New Piece on African Media Coverage

20 Apr

While I’ve been job hunting I haven’t been sitting idle. Check out my new piece, published on Africa Agenda, about the tone of media coverage of the African continent and the most recent obsession with Ebola.

You can access the article here.

And be sure to check back for more pieces on the media and Africa as I start working with Africa Agenda on the side. Just one way I can use my skills to spread the news about a more real African story – how very Peace Corps Goal 3!

Peace Corps Never “Wraps Up”

27 Mar OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I was officially in Ethiopia for 2 years, 2 months, 1 week and 5 days. I have officially been home for three months, 1 week, and 2 days. I have officially processed Peace Corps.. in the last 20 minutes.

I came home to visiting friends! and Christmas! I started job hunting about 2 months ago. I made funny mistakes like taking a napkin to the washroom, or being a little too excited about tap water. I clung to grocery lists for dear life. I bought new clothes, and went to museums and concerts. I played piano for the first time in over two years. I got laser eye surgery and FINALLY finished Insanity. I DID all sorts of things, I answered all sorts of questions, but I didn’t really reflect.

I reflected a lot during my time in Gondar. I reflected on my professional goals. I reflected on my reactions to stressful situations. I reflected on reflecting (I had a lot of time).

Coming home, my answer to the generic “How was it?” became a pat one. “It was rewarding and challenging.” But how was it rewarding (and here and here and here)? In what ways was it challenging (and here)? And so what? Was it one era of my life, the end of a chapter to finish and put up on the shelf as I hop in the drivers seat and speed down the highway back home? Oh yeah, driving.

On the one hand Peace Corps was not an anomaly. In the past five years, I have spent 34 months abroad working, not to mention travel. I will always have wanderlust. I will always want to learn about new cultures and have new experiences. In a way, my two years in those cement rooms in Gondar were the longest I’d stayed in one place in the last eight years. Peace Corps was anomalous in that it made me stay put. To dive deep into a culture and city and language that in no other circumstance would I have known that intimately.

Sometimes we talk as if there is one moment where as RPCVs we “reintegrate.” And then poof! I’m back to “normal.” Sorry to break it to you, but I was never normal. Though perhaps now I have an excuse.

I have no idea what my next five years are going to look like. I do know I want to be in a job that uses my leadership and motivational skills in a creative capacity. I do know I want to work with social issues either internationally or domestic. But these are pretty broad standards – I could be happy in many ways. I could be pursuing these things on my own, or in a partnership. This flexibility, while still understanding how I want to use my skills, is something I certainly learned over the past two years in Ethiopia. My battle with expectations and my definition of personal success changed daily.

I’ve said this before, I don’t think Peace Corps changed my life. I am too stubborn for that, and I had worked internationally before. What it did do was bring out some aspects of my personality that were always there, but under the surface. What comes out when you are out of your comfort zone… for two years. For me, I learned how much I use humour to cope. This is not a bad thing, though it can be off putting to those who don’t get it. I learned I do very well in high stress situations. I am calm under stress. I am more even keel than I thought, but can be highly rational to a fault. But I also learned to appreciate those times when I get overwhelmed with emotion, mostly its over something beautiful, though I was certainly deeply saddened at points. I tried and failed not to get angry over and over again, but I did succeed in letting go quickly.

My experiences in Ethiopia will always be a part of who I am, blending in with what has come before. I will always be excited to see an Ethiopian name or hear a snippet of Amharic. I will always be curious about how people came to this side of world, as they were curious about me.

Ultimately, as I start to work towards a new phase of my life my last two years will inform my professional and personal choices. What will programs look like “on the ground?” How would I motivate a cross-cultural team? What successful strategies for sanity did I use in Ethiopia that I could use working in other countries? Or back in Ethiopia? I won’t rule that out – there is too much of my industry in and out of Addis.

I don’t know if I have rose coloured glasses quite yet, but three months later I understand that I really needed this time to come back, see family and friends, sit back and reflect on my past two years.

What this blog will become:

This blog was my outlet to share Ethiopian culture and my personal experiences during Peace Corps and working in development. As I move forward, I don’t think “Wandering and Wondering” changes much for me. I will still travel and have opinions. While no longer exclusively Ethiopian, follow along as I morph this space into more of a travel blog (African or otherwise), and personal musings on applicable topics. And as always, let me know if there is something you want me to write about – something I missed, or a burning question. Thanks for reading and following along.

The Danakil Depression – My Last Hurrah

24 Dec

The last thing I did before I left Ethiopia after Peace Corps was flout the rules and go to the red zone. Methane pools, sulfuric acid, live volcanoes, ancient traditional salt mining and all along the Eritrean border – yeah, I can see why Peace Corps said it was a no-go.

But, six of us had officially finished our service and just had to knock this region off our bucket lists. So off we went to Afar, Ethiopia to see some of the most inhospitable land on earth.

Sunrise in Afar

Sunrise in Afar

We started from Mekele, Tigray’s regional capital and traveled into Afar – known for it’s nomadic salt miners and for being the hottest average place on earth. Travelling in December, the temperature had just started to drop for the winter (to 39 degrees Celsius). Our first few days we ate lunch in an Afari village and visited the salt flats where large camel caravans took the salt into Tigray for sale. The journey on foot takes eight days.

Thank goodness for air conditioning

Thank goodness for air conditioning

Camel Caravan at sunset

Camel Caravan at sunset

On their way to Tigray. Each camel is carring upwards of 200 lbs of salt.

On their way to Tigray. Each camel is carring upwards of 200 lbs of salt.

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In the salt flats, they pump in water to clean and loosen the salt.

In the salt flats, they pump in water to clean and loosen the salt.

this poor donkey was so tired!

this poor donkey was so tired!

wet salt

wet salt

We also went to where the blocks of rock salt are actually mined. We drove through salt flats for miles, seeing no other life. Afari men have been mining salt for hundreds, if not thousands of years. The salt flats are estimated to be almost 8 miles deep in some parts. Modern companies have tried and failed to mine the salt with machines, but they just rust up. Each salt block weighs around 4-5 kilos (about 10 lbs) and the flats sit at around 121 meters below sea level. The area used to be a part of the Red Sea. Around the area are liquid methane pools, salt mountains and sulfur pools. The chemicals in the earth react with water to create different colours (iron is red, sulfur is yellow, copper is orange and green etc.). Walking around the pools, you can hear the earth rumbling below – this is unstable earth.

Driving across the salt lake

Driving across the salt lake

Dried salt flats

Dried salt flats

Our driver

Our driver

An Afari man in the salt flats

An Afari man in the salt flats

salt mountains

salt mountains

small geyser

small geyser

Sulfer pools

Sulfer pools

The Peace Corps group

The Peace Corps group

SONY DSC SONY DSC

That night we stayed with a family in Tigray, then the next morning drove a long way across the desert to get to the base of the Erta Ale volcano. We zoomed across the sand, but driving 12 km across lava rock took 2 hours. That was a bumpy ride to say the least (2 flat tires later). Throughout the trip we had to hire military for protection, considering some of the previous tourist deaths in the region. The volcano itself is actually a military base, where we slept that night at the top near the crater. We had no problems, though I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ve inhaled enough sulfur to shave a few years off my life.

Across the desert to the volcano

Across the desert to the volcano

Our military escort

Our military escort

They let me play with the gun...

They let me play with the gun…

The lava lake!

The lava lake!

Obsidian rock from the volcano

Obsidian rock from the volcano

Wind went the wrong way!

Wind went the wrong way!

Silhouette at Erta Ale

Silhouette at Erta Ale

Erta Ale at sunrise

Erta Ale at sunrise

All in all this was one of the most unique places I have ever been. There are only four active lava lakes in the world, but this is probably the closest you can get to one (we walked right up to the edge of the crater). If this blog has at all put Ethiopia on your travel radar, definitely put a trip to the Danakil Depression on your list.

Holy Research Batman! or Peace Corps Master’s International

30 Oct

For two years I researched, wrote, procrastinated, researched, procrastinated, wrote, procrastinated, and finally submitted my thesis. But wait, what? I’m in the Peace Corps- they make you write theses now? Not exactly.

I am a Peace Corps Master’s International candidate. About a decade ago, Peace Corps and graduate schools started to pair up to create Master’s programs that put you in the field, were grassroots practical, and popped you out with more than two years of international service. More than three years ago (oh my God) I started the PCMI program at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies in the International Development Program (MA).

Each school and program is different, and for my program I finished up all my coursework before I began my 27 months and had the two years to write and submit a “substantial research paper” preferably about my country of service. I came in to Ethiopia with two other MI students – one from John’s Hopkins (Masters of Public Health) and the other from the University of Montana (Masters of Youth Development). They both had different versions of MA integration – for JHU, she basically finished her degree, wrote a thesis on something completely random (but very interesting I’m sure) and then started Peace Corps. For UMontana, she had to actually develop and implement a project proposal during her service. I was somewhere in the middle – typical thesis, but sorta, kinda attached to my service.

There are two ways a Peace Corps service can help with a graduate degree – the MI program is one way, where you study, and then are placed to serve being able to test out that theoretical knowledge and practical grad degree skills on the ground. The other way is the Paul D Coverdell Fellows program , which if your school signs up, gives anyone who has completed Peace Corps some sort of break (from as little as waiving the application fee to as awesome as a full ride – depending on the program).  The Coverdell Fellows aid is good for life, so for the RPCVs a few years out you can still access that support. The University of Denver hosts the most fellows of any graduate school, and I had some colleagues who finished their service over 15 years ago.

Personally, the MI program ended up saving me about half of my expenses. It covered 18 out of 90 credits, but because I was able to overload some quarters, I finished in half the time saving me rent and living expenses as well (though probably took a small toll on my sanity). Most of the MI students in my Korbel cohort finished in 1.5 years, a more normal pace.

So what did I ultimately research, write and procrastinate about?

The title of my thesis is…

THE COMBINATION OF MASS MEDIA AND PEER EDUCATION IN ETHIOPIAN SOCIAL BEHAVIOR CHANGE PROGRAMS FOR HEALTH AND GENDER ISSUES

Mmmm Sexy and Academic.

Basically, in 50 pages I outline that behavior change programs (in America think public health campaigns like anti-smoking) in Ethiopia (think condom use or women are equal) work best when mass media (which provides a larger national conversation and a context) is used concurrently with small group peer education sessions (which create personal accountability and can move groups from informed to action). Was that run-on sentence long enough for you?

Social behavior change programming has held a fascination for me since it is the cross section of communications and development. And let me nerd out here for a minute, I have been able to be at the grassroots implementation level for many a prevention program and topic over the past two years. I have had a front seat to see what works well, what works, and what does not work. While I am a little grassrooted out right now (I would love a hot shower), I plan to take these lessons with me into my career.

Clearly I just can’t do one thing. This has been a curse since high school. AP classes? That’s for sissies, IB for me. Undergrad? Why not get two Bacherlor’s degrees? Grad school? I should probably work full time too. And Peace Corps? Let’s write a thesis while we live in sub-Saharan Africa, that sounds fun.

So there you have it, between hugging groups of African children, watching too much Battlestar Galactica, and the occasional international trip, I finished my Master’s Degree. Now someone please hire me.

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.

 

IMG_2242

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.

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