Archive | May, 2013

Fires and Shootings and Project Management Oh My!

30 May

Just got back to Gondar from 12 days of Grassroots Soccer and Regional training in Bahar Dar. All of this was very exciting cutting edge stuff… cough cough… but I’ll talk about that later. The real events of the week included two shootings and a warehouse fire!

As we arrived a couple weeks ago, we were told to avoid a certain neighborhood in the city (with the beer garden damn!) because of a shooting incident. The rumor circulating is that an ex military guy shot up a wedding of a former lover, killing her family and a few unlucky bajaj drivers nearby. It was a really big tragedy for the area, some staff having personal connections to some of the victims.  He then drowned himself in the lake. The next week, another shooting occurred in the same neighborhood. I feel a family feud developing.

A few days after that, a warehouse caught fire across the street from the hotel. None of the incidents are officially related, but if I were a script writer I would cry arson! We were told it was a palm oil storehouse, so clearly it burned quickly.


Military move in to help with the fire

Military move in to help with the fire

What was fascinating was the emergency apparatus here. Considering many households do not even have basic needs met, I was impressed by the multiple fire trucks that showed up. However, there is no hydrant system so they would wet the fire, have to drive off to get more water, and the fire would be blazing again by the time they came back.

The next morning... still smoking, but under control

The next morning… still smoking, but under control

Bahar Dar is one of the more modern cities in Ethiopia. Even though Gondar is bigger (or maybe because of it), Bahar Dar boasts cleaner streets, wider sidewalks and better infrastructure (including stop lights! You don’t even see those in Addis). So I can’t tell if I was surprised that there were two fire trucks, or surprised that there were only two fire trucks for a city that size (pop. about 200,000).

Peace Corps also officially consolidated us in the hotel. So I can check that experience off the list. Though we lobbied to move to the resort down the street for “safety” reasons, I don’t think they bought it.

Some G8 Advice

28 May

It’s that time of year again, when the new recruits, with freshly delivered invitations start to invade the cyberspace with questions about everything from what to pack to what their last meal should be. Well, never fear newbies (that’s you G9), us G8ers are now seasoned peace corps volunteers, rounding on 1/3 completed. We also happened to all get together last week and talk about advice we wish we had had, so here you go: the most comprehensive and probably incredibly useless advice list for Peace Corps Ethiopia, as compiled by a bunch of health volunteers who miss cheese a little too much.

Pre-Departure Prep:

–          Make a “little black book” of everyone’s mailing address back home. You will want to send letters and Christmas cards etc and who doesn’t want to receive a letter with a stamp with Meles’ face on it? No one, that’s who.  It’s a pain to track down those addresses in country, especially during pre-service training when your internet ability will be very low.

–          Maybe get some sector experience before you arrive. For health, maybe look up what the heck an IGA is (you will be asked to do one, and you want to figure out how to avoid that). For environment, apparently gardening is a thing (food security shout out!). For education (what up G9), look into active learning techniques. You won’t be teaching, you will be teacher trainers.

–          Eat your favorite foods. Then run around the block, and eat them again. Especially the ethnic ones. You can find bearable pizza and beer here, but I’ll be damned if I wouldn’t kill someone for hummus, or pad thai.

–          Pack a care package for yourself. Or have mom send you one the day you leave. It will take at least 3 weeks to get to you anyway.

–          Get a hard-drive (terabyte recommended) and load it up! Bring us G8ers some good stuff please : ) special requests include: newest seasons of Arrested Development, Big Bang, Always Sunny, Parcs and Rec, any HBO, Showtime, and BBC (Homeland, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Doctor Who, Sherlock etc), The Americans. Movie requests- Great Gatsby, new Star Trek, basically anything new!! We will be raiding your datas during PST. (Gotta love Ethiopia’s no copyright laws sometimes).

What to pack:

Take this with a grain of salt. Everyone’s site is different, and everyone’s priorities are different, but here are some basic tips for Ethiopia. Basically it’s cooking stuff, clothes, and things to keep you from going crazy or getting bored.

–          You can get everything you need to survive here. Clearly, people live here, but good quality cookware is hard to come by, expensive and only available in Addis Ababa. I was very happy I packed:

  • A good skillet
  • A good paring and chef’s knife
  • Vegetable peeler
  • Spices (see previous post)
  • A couple butter knives (expensive and bad quality here), forks and spoons are easy to come by

–          Pack a box of granola bars or some other such snack. You get some money at staging for the last night; most of us hit up the Whole Foods down the street. That first month in training with host families, you will be guaranteed to have a few “emergency granola bar” moments.

–          Pack clothes you want to wear. Don’t go buy a whole new wardrobe filled with cargo pants and T-shirts. Most of us wear basically what we would in America, maybe a little more conservatively (no spaghetti straps or mini-skirts, but jeans and normal tank tops are totally fine). Though normal for me is Boulder, Colorado chic- love me my Chaco tan lines.

–          On the clothes thought- bring things that will layer. Rainy season is cold, hot season is… well, hot. Bring a rain coat! Umbrellas aren’t enough during a monsoon. It can get down to below freezing in some sites, and as hot as 110 Fahrenheit in others. Sorry you don’t know where you will end up!

–          Flashlight! (or headlamp if your cool)

–          Little notebooks, like a pocket sized moleskin. You will be given notepaper up the wazoo for trainings, but something small to carry around has been helpful.

–          A computer. There’s always someone in every group without one… ya hippy.

–          A pillow. Unless you enjoy sleeping on something like the consistency of play-dough.

–          Pack some stuff in canvas bags in your suitcase, like reusable grocery bags. Then you have extra bags for overnights/short trips and market day!

–          Things to brighten your day- photographs from home (you’ll share these with host fam and compound peeps), nail polish, music etc.

–          DUCT. TAPE. It is useful for everything.

–          For contact’s wearers- I stalked up on about 18 months worth. Which is about right, because I don’t wear them every day here, probably about half the time and mostly when I’m in trainings. I may not have showered, but I did put my contacts in! Success.

Do Not Pack:

–          Books. The rumor is you lucky ducks get a kindle. There is also a file floating around with like 60,000 reads on it so don’t waste space and kilos with hardbacks. Even Ethiopia is in the digital age! (almost). And for you hardback lovers, the VRC (volunteer resource centers) in Addis and Bahar Dar have libraries.

–          Sunscreen or basic meds. You get a lovely medical kit with all that (and some not so basic meds). DO pack specialty over the counter meds like probiotics or vitamins.

–          A million shoes. Basics include: flip flops, sturdy/hiking sandals (Chacos or something of the like), sneakers (for exercise), a nice pair (stylish sandals for girls or dress shoes for boys are fine). I also packed a pair of chucks and hiking boots. Sometimes I wish I brought 1 pair of heels though, and then I face plant on the gravel…

–          Sheets or blankets. You can get them here, or get some fitted ones shipped later.

–          Any other kitchen items- pots, plates, bowls, cups are all available in hub town markets.

Take it or Leave It—The Items of Argument

–          Sleeping bag. I’m glad I brought mine, and people who have visited me are too. But I don’t really use it that much. I will be happy to have it when I summit Ras Dashen though! Depends if you like to camp or not.

–          A lot of chocolate. Have mom send it in a care package. Unless you’re an addict, like my friend Morgan, I say it’s an initial waste of space and weight. And don’t pretend like you’re going to share it with your cute little host siblings… you won’t. And it won’t be pretty.

–          Cards and other games. Glad I brought mine, but the volunteer resource center has all sorts of crap floating around. I ended up giving my SkipBo to the host fam. It was a good gift because there were memories attached.

–          High heels. I’m a shoe girl, but I didn’t bring any, but it kills my soul a bit. Still undecided on that one.

So there you have it, the most vague and yet comprehensive peace corps Ethiopia pre departure packing list. Feel free to ask specific questions in the comments or check out the Pre-Departure Group Facebook page for all sorts of useless advice. Good luck! See you in July!

Popular Songs Around Gondar

18 May

The sensations sweeping the nation…

Holla to my home town- This is a song about Gondar, and the biddies who come from it. Yes, Gondar has a rep- it’s like an inferiority complex with Addis Ababa, but Addis Ababa don’t care. This a mix of hip hop and Amhara region dancing. Pretty cool yo.

So you know Chop my Money? Here’s the Amharic version- apparently it’s a rage all over Eastern Africa.

And moving farther south, coming out of the Southern Nations and Peoples Region is “Shaleye” which means “my something… I dont know what a shale is. But at some point they sing Dilla Dilla Dillaye, which means my Dilla, which is a city in the South where my lovely friend Alyssa is posted. Plus it has a catchy tune.

And finally, this comes from the good ole US of A, but it is the sensation sweeping the Peace Corps Nation. Enjoy Thrift Store… sometimes I think Ethiopia is one giant thrift store.

Fasika – An excuse to eat A LOT of meat

10 May


Last weekend was Ethiopian Orthodox Easter, the end of a 55 day fast, and the return of tibs! Tibs, a half kilo of red meat sliced, diced, and served with injera and awazi (spicy berebere sauce) is back on the menu. The last 55 days of fasting has meant no meat products, including milk, eggs, and cheese. For some more devout orthodox, it has also meant no eating before 3pm every day.

But why 55 days instead of the 40 days of Lent? Apparently weekends don’t count so the fasting really is 40 week days… but you still have to fast on Saturday and Sunday so it ends up being 55 days.

The point is, everyone is now eating meat. You can hear the chickens and roosters every morning, the goats that know their number is up, and the dogs who can sense all the carcasses coming their way. It’s quite a cacophony of potential food. I always a enjoy a rousing game of “goat or child?” their brays sound so much alike.

Woke up to this guy’s intestines chilling in a bucket outside my house the other day… yummy. His name was Carl.

Woke up to this guy’s intestines chilling in a bucket outside my house the other day… yummy. His name was Carl.

Like other Easters, Fasika is a family holiday. I was able to eat with a few families here in Gondar, stuffed full of doro wot (chicken stew) and siga wot (red meat stew… goat). Luckily I avoided the home brews of tella and arake, the former a grassy, watery beer, the later fire in a bottle.

But I got a great surprise at my coworker Edward’s house! His brother who lives in America had sent over some Red Label Scotch.  Clearly I drank it on the rocks… I’m not solidifying any stereotypes about foreign women on that one… oops.

Fasika at Ed’s … morgan couldn’t make it, didn’t know he had put up the sign haha

Fasika at Ed’s … Morgan couldn’t make it, didn’t know he had put up the sign haha

Even though I’m a ‘homatarian’ also known as I don’t buy meat at the market and only cook vegetarian meals or care package meats in my house, I’m happy to have meat back in the restaurants.  And the price of eggs will finally go down.

So Melkam Fasika (Happy Easter!), the S’aom  (fasting) is over and we can eat siga (meat) again!

An Aykel Tale

8 May

Last week I headed to Aykel for a combination helping Peace Corps do site identification, visiting Morgan, and running into my counterpart who was at a training (if he’s there, it means it’s work right?).

Doing site identification interviews with Peace Corps - buna break!

Doing site identification interviews with Peace Corps – buna break!

Aykel is the site of the other G8 volunteer in the North Gondar Zone, the lovely Morgan Davison, check out her blog here. It’s about 1.5 hours southwest of Gondar on the road to Metema (border of Sudan 120km away) and the capital of the Chilga region.

In Aykel- awful soil erosion, but cool photo

In Aykel- awful soil erosion, but cool photo

A sizeable town of about 45,000 Morgan is the only volunteer in her site. There are plenty of connections between her town and “the big city” that I live in. Many of her friends have family in Gondar, and the owners of my favorite juice place are cousins of her landlady.

Aykel also has many connections to the US. There are pockets of Aykel Diaspora all over the country, and talking to some of the people, they knew exactly where everyone from that town was living (a rundown of 10 in Denver, 30 in Seattle etc. ensued).

But the history of those immigrants is unique for this city. While people leave for many different reasons, a large group came through refugee camps in Sudan in the 1980s and 1990s during squirmishes on the Ethiopian-Sudan border. On a hike outside of the town, Teddy, the tourism officer, took us to a cave on the outskirts that a couple hundred people used as shelter during the conflict for about 3 months.


During the rainy season, the entrance to the cave becomes a roaring waterfall and the water at the bottom is believed to have holy healing powers since it sheltered so many refugees during the war.

The cave becomes a Holy Site

The cave becomes a Holy Site

Had to take our shoes off because of Holy Ground

Had to take our shoes off because of Holy Ground

Washing clothes in the "holy water"... drained to a trickle during dry season

Washing clothes in the “holy water”… drained to a trickle during dry season

Some walked from Aykel all the way to the border (about 120 kilometers) to safety. One such guy lived in America for years before coming back to invest in his small town, and now owns one of the best cafes we visited. An example of Diaspora development, returned investment and America’s role in refugee support finds a success story in this small town.

Amharic Days

6 May

I’m going to go out on a limb and say Ethiopian Amharic (and Ethiopian Tigrynia) are some of the hardest languages to learn in Peace Corps. What about Russian? What about Chinese? What about Arabic? Ok, those are probably pretty hard too, but at least you’ve heard those languages before- in a movie maybe, or from a neighbor. I’m pretty sure 98% of volunteers came into Ethiopia having no exposure to the language.

What makes Amharic difficult? It is one of the three major Semitic languages in the world (Arabic and Hebrew being the other two). Its grammar structure is the opposite of English, but only sometimes. So you can’t just turn an English sentence backwards. I have to think of the entire statement before I say it, which if you know me and my foot in my mouth ways, it’s probably a skill I should develop.

It’s phonetic, and like most other languages has different conjugations for everyone—male, female, polite, plural etc. (there are 10 in all for each verb), not to mention 10 in each tense. This is also a language of prefixes and suffixes. To address an action to someone, to create an imperative, to say “let me,” to really put any sort of purpose to a verb you have to add in extra syllables at the front, end and even sometimes middle. And I thought German had the longest words…

The result is that many times people speak to me and I catch the fact that they are speaking to me (a female “you”), asking if I will do something in the future (a “ta”) and for them (ñ at the end)… but I miss the actual verb root buried in there. I’m getting really good at the phrase “inenja mikniatum algañim” which is… I don’t know, because I don’t understand. Or a sharp intake of breath… which doesn’t mean yes or no, just I’m listening—the Ethiopian equivalent to the nod and smile. Ishi.. Okay.

But never fear, the lovely lady leading me through the mire is an English professor at the Teacher’s College here in Gondar and the best shuro wot chef west of Woldia:

Aster and I at the Teacher's College

As you can see I am a giant in this country…

Language acquisition is an interesting feat. In a total emersion situation like we are as volunteers, after 10 weeks of training and 6 months at site, I can interact on my survival needs and communicate in basic ways and answer basic questions as long as people speak slowly. But really for about half a year of language, I can get around. On the other end, Ethiopian children learn English from Grade 1 and are taught subjects in English in High School (don’t get me started on that). And unless they are really smart kids and go on to university, I would say my Amharic conversational skills are better than theirs… 10 years in.

But like most hidden powers, sometimes I like to keep my Amharic to myself. I know way more dirty words than I should (thank you harassment), but I can pretend to ignore them (which I tend to find is best practice). But sometimes I’ll start in English and switch to Amharic mid way through to throw people off in the market, hearing bargaining and understanding real prices. Wabam! Didn’t see that one coming, did ya popcorn lady!…

But language is always an ongoing process. I’ve probably hit a plateau at this point – getting faster at phrases I use more often, but losing words I used to know during training (struggled to come up with the word for orange the other day). But you hone what you need and use. I don’t pretend to think I will ever be proficient or even close to fluent, and the ugly truth is that I don’t need to be. But small steps, a few new phrases here and there, can make a big difference in living and working here. So Aster and I hang out, and sometimes I learn something.

Alphabet Soup

3 May

This might be a typical conversation to overhear between two PC Ethiopia volunteers:

PCV1 – Hey! Did you get your CNA to the APCD on time? I heard our VRF was due before the PAC meeting at the end of IST.

PCV2 – No I didn’t have time with all the TOTs I was doing. The HCNs and CPs really pulled it together at the last minute there. Minum aydalum.

PCV1 – For sure. I tried to call the PCMO the other day about that double dragon situation but then I got the text that the pizza was coming in a yellow box. Dude I’ll ET if I have to share my chocolate store in consolidation. Ebt!

PCV 2 – Crazy! That and the new PCTs get all their attention, especially ‘cuz they’re ed. But chigerellum man.

PCV 1- Ya well that HIV BCC  ToT you did after WMD and the BAMM competition was pretty cool. You might get pulled in for a PSN or CCC training after that. Can you believe it’s almost our MSC? Next thing you know we’ll COS. Ishi baka gotta go, I’m outta birrrrr.

Catch all that? Ya, me neither six months ago. But with all new jobs, you start to learn the lingo. What’s fun about a volunteer’s job though is that each country creates its own slang- a mix of Peace Corps acronyms, local language quirks, and code words. Don’t ask me what a double dragon is… let’s hope you never experience it.

I remember talking to some RPCV (returned volunteer) friends before I left and only understanding about half their conversations. Development jargon, peace corps jargon, and the experience that every volunteer has no matter their country (you will poop in a hole) create a bevy of inside jokes and complete nonsense. But it also creates a community and bond that goes beyond linguistics. As funny as this website is, I can guarantee it is 10X funnier to a peace corps volunteer.

But we’ll hide behind the jargon for now. At least as long as this holds true, don’t look behind the curtain!:

peace corps meme