Archive | Peace Corps Life RSS feed for this section

Peace Corps Never “Wraps Up”

27 Mar

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 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.

The Terrible Awful. Getting Sick in Country.

10 Aug

I have the Goonfahn.

Now before you get all Ebola outbreak crazy on me and try to find the local equivalent of 911 (there isn’t one, sorry mom!), you should know what the goonfahn is. It’s terrible. It’s awful. It’s the common cold.

Tropical diseases tend to lend a sort of street cred: Malaria (ooh!), typhoid (ahh!), shitting your pants from amoebas or bacterial dysentery (3 times!). But the common cold? Buck up, Sarah. But seriously, I am going to prove to you that getting sick, just normal sick, nothing fancy, is automatically 12.3 times worse than it would be at home.

Here’s what I would do with a cold in the States: shoot some DayQuil and go on my merry way feeling about 75% normal. Here’s what happens with a cold in Ethiopia: shoot some DayQuil (courtesy of a care package), and stay bed ridden for three straight days cursing the gods, nature, and all things beautiful.

I’m thinking I got this bout of death from the mass of teenage girls I spent time with just about 2 weeks ago (suspicious!). One of the cutest, and most disgusting, parts of Ethiopian food culture is the gorsha, or feeding someone with your hands from your plate. Three gorshas are a charm, and mean someone loves you. I got a lot of love that week. I think next year they need to enforce a hand washing rule.

Good thing I didn’t have anything productive planned this week (sorry thesis). Here’s how this one snuck up on me.

Day 1 – I start to get a sore throat, but I’m already out and working so I order a ginger tea. A fellow volunteer is staying with me that night to catch a flight in the morning and we talk late into the night. Mistake.

Day 2 – I wake up unable to speak. My family calls at the usual time and I whisper through 12 minutes of conversation (normal talk time 30-40min) probably causing them to think I’m dying, hang up and go straight back to bed. Wake up and make tea, watch Vampire Diaries, nap, repeat. I feel guilty because at this point I only have a sore throat and I have zero energy.

Day 3 – Sleep in until 11am. No more guilt. Full blown achey, heachache, stuffed up, feel like an elephant with my head in an aquarium vengeance. I muster enough energy to head the 15 feet across the street to buy some bread. The store owner asks the typical Anchi dehna nesh? “Are you fine?” and I respond that “No, I am not fine, I am exhausted and I am sick with the goonfahn!” With a confused look, he continues to repeat the question until I finally answer appropriately. “I am fine!” cough cough. He hands me my bread with the parting words Ayzosh yaine lij  “Stay strong my child.” The conversation is so stereotypical I have to laugh/cough my way back across the street.  You could be literally dying in this country and someone would still answer that they are “fine.”

Day 4 – Progress! The cold has moved from my nose back to my throat, and I am in the super sexy phlembot tuberculosis coughing stage. Overnight however, my sinuses have conspired to attempt to push my eyeballs from my skull. A fellow volunteer calls to check up on me and I tell her to go to hell, her and her perfect health (she has a staph infection). I continue my trend of tea, nap, repeat.

I decide I need to actually make some food since I don’t have any stomach issues (knock on wood!) and my energy is awful. My daily ration of DayQuil, bananas, and crackers isn’t really sustaining… and I’m out of bananas and crackers. I opt for soup, also known as throw a bouillon cube in boiling water and call it a day.

Day 5 – Ok. Today is the day. I have dinner plans with some friends, and I have to at least attempt energy. I haven’t moved more than 15 feet from my house in three days, and tonight I have to extol the virtues of Gondar tourism to a Bradt Guide writer who is coming through town. I put in my contact lenses to at least pretend like I feel normal, though I’m pretty sure my bright red nose gives me away.

Day 6 – Feeling much better kas ba kas “slowly”. Though I still use the goonfahn as an excuse to get out of attending a fundraiser for a leadership group I have worked with. Hey, I might as well get something useful out of this cold.

Getting sick in country sucks, but I’d venture to say that sometimes the cure is worse. I have been lucky enough never to have to go to a clinic for personal reasons, but I also probably push the envelope on “I’ll just wait it out and see.” I’ve been generally fairly healthy during my two years here, minus a few nasty goonfahns, and some normal GI issues. But with the recent death of a volunteer in China, I’ve come to realize I probably should be a little more careful and honest with my medical team. When I came to mid-service conference about a year ago we had to have a meeting with the Peace Corps doctors. My chart was empty. Even though I had had multiple bouts of vomiting, shitting of the pants etc over 12 months, I had never bothered to call. I know that if I was ever in real trouble I would say so, but sometimes I understand the worry that going to hospitals in these countries is scarier than waiting it out.

When It’s Hard

19 Jun

The past few weeks have been hard. Yes, no water and electricity hard. Yes, harassment hard. Yes, procrastinating on my thesis hard. But those are normal. I’m talking one of my best friends going home hard. Two of my other best friends encountering one of the scariest moments of their service hard. And having moments where all you do is count the months, days, and even minutes down hard.

It’s hard because these things aren’t happening to me. If I actually sit and think about my past few months, some amazing things have happened: friends from America visited, my sitemate got engaged!, I was in India for chrissakes. But coming home to a lot of uncertainty, melancholy, and old fashioned frustration brought me down fast. And now I feel guilty for feeling blue, which also makes it hard.

It’s hard because I can’t talk about it here. Events that have unfolded that caused some of our best volunteers to choose to go home were out of their control. They were political, and violent, and scary. And because they are political, and violent, and scary they are secret and we are told to keep it so. I had grown used to daily life, and I forgot how close to the edge this country can be. And then we go back to daily life- so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

My town was “unaffected” by some of the larger issues. That’s why I’m still here. But protests still happened, bullets still flew, and people still died. Over a housing issue. Had those other events not happened, would the police in my town have been so quick to pull triggers? Had a student not been killed last winter, would our town’s university joined in? Is there a point to asking hypothetical questions? Not really, so we go back to daily life – so quickly, nothing happened, don’t talk about it.

When I lived in Jordan, I worked at the Center for Defending the Freedoms of Journalists. A mouthful, I know. But it was about giving people the right to mouthfuls. We worked to defend freedom of speech. Remind politicians what international laws they had signed. Represent journalists in court. And encourage good journalism, reporting on the issues. I personally worked on putting a grant together for election coverage training. But, y’know, that’s the Middle East. There’s an election coming up here next year. But I’m told I probably shouldn’t mention my former job.

One of the projects I’m most proud of has been setting up a student newspaper at the university. It’s really more of a literary magazine, with student and administration submissions. It is nowhere near objective or free, the administration must approve each and every copy, but at least it’s one space where students can submit at least fiction and basic events coverage and start to think about how powerful information can be.

As volunteers we love the communities we are in. We have created friendships and working partnerships that only living somewhere for two years could forge. Clearly we want our towns to be stable. But being American, you get caught in a philosophical hard place. One of the Peace Corps goals is to share American culture – what is more American than free speech?

But it is hard. And the more it goes on, it makes it hard to care. I wasn’t born here. These aren’t my issues. Keep your head down, your job is health and behavior change. Stick to hand washing. Stick to HIV testing. Stick to girls empowerment? Stick to leadership skills? You see how this could grow sticky.

So I stick to two years. What I can do, I’ve tried to do. What I can’t do, I’ve tried a little to do. But then I can leave. My neighbors can’t. So I get it, change is slow. It’s hard. But when it’s hard, we go back to basics. Work with young girls, work with health, work with education. If these things grow, so will the number of people willing to engage the tough issues.






An Engagement, and a Party

24 May
Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Morgan and Robel, the happy couple

Oh my gosh you guys!!! My site mate Morgan just got engaged to her long term Ethiopian boyfriend Robel. What does that mean? It means a meat tent, a group of men jumping in circles chanting, being blessed by a priest, and a lot of ridiculous photos at the Gondar castles. What started as an “engagement party” basically turned in to a mini Ethiopian wedding.

I was unofficial photog for the day, capturing all the lovey dovey cute adorable moments, as well as a fair share of “what the hell is going on?” moments. This was the ultimate cross-cultural experience. Though don’t worry Peace Corps, we got some Goal 2 activities in there – I made some hot pink frosting cupcakes and we did a traditional American wedding cake photo 🙂

had to do a traditional "American" cake photo

had to do a traditional “American” cake photo

The day started gathering at Morgan’s compound to hang out with her “Ethiopian family.” Afterwards we were ushered into vans to drive to Robel’s house, the site of the party. But of course we had to do a little scenic route around Gondar first, just to let anyone who didn’t know yet that Morgan and Robel were engaged. (Seriously though, everybody knows.)

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody

riding around Gondar and honking at everybody, wouldn’t be Ethiopia without a party bajaj/tuk-tuk

After arriving at Robel’s house, we were ushered through the crowd to the inner room. This is one of the few times I have been able to witness what goes on at these things. Being Morgan’s “family” we were VIP front row seats!  This entailed watching the priest bless the engagement and rings (Morgan got a new Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie, awesome) and then he danced around a bit. Gifts were given, and food was eaten. Always so much food.

this was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

This was the cow that was slaughtered for the feast. Clearly, she had to take a photo with it.

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

It basically says Congratulation Robel and Morgan on your engagement with the date of the Ethiopian calendar (Ginbot 10, 2006 aka May 18, 2014)

so many people at Robel's house

so many people at Robel’s house

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name - Wolleta Selassie

The priest blessed the rings and gave Morgan an Orthodox name – Wolleta Selassie

the rings

the rings – apparently they have to be gold to count in Ethiopia


Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can't back out now!

Me signing the betrothal papers as a witness, can’t back out now!

After lunch, we headed to the Fasil Gibbi (the Gondar Castles) to take the oh so Gonderian castle wedding photos. Morgan is decked out in habesha libs, and Robel looks suave in his ferenji suit (they switched!).

waving off the kids

waving off the kids


We had a big posse

We had a big posse

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Engagement photos at the Gondar Castles

Morgan's family

Morgan’s family

awwww... their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

awwww… their babies are going to have the highest cheekbones eva!

So there you have it. Morgan is engaged. When she goes back to the states at the end of her Peace Corps service (she’s leaving me so soon!) she will start the process to be reunited with Robel through a fiance visa. It could take years, but these too can do it! Then they will have a civil ceremony in America and be officially married. Though, I’m pretty sure the events on Sunday were pretty Ethiopian official. I mean, I signed papers in Amharic – do you really think I read them?



Some Hard Truths

27 Mar

I’ve struggled with writing a poignant post on this topic for a while. Harassment, Assault, Disrespect, and Hate. I’ve been punched, grabbed, creepily caressed, yelled at, and generally disrespected many many times over my year and a half in Ethiopia. BUT every time I want to write about it I stop, think it’s too much, and move on. A fellow volunteer up in the north of the country recently wrote down what every one of us girls wanted to – and much more eloquently than I could have. I agree with her anger, her pain, her confusion and her worries that she’s become mean, hardened and unloving. Ethiopia is great. Ethiopia is beautiful. Ethiopia is moving forward. But, Ethiopia can be mean. Ethiopia can be tough. Ethiopia can be awful.

Living in a big city and tourist destination I fall into the category of being sexually harassed multiple times a day. That means verbally. I am physically harassed much less often, but I cannot lie, it has been more frequent in the past 18 months than in the past 23 years combined. Most recently (3 days ago) I was rubbed up against at the post office. The first pass, I called it crowded (even though he and I were the only two people in the albeit tiny hall), the 2nd pass, I felt violated. And I do not use this word lightly. It wasn’t even that gross, a creepy caress of the arm, but the facial expression that accompanied it, the comment, and the entire situation meant I dwelt on it for days.

And those of you who know more details of my experience can attest this was nowhere near the worst of what I’ve encountered, just the most recent. And the same is true for friends in Gondar and across the country. So here I’ve copied my friend’s words, but the collective thoughts of all female volunteers here.

And for those of you too lazy to click the link – here is her post copied; she is a married volunteer:

On Being Hated, by Danielle L.

As our end of service approaches, and we get nearer and nearer to home and questions and Ethiopian storytime, I think it’s an appropriate time for some gritty honesty, for my own sake. Lately I’ve limited myself to hints, but the problem has become all-encompassing, comparable to the sorts of sun-blocking storm clouds that hang over Mt. Soloda in our rainy season, and I know I should share before coming home—I guess so that, well, you believe me, and do so while it’s happening. So that you know it has never been hyperbole.
“I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life” is a line I know I’ve heard before, fielded and responded to before, in conversations with family and friends. Something happens at work, at the store, in a board meeting, and you can’t forget it. This isolated moment hangs there in your mind and your heart, for weeks, maybe months, and you try to set it loose to be forgotten and overcome.
I want you to know what it looks like to be a foreigner and a woman, to be a target for unceasing ostracism and contempt. To be a foreigner and a woman living in Ethiopia.

At least twice a week I go through a bout of misery. A deep hopelessness resulting in bitter anger. That statement—I’ve never felt so disrespected in my life—is not an isolated, once-in-a-blue-moon moment for us female volunteers. It has become our state of being. Every other day, at the very least, for the past 21 months, I have been sexually harassed. Men have licked their lips, kissed the air, stared at my breasts, invited me to their homes (in Ethiopian culture this literally equals Come sleep with me), asked about my sex life, professed their love for me, gawked at me for half hours like I’m a poster, described my features in inappropriate detail, called me sexy, etc. And I come home feeling like a used object on a broken shelf.
The male volunteers will never quite understand this. They support us dearly, and listen well—and they sometimes see it happen—but they’ll never fully feel it as their own. It will rarely ever be directed towards them. They’ll always be the supporters, not the ones needing the support and not wanting to ask for it.
What this means is: when, weekly, I vent and cry to Daniel about the particular sexual harassment I’ve been given that week, I end up feeling relieved in the moment—for having told him, and for how he soothes and encourages me, lifts me up—but gradually, gradually I end up feeling like an awful individual. I struggle with the questions: Am I an awful volunteer? Am I becoming a horrible person? Am I so full of hate—and how is he not? Am I so weak, so thin-skinned? Could I be exaggerating this somehow? Is it even a problem, or is it only in my head? Shouldn’t I be over it by now? Will I be like this when we go home, too?
I am an object of hate. I am ridiculed, I am blatantly desired. They see me as separate, as other and yet simultaneously, as theirs. They think I belong to them, that I exist for their entertainment and lust.
I only leave our home when I have to: school, church, market. It’s inside my house, within our stone-wall compound, that I feel like a person. Like a loved woman, not an abused one. Like I can be healthy and normal and free.

I’m legitimately afraid of who I’m becoming, of the gentle self I may have lost, of the thoughts that run through my head, of the comments I make about Ethiopia, about Ethiopians. I am angry. Most of the time I feel like a burning ball of hate. I feel unfairly wounded, and feel the need to fight back. I don’t feel the same loving person that I arrived. And I feel alone in this. Daniel and the rest of the male volunteers despise being called Money and You! White! It’s awful, the continuous psychological strain is exhausting, but it can’t quite ever reach the likes of Sex! or Pus*y!
My sweet friend was told by a stranger on the road: “I want to lick your…” Fill in the blank yourselves.
My good friend had a man on the road run up to her and grab her crotch, right in front of her husband. A police officer stood by on the road, playing with his phone, while her husband had to be the one to do the “punishing.”
Multiple friends have reported of men showing them pornography on buses, as a sort of sick invitation. One volunteer sat beside such a man on a bus, as he masturbated beside her and her visitor from the states.
Three of my friends often tell me how frequently they are grabbed and groped as they walk to work—their breasts, their buttocks—by men they pass by.
Enjoying a gracious meal with one of our favorite families, the Negas, our good evening took a turn when I received the first of what became a long string of texts that night from an unknown number. The sender described for me what the different parts of my body would taste like.
And this is no longer shocking to us. It’s commonplace. We expect it; this is what it is. It’s a part of our lives now. And all the while we give up so much to help our predators. To serve them and their country.

When I cry to Daniel, I often belittle my experience, to question my own psychology. I haven’t been grabbed once. The other girls have it so much worse than I do. Why am I so affected by this? Why can I not keep it out of my head? Why is it so so damaging? What’s wrong with me?
A wise friend told me, “But we shouldn’t have to qualify it! Why are we telling ourselves that this isn’t that bad, that there are worse things? No one should have to go through this, any of it, ever, whatever the degree.”
It is always affecting us women. We walk to school, to market, anywhere, and we have our mantras prepared. We are muttering to ourselves what we’ll say, what we’ll do, when they target us—not if, no it’s never if, it’s when. So even when they’re not speaking to us, they’re winning. Even when they’re not speaking to me, I’m hating them.
Unless they’re my colleague or shopkeeper or trusted friend, I purposefully ignore men in the age group of 15 and 45. I ignore their hellos. When Daniel greets his students on the road, I usually continue walking, eyes focused ahead, indifferent scowl plastered on my face. Four hundred or so men, in the course of my 21 months here, who have exercised that power they think is their right to lord over me—a mere woman—have sullied the image of the other 30,000 men in my town. These men have become untrustworthy until proven otherwise.
How it changes us: We wear frumpy, unattractive clothing, and no makeup. We make eye contact with no one. We keep to our houses, our rooms. We avoid certain colleagues and schools whose principals make moves on us. We welcome no conversation from strangers on the road, because we know what the comments will quickly become 70% of the time. If we own headphones, we always wear them when out in public. We are losing our sweet, loving, and welcoming spirits. We have become hardened.
I say we, because I only just fully realized. I knew we were being sexually harassed, I knew it wasn’t only me, that it was happening to all 160 of us female volunteers living in Ethiopia; we can’t escape it. We learned this early. But what I didn’t know was that it was affecting all of us almost entirely the exact same way. That all this time, we were fully together in this—every single bit of this.
We just attended our annual All-Volunteer Conference in Addis Ababa. On the first day we had a session for the ladies, to discuss gender inequality in this country, to discuss how we’re treated, and how we can cope with it in healthy, non-destructive ways. When our session leader shared that “when my parents came to visit, they said, ‘Wow, honey, you’ve become quite mean,’” the relief that rose from my chest was unquantifiable. That’s me, I whispered. When one friend talked about having lost her ability to keep eye contact with people, to be friendly with strangers, the tears began to surface. That’s me, I whispered. When a volunteer talked about the “stink face” she wears everywhere in public—how shocked she was by it when her friend took a candid photo to show her later—I laughed knowingly. That’s me too. The entire session, as we all unloaded on each other for support, and shared and coped, all I could do was weep silently. I didn’t know how powerful, how important, solidarity and understanding could be. For the first time, I was looking into my fellow female volunteers’ faces and seeing my own reflection.
And then our male staff-member, there to support us, to hope along with us for some solution or answer, stood to encourage us, and he couldn’t finish his sentence. He cried alongside us, and we wondered that he could feel the weight of it too.
I thought I was less, I thought I was pathetic. I thought I was becoming as unchristian as I could possibly be, and that it was my own fault, that surely I could be handling this better, more maturely and compassionately. But, in fact, we’ve all been psychologically forced to the same dark and difficult place. The place in the corner of our minds where we must daily try to force the light back in, reminding ourselves that we are strong, good, beautiful women, and we are no one’s objects to possess. We are our own selves.

I suppose I want you to know the truth of it. That this is really really hard. That today, in Ethiopia, you have 160 strong women serving your country and world to help work towards peace and development and education and quality of life for all. That many days, maybe most days, we’re suffering through it. But we remain strong, and will defeat this. The western world is outnumbered in their earnest and successful efforts to keep men and women equal, and if this is all we ever see, this is all we’ll ever see. I wish you knew what it was like almost everywhere else.
In our All-Volunteer Survey, over half of our volunteers surveyed reported that they are sexually harassed at least a few times each week. A quarter of all the volunteers surveyed reported they are sexually harassed more than once each day. When these surveys were compared to those throughout the rest of Africa’s Peace Corps posts, Ethiopia ranked First in sexual harassment.
And yet we’re only getting a two-year glimpse—and though an awful one—just a two-year period of being treated as less, as worse, as not good enough, i.e. as “woman”. We’re told, “No—you can’t climb that mountain; you’re a woman,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked, “How can you be fat and single? No man will marry you,” as they laugh at us; we’re asked by male colleagues, “Would you like me to measure myself for you, so I can tell you my size?” as they grin at us; we’re asked, “Is your husband good in bed?” as they snicker at us—and the entire time we know in that bright corner of our minds that we are getting out of here in just a few months, in just another year, etc. We will escape these common horrors eventually—it’s a sacrificial sliver in our lifetimes—but the women around us, the women and young girls in our communities whom we come to love and adore and admire: they have to live with this. Indefinitely. And while we at least have the relief of complete awareness of our injustice and the indignation that follows, they will go on thinking it normal and acceptable and their own burden to carry—until someone will do something to change it.

To our families: I suppose maybe you’ve compared Daniel’s musings about Ethiopia with mine, the way I had been doing, and found me falling short. I’ve been afraid you think me weak and under-qualified for this job I committed to. That I’m weak-willed, less tolerant, and simply more dramatic than my husband. I’ve been afraid you think me prejudiced and bitter-hearted for no reason (for how can you possibly know what this is?). I’ve been afraid that maybe, around your dinner tables, you discuss how bad and inappropriate my attitude has become, how I blow things out of proportion, how inadequate I am for this job, how I haven’t lived up to the task I’ve been given. But what I want you to know, before we come home, is that I am brave. I am resilient. And after 630 so days of this, I am still here. I didn’t quit. And I suppose, somehow, I still actually want to be here to help them. I think that has to say something.
And perhaps, with the hate, love is there too.
This is undoubtedly “the toughest job I’ll ever love”. The toughest job, thing, two-year stretch, whatever you want to call it, that I will never experience again.
As I trudge through the murky recesses of a wounded and slowly-recovering spirit while the near-nightmare continues, I’m focusing on Love. Specifically, on Christ’s words in Matthew 5: 43-48.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

A Christian for 15 or so years, I thought I knew what this meant, what Jesus meant when He said this. I thought “frenemies” counted in this category. Annoying people, know-it-alls, and the “least of these.” I thought they were who it was hard to love and who we had to love anyway. Let me suggest that maybe that is quite easy by comparison. I didn’t really know Hate until I joined Peace Corps. When I become most hopeless and full of rage and doubt, I remember that Christ knows exactly what it feels like to be an object of disgust. He didn’t have frenemies—he was “despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (Isaiah 53: 3). The Son of God was trampled by hateful men, and yet He tells us to love those who hate us. To turn the other cheek. To respond not in hate, but with love. For if we love those who love us—should we be congratulated?
Before now, I’ve always prided myself on being an exceptionally nice person. Kind to everyone, always assuming the best of people. Then I came here and realized that for the past 25 years, people were being kind to me too. What credit was it to me? Yellem—there is none. Easy peasy.
So while I’ve certainly never been so disrespected in my entire life, and never will be again to this unyielding, heightened degree—neither have I been so humbled. So shocked into a deep understanding of my sinful humanity, Christ’s perfection, and the depth of His love for us. To, for the first time, understand what my Lord meant when He turned an age-old custom on its head and made it nearly impossible to fulfill—and entirely impossible to fulfill by our own human power. To, for the first time, know that I don’t know the first step to fulfilling this command. On my own, I am no different from the lowest of men: I know how to love those who treat me nicely; big, amazing deal.
So I thank God for His grace. He knows how to love those who hate us—He’s done it, and He did it well—and He won’t keep it a secret from us. If we ask Him to show us how that cheek-turning thing works, surely, surely, He will.
Upon Him was the chastisement that brought me peace, and with His wounds I am healed.

I’ve written this same “blog entry” three times in the past five months—and yet I never post it. I end by crying into my hands, angrier than when I started, and knowing I can’t possibly express or share what can barely be understood and only judged. Daniel and I have made a conscious decision to keep our posts as positive as possible, to sift out as much negativity (even if deserved) as possible. Because this is our fear: Crude catcalls linger in the memory more vividly than beautiful coffee ceremonies; inappropriate colleagues may be more memorable than our stories of our sweet Meron. We do love Ethiopia; we do love living in Ethiopia. And so we use our writing carefully, so that we don’t distort your image of this unique place when we’re in our worst and weariest moods. But I also believe that we can’t fully understand what it means to love a place, unless we know the whole of it—unless we know how difficult it can be to love that place. Somehow the value of the love increases. And the fact that I’ve tried and wanted to give you the full account of it at least three times—tells me that maybe, somehow, I should tell you. That maybe, somehow, you can benefit from it.
One of the main manifestations of Christ’s gracious love for me has been the one who listens to every account of this every day, with compassion and hurt and love, not knowing how to deal with it but trying as hard as he can, and who tells me that I am a good volunteer, that I am a good Christian, and I am a good woman. As I speak words of doubt, he counters them with words of encouragement. I’d have been on a plane home a year ago if it wasn’t for this daily and very crucial help from the worthiest and best of helpmates. He helps me to be the strongest of women. I think I’ll be forever inspired by my 150 or so role models who somehow withstand and overcome this, and stay here, without their own Daniel. We weren’t meant to bear such burdens. And yet somehow, we do.

Days in the Life

12 Mar

Recently my aunt suggested I do a “day in the life” post. The problem is, not one of my days are the same. I work by project, and if I have projects happening, it can be very busy. If I don’t, well 8 seasons of Bones on my hardrive look pretty tempting. So I figured I would highlight a few days from the past week, since they seem to hit most of the “types” of days I tend to have.

Friday, February 28, 2014 “My Life is Soooo Hard”

– 8:30 am – Wake up at and pack a backpack to head to Bahar Dar for a meeting
– 9:15am Meet Sandy for breakfast (special ful) at Enyame Cafe near the bus station
– 10:15am Get on a bus from Gondar to Bahar Dar
– 10:45am finally get out of Gondar after driving around the city looking for more passengers
-12:20pm Hand off medicine to a PCV in Woretta as the car is still moving, a perfect Habesha pass
-1:45pm arrive in Bahar Dar, lunch a Misrak
– 3:30pm lounge by the pool
-5:00pm Get a 20o birr ($10) massage
– 7:00pm Dinner at Desit, with beers on the lakefront
-10pm Go to bed

Sunday, February 16, 2014 “The Weekends are Busy!”

– 8:30am Wake up and contemplate making tea
– 9:00am Do an Insanity workout
-9:45am cold shower
– 9:55am Actually get around to making tea
– 10:00am finish last minute planning for today’s Girls Club Activity
-10:30am walk to Fasilides High School
-10:45am Arrive at Fasilides, be very surprised that some girls are early for the 11 o’clock club
– 11:25am finally start the club (that’s more like it), this week was about setting goals
– 12:05pm show a 10 min segment of the Girl Rising Documentary. We are working through each girl’s stories over 8 weeks.
– 12:40pm finish discussion and Girl’s Club, walk to Maraki (University Campus)
– 1:30pm arrive at Maraki and sit in the President’s office with free internet! Sorta kind of do work AKA plan India trip!
– 2:30pm Meet the ADMAS Leadership kids at the Makarki Gate, walk to Bridge of Hope School
– 3:00pm Play Jeopardy with African history
-3:45pm Introduce the Action for Gender Equality Summit and ask for applications
-4:15pm walk home (45 min)
-5:00pm Morgan makes me dinner, what a good housewife!
– 6:00pm Gossip
– 9:30pm Bedtime!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014 “Work is more than projects”

-8:30am Wake up
-8:45 am Insanity Workout – Recovery today whew!
– 9:30am Cold Shower, I will never get used to it
– 9:40am Make breakfast, peanut butter and banana
– 10:00am wash dishes in the bucket
-10:25am clean bucket for clothes
-10: 30am Do laundry by hand. This is a “3 load” day, basically the amount of times I have to change the water in the bucket.
-11:45am sweep and clean counters
– 12:05pm Make lunch, tuna on bread, salad
– 12:45pm Eat lunch and watch Leverage
– 1:30pm Just one more episode…. it’s addictive
– 2:15pm Take line taxi (minibus) to Nigat Hotel to meet Tewelde for coffee
– 2:50pm walk to Admas Science Campus for a meeting on developing a Sex Ed curriculum at the University
– 3:00pm guy who called the meeting doesn’t show… and he’s a ferenj! Rude. We wait around.
– 3:40pm walk from Admas to Piazza (45 min), when I have extra time I walk. There are a lot of hills in Gondar. I’m crazy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014 “When It Rains, It Pours”

– 8am  Wake Up
– 8:30am walk up the hill to a meeting with Menna Food Project
– 9am Go to some of the poorest communities in Gondar to interview benificiaries about where they live, their families and the lives (video/photos to come!)
– 12pm Lunch with some site mates
– 1pm Working on Malaria logistics, scheduling a Soap training, printing Grassroot Soccer certificates and other random planning for the many projects I couldn’t say no to
– 4pm Walk to Arada (market area) to help set up Food Bank/Soup Kitchen (Wot Kitchen?)
– 4:30pm More interviews and Video
-5pm Serve food to needy
-6pm Walk home on the back roads, lots of little kids yell at me
6:30pm Buy tomatoes and potatoes at the mini market near my house (from the woman with their tarps)
-7pm Make dinner
– 8pm Transfer all my interviews and photos and video and start to catalog
– 10pm Read a chapter of Harry Potter
– 10:30pm BED!

So there are some “typical” days – lots of work, lots of life, and some #treatyoself moments. The one thing that is consistent in Ethiopia is inconsistency, but in terms of work that’s ok. I like not having a 9-5 job. I like having to be motivated to get up and do something. I like working on projects that I want to do. I like having time to exercise and read and be addicted to TV shows. But even when times are the busiest (last weekend I brought two girls to the Action for Gender Equality Summit in Addis…. 6am to 11pm days), it’s still Peace Corps: The toughest job you’ll ever love.

Through New Eyes

9 Feb

After a year and a half in any place you tend to loose the wonder. Normality settles in. Daily life. When I first moved to Ethiopia I had a million blog ideas – the food, the clothes, the music, culture everywhere! But recently I’ve been struggling for topics, thinking I’ve covered a lot of what goes on here. Turns out, I had just stopped noticing.

Having family or friends come to visit is great not just for the vacation, but afterwards. To remember what was exciting and new about a place you have grown comfortable in. Though can I ever really say I’m comfortable in Ethiopia? Probably not. Cue water being out for a week.

I can say that I had stopped looking for new things. Cows in the street? Boring. Women carrying things on their heads? Routine. Kids running after me yelling who knows what? Ignored.

But having my family visit opened my eyes to the things that give this place flavour. The quirks of daily life in Ethiopia may be routine, but they are certainly interesting. My mother kept commenting on the change of clothes. Driving from urban center, through rural villages, back to urban center, there are people along the road the whole way. But in the towns you see jeans and pants and suits. On the road you see traditional dresses, green farmers shorts with buttons and frayed headwraps. Just driving from place to place was an adventure for them, and I had forgotten to look out the window.

My dad could not get over the fact that road construction was all done by hand. And by women. Mixing cement, swinging pick axes to break up the tar, and using wooden stretchers to carry loads of heavy rock, there is no automatic machinery in sight. Most of the heavy labour is done by women… in dresses. They are shipped in from the rural areas as day labourers. In fact, many of these construction workers are at a high risk for exploitation and health issues, but again I had forgotten to see the problems – I was ignoring the catcalls.

My middle brother could skiskista (shoulder dance) with the best of them. My younger brother tried all sorts of new food I never thought he would. I used more Amharic the week they were here than the past month on my own.

Having my family here reminded me that I’m here for more than work. Yes, running projects and supporting local programs is a big part of my job – the biggest really. But just living, interacting, and having conversations about my life and people’s lives is still 2/3 of the Peace Corps goals. I’m on the downhill slope now – past the half way point with less than a year left. But as my programmatic work gets busier I have to remember the other stuff, the daily life, the routine, and the sharing. Sharing with my Ethiopian friends, and sharing with my family and friends across the ocean.

So if there are any topics you want to hear more about – comment below! Remind me what’s weird here, what’s interesting and different because sometimes I forget that having a goat in my bathroom isn’t normal.

Madam Ambassador

10 Nov

Last week I was lucky enough to have dinner with the new American Ambassador to Ethiopia Patricia Haslach. Incredibly down to earth, she had been visiting Gondar to speak at the university and see some of the primary schools in the area (one of which was the former primary school of her staff member and had a relationship with Gondar’s sister city in Corvallis, Oregon).

She travelled as a private citizen, without a large entourage, impressing hotel and restaurant staff all over the city. She stayed with one of my favorite hotels, Lodge du Chateau. Small and intimate rather than overblown and well-known, it was great they have been recognized and recommended to American staff. Seyum the owner was so honored and told us he had called his family in pride. We had dinner at Four Sisters restaurant, all four of whom have great unique personalities and whom I love equally. To see the ambassador come in with only two staff members, great women!, impressed them immensely.

To have dinner with local Peace Corps volunteers, while great for us, really had a bigger impact on the community at large. This is democracy at work—American equality and willingness to get down and dirty with some of the grass-rootiest of workers. And we know Peace Corps volunteers can be some of the dirtiest of the bunch. Willingness to hear about our work, our challenges, and even learn a few Amharic words went beyond our dinner table. It was also lovely to be at a table of all women, high powered and starting out alike.

She even knew my old boss and Dean of the Josef Korbel School, Ambassador Chris Hill. Amazing how small this world is.

So here’s to hoping her term is productive, safe, and continues to deepen relations between these two nations. Welcome Ambassador Haslach.