Archive | October, 2012

Ethiopian Soap Operas

30 Oct

Part of my job as a Peace Corps volunteer is to introduce some Ethiopian culture back to the states. What better way than sharing one of the most watched Amharic dramas on TV? My family here loves to watch a show called “Sow la Sow” which means “people for people.” The best way to describe it is as an Ethiopian soap opera. Needless to say, I’m hooked.

A combination of dramatic music cues, quick explanations and my absurdly minute grasp of the language has yielded a pretty amusing plot synopsis. Here’s what I gather is happening so far on this show:

There are two business partners. They go into to business together and somehow get some bad blood between them (fuzzy on the details). For whatever reason, one of them kills the son of the other and dumps him on the doorstep of the house for good measure. The sister of the dead son goes to university and has a boyfriend so of course the mother thinks the boyfriend killed her son because at some point they got into a fight. It’s a modern relationship so y’know… Following so far? Good, me neither.

This gets more scandalous and we find out the daughter is pregnant! Because the mother hates her boyfriend she does not want them to get married. Logically, she bribes her daughter’s friend to put “abortion medicine” (???) in her tea. Just go with it.

So the daughter has a miscarriage. Meanwhile, the evil business partner man is also a smuggler! Which is very close to “shmuggilay” which means old man, so I could have this wrong… but he goes to his warehouse to pick up the goods and the police find him. (I think one of the police is also related, but no matter). This totally stresses him out, and he has a stroke on the warehouse floor.  Now he talks with a lopsided mouth, meaning there is absolutely no hope of me being able to understand him.  We leave the scene with a random woman shoving his wheelchair into a wall. Mmmk. Clearly he has enemies.

Meanwhile… the daughter’s friend has a nervous breakdown and admits to spiking her friend’s tea with baby killer juice! Awkward.

So this is what is happening in the world of fictional scandalous Addis Ababa families. Stay tuned next week as I’m pretty sure we find out something about the mother. Also, there was a whole scene with two people in a shop who I don’t even know who they are… probably they are important.

I think my favorite explanation of the show came from my host father who summed it up like this: “Some families and good and some and bad, and they do things.” Sounds like quality TV to me!

If anything, I am picking up a strange mix of useful transportation and shopping vocabulary as well as the odd murder! intrigue! scandal! related words. I will be able to buy a bus ticket AND explain that I am running from the law at the same time. Clearly I will be fluent by the end of the year.

It’s Not Peace Corps Until…

28 Oct

I hit a few milestones this week. Signs that I am a Peace Corps volunteer…

#1 I got my first violent vomiting, GI, Montezuma’s revenge, double headed dragon, whatever you want to call it sickness. But I survived and still want to be here so check that one off the list. Luckily it was only 24 hours. (If only I could have it once and be done, but I foresee many a crumpled on the floor weeping moment in the future).

#2  I have fleas in my bed. I remember reading volunteer’s posts before I came and seeing things like “you get used to it” and “it’s not that bad” and thinking I will never get used to fleas, that sounds disgusting. And yes, it is. And yes, you get used to it. At this point, if I’m not going to get malaria, dengue fever, typhus or some other crazy tropical illness I don’t care. Bring it on. Hours of itching and hundreds of bites all over my body? Child’s play. Refer to milestone #1.

#3 I can conjugate verbs! In Amharic!… sort of. If by conjugate you mean I kind of recognize a pattern on paper but still have absolutely no idea what anyone is saying-ever.

#4 I have chaco sandals tan lines. AND they are the double strap kind so that just makes it more legit.

#5 I ate ox stomach. I don’t recommend it, but if I’m going to keep a mental list of Anthony Bourdain worthy foods, I guess ox stomach is like the minor leagues. I’ll keep you updated as I get more adventurous.

#6 I pooped in a hole. Well, really this one came in the first week, but it was a milestone nonetheless. They say once you’re in Peace Corps all you talk about is pooping. Yup, that’s pretty much accurate. It’s also not very ladylike.

In other non-fecal news, I have switched language teachers because my first teacher is now teaching Oromifa (one of the regional dialects). My class is now 5 people, which is actually pretty large for learning a totally new language and new script. I like my new teacher as well, but 5 of us is really a lot to handle (especially when we are all suffering from #1) and I feel a bit of pity for her. Oh wait, unless she is suffering from #1, no  I don’t.

Site Announcement

23 Oct

On Saturday we found out where we will be living for the next two years. I felt a mix of anxiousness and apathy. Considering it is two years of my life, it was kind of a big deal, but I also feel like I still know next to nothing about Ethiopia so they could have said any town and I would have nodded and smiled. I went in with no expectations and no requests. I came out with what I think will be a great site for my project interests, research and personality. I’m feeling pretty lucky.

So, I will living in … drumroll please … Dese!

Everyone reading this probably feels exactly how I did when I heard that. Namely, where is that? Is it big? Small? What language do they speak there? Where will I be working? What’s the weather like? Yup- I was as clueless as you. But after a bit of research (asking around the old fashioned way), I am getting more and more excited.

Dese is a pretty large city of 150,000 in the East Amhara region. I am about 8 hours (by bus) north east of Addis Ababa. I have one of the largest sites in Ethiopia. Most people are going to have what you might call the “typical Peace Corps experience” (if there is one) in a smaller town or village. I am moving to one of the bigger cities in the country. So working through some pros and cons:


Lots of options for cafes, souks, and even some ferenji (foreigner) grocery stores!

More resources, including a university for projects/funding and counterparts. Hopefully this also means a motivated community.

I am paired with a local NGO (ARC- AIDS Resource Center), not a government health center, which is more my line of work. It works with Behavioral Change and Communications (BCC) programs, which fits nicely with my communications/marketing work

I have a site mate! A guy named Korey, who I have not yet met, but I’m sure is awesome. And by awesome, I mean speaks English.

They speak Amharic (the national language) so I don’t have to switch languages and I can still travel anywhere in the country. Whew!

Ease of access by public transportation. Dese is the largest city in the area so I can always find a bus going there.

I’m the hub city for a bunch of volunteers in the region. I have at least 4 or 5 volunteers within 30 minutes of me so I will get to host all the holiday parties haha.

The weather is supposed to be pretty mild- warm during the day and cool at night. Seriously the weather here is so crazy it deserves its own post in the future.

Good access to internet! Yay for blog posts.

Last but certainly not least (in fact, this probably should have been #1) I have a private toilet and shower in my house! SCORE. It’s the little things. But actually… (any other volunteers shouldn’t be too jealous though, there was nothing said about hot water).


Integrating into the community where everyone knows my name will be next to impossible

Most likely I’ll get more harassment as a single gal in a bigger town that has a lot of transit through it.

More expensive. I’m told my house is 2 rooms for 1500 birr a month (about $90). Some volunteers have full 4 room houses for 400 birr (about $25) a month. Though I’m told that will get a larger allowance to compensate. All you Americans get your idea of “house” out of your head now. These houses are still made of dried mud walls- though I will have electricity (most days).

Somewhat isolated in a zone of East Amhara volunteers. While we are close to each other, we are cut off from people in the south or even West Amhara.

Getting around the city will involve more negotiating with bajajs (3 wheeled scooter taxis) and line taxis rather than simply walking. Though I’m sure my transportation language skills will be top notch by the end of 2 years.

Clearly the pros outweigh the cons. What will make for a very difficult first 6 months I’m sure I will appreciate in my second year. When I went on demystification to Debre Birhan (a city of about 100,000) I was worried that it would not be close to my experience. Now I have some realistic expectations about larger sites.

Another interesting tidbit- Dese is the city/region where all the models in Ethiopia come from. And considering basically every woman in Ethiopia is gorgeous, that is a very intimidating fact. Oh well, maybe it will give me more ambition to actually use my private shower more than once a month. Peace Corps hippiedom stay back! I brought my nail polish!


Drinking from a Fire Hose

18 Oct


I have been in Ethiopia for just about 2 weeks now- though it feels both like 2 days and a whole month at the same time.  As soon as we stepped off the plane we were in training and it has not let up since. This is good in that I have had no time to freak out, but also exhausting and I really have to try hard to give myself a few minutes each day to process and decompress.

They say pre-service training is like drinking from fire hose. You can only get so much in your mouth, and if you concentrate on how much you are missing you will be lost forever. The best advice is to get what you can.

Well that is a pretty accurate analogy, and this week has felt like a water cannon.

Since I have been here I have travelled around Addis Ababa, up to Debre Birhan, moved in with my host family in Itaya and shot down to Assela a few times. A whirlwind of medical, safety, technical, and language training has been mixed in with making new friends, navigating public transportation, and using charades to communicate with my host family. So how to break it down for all y’all back home?


Flew into Addis and the first few days were a lot of training sessions and workshops at the King’s Hotel. A few days later I took a mini bus with five other trainees up to Debre Birhan to visit some current health volunteers at their site and “demystify” Peace Corps in Ethiopia. Debre Birhan is 2 hours northeast of Addis in the Amhara region and a larger town of about 100,000. We visited a married couple there (who are so badassadely awesome), so I don’t know how close my experience will be to theirs as a single gal, but it was good to see the type of housing and lifestyle of volunteers. Other volunteers went all over the country for demystification, some going as far as needing to fly.

Coming back from Debre Birhan (on mini-buses aka the public transportation where you just have to fight for a seat), we stayed another couple nights in Addis and took a tour of the city. We went to the national museum and saw Lucy, the ancestor skeleton thing.  Since then I have moved in with my host family in Itaya, a small town of about 17,000 a couple hours Southeast of Addis in the Oromia region.  There are 8 other volunteers in the town with me.

Most recently we have been bouncing back and forth between Itaya and Assela, our training hub town where we get to see the other volunteers and get all sorts of vaccinations. I mention the shots because they gave me a Reese’s Peanut butter cup, and you need to know how exciting that was. (very).


Language training has been 2 parts fun, 1 part frustrating, and 17 parts exhausting. I am keeping hold of my small victories every day and considering how much I have picked up in the language over such a short period I have to remember to give myself a pat on the back. Or you can send me chocolate (or goldfish!), if you feel so inclined J I can almost sort of pretend to read kind of! And of course my host family thinks I’m very “gobez” (clever). If saying “good morning” and “I don’t understand” make me clever then in 1 month I’m going to be at Einstein status. I have class with 2 other volunteers, and our language and culture instructor is the bomb dot com.  He has also taken every awkward cultural question from me in stride- and if you know me you know I have asked a lot of stupid questions.

The food is pretty damn delicious. I was a little worried back in the States going to a few Ethiopian restaurants and not falling in love with the injera and wot they were serving. But as with everything exported, the original is always better. And thank goodness because I literally eat injera (a sponge like pancake sour bread) and wot (stew) for every meal. Peace Corps gives us a water filter that I use with boiled water also. So far so good! No sickness or stomach issues yet, though other volunteers have not been so lucky. I figure my health is half mental so if I am still enjoying myself my body will stay healthy. Fingers crossed.

Integrating into our host community has been an interesting experience. Kids are running around everywhere! And of course every single one of them wants to say hi and ciao and shake our hands. The best idea was teaching the fist bump- it’s cultural and clean! My friend and fellow volunteer Todd brought a slackline, and so we have been setting it up in the fields. Everyone wants to try it and so it has been a great way to meet community members and feel involved. The toll to try is to for the kids to teach us a word in Amharic (which I promptly forget).

My host family is really fantastic. It’s smaller than most volunteer’s families- I live with the mother and father and their 13 year old daughter. They are both teachers and the father’s English is very good. They like to watch the news in both Amharic and English and then have me explain what is going on. There may or may not be a napkin floating around Itaya with a scribbled map of Europe and a haphazard explanation of the eurozone crisis…  We have been playing card games like Skip-bo which help me with my numbers. They also like to watch movies and the first two I saw on TV with them were Tootsie and She’s the Man… so basically they think Americans like to dress up as the opposite gender. Thanks, Hollywood- that was fun to explain.

So it’s been a busy couple of weeks! I will try to update my blog more frequently as I get a hold of this schedule. I also hear a rumor we might be getting a “google bet” in town soon so I won’t have to travel to Assela for internet. Oh, the small things in life.