Archive | February, 2013

Thoughts on “Half the Sky”

26 Feb

One of the books circulating around Peace Corps volunteers here is seminal New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof’s Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, which he co-wrote with his wife Sheryl WuDunn. The book chronicles a broad spectrum of women’s stories, both tragic and triumphant, in the developing world. Personal stories that encompass everything from fistula surgery in Ethiopia to sex trafficking in Nepal to the virtues of iodizing salt are discussed in the broader terms of international aid, gender and development, and the state of world’s women [spoiler alert: being a women born in the developing world is tough.]

cover

While I generally tend to cringe at sweeping statements on development theory, with so many volunteers and now my mom’s book club picking up the book, I figured I should give it another read, especially now that I have a bit more firsthand experience working in the health sector here in Ethiopia. Drawing from my coursework and research from an MA in International Development, experience in Peace Corps and other jobs abroad including at the health policy level in Geneva, I came at the book with a different eye than the first time in undergrad.

Taken as a whole, the book does a great job of achieving its goal of raising awareness and providing practical action steps for its targeted American reader. One of my biggest pet peeves is when works like this create outrage, but nothing ever comes of it. I really did like the concluding chapters that implore action and then provide some pretty concrete and realistic steps to back it up. But some of the underlying assumptions and larger trends I have to take issue with. Don’t get me wrong, Kristoff does an almost annoying job of going off on tangents that cover my arguments, but I just figured I should put these thoughts out there for people (my mom) to keep on the back burner while reading.

Firstly, the focus on grassroots is great. Clearly I love me some grassroots. As US foreign aid/development agencies go, Peace Corps is the grass rootiest of all. I didn’t do 3 months of language training for nothing (though “if I buy 2 will I get a discount?” in Amharic doesn’t do much for the local economy.) But having lived and worked in a few countries where if the government doesn’t want to do something, it just won’t get done, there’s only so much civil society can do sometimes (email me if you want to know more). Again, wahoo grassroots! But bigger international political pressure I believe is still incredibly important. Like the book points out, a focus on human trafficking as large as one on intellectual property theft will only happen if it’s perceived that the capital “A” American government gives a hoot (don’t pollute). So feel free to donate to that grassroots org AND write your senator, don’t pick one.

Speaking of donating to that grassroots organization, one of my biggest issues with the trend in charitable giving is the focus on administrative costs. While transparency and efficiency are incredibly important in deciding where to donate, the “low administrative cost” threshold is misleading. If an NGO is like a business (and no they’re not because they don’t focus on profits, but yes they are because much of them are run on business models anyway) you would never invest in a company that only devoted 5% of its resources to administrative costs. So please don’t only use that marker for donating to charity either. I would rather the logistics arm of Save the Children spend more on getting disaster relief supplies to the people who need it most than doubling the number of water filters to communities who are flush with aid. That decision/research is made by an administrative team. And if it’s not labeled as such in the annual report that gets sent to CharityNavigator.org it’s because these NGOs feel pressure to misrepresent numbers to fit this artificial “low admin cost” value.

Moving right along on economic value, one of the interesting studies cited in the book was about paying families to keep children (mostly girls) in school in Mexico. Cool. Economic incentive and girls’ education, I’m on board! Oh, wait. Economic incentive in Ethiopia has lead to a culture of per diem where literally every workshop, training, and even your own organization’s meeting on things that your own organization is doing and is PART OF YOUR JOB people expect to be paid extra for. I’m sure some very well meaning organization started this trend here to get people to show up to that training that one time and now it’s an epidemic and no will come to a workshop that is actually beneficial and maybe even work related if something is not offered. And now local NGOs with small budgets cannot compete with large foreign aid agencies. Unintended consequences I’m sure, but an incredibly difficult environment for a volunteer whose job is to transfer skills and has no budget to do so to work in. I’ll give a training on project design… and half of my budget will go to shay/bunna. I blow people minds when I say that people in American actually pay to attend conferences.

I think what is more important in that mini rant is the fact that silver bullets, as the book accurately points out, should not be taken for granted across the world. What works well in Mexico may not work so well in Ethiopia. What works great here, might be a disaster in Ghana. The larger message is that good development policy on the larger scale should still take in to consideration individual contexts on the ground (and back to grassroots- see above).

The point is, read the book. And then think about the book. And then do something about the book. But have a conversation, talk to that random neighbor’s daughter who did Peace Corps or that cousin’s cousin who works at USAID and see what they think about some of these issues. We are all on the same page, with the same goals. And as awesome as those personal stories are, it’s cool to make them personal to you.

Speaking of which, if you read the book and thought that was sad but now I’m pumped up but oh my goodness he just listed like 100 organizations that I haven’t heard of, do not fret. I’m going to pull out a few that I personally have come across in my work here in Ethiopia that maybe you can feel more inclined to visit their websites because of that personal connection:

Ethiopian Women Lawyers Association

Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital

Population Services International

Peace Corps

World Vision

And some others that he didn’t mention, but specifically do grassroots work in my town (mostly with kids) and I like to think are pretty cool and might work with myself:

Kindu Trust

Yenege Tesfa

Gondar Aids Resource Center

ANPPCAN

Mahibere Hiwot Ethiopia

Happy Reading!

Habesha Libs- Traditional Clothing

22 Feb

Traditional clothing in Ethiopia varies by region, religion, tribe, and socio-economic status. In Gondar there is a mix of traditional clothing and modern clothing, and even some modern-traditional styles running around.

Especially for the holidays, everyone gets dressed in their traditional best, even if sometimes it doesn’t match what a middle class Gonderian would wear. This year at Timket I saw a lot of Gojam outfits from stylish men and women who clearly were not Gojam farmers. Gojam is the region south of here. So traditional or not, or “semi-traditional” or however you want to call it, it’s still cool to see the influence of these cultural clothes on modern fashion. There is a hoodie made from traditional material with embroidery that is super popular in Addis right now, and I might have to pick one up.

For women, the traditional dress is a white linen with embroidery on the cuffs, in the middle, on the bottom, or all three, paired with a white nutella (scarf wrap) of the same fabric. A very Gondar version of this is to have a thick rim of embroidery on the bottom hem, but only on the back. There is also another traditional dress that is made of thicker white fabric that is loose around the arms with symbols of the Orthodox cross.

Girl with the largest forehead ever, wearing the cutest habesha libs

Girl with the largest forehead ever, wearing the cutest habesha libs

stylish leather bag not included

stylish leather bag not included

And of course, the hair makes the outfit. Traditional braiding here can get pretty crazy. Especially in the north (Tigray) there is braiding style that looks like 3 mountain ranges on the top of the head that is let loose about mid way down the head, with skinny braids over the forehead like a crown, supposedly representing Jesus’ crown of thorns.

women with nutellas and Tigray braids

women with nutellas and Tigray braids

Then there is a more Gondarian braiding style that is basically cornrows on crack, and they are beautiful.

braids- with smaller braids, and other braids around those. Cool.

braids- with smaller braids, and other braids around those. Cool.

For the men there are the traditional white clothes, and then there are the Gojam button clothes. Green is the typical colour for Gojam farmers and they wear these short shorts in order to work more efficiently. Then for a little flair, white buttons are sown all over.

Carmen and Wendeson,  my landlord's brother

Carmen and Wendeson, my landlord’s brother

Gojam kids with a sheep horn

Gojam kids with a sheep horn

In addition to the shorts, there is also a type of pantaloon pant with suspenders that they wear sometimes. I saw some stylish girls rocking a fashionable version of these Gojam pumpkin pants, and maybe I’ve been in country too long, but I could totally see wearing that out. The other farmer accessory is a straw hat, almost like a cowboy hat. Gotta protect yourself from the sun. The priests also have a turban like wrap made of the same traditional nutella white fabric as the women wear.

the straw hats

the straw hats

priestly hats

priestly hats

So a mix of traditional, modern, well-off and farming culture has created a new kind of traditional clothing that mixes elements from all of it. Fashion is always one of many lenses into culture, and which elements get picked up from where create a story of cultural dominance, migrant movement, historical patterns, and modern twists.

And how these travel around the world are even more interesting. I heard the other day that the intricate Ethiopian Orthodox cross was becoming a popular pendant in America.

straight from Etsy

straight from Etsy

“Please meet my servant”: The Concept of a Seratenya

14 Feb

When I first moved in to my new home, I met the people living on the compound with me: my landlord, his sister, his brother, and a 16 year old girl named Wubit. Or maybe it’s Wudit. I’ve asked about 100 times, but I still don’t know- it’s a nickname either way. Her history is also a bit of mystery to me. What was made clear was that she was the seratenya. My landlord, who’s English is very good, introduced her as the servant.

Carmen, Wubit, and me

Carmen, Wubit, and me

Seratenya really translates to something like “helper.” There are all sorts of jobs with seratenya in the title- like secretaries, accountants etc. But a compound/household seratenya is really a cross between a maid, a cook, and a guard, so basically yes, a servant. Having a servant in America is jarring- you employ a butler (rare), or a cook (I wish), or a weekly cleaning service (more normal), but to call someone a servant has so many connotations, most of them conjuring up a Downton Abbey-esque existence with tumultuous social conditions and giant mansions.

But here, the concept of a servant is commonplace, expected, even positive. If you live in a grand estate in Ethiopia, you have a seratenya (or 5). If you live in a mud hut in a village and have 15 children and are barely working class, you also have a seratenya.

The path of a seratenya is varied. Many work for extended family members. Nieces and nephews come in from the rural countryside (from that family of 15) and work for their more situated relatives who may be teachers or shop owners. Usually a girl comes to work in the house, and a boy might be a farm hand.  Many of our host families employed seratenyas. Mine did not, but much of the work was done by the oldest daughter—a substitute seratenya. Others are hired from agencies, or through networks (social capital!) of people who know people who need servants or are looking for work. Many Ethiopians also go abroad to work as household servants for families who will pay them five times as much in Dubai, Abudabi, and Saudi Arabia.

This is Wubit’s story, from what I gather of our extremely broken conversations. She has no English, I have minimal Amharic, but I try to talk with her, mostly because she’s the one who’s always around. The only time she leaves the compound is to go to the market or to take night classes.

Wubit making Berbere

Wubit making Berbere

Wubit is from a village east of Gondar in the Woldia region (I think), which is about an eight hour drive from here. She came to Gondar to work when she was 14 and is not related to my landlord’s family. Her daily duties include cooking meals, washing clothes, cleaning dishes, and general household upkeep. She sleeps on a mattress on the floor in a small room that also doubles as the pantry. She is the last one to go to bed, after she lets the guard dog off the leash, and the first one awake to make breakfast for the others in the compound. She had never been to school before, and started to take extension (night and weekend) classes when she came to Gondar. She is 16 years old and now in Grade 2.

Sometimes she shows me her exercise book, which is full of notes of new English words that she cannot read. The education system here is very much done by rote, a topic for another time, and so she copies things off the board she does not understand. But it is impressive that she continues to study and attend class when she started so far behind and probably will stay in the housework industry until she gets married, and then will still do housework. But this is an advantage of the system. Young girls who would not be able to go to school living in the countryside (either because they help at home, it is expensive or too far away, they get married young, or their brothers are already going and so why bother?) They now have the opportunity to take alternative education classes in the towns where they come to work. It is hard. Their days are filled with chores and responsibilities, and education is only valued by some of the population, one of whom is my landlord, which I appreciate.

When she isn’t working, I see her staring out down the mountain towards the road, people watching

When she isn’t working, I see her staring out down the mountain towards the road, people watching

But sometimes these girls are easy targets for other fates: trafficking, sexual exploitation or abuse, especially the ones who go abroad. But the lure of high pay tends to trump these worries. Many of these women come from Muslim communities in the east part of the country because the cultural ties are stronger to head to the Middle East.

Labour here is cheap, and people need jobs. In fact, in a town where the average “ferenji” is a doctor or university professor and making a foreign salary it is somewhat expected that I would have my own seratenya. I have been approached multiple times on the street with offers by women to do my laundry, and neighbors have asked who cooks for me. A single woman who works and runs her own home is fairly rare. Even single women who do not work employ servants, and single men, if they don’t live with family, absolutely do. Some volunteers do hire someone to do their laundry every couple weeks, or cook a meal here or there. The monthly cost would be the same as one nice meal out here.

Male volunteers face this question more than most. Friends of mine who loved to cook in America get some weird looks when they make their own meals and do their own laundry. Half of it is gender roles, but the other half is the same associations I get- that you are foreign, ipso facto you are rich, so why don’t you employ someone? But even though I am not “rich,” I could still afford a seratenya at the labor rates here.

For now I like to do my chores on my own if only to prove a stubborn independent American point, though after a year of hand washing my clothes I may sing a different tune. But for better or worse seratenyas become a member of the family. Chores are done by women together. A few weeks ago everyone on my compound was out together grinding peppers and other spices to make berbere, laughing at my high pitched sneezes (I couldn’t help it!). And even though she doesn’t work for me, Wubit is like a little sister. Sometimes I help with homework, and she knows the names of all my friends. And every time I walk through the gate she greets me and her eyes light up with that adorable smile. She talks a mile a minute in a language I don’t know, and when I’m tired sometimes I can’t handle it, but it’s always with a giggle and a kind “Algabashim?” (You don’t understand?). Nope, I don’t girl, but we get along just fine in spite of it.

Cooking in Peace Corps Part 2

9 Feb

No fridge, no oven, no problem! Ironically the fewer ingredients and appliances I have, the more creative I get. This could also be related to the time in the day I have available to waste experimenting on cooking now (answer: a lot).

But mostly I’m surprised by how much I can get away with that I would never have considered in America. Here is a list of things that I would have refrigerated at home that I definitely do not here, and they are totally fine:

-          Eggs

-          Butter/margarine

-          Most vegetables

-          Unopened cheese (not really fair because I either get single servings or non-fridge needing kinds from packages)

-          Mayonnaise and other condiments

-          Leftovers

-          juice

-          Milk

Ok that last one isn’t really true. If I had real milk I would refrigerate it, but because I don’t have a fridge, I have discovered the glories of powdered milk. Nestle, you got me, I’m addicted to NIDO fortified powder. I mix it with water and can make it as creamy or not as I want, use it for cereal, tea, add it to hot chocolate packets, mix with tomato paste for soup, oh man it’s great. I realize that was legitimate product placement there, but I would not complain if some savvy marketer found this blog post and shipped a lowly peace corps volunteer a few tubs of Nido… no? Worth a try, it’s expensive!

The other adjustment is using a dutch oven. Basically I bought a giant pot, and I put a smaller pot inside it on one of my stove burners so the heat gets all around it. For one of my site mate’s birthdays last week we made a cake… on a stove. Dutch ovens are cool. So you can send me muffin mix packets… if you want.

I also don’t have a sink. Chiggerellum! (No Problem) I have 2 large plastic buckets that I pretty much use for everything. I did make the mistake of putting my hot skillet into one the other day and melted a hole through the plastic… oops. Ya, you don’t really need to remember that stuff with a metal sink, but a volunteer’s best friend, duct tape, came to the rescue  on that one(special shout out for Josh and my other theater workshop friends).

Equal and Opposite Reactions

7 Feb

Life comes in waves here. I can feel incredibly happy, excited, everything is lucky go la-dee-da, and not ten minutes later come crashing down as I literally fall into a ditch. Understanding the roller coaster of emotions volunteers can go through within even a single day, I try to practice prudence and flexibility in dealing with both the good and bad. Even when things go awesomely, it can be dangerous to let my emotions swing to widely to either side of the pendulum less Murphy’s law comes to take its vengeance.

Usually these periods come in bouts of days, weeks, or even months before emotions change. Check out this long range volunteer life cycle [future blog post], but a few days this past week showed me how quickly events can change, and if something bad happens it will usually be outweighed by a touching experience later.

Walking home from work one day, I passed a group of children, of which I pass hundreds each day, near my house. The kids almost always ask for money or pens or a soccer ball or something, and I usually smile and keep going, sometimes I stop and talk with them, explain my job (penniless volunteer), and that asking for money just because I look different (like a tourist) is actually rude. It depends on my energy. On this particular day, the group of boys yelled at me “GIVE ME MONEY!,”, without a hello or any greeting at all. In addition, they were clearly not street children, had backpacks and school supplies, and their uniforms were suspiciously clean. So as I passed I yelled back “YALANYM,” which means “I don’t have any,” and kept going. Usually the kids laugh and giggle at my bad pronunciation, but one rabash (rude/obnoxious) kid in the group picked up a stone and hurled it at me, where it hit the back of my head.

I whirled around, pointed my finger at the kid and in my scariest teacher voice said he was extremely rude and he should NEVER do that again. Which in Amharic probably came out like “rude! Never! Bad! You!” or something embarrassing like that. The point came across though and an adult walking past who saw the whole thing walloped the kid up the side of the head. Not exactly what I wanted, but whatever, he deserved it.

As I turned away, holding back tears, I realized that it hadn’t actually hurt, it had just hurt my pride. After over a month of meeting people, integrating, and living in this community this was the first (probably of many) blatant moments where I was singled out like that. I was most frustrated with the fact that I had felt like in a moment where I let down my guard, a kid had found a crack and forced all my walls back up in 30 seconds.

Not 50 feet later, though, I ran into an older man who is my friend Morgan’s counterpart in her small town in Aykel. He had recognized me from a meeting and was walking down my road after visiting a friend in my neighborhood. While he works in Aykel, he said much of his family lives in Gondar and so he comes to visit a lot. In a moment where all I wanted to do was go home and eat chocolate and sulk, I bucked up and let him invite me for tea. I’m really glad I did. What would have been an awful afternoon was negated by this kind man only 10 minutes later. I’m also proud that I took advantage of a moment that I could have easily brushed off.

Another example a few days later, I left work and ran into a group of street kids who I am particularly fond of. Sometimes we chat; they are funny because they are clearly little con artists, but not quite good at it yet. On this occasion though they told me that the bread coupons an NGO had been handing out were not able to be redeemed at the bakeries because of some problem or another (it has since been resolved). Because it’s not my organization, but I know the program, I agreed to just buy the kids some bread, which is 1.25 birr for a loaf, or the equivalent of 7 cents USD.  Of course when we got to the souk, 3 kids had become 15 and bread had become donuts. I agreed to buy no more than five donuts (which are more expensive) and they could share however they wanted. Mistake. Some of the older kids ran off with a few of the donuts before I could do anything, and as I tried to extricate myself from the situation one of the kids yelled “I hate you!” as I was walking away. You’re welcome, kid.

But only a few minutes later when I walked up to the Post Office to find it closed, the package man recognized me, knew I had a package and opened up just for me and called me family. It also helped that the package had chocolate in it for me to eat when I got home : )

So even in the span of a few minutes I can have equal and opposite emotions competing in my brain, but taken as a whole, this experience, while difficult at times, will always have hidden gems of moments that make it all worth it.

Image

Favorite Photos Quarter 1

1 Feb

 

Here are some of my favorite photos from the first four months in Ethiopia. (Whoa! 4 months already!) Some are great photographs, others are great for the stories behind them. I’ll try to round up the best of the best from my collections and other volunteers every quarter or so. 3 Cups of Buna

Security and Beauty, Debre Birhan, Amhara

Security and Beauty, Debre Birhan, Amhara

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Life's work, Addis Ababa

Life’s work, Addis Ababa

Biofarm, Assela, Oromia

Biofarm, Assela, Oromia

A helping hand

A helping hand

St. Gebre's Church, Dessie, Amhara

St. Gebre’s Church, Dessie, Amhara

Peace Corps Goal 3

Peace Corps Goal 3

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Ethiopia in a picture, it works, but not at right angles

Ethiopia in a picture, it works, but not at right angles

Sunrise over Iteya

Sunrise over Iteya

Host Family love

Host Family love

Swearing in, boy band style

Swearing in, boy band style

nooks and crannies

nooks and crannies

Ambling

Ambling

Harvest Season

Harvest Season

Gondar Skyline

Gondar Skyline

Roasting coffee beans

Roasting coffee beans

Chiz- "incense"

Chiz- “incense”

Making Burbere - Credit: Morgan Davison

Making Burbere – Credit: Morgan Davison

Slacklining across generations - Credit: Morgan Davison

Slacklining across generations – Credit: Morgan Davison

Helping Mom - Credit: Morgan Davison

Helping Mom – Credit: Morgan Davison

Bizu Camels - Credit: Morgan Davison

Bizu Camels – Credit: Morgan Davison

Lady and Boy - Credit: Morgan Davison

Lady and Boy – Credit: Morgan Davison

Monkey Hand - Credit: Forrest Copeland

Monkey Hand – Credit: Forrest Copeland

Credit: Forrest Copeland

Credit: Forrest Copeland

Biofarm, Assela, Oromia - Credit: Forrest Copeland

Biofarm, Assela, Oromia – Credit: Forrest Copeland

G8 Placements - Credit: Forrest Copeland

G8 Placements – Credit: Forrest Copeland

The Snoring Chicken! - Credit: Forrest Copeland

The Snoring Chicken! – Credit: Forrest Copeland

A Sunday Gari Ride - Credit: Forrest Copeland

A Sunday Gari Ride – Credit: Forrest Copeland

Prayer by candlelight - Timket, Gondar

Prayer by candlelight – Timket, Gondar

Fasilides Bath

Fasilides Bath

Holy Water

Holy Water

Timket Pools

Timket Pools

Arc Parade Float

Arc Parade Float

Mother and boy watching Timket parade

Mother and boy watching Timket parade

Old Woman and Gojam boys

Old Woman and Gojam boys

And for those of you without facebook (I’m looking at you Jessica!) here’s a link to some more photos I’ve taken:

http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10152238195750523.932106.640805522&type=1&l=b542fc88bd

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