked to defend freedom of speech. Remind politicians what international laws they had signed. Represent journalists in court. And encourage good journalism, reporting on the issues. I personally worked on putting a grant together for election coverage training. But, y’know, that’s the Middle East. There’s an election coming up here next year. But I’m told I probably shouldn’t mention my former job.

One of the projects I’m most proud of has been setting up a student newspaper at the university. It’s really more of a literary magazine, with student and administration submissions. It is nowhere near objective or free, the administration must approve each and every copy, but at least it’s one space where students can submit at least fiction and basic events coverage and start to think about how powerful information can be.

As volunteers we love the communities we are in. We have created friendships and working partnerships that only living somewhere for two years could forge. Clearly we want our towns to be stable. But being American, you get caught in a philosophical hard place. One of the Peace Corps goals is to share American culture – what is more American than free speech?

But it is hard. And the more it goes on, it makes it hard to care. I wasn’t born here. These aren’t my issues. Keep your head down, your job is health and behavior change. Stick to hand washing. Stick to HIV testing. Stick to girls empowerment? Stick to leadership skills? You see how this could grow sticky.

So I stick to two years. What I can do, I’ve tried to do. What I can’t do, I’ve tried a little to do. But then I can leave. My neighbors can’t. So I get it, change is slow. It’s hard. But when it’s hard, we go back to basics. Work with young girls, work with health, work with education. If these things grow, so will the number of people willing to engage the tough issues.

 

 

 

 

 

More Day Trips from Gondar, and My 100th Post!

16 Jun

Recently some friends visited me and I finally crossed those elusive random touristy things off my Gondar list. Here are some awesome trips you can do within 1 day from my site.

1. Simien Mountain Trek.

Last time I did the Simiens was for the Big Kahuna – Ras Dashen. This time, it was a short jaunt to Sankober (the first camp) with lots of selfies with the baboons along the way. This trip was much cheaper, shorter, and had a lot more monkeys. And per usual, the Simien views were amazing.

well, it was a little foggy at first

well, it was a little foggy at first

but the views got better

but the views got better

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so many selfies

so many selfies

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2. Boat Trip on Lake Tana

Just 3 hours south of me is Bahir Dar, the regional capital and city on the south of Lake Tana. A boat ride is cheap and fun, and if you time it right you may be able to see some hippos! People usually do the boat tour to see churches and monasteries around the lake, but having lived here long enough to know they all look the same we crossed our fingers for the wildlife. There was also some great bird watching. The best time to go to see hippos is around 4pm or so, when they come up to eat and it’s not so hot.

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These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

These kids lived on an island in the lake. Coming home from school, this traditional papyrus boat takes them across twice a day.

 

3. Blue Nile Falls.

This was a big tourist check. I had planned to go with my family back in December, but flight schedules and the promise of a dry riverbed dissuaded us. I was skeptical if the falls would be impressive so close to the end of dry season, but we saw something even cooler. With the heavy rains over the past few weeks, in the 30 minutes or so that we were at the falls we actually saw them grow! The river visibly swelled minute by minute. I will definitely have to return in September when the falls are at their full force.

We arrived the local way, which was much cheaper. Most hotels or tour companies will sell you a driver for multiple hundreds of birr per person. We simply went to the bus station and caught a big bus for 14 birr per person to Tis Abay (the village that is a 20 minute hike from the falls). This was great, until on the way back, an axel broke. We caught a ride the rest of the way on a tuk-tuk type truck. Super uncomfortable, but I sorta feel like the boys enjoyed their Type 2 fun (at least there was a great story.)

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

Keith, John, and I at Blue Nile Falls

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

The suspension bridge that you have to cross

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?

Willy Wonka Chocolate River much?

 

An Engagement, and a Party

24 May
Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Oh my gosh you guys!!! My site mate Morgan just got engaged to her long term Ethiopian boyfriend Robel. What does that mean? It means a meat tent, a group of men jumping in circles chanting, being blessed by a priest, and a lot of ridiculous photos at the Gondar castles. What started as an “engagement party” basically turned in to a mini Ethiopian wedding.

I was unofficial photog for the day, capturing all the lovey dovey cute adorable moments, as well as a fair share of “what the hell is going on?” moments. This was the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Though don’t worry Peace Corps, we got some Goal 2 activities in there – I made some hot pink frosting cupcakes and we did a traditional American wedding cake photo :)

had to do a traditional "American" cake photo

had to do a traditional “American” cake photo

The day started gathering at Morgan’s compound to hang out with her “Ethiopian family.” Afterwards we were ushered into vans to drive to Robel’s house, the site of the party. But of course we had to do a little scenic route around Gondar first, just to let anyone who didn’t know yet that Morgan and Robel were engaged. (Seriously though, everybody knows.)

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody, wouldn’t be Ethiopia without a party bajaj/tuk-tuk

After arriving at Robel’s house, we were ushered through the crowd to the inner room. This is one of the few times I have been able to witness what goes on at these things. Being Morgan’s “family” we were VIP front row seats!  This entailed watching the priest bless the engagement and rings (Morgan got a new Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie, awesome) and then he danced around a bit. Gifts were given, and food was eaten. Always so much food.

this was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

This was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

so many people at Robel's house

so many people at Robel’s house

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name - Wolleta Selassie

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie

the rings

the rings – apparently they have to be gold to count in Ethiopia

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Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can't back out now!

Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can’t back out now!

After lunch, we headed to the Fasil Gibbi (the Gondar Castles) to take the oh so Gonderian castle wedding photos. Morgan is decked out in habesha libs, and Robel looks suave in his ferenji suit (they switched!).

waving off the kids

waving off the kids

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We had a big posse

We had a big posse

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Morgan's family

Morgan’s family

awwww... their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

awwww… their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

So there you have it. Morgan is engaged. When she goes back to the states at the end of her Peace Corps service (she’s leaving me so soon!) she will start the process to be reunited with Robel through a fiance visa. It could take years, but these too can do it! Then they will have a civil ceremony in America and be officially married. Though, I’m pretty sure the events on Sunday were pretty Ethiopian official. I mean, I signed papers in Amharic – do you really think I read them?

 

 

From Saudi to Addis, A Conversation with Migrant Workers

20 May

Returning from my recent trip to India I had some pretty long layovers in Saudi Arabian airports. Considering I could never actually visit Saudi Arabia on my own (the whole independent woman thang), I’d say spending a collective 27 hours in Riyadh and Jeddah airports gets me as close as I’m going to get.

On my return flight from Jeddah to Addis Ababa my friends and I were the only non-Habesha (non-Ethiopian) passengers. The security men were so confused to see us that they actually pulled us aside to ask if we were on the right flight. Considering we were having full conversations in Amharic with other passengers seemed to make them believe us.

Having these full conversations brought forth some very interesting stories. Not only were we the only foreigners on the flight, but there were also almost no men. The flight was almost exclusively Muslim, Habesha women returning home to Ethiopia after working as household servants for Saudi Arabian families. These “returnee” flights have been happening for some months now, causing fire sale prices for Saudi Arabian flights out of Addis, which come in full and leave almost empty. This is how we got such cheap tickets to India.

I sat between two women, who both had worked for families in Jeddah. Their stories were unique, but also typical. Their passports had been taken, their visas had expired, and due to the push from Saudi to deport illegal workers (with much negotiation with the Ethiopian government), scores of these women have been going home. The problem is, many of these women arrive in Addis without any way to get home. Maybe they left a broken family, maybe they ran away, maybe they simply do not have the financial means to get themselves back to their villages. These “returnees” (a play on domestic refugee) have been swarming Addis, causing a pseudo refugee resettlement industry to pop up.

One woman was from Assela, in the Arsi region where I actually spent three months in a small town during my training. This is where I was introduced to Ethiopia, learned Amharic, and lived with a host family. Two of my language teachers were from Assela, and I remember going in to the city on weekends to use an internet café and update my family. The other woman was from Dessie, my first site, from which I had to move for safety reasons. I remember driving up the East Amhara road and seeing scores of these young women in the lines for visas to the Middle East. Ready to give up their lives in Ethiopia for the chance to make some money abroad. Many of the women were barely 15, having dropped out of school. Working for a family in Saudi, or Dubai, or Bahrain could yield more (immediate) results than finishing their education would, was the common assumption.

One woman had worked there for over three years, the other just 18 months. They compared photos on their phones – the girth of the Saudi children they raised surpassing any child I’ve seen in Ethiopia. This was a common joke – “Look how fat he is!” one of the women said. Seems that many of these priviledged Saudi families, with oil subsidies smoothing the way for easy lives, run a special kind of risk. Diabetes is rising fast in this region, and I remember overweight children were a common sight when I visited Kuwait as well.

They also compared salaries – something to the tune of 800 a month. I never figured out if this was 800 Birr (Ethiopian – 19:1 USD) or 800 Riyal (Saudi – 3.75:1 USD). Either way, this is much more than the 100 birr a month (about $5) many family servants in Ethiopian receive (a whole different story). I could see the temptation.

This phenomenon isn’t limited to young Muslim women, though they do make up the bulk of migrant workers to the Middle East from Ethiopia. I have known Orthodox women who have worked in Bahrain, and one of my favorite local business owners actually got his start as a chef in Dubai. He reinvested the money he made abroad into a thriving restaurant in Gondar, catering to tourists. His story gives me hope for how these beneficial migrant worker relationships could work.  Unfortunately, many of these workers come upon a dead end. Desperate women looking for any way to get abroad, fall prey to fake visa programs where their passports are detained and they have to work to repay “travel loans.”

Though most workers go willingly, they end up in situations where their options are incredibly limited. These limitations dance dangerously close to the line of human trafficking, and in some cases women who encounter domestic violence in the homes (at the least), and outright sex slavery (at the potential worst) have no legal advocate as “non-citizens” of the country they are trapped in.

Migrant work is a sticky subject. It has bounced around the US Congress for decades, but it is not unique to the Mexican border. Migrant workers from Africa and South East Asia flock to the Middle East and Europe every day. The money to be made can really make a difference for families back home. But the risks are high. Much of my work here is aimed at getting young girls to see the benefits of education, and staying in school.

My high school Girl’s Club has gone through 10 documentary shorts with the Girl Rising video this year. The film relates stories from around the world of challenges and successes for girls’ education.  Check it out here. Staying in school can dramatically increase a girl’s potential for success, the catch is, how to convince girls that is worth the investment. Peace Corps volunteers around the world work on these issues, though sometimes these unique challenges in Ethiopia can make our jobs seem more like sale pitches. But it is worth it. You just have to hope your girls, especially the ones standing in line to work abroad, agree.

A Quick Trip to India

14 May

Overnight trains, sweet lassis, glass bangles clanging, swimming with elephants, repelling down canyon walls. I just returned from India, land of colours and crowds, bindis and bangra. Over three weeks four friends and I visited the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur) and then headed down for a relaxing week on the beaches of Goa. It was a great first trip, though it will have to be a first. India is not a sub-continent for nothing; I only saw a very small slice of this diverse and fascinating country.

Having lived in a developing country myself for the past year and a half it was interesting to see a country that has moved so much farther ahead of its counterparts. While other tourists commented on the “mysticism” of India, the “simplicity” of life coupled with the crazy honking cars, and large crowds, I really heard them commenting on the “mysticism” of poverty.  That culture shock doesn’t hit me anymore. What I saw was where a country like Ethiopia could be in 30? 40? 50? years.

But enough on the larger themes of development and travel. What did I do? What did I see? How much did I spend on pretty things? Well, I had some amazing experiences (see photos below), saw some huge castles and forts (and the Taj Mahal), and too much. I spent too much. And yet still came out under budget (the magic of rupies).

So if you’re planning a trip, and you happen to be going to any of the above mentioned cities, here are some things you absolutely must do:

Delhi

Bike tour of the city. We rode bikes through the crooked alleyways and markets of old Delhi and through the grand architecture and colonial houses of newer Delhi. They also ended with an amazing lunch.

Alyssa excited to go biking

Alyssa excited to go biking

Flower market in Delhi

Flower market in Delhi

Us Girls

Us Girls

This is 7am. This is "not busy" at the Spice Market

This is 7am. This is “not busy” at the Spice Market

The Red Fort

The Red Fort

Agra

We hired a driver for the day who took us to many more sites than we would have thought to visit. For 600 rupies (split between 5 of us) it was very much worth it.

 

The Agra Fort

The Agra Fort

amazing detail work

amazing detail work

Every fort had some sort of palace in it

Every fort had some sort of palace in it

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because we are too cute

because we are too cute

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The baby taj! or some other mosoleum

The baby taj! or some other mosoleum

There it is!

There it is!

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not paint, actual inlaid marble.

not paint, actual inlaid marble.

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Jaipur

We spent a week in Jaipur. You could probably do it in a couple days. But you most definitely have to do Elephantastic! We fed, rode, painted and swam with rescued elephants who live in one of two elephant villages in the world (the other is in Thailand). We also took a day tour of the sights of Jaipur including some of the forts, silk printing and an observatory park. We also did some major shopping here.

It was amazing to be this close to the elephants

It was amazing to be this close to the elephants

we fed them by their trunks

we fed them by their trunks

His name was Raja. He was rescued from a circus.

His name was Raja. He was rescued from a circus.

This is how we got on their backs

This is how we got on their backs

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Our masterpiece

Our masterpiece

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Swimming with elephants!

Swimming with elephants!

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

Hawa Mahal in Jaipur

The Albert Museum, so many birds!

The Albert Museum, so many birds!

a painting of Krishna

a painting of Krishna

so. many. bangles.

so. many. bangles.

The Jaipur observatory

The Jaipur observatory

horoscope lines

horoscope lines

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silk block printing

silk block printing

A view from the Amber Fort

A view from the Amber Fort

Mirror Palace... the whole thing was covered in glass and mirrors.

Mirror Palace… the whole thing was covered in glass and mirrors.

need I say more?

need I say more?

Goa

Goa is actually a region, not a city, but we managed to ride public transportation up and down for hours doing awesome things. In the south, near a city called Palolem, we went canyoning (repelling and jumping into to pools of water in the jungle). In the north, we visited Anjuna, a hippy town and host to one of the largest flea markets in the region- so many hippies. And we stayed in a town called Benaulim, with white sand beach for miles. We also visited some temples, a spice farm, and generally got our tan (ahem, sunburn) on.

At the Spice Farm, with our bindis

At the Spice Farm, with our bindis

Cashew harvesting by climbing palms

Cashew harvesting by climbing palms

local liquor - fenny. Rough.

local liquor – fenny. Rough.

getting my traditional dance on

getting my traditional dance on

Benaulim Beach

Benaulim Beach

Breanne got some henna

Breanne got some henna

Canyoning!

Canyoning!

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this is me, free falling... because the rope was too short! not. cool.

this is me, free falling… because the rope was too short! not. cool.

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temple in the jungle

temple in the jungle

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I was on vacation. what of it?

I was on vacation. what of it?

Giant flea market in Anjuna

Giant flea market in Anjuna

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