Tag Archives: amharic

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.


Some Random Occurrences

22 Apr

So when you live day to day life out of your element you tend to run into some pretty funny and awkward situations. Mostly awkward, but that could just be me.

Here’s a summary of the past month in anecdote form:

–          Having a session with my tutor a bird poops all over my fidel chart, the Amharic symbols. Reasons why I love my tutor? Her response: Yup, that’s just about how I feel about fidel. Me too, girl, me too.

–          Speaking of birds, during a presentation at a college about the Aids Resource Center a pigeon bursts into the room, bounces off my head and crashes into the closed window. Shenanigans ensue. I don’t think those kids will forget our organization very soon.

–          Walking down the street the other day I had a city meets country moment. On the second floor landing of an apartment building there was a cow, just chilling. What the how? How did he get up there?

–          Walking home a little girl throws the contents of a chamber pot out on to the street—on to my feet. Great, a urine shower. As incensed as I was, the poor girl had the most ardent, cutest apology. Thank goodness the water was on that day when I got back.

–          After a presentation at a high school, similar to the pigeon story, I thoroughly embarrassed myself by attempting to give my schpeel in Amharic. Turns out it didn’t matter. Two teenage girls came up to me later and told me I was cool. Doesn’t matter what country you live in, teenage girl approval is always awesome.

–          Twice in one week I had “good posture!” shouted at me on the street. Once from a woman, once from a man. Either this is a phrase people learn in English class here or years of my mother telling my not to slouch has officially paid off.

–          If I don’t hear 3 “I love yous” 15 “Conjo!”s (beautiful) 21 “Kayo”s (the red one, a term of endearment/come on) and a couple “fuck yous” I count it a slow a day. However, the best shout I ever got came from a little toddler in a grizzly bear onsie with the ears sewed to the hood. Rolling around on the sidewalk making race car noises, I walked by and he immediately jumped up and screamed “ I LOVE YOU!” The one time I don’t have my camera!!

–          Oh the joys of second languages. Peace Corps, when read phonetically (Amharic is a phonetic language) reads Peace Corpse, prompting the very reasonable question by a coworker: “So corpse… are you guys like Peace Zombies?” No sir, no we are not, but close. I can see the confusion, as I haven’t bathed in few days.

So between the mundane and the busy, happens the ridiculous. More to come I’m sure.

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.

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.