I Am a Strong Girl. Statements from Ethiopian girls.

29 Jul

Last week Peace Corps Volunteers around West Amhara hosted the 6th annual Gondar Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Over the week the girls bonded, learned, grew more confident and shared their stories.  Two of my favorite/inspiring stories came from one of my Gondar girls who I had brought back in a leadership position and one of the girls I lead through small discussions through out the week.

Tigist, one my campers from last year, who I brought back as a junior counselor this year, shared her past during a “Personal Tree” activity. The activity uses the life of trees as an analogy to think and share about our pasts. She revealed that she had been born in a small town near to Gondar (Tikil Dingay – another PCV’s site) and ended up in Gondar as an orphan after she was put in jail in 8th grade for attacking a man who was harassing her. She was able to put her life back together through a local NGO orphanage program and now rates as one of the top students in her class.

The other girl, really a woman, Asmira is an 18 year old girl in 8th grade. She revealed that she had been married off as an 8 year old girl by her parents. They were married for a few months before the boy’s parents decided she was too young and they should get a divorce and then the family would come collect her later, when she was “older.” Once she was divorced she started going back to school and expressed that “now I am educating myself, I have the confidence to say no! That marriage is over!”

These are just two of the stories form girls in this region. See below for some of their “Strong Girl” statements.

 

I am a strong girl because I can participate any activity. I can learn in the class.

I am a strong girl because I can participate any activity. I can learn in the class.

I am strong girl because first strong me was born female sex. After I learn sometimes then I teach my family. Now I come to Gondar and teach some things so I said I am strong.

I am strong girl because first strong me was born female sex. After I learn sometimes then I teach my family. Now I come to Gondar and teach some things so I said I am strong.

I am strong girl because to participate to education. I have confidence in my self.

I am strong girl because to participate to education. I have confidence in my self.

I am strong girl because I  have good behavior and I am special girl.

I am strong girl because I have good behavior and I am special girl.

I am a strong girl because I can make a thing which can make me happy. Also I have a strong families which are making me to be strong. Based on that I will never give up. Finally I am helping people who have no chance to be strong like me & I am voluntary to make good things to others. No one can stop me to achieve my dream.

I am a strong girl because I can make a thing which can make me happy. Also I have a strong families which are making me to be strong. Based on that I will never give up. Finally I am helping people who have no chance to be strong like me & I am voluntary to make good things to others. No one can stop me to achieve my dream.

I'm a strong girl because I have a self reliant.

I’m a strong girl because I have a self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I believe in myself.

I am a strong girl because I believe in myself.

I am a strong girl because I hopefully for anything and I never give up.

I am a strong girl because I hopefully for anything and I never give up.

I am a strong girl because I am studying anything in a book. I love you.

I am a strong girl because I am studying anything in a book. I love you.

I am a strong girl because I achieve my goals. I know myself. Anything I do it as my self confidence, my self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I achieve my goals. I know myself. Anything I do it as my self confidence, my self reliant.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence to make a decision and I love it.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence to make a decision and I love it.

I am strong girl because I am self acceptable and I know my self.

I am strong girl because I am self acceptable and I know my self.

I am strong girl because I believe myself.

I am strong girl because I believe myself.

I am a strong girl because I have confidence and I am not hopeless.

I am a strong girl because I have confidence and I am not hopeless.

I am strong because I am the one can change the world.

I am strong because I am the one can change the world.

I am strong because I never give my hand to my problem.

I am strong because I never give my hand to my problem.

I am a strong girl because I do what I want.

I am a strong girl because I do what I want.

I'm a strong girl because I say so!

I’m a strong girl because I say so!

I'm a strong girl because I've a big goal & self confidence.

I’m a strong girl because I’ve a big goal & self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong because I believe in my self.

I am a strong because I believe in my self.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am a strong girl because I have self confidence.

I am strong because I am a confidency girl. I being myself!

I am strong because I am a confidency girl. I being myself!

I am a strong girl. I have appreciative self and self confidence by education group participation, also I have goals.

I am a strong girl. I have appreciative self and self confidence by education group participation, also I have goals.

I am a strong girl because I have a self confidence and I do everything on myself.

I am a strong girl because I have a self confidence and I do everything on myself.

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.

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