Bootyshorts to Burkas and Everything in Between – A Quick Stop in Dubai

8 Oct

On my way to Morocco I had a quick (read 12 hour) layover in Dubai. If that wasn’t culture shock, I don’t know what is. There was gold on marble on gold on shiny lights and Gucci and stuff… in the airport.

We decided to venture out into the city, since it was midnight, and still 100 degrees; I really don’t think you could walk around in the daytime. We saw the tallest building in the world (Burj Khalifa) next to an Astin Martin dealership, the other tallest building in the world, a Las Vegas type fountain show thing and rode in a metered taxi… that was an Audi. But I think the most interesting part of my few hours exploring the night of Dubai was the metro ride into the city.

In the 20 foot space of the metro car I heard 15 languages (I think), saw more nationalities, and every possible dress style. Now to be fair I have been living in a very homogeneous place for the past two years, but I thought I had seen diversity. I mean, I worked in Geneva. But this one metro car had more types of people than I had ever seen in one place at one time. Dubai really is an international city.

One of the misconceptions I get day in and day out here in Ethiopia is that all Americans are white, except for Beyonce and professional athletes, never mind every other hyphen-American. America is one of the most diverse countries in the world, in general our immigration and refugee policies have created a mixed salad of life. The food I miss most here isn’t pizza, it’s other ethnic foods! Pad Thai, pho, fajitas, dahl, and hummus. I could punch a baby for some feta. But Dubai was something else entirely, though New York probably gives it a run for its money.

At some point I’ll see Dubai for more than a few hours outside the airport, but until then, I’ll just jump at the chance for some frozen yogurt in Terminal B and a chat with the German-Vietnamese woman sitting next to me.

 

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The Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world

 

 

The Few, The Proud, The Curse of Iteya Town

5 Oct

Since I’m finishing up soon, you are going to be reading a steady stream of sentimental blither – just a heads up.

On the theme of reflection, I wanted to dedicate this post to the Iteya 9, most of whom did not make it to the end. My group (G8) stepped off the place with 54 people. We are leaving two and a bit years later with 40, which isn’t so bad in the grand scheme of Peace Corps statistics (average attrition rate is around 27%). During training, we were split into 6 villages where we got to know a few volunteers pretty well. My village was Iteya, and of the 9 that started, only 2 of us are finishing. Oof. So of the 14 people who had to leave, half were from my village. Why? Because we were cursed, obviously.

What it really goes to show is that you never know what life will bring. We sign up for 27 months, but that’s a really long time. In this group we had people leave for personal reasons, professional reasons, family reasons, security reasons, plain ole get me the hell outta here reasons and a probably mix of all of these reasons.

We had very hard working, dedicated, crazy people in this group. Of those who left early, we had one who had done Peace Corps for four years! before, one who planned a huge national gender conference, two who hosted congress people, one was a trained RN, another graduated from Harvard. These were tough volunteers. You can’t predict what will send you home.

The fact that I am still here is a mix of willpower and luck. No one in our group was administratively separated (aka fired) and no one was medically separated (until very recently, but that’s actually a really happy reason, not a scary one). My group has the highest rate of extensions (though not a path for me). Everyone’s service is different, but statistics are interesting. Poor Iteya town, had the worst luck of the training villages, but some great volunteers :)

All you can do is try, work hard, and hope that events out of your control don’t get you. For some they did, for others they made tough choices to leave on their own. Your service is what you make of it. Everyone’s time is different, and yet you can have have the same conversations with a volunteer from Vanuatu and Senegal and Ethiopia and China and Armenia and Peru (they all have to do with pooping and eating and awkward cultural moments). So here’s to finishing! And here’s to those who left early! For a million reasons, we all come back a little crazy anyway.

The crew at about Week 5

The crew with our language instructors at about Week 5

The crew at Week 104

The crew at Week 103 – hanging in there!

My Cotton Anniversary – Two Years in Ethiopia

3 Oct

Two years. Two very long, very short years. Two years of what the hell? yes, I’ll eat that, don’t you dare, oh shit, this is fantastic, can I hold that baby? no I don’t want your baby, just 1 spoonful of sugar, you want more injera? No, that chicken won’t give you HIV, what are you doing here? are you Israeli? you are fat, you have good Amharic, you disappeared!, how much? no contract please, this is a work phone, did I get a package? I’m proud, I’m so frustrated, was that a gunshot or a car? that’s my window seat lady! WOW! and I think I need a nap.

So what did I do over two years? Now that I’m coming to the end of my time I finally sat down and looked at every project, mentorship, relationship and “program” I did. But how do you measure two years? In daylight? In sunsets? In midnights? In cups of coffee? (Yes, Rent, that last one would probably work for Ethiopia). Well, here is my last two years – by the numbers:

I worked with 1308 beneficiaries and service providers, four organizations (3 NGO, 1 government), two educational institutions (University and Teacher’s College), trained 230 Peace Corps volunteers, and wrote a Master’s Thesis.

Here’s a short breakdown:

HIV- Reached 244 students with prevention programs such as Grassroot Soccer (4 interventions) and ARC awareness programs. Trained 12 HIV + women in income generation activities such as soap making and product marketing. Many of my nutrition programs also covered Orphans and Vulnerable Children and HIV+ beneficiaries.

Malaria – Reached 555 students with bed net demonstrations, 86 girls and 91 boys with targeted malaria behavior change communication (C-Change materials) and trained 230 volunteers in malaria work (bed net transformation, Audacity software, and malaria science). Served as Amhara Regional Stomp Out Malaria Coordinator.

Nutrition – Set up daily meal programs for 26 adults and 10 children through a soup kitchen and day care.

WASH- Trained 13 service providers working with school aged youth on WASH practices and youth-oriented trainings.

Gender Empowerment - Reached 170 women, 40 men in targeted interventions including Camps, Clubs, University lectures, and higher education women’s leadership programs.

English Language Improvement – Mentored 10 boys and 22 women in English improvement through clubs and newspaper editing.

Organizational Capacity Building – Worked with three non-governmental organizations and one government organization on topics such as project design and management, monitoring and evaluation, communications, fundraising (including grant writing), and marketing.

Communications and Videography – Produced three videos for NGO use, and produced other communications for a this blog.

Over two years in Gondar, I was able to attend two Timket ceremonies, one Meskel ceremony, countless coffee ceremonies, family events, and celebrations. I was a bridesmaid and witness for my sitemate’s betrothal to her local fiancé. I summited Ras Dashen, the highest peak in Ethiopia and introduced my visiting family and friends to the ancient wonders of Lalibela and the source of the Nile. I heard the stories of HIV positive friends, mentally and physically disabled, and the elderly. I had challenging conversations with local doctors and university professors, hung out with street children and got doro wot stains on every piece of clothing.

So that’s two years. That’s what I did. But no amount of numbers or anecdotes or photos can really express the amount of change I have seen in myself, and the community around me. No number of blog posts, emails, or phone calls can really show the amount of beauty and despair I have witnessed living here. So I am finishing. I am coming home. Some in my group left early. Some are staying longer. But I feel finished. I feel I have done what I came to do, and it’s time to move on. I may come back to Ethiopia one day (it is a magnet for those of us working in International Development), but I will come back older, wiser, and for some different purpose. A big part of my job over these past two years was simply living here. Sharing my culture, my thoughts, and learning and sharing back home the culture and thoughts of Ethiopians.

I may come back for work, but I will probably never again experience the intense immersion of the past two years of Peace Corps. It is a unique job. It is about serving others, but it also about sharing experiences. Living in the community, at the level of the community, with and among and integrated with the community. I knew what I signed up for. And I had no idea what I signed up for.

Would I go back in time and apply again? Absolutely. Will I do this again in the future? Probably not. Though Peace Corps Response does look tempting for when I get wanderlust again in 10 years. But I probably won’t sign up for a full 27 month commitment again. This is, as they say, the toughest job you’ll ever love.

Meskel, or Why are People Burning Crosses?

1 Oct Meskel Square, Gondar

Ah Meskel, a holiday that celebrates the toil of St. Helena who traveled to Jerusalem to follow a bonfire towards the true cross. A cozy family holiday where people eat meat dishes, pick yellow daisies… and burn giant effigies to the ground!

lighting the compound meskel

lighting the compound meskel

The day started at 6am when my compound family knocked on the door to let us know that they were ready to burn a cross! Gathered outside of our houses, we watched and took photos of the meskel (cross) as it went up in flames, then sat down to a typical breakfast – coffee (of course), mutton bits with injera, popcorn, and holiday bread.

Later that day, we dressed up in our Habesha best (white embroidery) and headed up to the center of town to watch the big celebration. UNESCO just designated the Ethiopian Meskel Celebrations as a World Heritage event last year, and considering how many people came out to see a giant cross on fire, I can safely say I’ve never experienced anything like it. Using our “ferenji power” we just walked past the line of police and national military towards the priests. Sometimes it pays to have a nice camera. But once the prayers were said, and the cross was ignited (yes, they doused it in kerosene), all sorts of chaos broke. Chanting, young men grabbing burning embers and running through the crowd, mobs and riots and blessings? It was crazy, and we were in the middle of it! I just kept clicking my camera. Here are the  results:

... reasons why I can never run for office

… reasons why I can never run for office

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

the cross fell towards my house! I think this means something

if you needed proof of how tall I am

if you needed proof of how tall I am

a two year struggle - EAT! NO!

a two year struggle – EAT! NO!

gathered for Meskel

gathered for Meskel

the cutest gorsha ever

the cutest gorsha ever

no, no, I can talk...

no, no, I can talk…

a typical family photo

a typical family photo

Priests and their umbrellas

Priests and their umbrellas

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#selfie

#selfie

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Meskel Square, Gondar

Meskel Square, Gondar

small riot

small riot

To Morocco with Mom

13 Sep

I just spent the last 10 days gorging myself on feta cheese, olives, and lots of hugs from mom. Can anyone say best vacation ever? We met up in Morocco with two other Peace Corps friends and a set of parents and toured around the Northern cities – so. many. medinas.

Here’s a rundown of our awesome trip, more photos than not (cause I know what you like). And if anyone is wondering, we booked with an Intrepid Tour, and I would HIGHLY recommend them.

Casablanca:

We arrived in Casablanca one day early to acclimate ourselves, and recover from a 10 hour layover in Dubai. Went to the Hassan II Mosque, ate a delicious lunch a Rick’s Cafe (hey, we’re American), and wandered through the old part of the city (called the Medina) before meeting up with our tour.

Lora and I in front of the Hassan II Mosque

Lora and I in front of the Hassan II Mosque

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intricate detail

intricate detail

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It can hold up to 25,000 worshipers

It can hold up to 25,000 worshipers

Rabat:

Took an early train to Rabat and spent a half day walking around the Kasbah, which is the old part of the city. They were also filming an action movie where motocycles ride up stairs into the tiny Kasbah alleyways – pretty cool. Then we headed to the Hassan II tower (he’s a popular guy) where there was a mausoleum for some ancient kings (because I paid attention).

A cemetery outside the Kasbah

A cemetery outside the Kasbah

she's a giant!

she’s a giant!

a bunch of doors

a bunch of doors

the foundations of the old mosque and the Hassan II tower

the foundations of the old mosque and the Hassan II tower

I was helping him guard

I was helping him guard

Moulay Idriss:

A small village nestled in the mountains near Meknes, Moulay Idriss just opened to non-Muslim visitors a few years ago. Many people treat this village as a pilgrimage to see the tomb of Moulay Idriss, and it is said tha 5 times here is the same as 1 time to Mecca… We stayed in a family’s home, converted to a hotel and ate a traditional Moroccan family meal with kefta tagine (meatballs), Moroccan salad, lots of olives, and fresh melon. OM NOM NOM.

can't get a car up these tiny roads #stillinAfrica

can’t get a car up these tiny roads #stillinAfrica

tea time

tea time

a rooftop view

a rooftop view

Sunset over Moulay Idriss

Sunset over Moulay Idriss

Olives. I am a fan.

Olives. I am a fan.

Kefta tagine

Kefta tagine

Volubilis:

The next morning we drove to the Roman ruins of Volubilis. A well preserved city, it was the Southernmost point of the empire. It was inhabited until the 1700s where an earthquake destroyed most of the city. Considering I had never heard of it before this trip, it was pretty amazing, and I would even say gives Pompeii a run for its money on how much was preserved.

Lebanese cedars

Lebanese cedars

proof we went on the trip together! Peace Corps Ethiopia!

proof we went on the trip together! Peace Corps Ethiopia!

crazy bird's nest

crazy bird’s nest

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a preserved mosaic floor

a preserved mosaic floor

all roads lead to Rome

all roads lead to Rome

Meknes:

The fourth largest city in Morocco, we stopped by Meknes for an afternoon of sightseeing and meat eating. Meknes is known for its silver metal work, where they inlay silver thread into iron. We also stopped for a camel burger – pretty delicious!

an ancient granary

an ancient granary

The hand of Fatima - to ward off the Evil Eye

The hand of Fatima – to ward off the Evil Eye

Colourful tagines in the Meknes Medina

Colourful tagines in the Meknes Medina

because this picture is hilarious #MoCroInMorocco

because this picture is hilarious #MoCroInMorocco

Camel Burger

Camel Burger

Meknes metal work

Meknes metal work

Fes:

We spent two nights in Fes. The first night we had dinner at a family’s home in the Medina, good thing we had a guide! You could get lost in there for years. Fes is known for a sweet chicken pastry called pastilla. It was sooooo goooood. Have I mentioned how good the food was? I was a little bit in heaven over this trip. The next day we wandered the Medina (with a guide-necessary) and saw artisans making pottery, carpets, scarves, and leather. I splurged and bought myself a good quality leather jacket. I mean, I need something to go home in when it’s December!

a family meal - pastilla for dinner

a family meal – pastilla for dinner

The Jewish Quarter, more open

The Jewish Quarter, more open

soap for the Hamam (Moroccan bath)

soap for the Hamam (Moroccan bath)

Prickly pear are sold on the street - they are a cross between a kiwi and a melon.

Prickly pear are sold on the street – they are a cross between a kiwi and a melon.

Fez hats in Fes

Fez hats in Fes

Fes panorama

Fes panorama

kick wheel pottery

kick wheel pottery

cutting tile for a mosaic

cutting tile for a mosaic

leather ottomans

leather ottomans

Tannery pits - dye and phosphates and urine. Sexy.

Tannery pits – dye and phosphates and urine. Sexy.

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carpets by hand

carpets by hand

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ready for the Sahara sandstorms

ready for the Sahara sandstorms

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Chefchouen:

The little town of Chefchouen is nestled in the Riff Moutains, but what it is really know for are its blue doors. Well, blue doors, windows, walls, streets and stairs. Everything was blue! This was one of my favorite stops on the tour. Here Lora and I went to a public Hamam (Moroccan bath) and got our henna done. The bath is styled like a Roman bath (not Turkish) where there are three rooms: hot, medium, and cold. You spend most of your time in the hot room, where neighborhood ladies will scrub you down, whether you asked them too or not.

We also went on an early morning hike into the Riff mountains, and got a little lost on our way down. But we ended up in a random village and skimmed down on our butts to get off the mountain. I couldn’t get out of Peace Corps if I tried.

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traditional hats with pom poms :)

traditional hats with pom poms :)

The old Kasbah

The old Kasbah

Early morning Chefchouen with fog

Early morning Chefchouen with fog

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Got my henna on... still visible! though fading

Got my henna on… still visible! though fading

Tangiers:

We spent the morning in Tangiers, walking around the old city and staring at the ocean – you can see Spain! Not much to report here, though a lot of European tourists come through on the day ferry. I did learn that Morocco was the first nation to recognize America’s independence though!

American Legation Museum

American Legation Museum

You can see Spain in the background!

You can see Spain in the background!

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just chillin on the beach

just chillin on the beach

Marrakech:

Our last stop on the tour, we started with a walk through the medina and spice shop demonstration. Saffron here is very cheap, if you’re interested. We saw the Saddien tombs, and the Bahia Palace. That afternoon we walked to the Majorelle Gardens (a lot of cactus) then had a last night dinner with the group (lamb, yum). The next morning we had a cooking class where we went through the market buying ingredients, then learned to make chicken lemon tagine at a local home. That evening we went back to the main square (Jemma al Fna) where the market comes to life at night (it was 43+ degrees  Celsius in the day!). The open area is covered with food tents and juice carts, and snake charmers, lantern sellers, acrobats, and drummers. The energy was contagious.

 

Saddien Tombs - 3 Kings

Saddien Tombs – 3 Kings

cars should not go through medinas

cars should not go through medinas

a traditional berber tent

a traditional berber tent

so. many. spices.

so. many. spices.

lanterns in the market

lanterns in the market

sweets!

sweets!

Majorelle Gardens - crazy cactus

Majorelle Gardens – crazy cactus

buying spices for our tagine cooking class

buying spices for our tagine cooking class

personal tagines

personal tagines

us two chefs :)

us two chefs :)

before

before

after! yum

after! yum

couldn't resist... too cute

couldn’t resist… too cute

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yes, that is a snake charmer

yes, that is a snake charmer

panorama of Jemma al Fna at sunset

panorama of Jemma al Fna at sunset

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Dinner in one of the tents

Dinner in one of the tents

Night market

Night market

The Terrible Awful. Getting Sick in Country.

10 Aug

I have the Goonfahn.

Now before you get all Ebola outbreak crazy on me and try to find the local equivalent of 911 (there isn’t one, sorry mom!), you should know what the goonfahn is. It’s terrible. It’s awful. It’s the common cold.

Tropical diseases tend to lend a sort of street cred: Malaria (ooh!), typhoid (ahh!), shitting your pants from amoebas or bacterial dysentery (3 times!). But the common cold? Buck up, Sarah. But seriously, I am going to prove to you that getting sick, just normal sick, nothing fancy, is automatically 12.3 times worse than it would be at home.

Here’s what I would do with a cold in the States: shoot some DayQuil and go on my merry way feeling about 75% normal. Here’s what happens with a cold in Ethiopia: shoot some DayQuil (courtesy of a care package), and stay bed ridden for three straight days cursing the gods, nature, and all things beautiful.

I’m thinking I got this bout of death from the mass of teenage girls I spent time with just about 2 weeks ago (suspicious!). One of the cutest, and most disgusting, parts of Ethiopian food culture is the gorsha, or feeding someone with your hands from your plate. Three gorshas are a charm, and mean someone loves you. I got a lot of love that week. I think next year they need to enforce a hand washing rule.

Good thing I didn’t have anything productive planned this week (sorry thesis). Here’s how this one snuck up on me.

Day 1 – I start to get a sore throat, but I’m already out and working so I order a ginger tea. A fellow volunteer is staying with me that night to catch a flight in the morning and we talk late into the night. Mistake.

Day 2 – I wake up unable to speak. My family calls at the usual time and I whisper through 12 minutes of conversation (normal talk time 30-40min) probably causing them to think I’m dying, hang up and go straight back to bed. Wake up and make tea, watch Vampire Diaries, nap, repeat. I feel guilty because at this point I only have a sore throat and I have zero energy.

Day 3 – Sleep in until 11am. No more guilt. Full blown achey, heachache, stuffed up, feel like an elephant with my head in an aquarium vengeance. I muster enough energy to head the 15 feet across the street to buy some bread. The store owner asks the typical Anchi dehna nesh? “Are you fine?” and I respond that “No, I am not fine, I am exhausted and I am sick with the goonfahn!” With a confused look, he continues to repeat the question until I finally answer appropriately. “I am fine!” cough cough. He hands me my bread with the parting words Ayzosh yaine lij  “Stay strong my child.” The conversation is so stereotypical I have to laugh/cough my way back across the street.  You could be literally dying in this country and someone would still answer that they are “fine.”

Day 4 – Progress! The cold has moved from my nose back to my throat, and I am in the super sexy phlembot tuberculosis coughing stage. Overnight however, my sinuses have conspired to attempt to push my eyeballs from my skull. A fellow volunteer calls to check up on me and I tell her to go to hell, her and her perfect health (she has a staph infection). I continue my trend of tea, nap, repeat.

I decide I need to actually make some food since I don’t have any stomach issues (knock on wood!) and my energy is awful. My daily ration of DayQuil, bananas, and crackers isn’t really sustaining… and I’m out of bananas and crackers. I opt for soup, also known as throw a bouillon cube in boiling water and call it a day.

Day 5 – Ok. Today is the day. I have dinner plans with some friends, and I have to at least attempt energy. I haven’t moved more than 15 feet from my house in three days, and tonight I have to extol the virtues of Gondar tourism to a Bradt Guide writer who is coming through town. I put in my contact lenses to at least pretend like I feel normal, though I’m pretty sure my bright red nose gives me away.

Day 6 – Feeling much better kas ba kas “slowly”. Though I still use the goonfahn as an excuse to get out of attending a fundraiser for a leadership group I have worked with. Hey, I might as well get something useful out of this cold.

Getting sick in country sucks, but I’d venture to say that sometimes the cure is worse. I have been lucky enough never to have to go to a clinic for personal reasons, but I also probably push the envelope on “I’ll just wait it out and see.” I’ve been generally fairly healthy during my two years here, minus a few nasty goonfahns, and some normal GI issues. But with the recent death of a volunteer in China, I’ve come to realize I probably should be a little more careful and honest with my medical team. When I came to mid-service conference about a year ago we had to have a meeting with the Peace Corps doctors. My chart was empty. Even though I had had multiple bouts of vomiting, shitting of the pants etc over 12 months, I had never bothered to call. I know that if I was ever in real trouble I would say so, but sometimes I understand the worry that going to hospitals in these countries is scarier than waiting it out.

A Partnership Project

5 Aug

So my friend Sally from Bonga down south, has started a fundraising campaign for a project that involves Gondar. It’s basically a training program for environmental tourism. I’m a co-signer on the grant and have helped her with contacts in Gondar and the Simiens. Please send it along if you want/and donate at the link.

Bonga, Kafa Zone, Ethiopia

Bonga, Kafa Zone, Ethiopia

Here is her/my project:
Hello friends! I send my best regards and hope that you are well. I am
writing to ask for your help and support. I need to raise funds for a
sustainable development project as part of my Peace Corps service.
Please find details below, and the link to my project here:
https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=14-663-028

“Whenever we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to
everything else in the universe.” -John Muir

We are one world. Try as we might to preserve one little corner of it
– a national park here, a bird sanctuary there – that effort is lost
without thousands of similar efforts far away from us; we are all
connected. Many of us who work in environment-related careers remember
a formative experience as an intern or volunteer, learning both love
of nature and the skills to communicate that love to others. This
project intends to provide such a formative experience to promising
young environmental leaders in Ethiopia, by sending interns from the
newly formed Makira Tour Guides Association in Bonga to  learn with a
more established tour guide operation in northern Ethiopia.

Bonga is a developing town of around thirty thousand in the southwest
administrative zone of Kafa. Nestled in breathtakingly beautiful cloud
forests, Kafa Zone was recently declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
This designation recognizes Kafa’s complex ecosystems supporting
natural coffee and abundant wildlife; it also aims to provide means
for sustainable development and poverty alleviation for Kafa’s one
million inhabitants. As the population here grows, there is more
demand on forest resources; work is being done to promote sustainable
use of these resources, as well as to introduce alternative
livelihoods such as ecotourism. Well over a hundred thousand hectares
of forest here preserve millions of tons of carbon dioxide, besides
supporting unique biodiversity and a landscape known as the
“Birthplace of Coffee.”

Members of the Makira Tour Guides Association here were trained two
years ago through a project run by Naturschuzbund Deutschland and the
Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society. However, while these
and other organizations have been working hard to promote Kafa as a
tourist destination, the new guides have not had much practice. A
refresher training I ran this year as a Peace Corps Volunteer shows a
group of eager, but untried guides, with little knowledge of how to
structure a tour, provide for customer needs and comfort, or market
their product to the world. By contrast, Simien Mountains National
Park in Ethiopia’s north has been welcoming tourists for decades. The
leader of Simien Trek Tour Company (www.simientrek.com), Shiferaw
Asrat, has an easy command of the tools of his trade. He has agreed to
accept two representatives of Makira TGA to intern with him for four
weeks, observing and apprenticing with him, then drafting their own
two-year plan to bring back to their association in Bonga.

So many fundraising efforts by charity organizations in the developing
world involve acquiring stuff: food, construction materials, water
filters, medicines, supplies. This effort aims to spend money on
building capacity, by forging connections between Ethiopians
themselves. It is a relatively small investment – the total I need to
raise is under $2000. But this small amount could get this business
off the ground and help these rising leaders to benefit their local
community in a sustainable way.

Thank you for all that you do for the environment and the development
of our world.

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