Archive | June, 2013

The Fire Age

28 Jun

They don’t think before they speak, they make stupid decisions, they hit on anything with legs… in America we call these “Teenagers.” In Ethiopia, this stage of life has a more colourful label – The Fire Age.

I stumbled across this term the day I had to sit in an auditorium of 500 high school students. Lost in a sea of hormones, I was surrounded by high school boys just wanting to “practice their English,” which of course necessitated my phone number. Describing this phenomenon to my co-worker he said, oh, of course- they are in the fire age.

A broad term, it covers any eye-roll inducing teen behavior between the ages of 13 and 20-something. Community based culture or not, independent streaks abound in youth around the world.

It makes sense. Teenagers are teenagers whether they grew up in Ethiopia, America, Russia, or the Canary Islands. And they’re all crazy.

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Moving so fast!

The cast of the HIV Drama

The cast of the HIV Drama

But that’s what makes them such good people to work with. Youth aren’t jaded. Youth are energetic, and youth don’t see a limit. They like to laugh (a lot at me), and they want to see a better future, because it’s their future.

Kids in Anbesame, a small village about 2 hours south of Gondar

Kids in Anbesame, a small village about 2 hours south of Gondar

Working with youth is some of the most rewarding work a Peace Corps volunteer does – if only for the instant gratification of a 15 year old girl telling you you’re cool.  And in the next month, we will have a flock of 15 year old girls descending on Gondar for Camp Glow (more on that later). God help us all. At least “fire” produces a significant glow. These girls will be leaders in their communities, and can channel that spark into bright futures, with only a few eye rolls along the way.

This year's Camp GLOW (Girls Leading our World) - 2005 Ethiopian Calendar (2013 for us)

This year’s Camp GLOW (Girls Leading our World) – 2005 Ethiopian Calendar (2013 for us)

Dual Identities

27 Jun

When you live abroad you represent your home community. But sometimes, some things just can’t be explained. Either there is no point of reference or my version of that label is just not the same.  A conversation can dispel many of these misconceptions, but here are a few points of identity lost in translation:

In America- Protestant– In Ethiopia- Christian, catholic, pagan, jewish?

In America – American, Canadian —  In Ethiopia – Israeli, British, American?

In America – Female — In Ethiopia- Foreigner

In America – Liberal — In Ethiopia – let’s agree to disagree…

In America – Student poor — In Ethiopia – Rich

In America – Single — In Ethiopia- maybe I’m married? Yes, I’m married. As far as you’re concerned, I’m married.

In America – no kids — In Ethiopia – I think I want 6, starting next year

In America – Hi — In Ethiopia – Hello hello hello hello hello hello, Is it peace?

In America – Peace Corps Volunteer — In Ethiopia – Doctor? Teacher? Bank? Souk?

In America – adventurous foodie — In Ethiopia – Do you know what injera is? No, I’ve only lived here almost a year.

In America – Wino — In Ethiopia – No, I don’t drink… that.

In America – medium, pleasantly plump — In Ethiopia – FAT, but it’s a compliment

In America – I have freckles — In Ethiopia – I have disease

In America – tall — In Ethiopia – Amazonian

This isn’t to say all Ethiopians have these perceptions of me, but these are real questions I get at least a few times a month from people of all walks of life.

The Skin Tax

19 Jun
Birr in denominations

Birr in denominations

Discrimination or an example of a perfect market economy? The “skin tax,” as one Ethiopian coworker called it, is rampant in Gondar. Every day assumptions are made about me based on the colour of my skin. Usually- I’m rich, I’m a tourist, I’m a doctor, I’m a teacher, I don’t speak Amharic, I’m loose, I’m here to give out money, I think I’m superior, I’m rude, I tip well, I don’t tip at all, I’m Israeli, I’m Italian, I’m definitely not German, I’m short term, I’m a foreigner, I have a watch… and it’s ok to charge me extra.

Some of those assumptions are true, some are very not. And every volunteer gets different assumptions based on their gender, ethnic background, accent, language ability, and where in Ethiopia they live.

For me, I live in a tourist town. Gondar is well-known for its “ferenji waga” or “foreigner’s price.” Restaurants have two menus, hotels have two rates, and historical sites have multiple admission prices. The reality is that if I were a tourist those price differences wouldn’t matter all that much. While sometimes there is as much as a 300% increase on a menu, the difference between a 75 cent meal for a local and $3 meal for a tourist is still cheap for the traveler.

The only time you will see the Amharic Pepsi cheaper! I think they forgot to update the menu

The only time you will see the Amharic Pepsi cheaper! I think they forgot to update the menu

The problem is, I’m not a tourist, or an NGO worker, or a doctor. I don’t get a salary in USD, I get a stipend… in birr. About the equivalent of a middle class Ethiopian. I’m certainly not struggling, but getting overcharged over and over again takes a toll on my budget.

Community integration is incredibly hard to measure. How close are you really to your community? You many never know. Especially in a city, I break my communities into pieces. Souk owners I frequent know me, check. I have coffee or tea with Ethiopian friends around the city, check. I am getting more and more work, which is hopefully a sign of trust, check. But the clearest indicator so far of community integration has been when I get charged “habesha waga” or “local price” at a restaurant.

It’s not just a sign of my language skills. I usually have to explicitly ask for the local price, assert that I live here, and that I’m a volunteer. But owners I know and who have seen me around for a significant time are getting more lenient. Now I only have to ask once.

What bothers me isn’t the existence of the price racketeering, it’s the assumption that I fall into that bracket. The idea of different rates isn’t a bad thing necessarily. In fact a completely free economy dictates price based on worth for the consumer. For a tourist, who is used to $20 meals at home, a $5 meal here for the same food is a deal, even if it is twice as expensive as its local worth.  But what makes me grit my teeth is that this price rating is based on skin colour. Tourists from other cities like Addis Ababa are charged local prices, and people born in other countries who live long term in the rural countryside are charged the tourist rate.

The other frequent occurrence is people trying to overcharge me at the market, yet for some reason that does not bother me at all. Yes, I get annoyed when I know the real price (I just bought eggs here last week!), but I’m not going to fault people for trying to eek a few extra birr out of me if they can get away with it. Haggling is part of the culture, and while it is exhausting, it isn’t annoying. What gets under my grill is the standardized price gauging, the institutionalized, printed, pre-determined unfairness. If I could sit down at a restaurant, talk in Amharic and get a local price while the tourist gets charged extra- fine! In fact, great! But when I come in, sit down, talk in Amharic, ask the waitress about her day and her work and still get handed the “English menu” with the higher prices simply because I don’t look Ethiopian is frustrating. And when I say don’t look Ethiopian, I don’t mean “white.” I mean dark black, Asian, Hispanic, and white. If you don’t look like you were born 15 feet from that restaurant you will not be treated like you live 15 feet from that restaurant… even if you do.

Ethiopia is an incredibly diverse country. There are 87 languages, 100s of tribes, and at least three fairly prominent religions. But for how diverse it is on paper, Ethiopia is also incredibly homogenous. Homogenous if only because people do not or cannot travel. Culture develops at the village level and may be very different from the next village over, or the next region over, but there isn’t much mixing except in cities, making diversity still very strange for most people here.

While I get assumptions in Gondar, if I go more rural, I get bewilderment. I met a woman the other day who was working as a cleaner in a hole in the wall restaurant who had never seen a ferenji before. Granted, she had just come in from the rural village last week, and not many tourists frequent that particular area, but even in Gondar, there are still pockets of isolation.

So the skin tax is both an example of institutionalized discrimination, the effect of a capitalistic economy (ya they’ll pay it, because they can afford it), and the subject of gripe for many volunteers. But we can ask, we can live, and maybe every once and while we get charged the habesha waga. And when that happens, you feel great for a week!

Playing Tourist – Debre Birhan Selassie Church

11 Jun

Living in a tourist town has its pros and cons. Pro- Lots of people are always coming through. Con- My excuses not to tour said people around are becoming incredibly feeble. But, my good friend Chad cracked my tour aversion and finally got me to go to Debre Birhan Selassie Church, one of the more famous churches in Ethiopia, a hop, skip and jump away from my doorstep.

Debre Birhan Selassie Church

Debre Birhan Selassie Church

Debre Birhan Selassie loosely translates to Mountain of Light Holy Trinity Church. That fact alone got me star tourist status immediately. Gotta love Peace Corps language training. The Australians thought me and Chad were super gobez.

Chad and I getting our tourist on

Chad and I getting our tourist on

The typical big eyed floating head paintings you see in many hotels and restaurants around the country are modeled after the artwork in this church. It is one of the more famous orthodox churches in the country, and for just 40 birr they will doctor your birth certificate too! (Seriously. The lack of record keeping here means you can pick what year you were born if you need an ID).

Angel heads on the ceiling

Angel heads on the ceiling

Painted in portraits from top to bottom, scenes of biblical characters and some not so biblical characters cover the walls. This is actually one of the only places in the world there is a depiction of Muhammed, since in Islam you cannot draw living things.

Mohammed on a camel... Not exactly sure what's leading him, or I am and I won't mention it.

Mohammed on a camel… Not exactly sure what’s leading him, or I am and I won’t mention it.

Daniel on a lion, I assume after the lion's den

Daniel on a lion, I assume after the lion’s den

Being some of the only tourists who can speak Amharic, I was able to get a student discount on my ticket (what up no date on the BU ID) and got a personal tour from the priest, who seemed to like me… a lot. Could be a difference in personal space thing though.

You can't tell, but he is holding on to my arm for dear life

You can’t tell, but he is holding on to my arm for dear life

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Showing off for the camera

Showing off for the camera

St. George is thought of as the patron saint of Ethiopia. We have Georgis draft beer, about 100 churches named Georgis, and of course a prominent spot on the wall of DebreBirhan Selassie.

St. George killing the dragon- did not know there were dragons in Ethiopia

St. George killing the dragon- did not know there were dragons in Ethiopia

The Selassie - The Holy Trinity

The Selassie – The Holy Trinity

And some other photos of the grounds:

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Portraits, Again

4 Jun

A collection of faces, both Ethiopian and foreign.

Max the English teacher

Max the English teacher

English class

English class

loving sisters

loving sisters

 

Jessie the Aykel baby

Jessie the Aykel baby

A nugget in Tikel Dingay

A nugget in Tikel Dingay

IT major

IT major

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Fisherman in Gorgora

Fisherman in Gorgora

Birthday in Gorgora

Birthday in Gorgora

Women First 5K

Women First 5K

Nezi making berbere

Nezi making berbere

Hibrit School girls

Hibrit School girls

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Favorite Photos Q2

2 Jun
A holy cave

A holy cave

Can’t believe it’s that time again, 8 months in and another rangling of photos. Again some are great, some have a great story.

Tikel Dingays

Tikel Dingays

World Malaria Day

World Malaria Day

Drying spices

Drying spices

Roots at Fasil Baths

Roots at Fasil Baths

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Fasil baths in off season

Fasil baths in off season

Papyrus boats- Gorgora

Papyrus boats- Gorgora

Solidarity

Solidarity

Peace Corps Ethiopia represents!

Peace Corps Ethiopia represents!

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Making berbere

Making berbere

 

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